Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 1)

Psalm 37

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 18-19); 11QPsd (vv. 1-4)

This is another acrostic Psalm (cf. the earlier studies on Pss 9-10 and 34), and wisdom-poem. Many of the Psalms have wisdom-elements, or were influenced by Wisdom tradition; however, here the couplets of Ps 37 essentially take the form of individual proverbs. These are grouped together by subject and theme, but are otherwise only loosely connected, much as we see in the book of Proverbs.

The central theme of this Psalm is the traditional contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The wicked are treated here in more general terms, and not depicted so much as hostile adversaries of the righteous, the way they are in many of the Psalms.

The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another composition “belonging to David”.

Verses 1-11

In the first section of the Psalm, which I demarcate as covering verses 1-11, the Psalmist functions as a sage or philosopher (i.e., man of wisdom) who gives wisdom instruction to the righteous. The instruction deals with how the righteous should respond to the apparent prosperity of the wicked in this life. This is a common motif in wisdom literature, the flip side of the question regarding why the righteous suffer. Both the suffering of the righteous and the success/prosperity of the wicked are incongruous with the justice of God, and, indeed, would seem to call that justice into question.

The Psalmist instructs the righteous not to respond to this with anger or resentment; rather, they should be patient, and continue to trust in YHWH. In good time, the justice of God will be realized; eventually, the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked punished—even if only through their death. This latter point suggests an afterlife that awaits for the righteous, in which they will experience the blessings of God.

Verses 1-2

a “Do not [la^] burn (with anger) at the (one)s causing evil,
(and) do not (bur)n with desire at (the) doers of wrong;
for like (the) green (grass) they will soon wilt,
and like (the) green sprout they will wither.”

These two couplets make for a fine proverb, drawing upon a familiar illustration from nature (cp. Matthew 6:30 par; James 1:10-11; 1 Peter 1:24 [citing Isa 40:6-8]). The wicked who prosper in this life are like the luxurious green grass, etc, of the field, which, in its time, will wither and die. For this reason, the righteous should respond to this situation with neither anger nor jealousy.

Stylistically, we see how the poet is able to express the same idea with slightly different vocabulary and syntax. Note, for example, the two different kinds of verbs in v. 1: “burn (with anger)” (hr*j*) and “(bur)n with desire” (an`q*). Or, note the variation in the parallel participles used to characterize the wicked: “(one)s causing evil” (<yu!r@m=) and “doers of wrong” (hl*w+u^ yc@u)). Similarly, in the second couplet, the idea of “green grass” is expressed two ways, first with a single word (ryx!j*) and then with a word pair (av#D# qr#y#); to balance the number of words in the first line, an adverbial modifier (hr*h@m=) is added.

Verses 3-4

b “Place (your) trust [jf^B=] in YHWH and do (what is) good,
dwell (in the) land and graze (on its) abundance;
and look for (all) your delight(s) upon YHWH,
and He will give to you (the) requests of your heart.”

If the first proverb (in vv. 1-2) instructs the righteous on what they should not do, the instruction here in vv. 3-4 tells them what they should do. Rather than concern themselves with the success enjoyed by the wicked, they should focus on enjoying all that YHWH provides. The first line of each couplet has a covenant theme, emphasizing how the righteous, as loyal/faithful servants of YHWH, will be rewarded with good things. The verb jf^B* brings this out, since it signifies both the seeking of protection, as well as the placing of one’s trust in that protection; this verb has been used a number of times in the Psalms we have studied (cf. 4:6; 9:11; 13:6; 21:8; 22:5-6, 10; 25:2; 26:1; 27:3; 28:7; 31:7, 15; 32:10; 33:21).

The “land” (Jr#a#) refers to the blessing of this life, and also alludes to the blessing (for the righteous) in the life to come. On the motif of grazing/feeding (vb hu*r*), blending the herding imagery with the covenant theme of eating at the Lord’s table, cf. especially how this is expressed in Psalm 23.

I am inclined to read MT hnwma, as an alternate form of hnwmh (vocalized, hn`omh&, “abundance”); on this, cf. the discussion by Dahood (p. 228), who cites the variation /omh*//oma* in 2 Kings 25:11; Jer 52:15, as well as the LXX translation here in v. 3 (plou/to$, “riches”).

Verses 5-6

g “Turn [loG] your path upon YHWH,
place (your) trust upon Him
and He will make (it good);
He will bring out your justice like the (sun)light,
and your judgment like the double-bright (noon).”

The meter of these verses as they stand is irregular; vv. 5-6 would have to be read, apparently, as a 3+2+2 tricolon followed by a 3+2 couplet. In any case, the sense of the proverb builds upon the two previous (cf. above). By trusting in YHWH, the righteous will ultimately experience His justice—expressed through the nouns qd#x# and fP*v=m!. By “justice” here is meant the resolution of the incongruity whereby the wicked prosper in this life, while the righteous experience a measure of suffering and deprivation (cf. the characteristic “oppressed” in v. 11, below). The justice is established on the righteous person’s behalf (“He [YHWH] will bring out your justice”). It will be made to shine out brightly, just like the great light (roa) of the sun when it is at its “double-bright” point (<y]r*h&x*) in the noon-time sky.

Verse 7

d “Be silent [<oD] before YHWH and turn (with longing) for Him;
do not burn at (the one) making his path break through,
at (the) man making his plan (come to pass).”

This tricolon proverb essentially restates the message of the first two proverbs (in vv. 1-2, 3-4)—the righteous should be patient, trusting in YHWH, and not concerning themselves with how the wicked may prosper in this life. The motif in the first line (7a) is not entirely clear; the combination of the verbs <m^D* (“cease, rest, be quiet”) and lWj (“twist, turn, whirl”) is curious. Perhaps the idea is that the righteous should trust in YHWH at all times, both in their resting and in activity (the ‘twists and turns’). On the other hand, since lWj can refer to the twisting/writhing of a woman in labor, the combination may be intended to suggest the behavior of a dutiful wife, whose desire and attention is constantly focused on her husband (and the covenant bond of marriage).

Verses 8-9

h “Let go [[r#h#] from (the flaring) nostril and leave (that) burning,
do not let (yourself) burn, (or) surely (it will lead) to doing evil;
for (the one)s doing evil shall (all) be cut off,
but (the) callers on YHWH, they will possess (the) land.”

The fundamental message of vv. 1-11 is repeated here again, but with a sterner warning for the righteous not to be drawn into anger at the apparent injustice of things. Here the “burning” (hm*j@, vb hr*j*) clearly refers to anger, expressed as it is through the traditional idiom of the flaring “nostril” ([a^). The righteous are to “let go of” (vb hp*r*) any such impulse to anger, and must “leave” it behind (vb bz~u*). To follow through on the angry impulse will surely (Ea^ [note the wordplay with [a^]) lead to the righteous committing evil (and thus becoming evil-doers themselves).

On the theme of the righteous possessing the land, cf. below on verse 11. The participle <yw]q) can be understood as either “waiting” (i.e., hoping, trusting) or “calling” (on YHWH), depending on which verbal root hwq is discerned here. Either meaning would fit the context, but the expression “callers (i.e., those who call) on YHWH” seems more appropriate as a defining characteristic of the righteous. For more on the linguistic question, cf. Dahood (pp. 121-2, 228) and the earlier study (on Ps 19:5).

Verses 10-11

w “But again [douw+] a little (time) and (the) wicked will not be,
and (if) you think on his place of standing, no one will be (there);
but (the) oppressed (one)s will possess the land (instead),
and shall take delight upon (the) extent of (their) fulfillment.”

The two couplets in this proverb are among the most difficult to translate of the entire Psalm. However, the message is clear enough, for it states emphatically that the wicked will ultimately perish. This need not mean anything more than that they will die in their time; on the other hand, it may imply a violent, unusual, or otherwise untimely death. The Psalms variously refer to both fates for the wicked, indicating that, in either case, it represents the enactment of God’s judgment. The negative particle /y]a^ is used twice in verse 10, emphasizing that the wicked will no longer be (i.e., will not exist). If an untimely death is meant, then it is their place on earth that becomes empty, to be taken over by the righteous. If, on the other hand, the reference is to death itself, then the contrast (i.e., what the righteous inherits) implies existence in a blessed afterlife.

Probably the latter is intended, in which case, the context of the afterlife Judgment is primarily in view. Wisdom tradition drew upon the ancient background of the afterlife Judgment-scene in a number of important ways. For this fundamental background in the Psalms, cf. my earlier study on Psalm 1, and the related articles in the series on the Beatitudes. Indeed, in Jesus’ Beatitudes, he makes a declaration quite similar to that here in v. 11a; one might even say that Matt 5:5 is a quotation of the LXX of this verse:

    • oi( de\ praei=$ klhronomh/sousin gh=n
      “but the meek (one)s will receive (the) earth as (their) lot” (v. 11a LXX)
    • oi( prai=$klhronomh/sousin th\n gh=n
      “the meek (one)s…they will receive the earth as (their) lot” (Matt 5:5)

The adjective wn`u* (“pressed [down], oppressed”) is translated by prau+/$ (“meek, mild, gentle”), in the sense of being “low(ly)”. The Hebrew term wnu/ynu is frequently used to describe the righteous; and, while such an identification of the righteous with those who are oppressed may seem overly simplistic to modern readers, it is very much part of the Old Testament tradition. Early Christians were greatly influenced by this °A_n¹wîm (<yw]n`a&) piety, and we can see traces of it throughout the New Testament (especially in the teachings of Jesus, and at many other points in the Gospels).

Justice will be made complete (<lv) for the righteous when they come to possess this “land” as their inheritance. The root <lv has a rich and extensive semantic range, which cannot be reduced (as it often is) to the concept of “peace”. The primary meaning of the noun <olv* is “completion, fulfillment”, and is often used in the context of the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel (the righteous ones). Each side is obligated to fulfill the terms of the binding agreement; for Israel, this means continued loyalty to YHWH (primarily through obedience to the Torah), while YHWH is obligated, as long as Israel remains faithful, to provide them with His blessings and protection. This covenant-fufillment concept informs the afterlife picture here in the Psalm. This is especially so, since one of the principal benefits conferred by the sovereign (i.e., YHWH) to his most trusted vassals (i.e., the righteous) involves a patrimonial property—a piece of land which the person inherits, and which then comes to be passed down within his family, from one generation to the next.

References marked “Dahood” above (and throughout these studies) are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).