George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

Psalm 37

1. Acrostic Psalm

This is another acrostic psalm (Introduction, Chapter 4). In this case, every two verses begin with a fresh letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (The AV has a couple of verse divisions misplaced.)

2. Theme

1, 2.
The Good and the Wicked

The Good

The Wicked

The Good

The Wicked
The Good and the Wicked

The good man is mostly referred to simply as “thou”, or else “the righteous” (7 times). He is also referred to as the “meek”, the “just”, the “poor and needy”, the “upright”, “good”, “saints”, and “perfect”.

On the other hand, “wicked” comes 12 times, but also (just once each) “workers of iniquity”, “man of wicked devices”, “transgressors”, and (twice) “evildoers”.

3. Repetitions

These abound: e.g. “cut off” (9,22,28,34,38); “dwell in the Land (or earth)” (3,9,11,18,22,29,34). In four places these two phrases come together, in what L.G. Sargent calls “the radical alternatives of transience and permanence”.

Other examples of repetitions:

The merciful use of money (21,26).
Fret not (1,7,8).
Do good, and dwell (3,27).
Rest in the Lord (7,34).

4. Historical setting

In such a didactic psalm as this, history is relatively unimportant. But note verse 25: David is an old man, now looking back on earlier evil days — presumably the days of Saul’s jealousy and his own varied experience as an outlaw. Also, consider:

The death of Saul: 1 Sam. 31:4.
The judgment on Saul’s family also: 2 Sam. 21.
3 (and 9, 11,
18, 22, 29, 34).
Dwell in the Land. References to David’s full inheritance of the Land promised to Abraham. Contrast his own expedients in the land of the Philistines.

5. Commentary

Fret not thyself because of evildoers, nor be thou envious be-cause of the workers of iniquity. This is repeated almost verbatim in Prov. 24:19. Several other verses (Prov. 23:17; 24:1; 3:31; Psa. 73:3) express the same sentiment.

Fret not thyself means really “Do not make yourself hot.” “The promised land is not for murmuring Israelites” (C.A. Ladson). To fret is to waste energy, and to waste energy is to rob God.
For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. A telling figure of speech: the brevity of human life: Psa. 90:5,6; 129:6,7; Isa. 40:6-8; Matt. 6:30; 1 Pet. 1:24.
So shalt thou dwell in the Land, which is to see both the blessing of the righteous and judgment upon the wicked. Abraham was told to dwell in the Land (Gen. 26:2; contrast 12:10-20). See this important principle at work in the lives of Jacob and Esau. The former was prepared to make heavy sacrifices if only he could settle in the Land. Esau, by contrast, cared nothing for it, and seems to have been quite pleased to leave it altogether (Gen. 31:13; 33:16,17; 35:12; 36:6-8).

Verily thou shalt be fed is, literally, thou shalt feed on faithfulness. “Faithfulness” is a word very commonly associated with the covenants of promise (cp. the preceding phrase). These call for faith: trust in the Lord. Contrast those who feed on foolishness (Prov. 15:14).
Roll (galal) thy way upon the Lord (RV margin). Possibly an allusion to the cherubim chariot of the Lord. Ezekiel 1 was called by the rabbis Merch’vah, the Chariot. Compare Psa. 22:8, mg.; Prov. 16:3. Also, more generally, see 1 Pet. 5:8: “Cast all your cares upon him....”

And he shall bring it to pass is almost identical, in the Hebrew with Psa. 22:31: “that he hath done this”.
Rest in the Lord. Literally Be silent unto the Lord, but AV has just the right idea, as in Exod. 14:13,14; Isa. 53:7; Lam. 3:24-28; Hab. 2:20; Rom. 8:18,19. A large part of the power of this psalm lies in the quiet but persistent pressing home of this idea of abiding faith. In quietness and confidence the believer finds strength (Isa. 30:15).

Fret not, either in your own soul or in complaining before the Lord.
Cease from anger doubtless means from such anger as v. 7 describes, for there were times when even Jesus was angry (Mark 3:5; Matt. 23:13-33; John 2:17; Psa. 69:9). But for the ordinary disciple it is a fairly safe rule that all anger is sin: James 1:20.

To do evil, by following the ways of the godless, and by ceasing to depend upon God. Here W. Kay reads: It tends only to evil doing.
For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. In the short term this may not seem to be at all an accurate summary of human experience, but of ultimate human destiny, yes!
For yet a little while. Again, as in v. 9, the human perspective makes nonsense of this verse, but God has time on His side.
The meek are not to be confused with the spineless, but rather are those who resign themselves to God and His leading.

And shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. Only rarely in Scripture does peace mean the absence of conflict. Rather, peace with God and from God is the dominant meaning of the word. Compare v. 37.
The wicked....gnasheth....with his teeth. Violent anger. Acts 7:54 is a perfect illustration of this verse.
The Lord shall laugh. Men take themselves so seriously, but God’s perspective is different (cp. 2:4).

For he seeth that his day is coming. An allusion to 1 Sam. 26:10: “His (i.e. Saul’s) day shall come to die”. The word here for “seeth” (LXX) occurs only in Heb. 11:40 (“God having provided some better thing for us”).
Riches. The word (hamon) appears to imply pomp and circumstance. It is possibly the source of the New Testament word Mammon. “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15; Prov. 15:16; 16:8).
The Lord knoweth. Psa. 1:6.

The days of the upright. Literally, the perfect; that is, the idealists who are resigned to the will of God.
They shall not be ashamed in the evil time: and in the days of famine they shall be satisfied. This may have been generally true for some times and some places, on a material basis. But the passage is universally true only when read with reference to the hidden spiritual resources of the godly man.
The fat of lambs conjures up the picture of a great column of smoke ascending up to heaven. The everlasting death of the unredeemable wicked is the only acceptable sacrifice they can offer (cp. 21:8,9; Ezek. 39:17; Isa. 34:6; 66:15,16; Zeph. 1:7,8,17; Mal. 4:1). The punishment of the wicked is death, not endless torment: 104:35; 145:20; Prov. 10:30; 11:31; 13:13; Job 20:7,8; 21:30; Ezek. 18:4; Matt. 21:41; Luke 19:27; Rom. 1:32; 6:23; 2 Thes. 1:9; 2 Pet. 2:12; Heb. 6:8.
The righteous sheweth mercy, in the sense of lending graciously and expecting nothing in return: v. 26; 112:5; Deut. 15:7-11. Consider Prov. 29:13, LXX: “When creditor and debtor meet together, the Lord is overseer of them both.”
Such as be blessed of him. This word often has the connotation of forgiveness of sins, as in Gen. 22:18 and Acts 3:25,26. Despite the nonsensical “promises” of evangelists everywhere, offering every sort of material “blessing” for those who follow them (and contribute to their coffers), there is in fact no greater blessing than the forgiveness of sins! What a pity so few people understand this!
The steps. Compare Jer. 10:23: “It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps”. Even the stumbling and uncertain steps of a good man are divinely ordered for his ultimate good: Rom. 8:28,31; Prov. 3:5,6.

Of a good man. Note the italics. Yet the AV is absolutely right, as the parallelism indicates.

Are ordered by the Lord: Prov. 20:24; Jer. 10:23. The good man knows this well enough. Yet some say that this ordering is either by the wisdom of the Bible (of course!) or by angelic guidance (yes!), and in no other way (how short-sighted!).

He (the Lord) delighteth in his way. Yet the words are just as true in the converse: The good man delights in God’s way.

Way, in the New Testament, is the divine designation for what we today call “the Truth”: Acts 9:2; 18:25,26; 19:9,23; 22:4; Heb. 9:8; 10:20; 2 Pet. 2:2,15,21; Rev. 7:17. This expression may even be traced all the way back to Gen. 3:24: “the way of the tree of life”. Consider also the words of Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) puts undoubted stress upon the way (“No man cometh unto the Father, but by me”), and should probably be translated: “I am the true way to (the tree of) life”.
Though he fall. Prov. 24:16: “A just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again.”

The Lord upholdeth his hand. Jesus went out of his way to emphasize this truth in the most literal fashion: Mark 1:31; 5:41; 9:27.
I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. David urges the simple but very necessary lesson: Build on your own experience, for I have learned how important this is. Examples of this valuable principle are very numerous in Scripture. Some useful examples: Gen. 24:7; 50:20; Num. 22:34; Deut. 1:31; 7:18; 1 Sam. 17:37; and many others (see Psa. 34, Par. 8, references).

And now am old. John 21:18, s.w. But what a contrast in idea!

Yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken. Again (as with vv. 9,10,19, etc.), true in the absolute and ultimate sense, although apparently untrue for some righteous (even David himself: 1 Sam. 21:3; 25:8) at any given moment .
Literally, his seed is for a blessing — with possible reference to Abraham and his special “Seed”, in whom all nations of the earth will ultimately be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 22:18; Acts 3:25,26).
Depart from evil: Psa. 34:12,14; Isa. 1:16,17.
Judgment is used here in the sense of sound principle, or “justice” (RSV, NEB); note the parallelism in both vv. 6 and 30.

They are preserved for ever. For this the LXX has: “The righteous are destroyed for ever, and....” Thus, in the four lines of this verse, the last two are a counterpoint to the first two.
The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever. The righteous will reign with Christ on the earth: Gen. 13:15; Num. 14:21; Prov. 10:30; 11:31; Isa. 11:9; Dan. 2:44; Zech. 14:16; Matt. 5:5; Luke 13:28; Rom. 4:13; Rev. 2:26,27. (A small sampling of proof-texts!)
A restatement of the Great Shema: Deut. 6:6,7.
The law of his God is in his heart does not mean that his emotions are enthralled, but rather that his mind has grasped the logic of God’s pronouncements and has made a logical commitment to them. (“Heart” = “mind” in both Old and New Testaments: Prov. 2:2; Exod. 36:2; 1 Kings 3:9; Jer. 15:16; Luke 5:22; 24:25,32,38; Rom. 10:9; etc.)
The wicked watcheth the righteous, and seeketh to slay him (Psa. 7:2; 10:8,9). And even when there is no intention to kill, there is delight in character assassination.
The Lord will not leave him in his hand, nor condemn him when he is judged, i.e. by others: v. 32.
I have seen the wicked in great power. Literally, the text has been interpreted to read: “causing oppression” (aritz). But probably it should read: “in the Land” (eretz), thus to conform to the fig tree parable (see Par. 6 below): This is the great tree in the “Land”.

RV, NIV: Like a green tree in its native soil. This figure of a wicked nation is not a “bay” tree but a “fig”! These words foretell the Lord’s cursing of the fruitless fig tree: Matt. 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14,20-22; cp. Hos. 9:10,16,17; Ezek. 17:24; Mic. 7:1. This RV and NIV (“native soil”) reading anticipates “dried up from the roots”. And “I passed by” (v. 36, LXX) = “as they passed by” (Mark 11:20). Also, “wait on the Lord” (v. 34) = Christ’s admonition, “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22; Matt. 21:21). And “cut off” (v. 34) suits the New Testament situation perfectly.
Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he was not to be found. The wicked passes off the scene, leaving no permanent monument or reminder — like the beasts which perish (Psa. 49:11,12,20). In keeping with the fig tree motif, Jesus said, “Every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13; cp. 3:10; 7:19).
The end of the wicked shall be cut off. Contrast v. 37b.
Because they take refuge in him (RV). That “because” says that the very act of seeking this divine refuge gives a title to protection. Compare Psalms 16:1; 57:1; 91:9,10; and hence 2:12.

6. New Testament links

The third “beatitude” (Matt. 5:5) is, of course, the New Testament equivalent of the entire psalm. The hymn book version is in Hymns 8 and 37. Besides vv. 35 and 36 (Mark 11:20, already mentioned), there seem to be other matching ideas in these Old and New Testament scriptures:

Mark 11

Psalm 37
What things soever ye desire, when ye pray....
Commit thy way unto the Lord....he shall bring it to pass.
This mountain removed.... cast into the sea.
Yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be.
[They] sought how they might destroy him.
The wicked plotteth against the just.

Should not this psalm also be read as a picture of the self-discipline and reassurance of Jesus as his ministry progressed to seeming failure and destruction?

7. Analysis

An analysis of Psalm 37 may be especially useful, because of its repetitive character:

Towards the Lord:

Trust in Him and do good: 3.
Delight in Him: 4.
Roll upon Him: 5.
Rest in Him: 7.
Wait patiently for Him to help: 7.
Permit Him to direct your steps: 23.

Towards self:

Cease from anger, forsake wrath: 8.
Do not fret to do evil: 8,27.
Show mercy and liberality: 21,26.
Speak wisdom and talk of judgment: 30.
Preserve the Law of God in your heart: 31.
Draw close to those who are like-minded: 37.

Towards the world:

Fret not because of evildoers: 1.
Heed not the prosperity of the wicked: 7.

How the Lord will treat the wicked:

He will cut down the proud: 2.
He will laugh at them: 13.
He will destroy the power of the wicked: 17.
He will consume them as sacrifices: 20.
He will cut off their seed: 28.
He will destroy transgressors: 38.

How the Lord will preserve the righteous:

He will vindicate them before all mankind: 6.
He will cause them to inherit the earth forever: 11,29.
He will uphold and preserve them: 17,28.
He will exalt them: 34.
He will give them lasting peace: 37.
He will provide strength in time of trial: 39.
He will help, deliver, and save them: 40.

8. Postscript

To God thy way commending,
        Trust Him whose arm of might,
The heav’nly circles bending,
        Guides every star aright:
The winds, and clouds, and lightning,
        By His sure hand are led.
And He will, dark shades bright’ning,
        Shew thee what path to tread.

Trust God, His time awaiting,
        If thou wilt have success,
Work, His work contemplating,
        That He thy work may bless:
Whate’er is worth thy getting
        By prayer thou shalt obtain
And not by anxious fretting,
        Or self-inflicted pain.

Thy love, O Father, gloweth
        With zeal for mortals’ good,
And what is hurtful knoweth
        To human flesh and blood:
Our future Thou foreseest,
        And, through Thy strong right hand,
The counsel Thou decreest
        Shall ever firmly stand.

End, if Thou wilt, our sorrow,
        And our probation close;
Till then, Lord, fain we’d borrow
        Strength to support life’s woes;
To Thee our way commending,
        Whose wisdom orders best,
We’ll tread the pathway tending
        To Thy eternal rest.

Paul Gerhardt
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