Intro: Invitation to Delight
David gave one negative instruction—“Don’t fret” (vv. 1, 7, 8)—and four positive instructions: trust in the Lord (v. 3), delight in the Lord (v. 4), commit yourself to the Lord (vv. 5–6), and rest in the Lord (v. 7).
When we envy the wicked, the problem is not that we want things too much. Our eyes wander away from God, and we try to find our joy in cheap substitutes.
The Heading (37:0)
THE PSALM IS simply attributed to David, with no other additions.
This psalm of David seems to build on the previous one. Here he instructed the righteous not to be disturbed over the prosperity of the wicked who reject God, for divine justice will yet be granted.
Pss 34–37 contrast the righteous and the wicked, and they wrestle with the issue as a righteous individual persecuted by the wicked; Ps 37 addresses it from a “wisdom” perspective. David juxtaposes the lives, actions, attitudes, and “rewards” of the wicked against those of the righteous, intermixed with repeated exhortations to the righteous to seek their satisfaction in the Lord, who is the ultimate source of blessing and security. The very beginning of the Psalter signals this contrast
David had written about the wicked in Psalm 36 (see vv. 1 and 11), and he will pick up the theme again in Psalm 39. He wrote Psalm 37 in his mature years (v. 25), and in it he discussed the age-old problem of why the righteous suffer while the wicked seem to prosper.
Perhaps this psalm was part of David’s preparation of Solomon for the throne (1 Kings 2:3; see Prov. 23:17–18, 24:19–20).
The psalm is an instructional poem, incorporating numerous recognizable proverbial sayings into a relatively loose framework that explores two major themes: the problem of the apparent prosperity of the wicked and the need for the faithful to trust Yahweh and to find refuge in him. These two concerns circle around one another throughout the psalm without any clear sense of thematic development.
Following the negatively stated admonition of verse 1, the psalmist shifts (37:3–6) to a series of positively stated imperative directives to the hearers. They are called to “trust” (37:3, 5) in Yahweh, “dwell” (37:3) in the land, “delight” (37:4) in Yahweh, and consequently “commit” (37:5) their way to him. As a result of turning their negative anger into passionate commitment to Yahweh, they will receive from God security and safe pasture (37:3), the “desires” (mišʾalot, from šʾl [“the thing asked for, requested”]) of their hearts (37:4), and clear, public vindication against the wicked (37:6).
Meekness is strength from trust in a sovereign God, and David imagines the first step to be rolling his burdens onto the Lord (Ps. 37:5).
It is a wisdom psalm: it speaks to man, not God, and its tone and style have some affinities with Proverbs, whose message of the righteous man’s security is the central topic here.
Look to God
First, in verses 3–9 David tells us to look to God. These verses contain over a dozen commands that center our hearts on God. Four of these commands directly refer to “the LORD” and appear to be main headings for this section.
Teenage girls sometimes feel this sort of envy. They see other girls show lots of skin, and the boys are interested. But they dress modestly, and no one pays them that kind of attention. “They’re popular,” they think, “so maybe I should be like them.” They wish they were not so sheltered or that their parents were not so strict. What is going on in their heart? They are “envious of wrongdoers” (v. 1).
As adults we might feel this sort of envy at work. We see a coworker who has gotten ahead by being deceitful. Maybe he plays with the numbers or maybe he’s a master at office politics, and he is climbing the ladder faster than we are. It’s hard to admit, but we’re a little jealous. We are wondering whether we should start playing that game too. We are “envious of wrongdoers.”
Maybe you’re retired, and your friend isn’t a believer, never goes to church, has lived for himself, and seems to be doing better than you. His 401(k) is bigger. His kids and grandkids seem better off. As you look back, you wonder if following God was worth it. You are “envious of wrongdoers.”
Maybe you’re a man who is wondering whether it is worth it to stay in your marriage. Your college roommate divorced his wife (without Biblical grounds) and married a beautiful younger woman. He seems happier than you are. You are “envious of wrongdoers.”
Or consider a single woman who wants to get married. Her friend snagged the perfect guy by sleeping with him. She is telling this woman that she needs to get out and play the field more. She’s beginning to think her friend is right. She is “envious of wrongdoers.”
Or consider a married woman who is struggling with respecting her husband. Her friend or sister is sassy and assertive in her marriage. She’s worked hard at honoring God by submitting to her husband, but her friend seems happier than she is. She’s wondering whether she’s made a mistake. She is “envious of wrongdoers.”
Trust in the Lord (v. 3). A fretful heart is not a trusting heart, because it lacks joy and peace (Rom. 15:13). Faith and works go together, so we should also do good as we wait on the Lord (34:14; Luke 6:35; Gal. 6:10).
Fret not (vv. 1–2). The word translated “fret” means “to burn, to get heated up.” David’s message was, “Cool down and keep cool!” When we see evil in the world, we ought to feel a holy anger at sin (Eph. 4:26), but to envy the wicked only leads to fretting, and fretting leads to anger (v. 8). His argument is that the wicked are temporary and will one day be gone (see vv. 9, 22, 28, 34, 38)
This “delight” in the Lord is a more positive reaction than “jealousy,” as one learns to enjoy all his benefits, including material provisions (cf. v. 11), with contentment (v. 16).
Instead of giving in to self-pity and hatred, the wise man develops a trust in the Lord (v. 3; cf. Prov 3:5; 16:20; 28:25; Isa 26:4). Trusting the Lord means faith, especially the more difficult aspect of faith—submission to his will in the hope of his resolution of the dilemma (cf. v. 5; 1 Peter 5:6–7). In this spirit of surrender, the wise person finds joy. He delights himself in the Lord (v. 4).
37:2 Here-today-gone-tomorrow illustrations about the wicked characterize this psalm. On this theme, cf. Job 14:1, 2; Pss. 90:5, 6; 103:15, 16; Is. 40:6–8; Matt. 6:30; James 1:10, 11; 1 John 2:17.
The promise, He will give you the desires of your heart, is based on the condition, delight yourself in the LORD. One who delights in Him will have righteous desires. If a person trusts in the LORD (cf. v. 3) God will gloriously vindicate him (vv. 5–6).
37:4 desires of your heart. This does not mean that God will grant anything a person desires, however whimsical or irresponsible. A godly person’s desires are in line with what God wants for them (vv. 23, 31).
Faith says to this promise, “it is true.” The righteous may suffer from evildoers (v. 1) but live in the hope of the day when God will deal justly with evil. Then the light of the children of God will be like that of the noonday sun (for a prophetic description of this great day, cf. Isa 58:10b
We often focus on the second half of this verse, the part about “the desires of your heart” (37:4). But if we truly delight in the Lord, then the one thing we want above all else is God. God gives us himself,
Commit Your Way to the Lord
David also tells us to “commit your way to the LORD” (v. 5). The word “commit” literally means “to roll.” “Roll the burden of life upon the Lord.” Let him carry your worries and anxiety. Let him worry about your reputation. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 NIV).
Do you trust in the Lord? Isaiah says,
From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
who acts for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)
The promise in verse 3 is variously translated: “enjoy safe pastures” (NIV), “feed on His faithfulness” (NASB margin; NKJV), “enjoy security” (RSV). If we are faithful to God, He will be faithful to us. Trusting the Lord is a key theme in this psalm (vv. 4, 5, 7, 34, 39).
The psalmist returns to a reflection on the meaning of trusting the Lord (vv. 5–6). Trust in the Lord is, on the one hand, expressed in active obedience, in reliance on the Lord (vv. 3–4). Trust is, on the other hand, a fervent expectation of his justice that, for the righteous, will mark the revelation of their glory.
Dwelling in the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:7; Deut 1:8) represented God’s blessing on the nation when it remained true to him (Deut 4:40; 5:33), but God repeatedly threatened to uproot his people from the land if they turned away from him (Deut 4:25–26; 6:14–15; 11:16–17; 28:33, 52, 63). David uses this imagery to refer to the blessings that all righteous individuals will enjoy if they remain faithful to the Lord.
Delight in the Lord (v. 4). The word translated “delight” comes from a root that means “to be brought up in luxury, to be pampered.” It speaks of the abundance of the blessings we have in the Lord Himself, totally apart from what He gives us. To enjoy the blessings and ignore the Blesser is to practice idolatry. In Jesus Christ, we have all God’s treasures, and we need no other. If we truly delight in the Lord, then the chief desire of our heart will be to know Him better so we can delight in Him even more, and the Lord will satisfy that desire! This is not a promise for people who want “things,” but for those who want more of God in their lives.
37:7, 8 The message of “Relax! Don’t react!” returns (cf. v. 1).
7. Be still is basically ‘be silent’, as in 62:5 (Heb. 6). It is the stillness of waiting, not (as in AV, RV) of resting. The Hebrew root underlying wait patiently is probably, as Briggs suggests, not ḥûl ‘to writhe’ (hence BDB, ‘wait longingly’), which suggests an anxiety foreign to the context, but yāḥal akin to yāhal, ‘to wait’, as e.g. 31:24 (Heb. 25).
11. The context gives the best possible definition of the meek: they are those who choose the way of patient faith instead of self-assertion; a way fully expounded in the foregoing verses.
Rest in the Lord (vv. 7–11). The verb means “be silent, be still.” It describes calm surrender to the Lord (62:5). Creative silence is a rare commodity today, even in church worship services. People cannot tolerate silence. A silent radio or TV screen invites listeners and viewers to switch to another station or channel. But unless we learn to wait silently before God, we will never experience His peace. For us to get upset because of the evil schemes of the ungodly is to doubt the goodness and justice of God (vv. 7, 12, 32).
“Meekness” does not mean “weakness.” It means force under the control of faith. Moses was meek (Num. 12:3), but he was a man of great power. Jesus quoted verse 11 (Matt. 5:5) but expanded it to include “the earth.” “Inherit the land” (vv. 9, 11, 22, 29) refers to the security of future generations in the Land of Promise, according to God’s covenant (Gen. 12:1–3; 13:14–18; 15:7–17), for God had a great work for His righteous remnant to do in that land, culminating in the coming of Messiah. Eventually, the wicked will be cut off (vv. 9, 22, 28, 34, 38), which in Israel usually meant exclusion from the covenant community (Ex. 12:15; 30:33, 38; 31:14; Lev. 7:20–21), but it could mean execution (Gen. 9:11; Lev. 20:17; Num. 15:30–31).
I realized what I was doing. I was making God into a “big fix” to take me out of my misery. I wanted an ecstatic experience with God that would so fill me with his spiritual presence that I would no longer be aware of the suffering that surrounded me and filled me. I was shocked by the realization of how similar my desire for God was to the need of the addict for a narcotic high or an alcoholic haze that obliterated—even for a moment—the pain of the real world.
“those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land” (37:9, 11, 22, 29, 34). How does this look to the future? This phrase “inherit the land” goes back to the time when Moses led the people to the promised land. God gave them the land of Israel as their inheritance (see Numbers 26:52–56; Joshua 11:23).
Joshua led the people into the land four hundred years before David wrote this psalm. As a nation they had already received their inheritance. David was not thinking of an earthly inheritance because the people were already in the promised land. He is thinking about a better land, an inheritance in Heaven.
Ultimately you will not be able to fight the temptation to envy the wicked unless you are looking forward to Heaven too. If you are only living for good things in this world, you will be powerless to fight this sin. Our Lord Jesus looked ahead to the blessings God had promised him. “[F]or the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Be Still before the Lord
To close this opening section, David tells us to be still. “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (37:7).
Some people try to start with this verse, and they cannot understand why they find it hard to quiet their hearts and find peace. We can only get to this place by following the path David has led us down in these verses. We need first to decide that we will trust God and believe his promises. We must delight in him. We must commit our plans to him and let him carry our cares and concerns. Then we will be able to be still.