For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 37 and its interpreters. Psalm 37 is essentially encouraging people to trust in God and to do good, even though the wicked are the ones who appear to be prospering. The prosperity of the wicked will not last, Psalm 37 affirms, and the meek will one day inherit the land. In the meantime, it is better to have a little and to be righteous, than to have great riches and to be wicked. Moreover, the Psalmist declares in his old age that he has never seen the righteous forsaken or their seed begging for bread, demonstrating that God takes care of those who trust in God and help others.
I have three items for today’s write-up:
1. Bob MacDonald states the following in his post on Psalm 37:
“Psalm 37 is about fretting and fussing, burning up, over the fortunes of others. There are shades of the comforters of Job in the promises here, so take care! But the contrast between exquisite delight and being cut off is to be considered. The Holy One cuts a covenant. The sheep and goats in us (each of us) suffer when we are divided. Remember psalm 36. One might assume that this good advice is theoretical and that it is simplistic to assume that the poor with inherit the earth (inherit the earth recurs 5 times). There is also a repetition of the self-destructive aspects of those who appear to have successful schemes but will be destroyed by their own ‘weapons’, their metaphorical bow and sword. It appears on first reading that the poet is too much like Eliphaz (Job 4:7) for my immediate comfort. But perhaps we could allow Eliphaz to speak truth about some things wrongly.”
I was actually thinking about a similar topic shortly before I read Bob’s post. I remember talking with a relative about the Book of Job, and he remarked that he used to hear pastors in the Worldwide Church of God quote Job’s friends as authoritative, even though God at the end of the book essentially says that they didn’t know what they were talking about! David Antion, in his series on Job, asks if every word of the Bible is true. He answers in the negative, for, in the Book of Job, there are entire chapters that God says are untrue.
And yet, I Corinthians 3:19 quotes one of Job’s friends as authoritative. In Job 5:13, Job’s friend, Eliphaz the Temanite, affirms that God takes the wise in their own craftiness, and Paul in I Corinthians 3:19 quotes that as part of his argument that God does not think too highly of the wisdom of the world. Perhaps Paul was not looking at the context of Job 5:13, or maybe he believed that Eliphaz was making a true statement, but was misapplying that truth in evaluating Job’s situation.
“I guess my concern in this discussion is that we have a whole group of believers discussing very important topics–love, leadership roles, marriage, the point and purpose of life–and no one is using scripture to inform what they’re saying. I’m not talking about finding a couple proof texts; I’m talking about using the whole of scripture to extrapolate a theology of love, leadership roles, marriage, and the point and purpose of life. I’m not interested in what Donald Miller or Rachel Held Evans thinks or feels about these topics. What I am interested in what the inerrant word of God teaches. If Rachel or Donald could set aside the emotionally laden rhetoric and write about their understanding of what scripture teaches about these topics, the we could really get a productive and didactic dialogue going!”
I think that Rachel and Donald’s views are informed by Scripture, in some manner. But I have other issues with that commenter’s statement. First of all, why would I be wrong to be interested in what Donald Miller or Rachel Held Evans think or feel about topics? They’re drawing from their experiences. Why should I deem that to be irrelevant as I try to determine what real life is like? After all, did not the Psalmist in Psalm 37:25 appeal to his own experience when he said that he never saw the righteous forsaken or their seed begging for bread?
Second, why should I assume that the “inerrant word of God” teaches a monolithic message about gender? There are parts of the Bible that strike me as rather sexist (e.g., Numbers 30’s allowing a husband to nullify his wife’s vow, while not granting his wife the same privilege for her husband’s vow; Numbers 26’s law that daughters can only inherit when their father has no sons; etc.), but there are other parts that affirm women’s dignity (e.g., strong female characters such as Deborah and Ruth, who take the initiative). Psalm 37 is an excellent example of the diversity of Scripture, for, while the Psalmist here teaches that he never saw the righteous forsaken and that the wicked eventually get their punishment, Job has had quite different observations. He discusses rich people who throw folks off their land, making them homeless and hungry in the desert (Job 24), and Job wonders why oppressors die in a state of happiness and prosperity (Job 21), without experiencing divine punishment. People have different experiences, and perhaps I should draw on them (including the Bible’s repository of wisdom throughout the ages) as I seek to understand the world around me, and how I should participate in it.
Different experiences also underlie interpretations of Psalm 37:25. Some, such as Charles Spurgeon and commentators he cites in his Treasury of David, appeal to examples in which righteous people indeed do prosper financially or see their needs met, or at least God blesses their children. St. Augustine, however, interprets Psalm 37:25’s statement about the righteous’ seed not begging for bread in a spiritual manner, not in terms of physical bread. Perhaps Augustine saw instances in which the righteous indeed did experience poverty.
3. Psalm 37:4 shows up a lot in evangelicalism. It exhorts us to delight ourselves in the LORD, and he will give us the desires of our heart. Some interpret that to mean that God will give us what we want (i.e., money, a spouse, etc.). Others say that the desires in our hearts have been implanted there by God. At Harvard Divinity School, I talked with a fellow student, a charismatic minister, about my questions regarding whether or not God wanted me to become a minister. She responded that, if the desire is inside of me, then I can be assured that God is the one who placed that desire in my heart.
The Intervarsity Bible Background Commentary, by contrast, seeks to limit the application of the “desires of the heart”. The commentary appeals to Psalm 37:6, which talks about judgment, as well as Akkadian texts in which the phrase is used to refer to deliverance from illness or oppression. The commentary maintains that Psalm 37:4 is about God granting our desire to be delivered from oppression, not God giving us whatever we want.
That could be. At the same time, I can understand Peter Craigie’s view that Psalm 37 is a wisdom Psalm designed to teach students not to envy the wealth of the wicked, but rather to practice righteousness—to help others rather than exploit them for gain. Psalm 37:6 may mean that God will ensure that their righteousness will be vindicated. I think that Psalm 37 does hold out hope for the righteous that they will receive material blessings, such as inheritance of the land, or provision of food. But Psalm 37 also says that having a little with righteousness is better than being rich and wicked, and it also highlights such blessings as peace. Psalm 37 may be telling us that God will grant us our desires, or it may also be trying to encourage us to have the right kind of desires.