Written around 1000 B.C., Psalm 37 is part of the first collection of Psalms and authorship is normally attributed to none other than King David (Bible Basics). According to the text, Psalm 37 was written when David was an old man (see verse 25). Like the other Psalms David wrote, Psalm 37 is lyrical and meant to be put to song. While Psalm 37 reflects the personal experiences of David and contains the King’s own pleas to God, it has a great deal of relevance to modern readers and contains many of the themes common to David’s other Psalms. Analysis shows that the content, imagery, and structure of Psalm 37 was designed by David to illustrate that God is in control of His creation and that mankind is better off demonstrating faith in God’s system of justice.
There can be little doubt that the genre of Psalm 37 is wisdom. David is writing on the subject of injustice. The inferred question of Psalm 37 is one that has often been mirrored throughout history. Why do the wicked seem to prosper when the righteous suffer? This was a dilemma that strikes home with David’s original audience as well modern readers. The Hebrew people often watched idolaters seemingly flourish while they suffered through slavery and hardships (Clarke’s Commentary). In our current culture, it often seems as if the unscrupulous get ahead while good guys always finish last. While David may not offer us an explanation for the dilemma of injustice, in Psalm 37 he clearly reminds us that God is aware of the injustice in this world and cares about it. He also reminds us that, if we are patient, God will eventually act to turn the tables on the wicked (Lesson 6: That’s Not Fair). In Psalm 37, David is clearly crying out to God for equanimity (Alter 129). Psalm 37 also meets Tremper Longman’s standards for being a Wisdom Psalm as it is definitely concerned with the manifestation of God’s world as reflected in His creation, clearly speaks to order in God’s creation, His law, and presents a strong contrast between the righteous and the wicked (Longman 33). Much like Job struggling with the concept of suffering and Psalm 73 asking why the wicked have no struggles, there is a hint of skepticism in Psalm 37 (Longman 33-34). At times, the writer seems at to be trying to convince himself that God is in control.
While Psalm 37 clearly meets the criteria for being a Wisdom Psalm, it also contains elements of the other genres as described by Tremper Longman. Longman classifies Psalms into several genres. Hymn Psalms are those that are recognized by their enthusiastic praising of God (Longman 24). Hymn praises call the readers to worship, give them reasons God is worthy of that worship, and then encourages the readers to continue praising God. Laments are Psalms that can be described as the emotional opposites of Hymns. Laments follow a particular structure and involve the writer calling out to God with their complaints and cries for help when there is nowhere else to turn (Longman 26-27). Psalms of Lament naturally lead one to the genre of Thanksgiving. As the Lord answers the writer’s cries for help, the psalmist lifts his voice offer thanks. In essence, the Thanksgiving Psalm is a response to an answered Lament Psalm. There are obvious elements of the Confidence Psalm in Psalm 37 as described by Tremper Longman. Longman defines a Confidence Psalm as one that expresses trust in the Lord even though the psalmist’s enemies are present (Longman 31). Psalms of Confidence often contain metaphors that express an awareness of God’s presence. Psalms of Remembrance are those that make reference to the great redemptive acts of the past (Longman 32). There is an obvious element of the Remembrance Psalm within Psalm 37 as the psalmist reminds the reader of God keeping His promises to the Jews (Longman 32). The last genre of Psalms as defined by Longman is the Kingship Psalm. There are two distinct types of Kingship Psalms; those that focus on the human king of Israel and those that proclaim God as King (Longman 34). While individual elements of the various genres of Psalms are contained within Psalm 37, it is no doubt a Wisdom Psalm.
The main message of Psalm 37 can be found in the first eleven verses with the remainder of the Psalm offering specific evidence to support the author’s thesis (Lesson 6: That’s Not Fair). It opens with an immediate plea for the righteous not to fret. The writer is reminding his audience that they should not worry when they see the apparent success of the wicked. It is fitting that the word “fret” can also refer to the corrosion or “wearing away” of something (Dictionary.com). The author is clearly stating that allowing ourselves to worry over the success of the wicked can cause corrosion in our lives. Dr. John Phillips defines the word fret as becoming “hot, furious, to become angry, [and] to become kindled (A Guide for Peace in the Waiting Room of Life).” Unfortunately, this is an all too common response from mankind when faced with injustice. Luther wrote the following in his exposition of Psalm 37, “Oh, shame on our faithlessness, mistrust, and vile unbelief, that we do not believe such rich, powerful, consolatory, declarations of God, and take up so readily with little grounds of [offense], whenever we but hear the wicked speeches of the ungodly (The Treasury of David).” Thankfully, David offers the righteous an alternative course of action. After warning his audience not to fret, David reminds us of the promise God has made to all His children. The reader is reminded that they will be rewarded if they delight and trust in the Lord. David writes that we must “be still in the Lord and wait patiently for Him [to fulfill His promises]. In his wonderful book, The Cure for a Troubled Heart, author Ron Mehl suggests that waiting for the Lord shouldn’t be compared to waiting in a dentist’s office, but rather to a groom “standing at the alter, waiting for his bride to come down the aisle … waiting for that blessed new life together that is now so near! (Mehl 138)” We must not fret or become angry when we see the wicked executing their plans because doing so will only lead us to evil. God has promised that the wicked will eventually be no more, and the righteous will inherit the land.
This concept of “inheriting the land” is an image that is repeated throughout Psalm 37. It occurs in verses 9, 11, 22, and 29. In contrast to the temporary nature of the wicked, this inheritance will last forever (verses 18 and 27). This idea of the meek inheriting the earth is itself a use of imagery. In the Old Testament, land is used to symbolize the presence and blessing of God (Quest 790). It represents the promise of God that those that love Him will be blessed in the future while the wicked will suffer. The phrase “inheriting the land” should also remind the reader of the promise God fulfilled for the Jews when He destroyed their enemies and gave them their land. In that instance, the enemy God destroyed was the Canaanites. In the future, the enemy God will destroy is all the wicked people (Waiting for God). David often contrasts the permanent nature of the righteous’ inheritance with the temporary successes of the wicked. This contrast is no more apparent than in verses 37 and 38 when David uses antithetical parallelism to illustrate his point, “Consider the blameless, observe the upright; there is a future for the man of peace. But all sinners will be destroyed; the future of the wicked will be cut off (Psalm 37: 37-38 NIV).”
The author also continually uses imagery to remind the reader of God’s creation. This is perhaps the most apparent when the author compares the wicked to plant life. In verse 2, the writer suggests that those who do wrong are not to be envied because they will soon, “wither like the grass … like green plants they will soon die away.” This theme reoccurs in verse 35 when the author declares that while he has seen the ruthless flourish like the green tree in its native soil he will soon pass away and be no more. The temporary nature of the wicked is contrasted with the righteous who will dwell in the land forever (verse 27) and be protected forever (verse 28). This imagery is important because it immediately reminds the reader that God is the Creator. While we can not always observe the wicked fall, we can observe the cyclical withering of plant-life. We are also reminded that it is God who is in control of the process of punishing the wicked just has He controls the greenery He has created. Just like nature, we should be comfortable putting the wicked in the hands of God.
Along with the use of imagery, the very structure of Psalm 37 is intended to remind the reader that God is in control. With two lines dedicated to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 37 is one of the longer acrostics in the collection of Psalms. Only the Hebrew letter “’ayin” is missing in most translations; however, the Septuagint reflects a version where there appears to be a line in verse 28 that began with the missing letter (Alter 129). While the acrostic style may occasionally interfere with the logical flow of ideas presented in Psalm 37 (Dahood page 227), there is a very important reason the author chose this style. The original Hebrew reader of Psalm 37 would have instantly recognized the acrostic style used by David. The reader would have immediately recognized the higher structure and order that was behind the words used by David to comprise Psalm 37. The very nature of an acrostic poem demands that there must be design and thought behind it. The acrostic style used in Psalm 37 hints at design and order much in the same way the order and style we can observe in the natural world hints at a Creator God. When the reader recognizes that the acrostic structure of Psalm 37 lends support to the imagery and lessons contained throughout the verse, it can not be denied that it is truly a masterpiece of literature.
Psalm 37 is one that both my wife and I have often turned to for comfort when facing the dilemma of injustice in the world. Working within a prison, I am often exposed to injustice in its rawest form. Watching criminals who have stolen the lives of others become “rehabilitated” often causes me to become frustrated with the justice system in our country. Reading Psalm 37 reminds me that the justice system of man is inconsequential in the long run and that I should be patiently waiting on the justice of the Lord. God’s justice system is a perfect one.
It can be seen that David’s goal in writing Psalm 37 was to remind the reader of his place in God’s creation. When reading Psalm 37, we are to be reminded that it is God that created the universe and it is God that is in control of how it will all play out. This is illustrated not only in the imagery David uses in Psalm 37 but also in the acrostic style the psalm is written it. We are reminded not to fret over the temporary successes of the wicked and to take comfort in God’s promise to the righteous. He will reward His children in the end. If we remain patient, we will see Him punish the wicked. David’s reminders are clearly seen in the text, images, and the acrostic style of Psalm 37.
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