A Wise Perspective on a Broken World
Passage: Psalm 37
I’m using PowerPoint today because we will be jumping around to quite a few passages at the beginning of the message, and I think the PowerPoint will help the process. As you can see, the title of this message is “A Wise Perspective on a Broken World.” You can probably guess from the title that Psalm 37 is a wisdom psalm. The wisdom psalms sound very similar to the Book of Proverbs. Wisdom literature played an important role in OT Israel. The sages, as they are often called, observed patterns in the world from a God-centered worldview and ethic, and then they taught the people how to live wisely and enjoy God’s blessing. Therefore, wisdom psalms emphasize the difference between wisdom and folly. They include more commands than other psalms. And they argue for wise living based on a firm belief in retribution. Retribution is simply the idea that God rewards righteousness and punishes wickedness. These ideas are all present in Psalm 37.
This is a rather lengthy psalm, so I’d like to begin by reading vv. 1–11. An important feature of Psalm 37 that is not apparent in our English Bibles is that this is an acrostic psalm. In other words, there are 22 units to the psalm, corresponding to the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Most of these units are four lines or two verses though there is some variety. If you are carrying an ESV or an NIV, these units are each their own little paragraph, but they are not marked clearly in most other versions. The acrostic seems to be there as a memorization aid. In an age where printed materials were scarce and few people could read, memorization was an important part of learning. It was very important to Israel’s teachers that the people commit these truths to heart. Beyond the acrostic, there is no clear thought flow to the psalm. Like most of Proverbs, each unit stands alone; however, the psalm does have an overarching theme that binds together the individual units. My summary of the message of this psalm is that wisdom requires walking by faith and obeying God’s Word because God will bless the righteous and judge the wicked. Based on that there are four major ideas about wisdom in this psalm—faith, obedience, God’s blessing on the righteous, and his judgment on the wicked. Those are pretty standard biblical themes, but we might struggle with how this psalm describes God’s blessing and judgment as coming in this life, not primarily the next. Notice the contrasts in vv. 32–38. It’s very hard to fit any of these outcomes into the afterlife. The psalm seems to be saying that if you obey God, he will make your life go well, but if you disobey him, your life will not go well. That sounds good, but it’s certainly not what we see around us. This is a tricky topic, and so I’d like to take some time before we dive into the psalm to talk about this idea of retribution. It’s important for understanding this psalm but also for knowing how to apply many OT texts in this age.
Sadly, many people take these kinds of statements as absolute promises. This is what we call…
The Prosperity Gospel
This is the idea that if you obey God, he will take away your problems and make you healthy, wealthy, and happy. To varying levels, this is what people like Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, and Creflo Dollar teach. The prosperity gospel doesn’t seem to be a major problem in our circles. The prosperity gospel sounds really good. Who doesn’t like to hear that God wants to make them healthy, wealthy, and happy? But has God promised these things to his church?
Response (Matt 16:24–25)
Jesus was clear that the path of discipleship is not a path to temporal wealth; instead it is very hard. But doesn’t this contradict what we read in Psalm 37?
To answer this question, we first have to acknowledge…
Discontinuity between the Dispensations
In other words, the Scriptures are clear that there are significant differences between how God dealt with Israel in the OT and how he deals with the church in this age. In particular…
God promised blessings and curses on Israel based on their obedience (Deut 5:32–33).
God promised Israel that as long as they obeyed him, they would possess the land of Canaan and would prosper. God also promised that if they disobeyed, they would be judged and go into captivity. And there are plenty of examples in the OT of both of these coming true. But the NT makes no such promises to Christians. Instead…
Jesus prophesied hardship for the church (John 15:18–19; 2 Tim 3:12).
There is no hint of the prosperity gospel in John 15. Jesus is very clear that Christians will face opposition, and 2 Timothy states that godliness will bring opposition. There is an obvious difference in expectation between the testaments about what obedience will bring. But that doesn’t mean that retribution was just for Israel under the law.
Continuity between the Dispensations
The Scriptures teach a couple of important, timeless truths related to retribution.
Both testaments teach the wisdom of God’s Word and that life will generally go better when we obey (Prov 3:1–2; Ex 20:12; Eph 6:1–3).
Proverbs 3 teaches that if you obey God’s commands, your life will go better. You will live longer and more peacefully. This is because God’s Word is wise. If you obey what it says about relationships, marriage, work, government, parenting, and physical health, your life will normally go better. One clear example is the fifth command. It’s repeated in the NT, and Paul expands on the promise of the command to state that in every age it is wise to obey parents and doing so will generally work to your benefit. I don’t think there’s any denying the fact that one of the biggest contributors to the breakdown of our society on so many levels has been the breakdown of the biblical family order. It works, and mankind is wise to honor it. And so God’s Word is full of wise instruction, and one very basic reason why the Scriptures often speak of blessing or judgment depending on our obedience is because of this wisdom.
But the Scripture are also clear that retribution is not merely an impersonal law; rather, God is actively involved in retribution.
Both testaments teach that God’s grace is with his people and that he loves to give good gifts (Ps 37; Phil 4:19; 1 Pet 3:8–12).
We’ve seen this pretty clearly in Psalm 37, but the NT also teaches retribution and not just concerning spiritual blessings. Philippians 4 talks about Christian joy, but Paul also talks about his financial needs, and he concludes in v. 19 by saying that God will supply every physical need that his people have. And 1 Peter 3 quotes from a retribution passage in Psalm 34, and the point is clearly that God’s physical blessing rests on those who honor his instructions about relationships. Therefore, while Jesus warned that the Christian life would be hard, the NT continues to teach that God rewards obedience. The NT never promises the kind of wealth and power he promised Israel, but retribution is still present.
Both testaments teach that ultimate retribution will take place in eternity (1 Tim 4:7–8).
Paul expected to be rewarded for his service after death, and Psalm 37 is not speaking purely of this life. The retribution it describes is in part for eternity. The Scriptures are clear that God will bring justice in the end. He will judge those who reject him, and he will not forget our service.
With that in mind, let’s dive into Psalm 37. There are two basic challenges we should take from this psalm.
Don’t be jealous of wicked men’s prosperity.
The psalm offers three basic reasons why we should not be jealous. First…
Their prosperity is temporary (vv. 1–2. 35–36).
We are going to see over and over that the commands in this psalm are very descriptive beginning with the first one, which is translated as “fret.” The basic meaning of this verb is “to burn.” This particular form speaks of causing oneself to burn internally. Probably most of us have experienced exactly what the psalmist condemns here when watching the news. When a politician who clearly rejects biblical values wins a victory and they show him or her standing in a crowd with a sleazy grin, you feel a burn in your heart. I tend to just shut the news off at that point, but some of you will just sit there and soak it all in and yell back at the T.V. We also observe the wicked prosper in court cases, and there are lots of wicked people who are filthy rich. But sometimes it’s the situations closest to us that are most frustrating. We see a coworker lie and cheat his way into a promotion or an old classmate, who is a bum but is ridiculously gifted, making loads of money. Or maybe someone you love has taken good care of himself his whole life, but he is facing a premature death while someone else who seems to do nothing but drink and eat Twinkies is in perfect health. In these positions, it is very easy to burn with anger or to be envious, as the second line states. But the psalmist says that we must drive out these feelings because the prosperity of the wicked is temporary. In v. 2 he compares them to grass. This is a desert illustration, so we understand what he is saying. In arid climate like Israel or Apple Valley, grass can spring up quickly when it rains. But when the rain stops and the hot summer winds begin to blow, the grass cannot endure like a deeply rooted tree. It quickly shrivels to nothing. And the same will be true of the wicked. A foolish lifestyle may bring temporary happiness, but it can turn in a moment. Irresponsible living, lies, and rejection of biblical morals can quickly turn into terrible destruction. Notice as well vv. 35–36. There is no avoiding death. Sometimes sin brings premature death whether because of the natural consequences of sin or God’s active judgment. All that prosperity and gloating can be gone in a moment. We need to keep perspective. Don’t be angered by the prosperity of the wicked and don’t be discouraged and compromise your commitment to Christ. The prosperity of the wicked is as fleeting as green grass in the desert.
God will destroy the wicked (vv. 12–15).
This idea is implicit in vv. 1–2, but vv. 12–15 describe God’s active opposition. Verses 12 and 14 describe how the wicked often treat others cruelly. They aren’t just concerned about themselves; they are committed to destroying the righteous. We see that a lot in our society. People who rebel against God don’t just want to enjoy their sin; they want to make everyone miserable who doesn’t want to join them. It is very troubling to see them shake their fist against God and his people, but v. 13 reminds us that God is not intimidated; he laughs at their defiance. He knows that man’s pride is hollow and that “his day is coming.” God’s justice will prevail. As v. 15 states, the weapons of the wicked will be turned into their own hearts, and they will face the wrath of God. The day is coming when Christ will return with the sword to execute justice. And physical death will not save the wicked from God’s wrath. Every man will stand before God one day and give an account of his life. And so we have no reason to be jealous of the wicked. When you are tempted to envy their prosperity, remember that God will destroy them. Their prosperity is but a shadow. My point is not that we should gloat in the prospect of their destruction but that we should remain encouraged to continue in obedience. The grass may appear greener on the path of wickedness, but the ends are vastly different. Stay on the right path.
Jealousy leads to foolish responses (vv. 8–9).
These two verses offer a needed reminder. Again, v. 9 reminds us of the ultimate end of the wicked and the righteous. Potentially in this life, but especially in the next, God will bring justice. Because of that, v. 8 urges us not to be overcome by anger, wrath, and fretting. This is because these emotions can lead us into harm. The idea is that anger can lead us to sink to the level of evil people and to join in their vengeful spirit and foolish path. Folks, this is an important reminder. So often, we want to put wicked people in their place. There’s so much that we want to say or do. We have to put off anger and worry because ultimately, they demonstrate a lack of faith. But as well, they can lead to our own sin and destruction.
Don’t be jealous of the prosperity of the wicked. Do what is right before God and trust him. In the midst of an evil world, what a blessing it is to know that his way is perfect and that he will bring justice.
The second challenge of this psalm is…
Trust and obey the Lord.
Throughout the OT, faith and obedience are always joined at the hip. Obedience requires faith because obedience doesn’t always make immediate sense. But genuine faith in the wisdom of God and his faithfulness to his promises will lead to obedience.
Psalm 37 calls us to faith and obedience using some powerful language. Let’s consider what this psalm has to say about the nature of biblical faith and it’s relationship to obedience.
The Requirements of Faith and Obedience
I’d like to point out two characteristics.
They require Scripture saturation (vv. 30–31).
These verses clearly describe someone who knows God’s Word, it is constantly on his mind, and it dominates his speech. And notice the effect it brings. “None of his steps shall slide.” This statement reminds me of Psalm 1, which states that the man who meditates on Scripture is like a tree planted by abundant water. God’s Word is the foundation of true wisdom. It is the foundation of obedience and faith. It’s ultimately the foundation of God’s blessing and grace. Spend time in this book. Know what God says, meditate on it constantly, and let it direct your steps into a strong faith and a godly walk. This is your wisdom.
They require peaceful rest and joyful delight (vv. 3–7).
Verses 3–7 offer powerful words of encouragement regarding the life of faith. Verse 3 commands us to trust the Lord rather than fretting over evildoers. This encompasses several things. We must trust that his Word is wise and true, and especially in this context, we must trust the Lord to bring justice. And then based on this faith, we must “do good.” In other words, we must obey his will. The sage then charges the people to “dwell…and feed…” Feeding pictures green pastures and is in stark contrast to the withered grass in v. 2. Verse 3 urges Israel to trust God’s wisdom and to obey his will so that they could enjoy God’s blessing in the land, and feed on his faithfulness. Verse 4 continues to urge us toward the path of faith. “Delight” is closely related to faith, but it has a more affectionate spirit. To delight in God means to find your joy and satisfaction in him. The Scriptures consistently teach that a mature faith doesn’t view God solely as a master, or his Word as a rulebook. No, mature faith delights in God because it believes that he is good and his word is wisdom. And the psalmist promises that when God is our delight, he will satisfy the desires of our hearts. God is not promising to satisfy the desires of our flesh; rather, when God is our delight, he transforms our desires. We want good things, and God gives good things. And so vv. 3–4 call us to trust and obey God because he gives satisfaction and joy. You simply cannot improve on the path of wisdom. Every day we must work to trust the Lord and delight in the Lord remembering that God alone truly satisfies.
Verses 5–6 continue to build on this idea. The first command to “commit your way” literally means to “roll away.” God is commanding us roll our cares and burdens onto him. He is saying, “Don’t fret, and don’t worry. Give your burdens to me, trust me to bring about righteousness and justice, and keep obeying my will.” Verse 7 continues with the same emphasis. The idea behind resting is to “be still.” Combined with waiting patiently, it again describes resting in the Lord to do what is right. God will bring justice, and so don’t fret over the prosperity of the wicked. Together, vv. 3–7 urge us to walk by faith, delighting in God and obeying God. Sometimes we make the Christian life so complex. We worry about this, and we envy over that. We need to constantly work to “commit our way to the Lord.” Just rest in him, delight in him, obey him, and then leave the rest in his hands. If you do so God will be faithful. Notice as well…
The Blessings of Faith and Obedience
I’d like to note two in particular.
God sustains his people (vv. 23–24, 39–40).
Verses 23–24 are a wonderful statement of God’s intimate involvement in the lives of his people. They picture a man as walking along a treacherous path where it is easy to slip and fall or where the path may quickly erode from under their feet. Life often feels like such a path, but a godly man has no need to fear because his steps are “ordered” or “established” by God. The idea is that he secures our footing as we follow in his way. Now that doesn’t mean that we won’t fall. We are going to endure difficult times, and we will sin. But even when we fall, the Lord will catch us and keep us from a deadly fall because he is holding our hand. Notice as well God’s sustaining grace in vv. 39–40. God is our strength and our deliverer. This blessing is a great comfort and encouragement because the path of faith and obedience is often very difficult and unnatural. But what a blessing it is to know that when you obey God, he will take you down the right path, and he will sustain you. The question then is will you trust him? Will you dig into his Word and cultivate true wisdom? Will you trust what you find there to be the right path? And will you trust God enough to obey him and follow his path of wisdom?
God will bless his people (vv. 10–11, 34, 4).
Several times the psalmist contrasts the ultimate end of the righteous and the wicked. Verses 10–11 say that God will ultimately destroy them but that the meek will inherit the earth. Of course Jesus borrowed from v. 11 in the beatitudes. I believe that he was looking forward to the Millennial Kingdom when the saints will rule alongside Christ. We may never be wealthy or powerful in this life, but God will richly reward his people one day. What an awesome day that will be. But that doesn’t mean that this life is all misery. Notice again, v. 4. This verse is a wonderful reminder of the nature of our God. He is not a miserly Scrooge; he loves to give good gifts. And when you walk in wisdom and conform your heart to his Word, he will satisfy the desires of your heart. He will fill you with rest, joy, and contentment.
And so the question is, will you delight in him and delight in the path of wisdom? There are so many forces working against wisdom. We have fleshly desires. Life is filled with fears that we are tempted to resolve our way. Wicked people hurt us, and we are tempted to lash out. On and on we could go. Regardless of the challenge, the psalmist is clear about how we must respond. Just keep doing right and wait on the Lord to bless your service.