Expositor's Bible Commentary
A Psalm of David. Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.Psalm 37:1-40THERE is a natural connection between acrostic structure and didactic tone, as is shown in several instances, and especially in this psalm. The structure is on the whole regular, each second verse beginning with the required letter, but here and there the period is curtailed or elongated by one member. Such irregularities do not seem to mark stages in the thought or breaks in the sequence, but are simply reliefs to the monotony of the rhythm, like the shiftings of the place of the pause in blank verse, the management of which makes the difference between a master and a bungler. The psalm grapples with the problem which tried the faith of the Old Testament saints-namely, the apparent absence of correlation of conduct with condition-and solves it by the strong assertion of the brevity of godless prosperity and the certainty that well-doing will lead to well-being. The principle is true absolutely in the long run, but there is no reference in the psalm to the future life. Visible material prosperity is its promise for the righteous, and the opposite its threatening for the godless. No doubt retribution is not wholly postponed till another life, but it does not fall so surely and visibly as this psalm would lead us to expect. The relative imperfection of the Old Testament revelation is reflected in the Psalms, faith’s answer to Heaven’s word. The clear light of New Testament revelation of the future is wanting, nor could the truest view of the meaning and blessedness of sorrow be adequately and proportionately held before Christ had taught it by His own history and by His words. The Cross was needed before the mystery of righteous suffering could be fully elucidated, and the psalmist’s solution is but provisional. His faith that infinite love ruled and that righteousness was always gain, and sin loss, is grandly and eternally true. Nor is it to be forgotten that he lived and sang in an order of things in which the Divine government had promised material blessings as the result of spiritual faithfulness, and that, with whatever anomalies, modest prosperity did, on the whole, attend the true Israelite. The Scripture books which wrestle most profoundly with the standing puzzle of prosperous evil and afflicted goodness are late books, not merely because religious reflectiveness was slowly evolved, but because decaying faith had laid Israel open to many wounds, and the condition of things which accompanied the decline of the ancient order abounded with instances of triumphant wickedness.
But though this psalm does not go to the bottom of its theme, its teaching of the blessedness of absolute trust in God’s providence is ever fresh, and fits close to all stages of revelation; and its prophecies of triumph for the afflicted who trust and of confusion to the evil-doer need only to be referred to the end to be completely established. As a theodicy, or vindication of the ways of God with men, it was true for its age, but the New Testament goes beneath it. As an exhortation to patient trust and an exhibition of the sure blessings thereof, it remains what it has been to many generations: the gentle encourager of meek faith and the stay of afflicted hearts.
Marked progress of thought is not to be looked for in an acrostic psalm. In the present instance the same ideas are reiterated with emphatic persistence, but little addition or variation. To the didactic poet "to write the same things is not grievous," for they are his habitual thoughts; and for his scholars "it is safe," for there is no better aid to memory than the cadenced monotony of the same ideas cast into song and slightly varied. But a possible grouping may be suggested by observing that the thought of the "cutting off" of the wicked and the inheritance of the land by the righteous occurs three times. If it is taken as a kind of refrain, we may cast the psalm into four portions, the first three of which close with that double thought. Psalm 37:1-9 will then form a group, characterised by exhortations to trust and assurances of triumph. The second section will then be Psalm 37:10-22, which, while reiterating the ground tone of the whole, does so with a difference, inasmuch as its main thought is the destruction of the wicked, in contrast with the triumph of the righteous in the preceding verses. A third division will be Psalm 37:23-29, of which the chief feature is the adduction of the psalmist’s own experience as authenticating his teaching in regard to the Divine care of the righteous, and that extended to his descendants. The last section (Psalm 37:30-40) gathers up all, reasserts the main thesis, and confirms it by again adducing the psalmist’s experience in confirmation of the other half of his assurances, namely the destruction of the wicked. But the poet does not wish to close his words with that gloomy picture, and therefore this last section bends round again to reiterate and strengthen the promises for the righteous, and its last note is one of untroubled trust and joy in experienced deliverance.
The first portion (Psalm 37:1-9) consists of a series of exhortations to trust and patience, accompanied by assurance of consequent blessing. These are preceded and followed by a dehortation from yielding to the temptation of fretting against the prosperity of evil-doers, based upon the assurance of its transitoriness. Thus the positive precepts inculcating the ideal temper to be cultivated are framed in a setting of negatives, inseparable from them. The tendency to murmur at flaunting wrong must be repressed if the disposition of trust is to be cultivated; and, on the other hand, full obedience to the negative precepts is only possible when the positive ones have been obeyed with some degree of completeness. The soul’s husbandry must be busied in grubbing up weeds as well as in sowing; but the true way to take away nourishment from the baser is to throw the strength of the soil into growing the nobler crop. "Fret not thyself" (A.V.) is literally, "Heat not thyself, and be not envious" is "Do not glow," the root idea being that of becoming fiery red. The one word expresses the kindling emotion, the other its visible sign in the flushed face. Envy, anger, and any other violent and God-for-getting emotion are included. There is nothing in the matter in hand worth getting into a heat about, for the prosperity in question is short lived. This leading conviction moulds the whole psalm, and, as we have pointed out, is half of the refrain. We look for the other half to accompany it, as usual, and we find it in one rendering of Psalm 37:3, which has fallen into discredit with modern commentators, and to which we shall come presently; but for the moment we may pause to suggest that the picture of the herbage withering as soon as cut, under the fierce heat of the Eastern sun, may stand in connection with the metaphors in Psalm 37:1. Why should we blaze with indignation when so much hotter a glow will dry up the cut grass? Let it wave in brief glory, unmeddled with by us. The scythe and the sunshine will soon make an end. The precept and its reason are not on the highest levels of Christian ethics, but they are unfairly dealt with if taken to mean, Do not envy the wicked man’s prosperity, nor wish it were yours, but solace yourself with the assurance of his speedy ruin. What is said is far nobler than that. It is, Do not let the prosperity of unworthy men shake your faith in God’s government, nor fling you into an unwholesome heat, for God will sweep away the anomaly in due time.
In regard to the positive precepts, the question arises whether Psalm 37:3 b is command or promise, with which is associated another question as to the translation of the words rendered by the A.V., "Verily thou shalt be fed," and by the R.V., "Follow after faithfulness." The relation of the first and second parts of the subsequent verses is in favour of regarding the clause as promise, but the force of that consideration is somewhat weakened by the non-occurrence in Psalm 37:3 of the copula which introduces the promises of the other verses. Still its omission does not seem sufficient to forbid taking the clause as corresponding with these. The imperative is similarly used as substantially a future in Psalm 37:27 : "and dwell for evermore." The fact that in every other place in the psalm where "dwelling in the land" is spoken of it is a promise of the sure results of trust, points to the same sense here, and the juxtaposition of the two ideas in the refrain leads us to expect to find the prediction of Psalm 37:2 followed by its companion there. On the whole, then, to understand Psalm 37:3 b as promise seems best. (So LXX, Ewald, Gratz, etc.) What, then, is the meaning of its last words? If they are a continuation of the promise, they must describe some blessed effect of trust. Two renderings present themselves, one that adopted in the R.V. margin, "Feed securely," and another "Feed on faithfulness"; (i.e., of God). Hupfeld calls this an "arbitrary and forced" reference of "faithfulness"; but it worthily completes the great promise. The blessed results of trust and active goodness are stable dwelling in the land and nourishment there from a faithful God. The thoughts move within the Old Testament circle, but their substance is eternally true, for they who take God for their portion have a safe abode, and feed their souls on His unalterable adherence to His promises and on the abundance flowing thence.
The subsequent precepts bear a certain relation to each other, and, taken together, make a lovely picture of the inner secret of the devout life: "Delight thyself in Jehovah; roll thy way on Him; trust in Him; be silent to Jehovah." No man will commit his way to God who does not delight in Him; and unless he has so committed his way, he cannot rest in the Lord. The heart that delights in God, finding its truest joy in Him and being well and at ease when consciously moving in Him as an all-encompassing atmosphere and reaching towards Him with the deepest of its desires, will live far above the region of disappointment. For it desire and fruition go together. Longings fixed on Him fulfil themselves. We can have as much of God as we wish. If He is our delight, we shall wish nothing contrary to nor apart from Him, and wishes which are directed to Him cannot be in vain. To delight in God is to possess our delight, and in Him to find fulfilled wishes and abiding joys. "Commit thy way unto Him," or "Roll it upon Him" in the exercise of trust; and, as the verse says with grand generality, omitting to specify an object for the verb, "He will do"-all that is wanted, or will finish the work. To roll one’s way upon Jehovah implies subordination of will and judgment to Him and quiet confidence in His guidance. If the heart delights in Him, and the will waits silent before Him, and a happy consciousness of dependence fills the soul. the desert will not be trackless, nor the travellers fail to hear the voice which says, "This is the way; walk ye in it." He who trusts is led, and God works for him, clearing away clouds and obstructions. His good may be evil spoken of, but the vindication by fact will make his righteousness shine spotless; and his cause may be apparently hopeless, but God will deliver him. He shall shine forth as the sun, not only in such earthly vindication as the psalmist prophesied, but more resplendently, as Christian faith has been gifted with long sight to anticipate, "in the kingdom of my Father." Thus delighting and trusting, a man may "be silent." Be still before Jehovah, in the silence of a submissive heart, and let not that stillness be torpor, but gather thyself together and stretch out thy hope towards Him. That patience is no mere passive endurance without murmuring, but implies tension of expectance. Only if it is thus occupied will it be possible to purge the heart of that foolish and weakening heat which does no harm to anyone but to the man himself. "Heat not thyself; it only leads to doing evil." Thus the section returns upon itself and once more ends with the unhesitating assurance, based upon the very essence of God’s covenant with the nation, that righteousness is the condition of inheritance, and sin the cause of certain destruction. The narrower application of the principle, which was all that the then stage of revelation made clear to the psalmist, melts away for us into the Christian certainty that righteousness is the condition of dwelling in the true land of promise, and that sin is always death, in germ or in full fruitage.
The refrain occurs next in Psalm 37:22, and the portion thus marked off (Psalm 37:10-22) may be dealt with as a smaller whole. After a repetition (Psalm 37:10-11) of the main thesis slightly expanded, it sketches in vivid outline the fury of "the wicked "against "the just" and the grim retribution that turns their weapons into agents of their destruction. How dramatically are contrasted the two pictures of the quiet righteous in the former section and of this raging enemy, with his gnashing teeth and arsenal of murder! And with what crushing force the thought of the awful laughter of Jehovah, in foresight of the swift flight towards the blind miscreant of the day of his fall, which has already, as it were, set out on its road, smites his elaborate preparations into dust! Silently the good man sits wrapped in his faith. Without are raging, armed foes. Above, the laughter of God rolls thunderous, and from the throne the obedient "day" is winging its flight, like an eagle with lightning bolts in its claws. What can the end be but another instance of the solemn lex talionis, by which a man’s evil slays himself?
Various forms of the contrast between the two classes follow, with considerable repetition and windings. One consideration which has to be taken into account in estimating the distribution of material prosperity is strongly put in Psalm 37:16-17. The good of outward blessings depends chiefly on the character of their owner. The strength of the extract from a raw material depends on the solvent applied, and there is none so powerful to draw out the last drop of most poignant and pure sweetness from earthly good as is righteousness of heart. Naboth’s vineyard will yield better wine, if Naboth is trusting in Jehovah, than all the vines of Jezreel or Samaria. "Many wicked" have not as much of the potentiality of blessedness in all their bursting coffers as a poor widow may distil out of two mites. The reasons for that are manifold, but the prevailing thought of the psalm leads to one only being named here. "For," says Psalm 37:17, "the arms of the wicked shall be broken." Little is the good of possessions which cannot defend their owners from the stroke of God’s executioners, but themselves pass away. The poor man’s little is much, because, among other reasons, he is upheld by God, and therefore needs not to cherish anxiety, which embitters the enjoyments of others. Again the familiar thought of permanent inheritance recurs, but now with a glance at the picture just drawn of the destruction coming to the wicked. There are days and days. God saw that day of ruin speeding on its errand, and He has loving sympathetic knowledge of the days of the righteous (Psalm 1:6), and holds their lives in His hand; therefore continuance and abundance are ensured.
The antithetical structure of Psalm 37:16-22 is skilfully varied, so as to avoid monotony. It is elastic within limits. We note that in the Teth strophe (Psalm 37:16-17) each verse contains a complete contrast, while in the Yod strophe (Psalm 37:18-19) one half only of the contrast is presented, which would require a similar expansion of the other over two verses. Instead of this, however, the latter half is compressed into one verse (Psalm 37:20), which is elongated by a clause. Then in the Lamed strophe (Psalm 37:21-22) the briefer form recurs, as in Psalm 37:16-17. Thus the longer antithesis is enclosed between two parallel shorter ones, and: a certain variety breaks up the sameness of the swing from one side to the other, and suggests a pause in the flow of the psalm. The elongated verse (Psalm 37:20) reiterates the initial metaphor of withering herbage (Psalm 37:2) with an addition for the rendering "fat of lambs" must be given up, as incongruous, and only plausible on account of the emblem of smoke in the next clause. But the two metaphors are independent. Just as in Psalm 37:2, so here, the gay "beauty of the pastures," so soon to wilt and be changed into brown barrenness, mirrors the fate of the wicked. Psalm 37:2 shows the grass fallen before the scythe: Psalm 37:20 lets us see it in its flush of loveliness, so tragically unlike what it will be-when its "day" has come. The other figure of smoke is a stereotype in all tongues for evanescence. The thick wreaths; thin away and melt. Another peculiar form of the standing antithesis appears in the Lamed strophe (Psalm 37:21-22), which sets forth the gradual impoverishment of the wicked and prosperity as well as beneficence of the righteous, and, by the "for" of Psalm 37:22, traces these up to the "curse and blessing of God, which become manifest in the final destiny of the two" (Delitzsch). Not dishonesty, but bankruptcy, is the cause of "not paying again"; while, on the other hand. the blessing of God not only enriches, but softens, making the heart which has received grace a wellspring of grace to needy ones, even if they are foes. The form of the contrast suggests its dependence, one the promises in Deuteronomy 15:6. Thus the refrain is once more reached, and a new departure taken.
The third section is shorter than the preceding: (Psalm 37:23-29), and has, as its centre, the psalmist’s confirmation from his own experience of the former part of his antithesis, the fourth section similiarly confirming the second. All this third part is sunny with the Divine favour streaming upon the righteous, the only reference to the wicked being in the refrain at the close. The first strophe (Psalm 37:23-24) declares God’s care for the former under the familiar image of guidance and support to a traveller. As in Psalm 37:5, Psalm 37:7, the "way" is an emblem of active life, and is designated as "his" who treads it. The intention of the psalm, the context of the metaphor, and the parallelism with the verses just referred to, settle the reference of the ambiguous pronouns "he" and "his" in Psalm 37:23 b. God delights in the good man’s way (Psalm 1:6), and that is the reason for His establishing his goings. "Quoniam Deo grata est piorum via, gressus ipsum ad laetum finem adducit" (Calvin). That promise is not to be limited to either the material or moral region. The ground tone of the psalm is that the two regions coincide in so far as prosperity in the outer is the infallible index of rightness in the inner. The dial has two sets of hands, one within and one without, but both are, as it were, mounted on the same spindle, and move accurately alike. Steadfast treading in the path of duty and successful undertakings are both included, since they are inseparable in fact. True, even the fixed faith of the psalmist has to admit that the good man’s path is not always smooth. If facts had not often contradicted his creed, he would never have sung his song; and hence he takes into account the case of such a man’s falling, and seeks to reduce its importance by the considerations of its recoverableness and of God’s keeping hold of the man’s hand all the while.
The Nun strophe brings in the psalmist’s experience to confirm his doctrine. The studiously impersonal tone of the psalm is dropped only here and in the complementary reference to the fall of the wicked (Psalm 37:35-36). Observation and reflection yield the same results. Experience seals the declarations of faith. His old eyes have seen much; and the net result is that the righteous may be troubled, but not abandoned, and that there is an entail of blessing to their children. In general, experience preaches the same truths today, for, on the whole, wrong doing lies at the root of most of the hopeless poverty and misery of modern society. Idleness, recklessness, thriftlessness, lust, drunkenness, are the potent factors of it; and if their handiwork and that of the subtler forms of respectable godlessness and evil were to be eliminated, the sum of human wretchedness would shrink to very small dimensions. The mystery of suffering is made more mysterious by ignoring its patent connection with sin, and by denying the name of sin to many of its causes. If men’s conduct were judged by God’s standard, there would be less wonder at God’s judgments manifested in men’s suffering.
The solidarity of the family was more strongly felt in ancient times than in our days of individualism, but even now the children of the righteous, if they maintain the hereditary character, do largely realise the blessing which the psalmist declares is uniformly theirs. He is not to be tied down to literality in his statement of the general working of things. What he deals with is the prevailing trend, and isolated exceptions do not destroy his assertion. Of course continuance in paternal virtues is presupposed as the condition of succeeding to paternal good. In the strength of the adduced experience, a hortatory tone, dropped since Psalm 37:8, is resumed, with reminiscences of that earlier series of counsels. The secret of permanence is condensed into two antithetical precepts, to depart from evil and do good and the keynote is sounded once more in a promise, cast into the guise of a commandment (compare Psalm 37:3), of unmoved habitation, which is, however, not to be stretched to refer to a future life, of which the psalm says nothing. Such permanent abiding is sure, inasmuch as Jehovah loves judgment and watches over the objects of His lovingkindness.
The acrostic sequence fails at this point, if the Masoretic text is adhered to. There is evident disorder in the division of verses, for Psalm 37:28 has four clauses instead of the normal two. If the superfluous two are detached from it and connected as one strophe with Psalm 37:29, a regular two-versed and four-claused strophe results. Its first word (L’olam =" forever") has the Ayin, due in the alphabetical sequence, in its second letter, the first being a prefixed preposition, which may be passed over, as in Psalm 37:39 the copula Vav is prefixed to the initial letter. Delitzsch takes this to be the required letter; but if so, another irregularity remains, inasmuch as the first couplet of the strophe should be occupied with the fate of the wicked as antithetical to ‘that of the righteous in Psalm 37:29. "They are preserved forever" throws the whole strophe out of order. Probably, therefore, there is textual corruption here, which the LXX helps in correcting. It has an evidently double rendering of the clause, as is not unfrequently the case where there is ambiguity or textual difficulty, and gives side by side with "They shall be preserved forever" the rendering "The lawless shall be hunted out," which can be returned into Hebrew so as to give the needed initial Ayin either in a somewhat rare word, or in one which occurs in Psalm 37:35. If this correction is adopted, the anomalies disappear, and strophe, division, acrostic, and antithetical refrain are all in order.
The last section (Psalm 37:30-40), like the preceding, has the psalmist’s experience for its centre, and traces the entail of conduct to a second generation of evil-doers, as the former did to the seed of the righteous. Both sections begin with the promise of firmness for the "goings or steps" of the righteous, but the later verses expand the thought by a fuller description of the moral conditions of stability. "The law of his God is in his heart." That is the foundation on which all permanence is built. From that as centre there issue wise and just words on the one hand and stable deeds on the other. That is true in the psalmist’s view in reference to outward success and continuance, but still more profoundly in regard to steadfast progress in paths of righteousness. He who orders his footsteps by God’s known will is saved from much hesitancy, vacillation, and stumbling, and plants a firm foot even on slippery places.
Once more the picture of the enmity of the wicked recurs, as in Psalm 37:12-14, with the difference that there the emphasis was laid on the destruction of the plotters and here it is put on the vindication of the righteous by acts of deliverance (Psalm 37:32-33).
In Psalm 37:34 another irregularity occurs, in its being the only verse in a strophe and being prolonged to three clauses. This may be intended to give emphasis to the exhortation contained in it, which, like that in Psalm 37:27, is the only one in its section. The two key words "inherit" and "cut off" are brought together. Not only are the two fates set in contrast, but the waiters on Jehovah are promised the sight of the destruction of the wicked. Satisfaction at the sight is implied. There is nothing unworthy in solemn thankfulness when God’s judgments break the teeth of some devouring lion. Divine judgments minister occasion for praise even from pure spirits before the throne, and men relieved from the incubus of godless oppression may well draw a long breath of relief, which passes into celebration of His righteous acts. No doubt there is a higher tone, which remembers truth and pity even in that solemn joy; but Christian feeling does not destroy but modify the psalmist’s thankfulness for the sweeping away of godless antagonism to goodness.
His assurance to those who wait on Jehovah has his own experience as its guarantee (Psalm 37:35), just as the complementary assurance in Psalm 37:24 had in Psalm 37:25. The earlier metaphors of the green herbage and the beauty of the pastures are heightened now. A venerable, wide-spreading giant of the forests, rooted in its native soil, is grander than those humble growths; but for lofty cedars or lowly grass the end is the same. Twice the psalmist stood at the same place; once the great tree laid its large limbs across the field, and lifted a firm bole: again he came, and a clear space revealed how great had been the bulk which shadowed it. Not even a stump was left to tell where the leafy glory had been.
Psalm 37:37-38 make the Shin strophe, and simply reiterate the antithesis which has moulded the whole psalm, with the addition of that reference to a second generation which appeared in the third and fourth parts. The word rendered in the A.V. and R.V. "latter end" here means posterity. The "perfect man" is further designated as a "man of peace."
The psalm might have ended with this gathering together of its contents in one final emphatic statement, but the poet will not leave the stern words of destruction as his last. Therefore he adds a sweet, long, drawn out close, like the calm, extended clouds, that lie motionless in the western sky after a day of storm in which he once more sings of the blessedness of those who wait on Jehovah. Trouble will come, notwithstanding his assurances that righteousness is blessedness; but in it Jehovah will be a fortress home, and out of it He will save them. However the teaching of the psalm may need modification in order to coincide with the highest New Testament doctrine of the relation between righteousness and prosperity, these confidences need none. Forever and absolutely they are true: in trouble a stronghold, out of trouble a Saviour, is God to all who cling to Him. Very beautifully the closing verse lingers on its theme and wreathes its thoughts together, with repetition that tells how sweet they are to the singer: "Jehovah helps them, and rescues them: He rescues them, and saves them." So the measure of the strophe is complete, but the song flows over in an additional clause, which points the path for all who seek such blessedness. Trust is peace. They who take refuge in Jehovah are safe, and their inheritance shall be forever. That is the psalmist’s inmost secret of a blessed life.