Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 4)

Psalm 37, continued

Verses 30-40

This final section of Psalm 37 reiterates the different themes that have run throughout the Psalm (cf. Parts 1, 2, 3, on the earlier sections). As such, it effectively summarizes the proverbial message of the composition, with its strong emphasis on the contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates).

Verses 30-31

p “(The) mouth [yP!] of (the) just murmurs wisdom,
and his tongue speaks (right) judgment;
(the) Instruction of his Mighty (One is) in his heart,
his steps do not slip away (on the path).”

These two couplets neatly capture the character of the righteous (adj. qyd!x*, “just, right”), drawing upon traditional religious and proverbial language. The first couplet defines the righteous in terms of their speech: they speak wisdom (hm*k=j*) and justice (fP*v=m!, lit. “[right] judgment”). This essentially means that the righteous person both acts (i.e. behaves) in a wise and just manner, and exhorts others to do the same. Such a person is also preoccupied with wisdom and justice, a characteristic that is reflected by the use of the verb hg`h* (“murmur, mutter”). The verb denotes a low, rumbling sound (like an animal’s growl), and, in this context, refers to a person speaking (muttering) to himself/herself on a regular basis—note the famous parallel in Psalm 1:2, where it is the Instruction (Torah) of God that the focus of the righteous person’s attention.

And, indeed, the Torah is emphasized in the second couplet (v. 31), where the focus is on the overall conduct of the righteous, utilizing the familiar wisdom-motif of “walking” in a straight/right path—i.e., the path of God, represented by the precepts and regulations of the Torah. The righteous person is so preoccupied with the Torah—embodying as it does wisdom and justice (v. 30)—that it may be said to reside “in his heart.” As such, it guides his steps (sing. rv%a&) along the way—on the straight/right path that YHWH has laid out for him. On this path, his feet will not slip (vb du^m*), thanks to his faithfulness and the secure guidance of YHWH.

Verses 32-33

x “(The) wicked is looking out [hp#ox] for (the) just,
and is seeking to cause him death;
(but) YHWH will not leave him in his hand,
and will not treat him as (the) wicked in his judgment.”

The behavior of the wicked, in contrast to the righteous, is described in the first couplet here. It is characterized by an interest in doing harm (violence) to the righteous; it is thus an extreme form of injustice that occupies his attention, compared with the justice that occupies the righteous person. The purpose of this planned violence is ultimately to kill the righteous (“cause death”, vb tWm in the Hiphil stem), a theme that we have encountered a number of times in the Psalms thus far. The verb hp^x* (“look out [over], watch”) indicates that the wicked is looking for an opportunity to cause death for the righteous, and the use of the participle form in each line emphasizes that this is regular behavior—i.e., something he is constantly doing.

The promise in the second couplet is that YHWH will not give the righteous over into the power of wickedness. Quite literally, this means that the wicked person will not be able to fulfill his desire to kill the righteous (line 1). The idiom used here is of being “in the hand” of another person, that is, subject to his power and control. The effective promise is that YHWH will not leave the righteous behind (vb bz~u*), helpless in the hands of the wicked.

If the idea of being saved from death in this life is emphasized in the first line, it is the final Judgment and the afterlife that is view in the second line. If YHWH will not give over the righteous to the power of a wicked person, neither will he treat them like the wicked in the time of the Judgment. The verb uv^r* is, of course, related to the adjective uv*r* (“wicked”), and in the Hiphil stem can have the specialized sense of “treat/regard (someone) as wicked”. It is best to retain this wordplay and translate the root uvr consistently, however the verb uv^r* could also be rendered according to the fundamental meaning “do/cause wrong” —i.e., YHWH will not do wrong to the righteous in the Judgment. The syntax “his judgment” refers to the judgment of the righteous person; it thus differs in point of reference with the parallel “his hand” (i.e., hand of the wicked person) in the first line.

Verse 34

q “Look [hW@q*] (patiently) to YHWH,
and guard His path (with care);
and He will raise you (up) to possess the land,
(and) in (the) cutting off of (the) wicked you will see (it).”

In contrast to the 3-beat (3+3) meter that dominates this Psalm, the first bicolon here is a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet. The short lines contain a clear and direct exhortation for the righteous. Again, the juxtaposition with the wicked is implied; even as the wicked “looks out” for a chance to harm the righteous, so the righteous “looks” (vb hw`q*) to YHWH with hope and devotion, trusting that He will bring deliverance and will rectify things (with justice) in the time of Judgment. Indeed, it is the great Judgment that is in view here in the second couplet, contrasting the fate of the righteous and wicked, using the same combined idiom from vv. 22 and 28-29: viz., the righteous will possess the earth (or land), while the wicked will be “cut off” (vb tr^K*).

In this regard, the wording of the last line is difficult. The basic idea seems to be that the judgment of the righteous and wicked is simultaneous, and occurs at the same moment: the righteous is “raised high” (vb <Wr), while the wicked is cut down; and, as the wicked falls, the righteous has a clear view of the land he will inherit. Some might interpret the last line to mean that the righteous will see the wicked person fall, but I feel that this is incorrect: he sees the land, not the wicked person who has fallen out of view. This “land” is a symbol for the blessed life with God (in Heaven).

Verses 35-36

r “I have seen [yT!ya!r*] (the) wicked (appear) awesome,
(spread)ing leaves like a (lush) green native (tree);
and (yet) he passed over, and see! he was no (more),
I searched (for) him and he was not found.”

The syntax of these lines, along with their mixed metaphors, is a bit awkward. Kraus (p. 403), based on the LXX reading, would emend the adjective Jyr!u* (“terrible, awesome, mighty”) to JyL!u*, meaning something like “raised high (in triumph)”. This would perhaps better fit the image of a majestic tree. The LXX also indicates a different reading for the second line of the first couplet, referring to the “cedars of Lebanon”, rather than the curious wording of the MT, which would have to be seriously emended to match the LXX. An underlying Hebrew text, corresponding to the LXX (cf. Kraus, p. 403), would yield the following translation for the first couplet:

“I have seen the wicked raised high (in triumph),
and lifted up like (the) cedars of (the) white-peaked (mountains) [i.e. Lebanon]”

In any case, the basic message of these couplets is clear enough, and is well-rooted in Wisdom tradition. The wicked may prosper, appearing mighty and majestic, during their lifetime, but with their death, all of that suddenly vanishes, and they “are no more”. This fate of disappearance also alludes to the Judgment, when the wicked will be “cut off” (or cut down, following the tree-motif), cf. above. The verb rb^u* (“pass/cross over”) almost certainly refers to crossing over into the realm of the dead (i.e., the death of the wicked).

Verses 37-38

? “Watch [rm*v=] (the) complete and see (the) straight,
for (what) follows for (that) man (is) fulfillment;
but (those) breaking (the bond) are destroyed as one,
(and what) follows for (the) wicked is (to be) cut off.”

The wording of these couplets seems somewhat forced and awkward; however, the Wisdom-theme comes through clearly, continuing the striking contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates). The initial verb (rm^v*) literally means “guard”, but can also be rendered “watch closely” (i.e., keep watch over); paired as it is here with ha*r* (“see”), the simple translation of “watch” is appropriate.

The adjectives <T* (“complete”) and rv*y` (“straight”) should be understood here as substantives which refer to the righteous—i.e., that which characterizes the righteous: their complete devotion to the covenant bond with YHWH, and their upright conduct (in both a moral and religious sense). One should look to such people as an example, but also, more particularly, as an indication of what the fate of the righteous will be. Their righteousness finds completion and fulfillment (<olv*) with YHWH; that is, fulfillment of what is promised by the covenant bond: blessing and security, both in this life, and in the life to come.

The wicked, by contrast, break the covenant bond, and this is the specific meaning of the verb uv^P*, used here as substantive (participle) to characterize the wicked, even as <T* and rv*y` characterize the righteous. The fate (lit., “[what] follows”) for the wicked is to be “cut off” (vb tr^K*), a motif that has been used several times already in this Psalm. This “cutting off” is a specific element of the ancient Near Eastern covenant format. Originally, it referred to a ritual cutting up of an animal, as a way of symbolizing what will happen to the person who violates the terms of the binding agreement—that is, they will be “cut up” in a similar manner. Even when the use of such a concrete ritual had faded, the associated language remained: the covenant formula had built-in “curse” language implying that God would bring about the death of one who violated the covenant (i.e., they would be “cut off”). On the theme of the death of the wicked, cf. the discussion above.

Verses 39-40

t “(The) salvation [tu^WvT=] of (the) just (comes) from YHWH,
(their) place of strength in time of distress;
and YHWH will help them and will rescue them,
He rescues them from (the) wicked and saves them,
for they (have) sought protection in Him.”

In order to preserve the acrostic format, the initial prefixed conjunction (-W) in the MT should probably be omitted. The theme of these concluding couplets is salvation (hu*WvT=)—that is, the safety and security that YHWH provides for the righteous. This relates specifically to the covenant bond (cf. above) between YHWH and His people. Those who remain faithful to the bond are under YHWH’s continual protection, and He will rescue them from danger. In the context of the Psalm, this refers to the threat to the righteous from the wicked, who seek to bring about their death. God will rescue the righteous from this danger.

This imagery, of YHWH as a “place of strength” and protection, has been used repeatedly in the Psalms. In particular, the verb hs*j* is distinctive of the Psalms, and occurs frequently; already, in the Psalms we have studied thus far, it has occurred 14 times (2:12; 5:12; 7:2; 11:1; 16:1; 17:7; 18:3, 31; 25:20; 31:2, 20; 34:9, 23; 36:8). The verb denotes a person seeking (and/or finding) protection; it also connotes the trust one places in that protection. As this usage makes clear, hs*j* is part of the covenantal language and imagery that is characteristic of many Psalms, and which runs through the composition.

The final couplet is expanded into a tricolon, adding a short, climactic third line, as is befitting of the conclusion to such a grand poem. The closing line, appropriately, emphasizes the trust that the righteous have in God. It is this, perhaps more than anything else, that distinguishes them from the wicked, and which serves as the basis for the fundamental contrast between the two groups.

References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *