I spoke from Psalm 37 on the 5th of September as part of a series on Psalms. It is a Psalm which I find brings clarity to the hope that Christians can have, even in suffering, and why even God's judgement is good news. You can watch it on YouTube below, listen on the church podcast here or read the script below. The script isn't always what I've said as I can tend to go off script every now and then...
I’ll be carrying on and concluding the summer series on the Psalms this morning where those of us who have shared over the summer have been asked to pick a Psalm that means a lot to us. I’ve chosen Psalm 37.
I’m going to pray and then I’ll read Psalm 37 and we’ll work our way through what it says to us as followers of Jesus, and how we might all respond to it.
1Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; 2for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
3Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. 4Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. 5Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: 6He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun. 7Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. 8Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil. 9For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.
10A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. 11But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity. 12The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; 13but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming. 14The wicked draw the sword and bend the bow to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those whose ways are upright. 15But their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken.
16Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked; 17for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous. 18The blameless spend their days under the Lord’s care, and their inheritance will endure for ever. 19In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty. 20But the wicked will perish: Though the Lord’s enemies are like the flowers of the field, they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke. 21The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously; 22those the Lord blesses will inherit the land, but those he curses will be destroyed.
23The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; 24though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand. 25I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. 26They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be a blessing.
27Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land for ever. 28For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed ; the offspring of the wicked will perish. 29The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it for ever. 30The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak what is just. 31The law of their God is in their hearts; their feet do not slip. 32The wicked lie in wait for the righteous, intent on putting them to death; 33but the Lord will not leave them in the power of the wicked or let them be condemned when brought to trial.
34Hope in the Lord and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are destroyed, you will see it. 35I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a luxuriant native tree, 36but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found.
37Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace. 38But all sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked. 39The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. 40The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him.
Psalm 37 is an important Psalm for me because it is one of a series of passages that highlight a paradigm shift in my theology that occurred over the last 5 years or so. These passages have brought a clarity in what we Christians mean by ‘good news’ which has brought a confidence in being able to share my faith with others.
Some of you may be aware of this shift and how I’ve been studying God’s judgement for the last couple of years, but this shift has also been about the inheritance, the promise, we have as Christians for what happens after this life. I also love this Psalm because of the practical wisdom that is for us here both for those not yet following Jesus as well as those of us who have been following him for years.
This Psalm, one of King David’s, compares the way of the righteous to that of the wicked, which is a major theme for the first book of Psalms - that is Psalms 1-42. Like Psalm 112 that Sam preached on, this is an acrostic poem starting each line with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet – I recommend listening to Sam’s preach if you missed it to hear why some of the Psalms are written like this. Psalm 37 is written later on in David’s life and he is looking back and sharing an encouragement to the people of God even when it looks like those who do evil are prospering.
The Psalm starts with a call to ‘not fret because of evildoers’. I can find myself often worked up by the amount of suffering and injustice around us. Social media, especially Twitter, is built around calling people out and getting angry over the wrong that others are doing and saying. In many ways we can justify the anger we feel when we see people doing things that are unjust and evil, and while there is a time for action, the Psalmist is calling us to not let our anger get the best of us. To not fret, is to not let the evil around us consume our thoughts day and night and the Psalm shows us why we shouldn’t fret and how there is a better way to be.
There are three themes woven through the Psalm – the promise of what the LORD will do, the reminder of what the ‘way of the wicked’ looks like and an exhortation to follow the way of the righteous.
In explaining how to ‘not fret’, David calls us to trust the Lord and through the Psalm there are several points where he explains why. The most obvious of these explanations is where we are told the righteous will inherit the land and the evildoers will be cut off from it. What does it mean to inherit the land?
Having grown up in a Christian family and as a missionary kid in Papua New Guinea growing up around other Christians, it was assumed, though I don’t recall a specific talk on it, that as Christians we would “go to heaven” and that was what we hoped for. If we weren’t Christians then we would “go to hell”, some fiery pit where people were kept alive forever. A horrible place that no one really talked about other than to say it was really bad, people who went there were there forever and experienced whatever torments there were for eternity.
Are either of these pictures of heaven and hell what we find in scripture? I’d contend that they aren’t and the Psalms repeatedly give us a different and more clear picture of what is hoped for.
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the land”. Do you recognise this? Jesus quotes Psalm 37 in his teaching that is recorded in Matthew’s gospel in chapter 5 – this isn’t just an Old Testament phrase but one that is part of the gospel – so what does it mean to inherit the land?
The story of the bible starts off with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” but for the author of Genesis and for the people he was writing to at the time “the earth” didn’t mean a globe. The Hebrew word we have translated as “earth” literally means “earth” as in “dirt” or “dry land”. The word translated “heavens” literally means “sky” and the two together, “the sky and the land” means the entirety of everything. The two are meant to be together. The story of Genesis 1 to 3 as we explored earlier this year shows that through breaking of relationship with God, we no longer rule with God as was intended. Despite this, the story of the bible is God reconciling with humanity through promises to specific people, then to a nation, and then through Jesus to all nations. This idea of partnering with God’s kingdom is best explained through the mission of Jesus which was to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. This mission was passed on to his disciples and continues to be passed on through the church – that is all followers of Jesus. It is why we pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. (For an intro to this see 'Heaven and Earth' by the Bible Project)
To inherit the land in this Psalm is the promise to inherit actual land, restoring it to what it was like in the first garden in Genesis 2. We can see this idea of the garden in the imagery of the text, notice that wickedness is compared to grass and flowers that fade and go up in smoke or ultimately, ‘cut off’. Those who inherit the land dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture – you’ll find similar themes in Psalm 23– there will be peace, prosperity, an inheritance that endures forever.
Note the difference from what we often hear when talking about the gospel – this is no longer about going away to different locations after we die but a very earthy (pun intended) vision of restoration. We see peace, justice, beauty, life in all its fullness. What you can hope for isn’t some place with babies and harps in the clouds, but what you see now restored without any corruption or sin.
It is why resurrection is so important for us as Christians. ‘Going to heaven’ is not the hope, the resurrection is when we are risen with new bodies like Jesus was, restored to enjoy the restored earth in the presence of God. So, inheriting the land is our hope, a hope we can imagine and see glimpses of around us especially when we see the spirit of God move in his church – bringing healing and forgiveness and changing people’s lives to be more in line with his kingdom.
But there is another hope here in the Psalm and it comes in the form of God’s judgement. Often when we talk of heaven and hell we hear language of the wicked being kept alive forever in fire. Does that sound like what David had in mind in this Psalm? What is the alternative to the life promised to those who inherit the land?
Let us read the text and allow it to challenge our traditions and assumptions. The wicked are “cut off” from the land, the land which gives life. They are “altogether destroyed”. “The swords they use to bring down and oppress others will pierce their own hearts”. Those that reject the life and wisdom of God that is on offer will “fade away”, “go up in smoke”, will “be no more”. This isn’t language of a realm where people continue to be tormented forever. This is far more understandable and less fantastical image - Sin and corruption are so serious that God will not keep them around in new creation or even contain them in some pit but he will remove them from existence altogether.
Isn’t this good news? It means we find hope in God’s judgement just as much as we do the promise of the land. Like the Psalmist we can trust that “the LORD loves justice and will not forsake his saints.”
Destruction passages often make us uncomfortable, and they should, because not even God delights in the death of the wicked as Peter reminds us in his 2nd letter:
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9
But it should also make us hope. One day, sin, evil, corruption, suffering, wickedness, death itself, will no longer be a part of life. Those who dwell in these things, those that remain in opposition to God, the giver of life, will be judged by God, and they will fade like grass, they will be consumed, and only those found to be righteous will abide in abundant peace.
This was the paradigm shift for me that I was talking about – I can now picture the hope that we have and I can also find hope in the most uncomfortable bits of the bible. God is just, his justice will prevail, and I can find peace knowing that his justice will prevail and I need not fret over every injustice, especially those I have no power or influence to change.
I can also know that God’s judgement is not as a torturer, keeping the wicked around forever in painful flame, but his eternal punishment is the eternal fire that consumes and makes an end of sin forever. This is repeated in Jesus’ teaching in John 3, that famous verse,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”.
This then leads us on to the next question – who are the wicked and who are the righteous? A third question that I will conclude with is where Jesus fits in.
The wicked, according to the Psalm, are those who are so offended by the righteous that they ‘gnash their teeth’ at them. This isn’t a sign of pain as many have read into Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 13 where he uses this same phrase about those who are judged as enemies of God, but a sign of anger, an attitude that leads to plotting against the righteous. Those who are wicked will oppress the poor and needy, they are the opposite of generous, hoarding even that which they have borrowed and they will promote themselves, spreading out like a tree even if it means being ruthless and unethical.
Do you know anyone like this? It is easy to look at others, especially those in positions of power and influence, those who seem to have it all despite living with no conscience.
But how do the righteous respond? There is a place for seeking justice but that is not what the Psalmist is talking about here. He is talking about the anger and frustration that, if you are in any way like me, leads to a rant on social media using it as a soap box to call out the injustices. It generally doesn’t lead to much other than making other people angry.
The righteous are to not fret about the wicked. Don’t get yourself or others worked up by another’s misdeeds. Don’t be envious of those that seem to be able to prosper from unethical means. Take responsibility for yourself. We see this also in Jesus’ teaching on the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7, that we are so quick to point out the specks in other people’s eyes while having a log in our own eye. To not fret over the wicked is to take responsibility for your own walk and focus on the promises that God has given us but also to focus on doing what righteous people do. David says several things that the righteous do,
They trust in the Lord.
They do good.
They dwell in the land.
They delight in the Lord.
They commit their way to the Lord.
They are still and wait patiently for the Lord.
They refrain from anger and wrath.
They are generous and lend freely.
They keep the law of God in their hearts.
They are meek.
Being meek often gets a reputation for weakness and being a walk-over but we need to look at Jesus for our definition of meekness. The Psalmist says to mark or watch the blameless and upright – Jesus was both so we can learn from him. Jesus had the power to command legions of angels but chose to let himself be arrested, tortured and executed because he chose to follow the way given to him by God and in being obedient in giving up his life he conquered death. Meekness is not acting out of anger or vengeance but committing our way to God rather than choosing our own path. It has also been defined as 'strength under control' but you don't have to be strong to be meek. Meekness comes from acknowledging even the way that you could go if you were strong is not as good as God's way.
What does being meek look like for us today? Let’s go back to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5. What does Jesus say about what makes someone liable for judgement? It isn’t just about those who slay or oppress others, but Jesus shows that righteousness means not even calling someone a fool in anger or looking at someone with desire.
Jesus shows that not one of us are righteous enough to gain access to the restored creation in the condition we are in. His mission on earth was to save his people and forgive them of their sins. The apostle Paul, who wrote many of the books in the New Testament, highlights the very earliest Christian teachings that through repentance and baptism, a follower of Jesus dies to themselves and becomes alive by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul uses the imagery of slavery to argue that all were slaves to sin but now we become slaves to righteousness and at the end of this argument in Romans 6 he says,
“When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Being meek means that while we have the power to choose our own way, we instead choose the way of Christ even if that means persecution, personal sacrifice, or even death.
We choose to have mercy, to show kindness, to love our enemies – even those we deem wicked - and pray for them.
We speak truth in love, not scoring points in a debate, but winning people over to see that the kingdom of heaven is wherever God’s people live like Jesus commands us to.
We choose to be generous so that not only can those who join us within the church congregation be blessed and not be begging for bread (as the Psalmist says) but that even the little we have blesses the community around us.
We trust that when we are falsely accused or our reputation brought into question because of Jesus, that God will vindicate us and not leave us condemned.
We live like this because we know that God rescued us even when we were his enemies, and that God continues to show grace and forgiveness to us even when fail to love as he commands. Salvation comes from our God, he is our refuge and deliverer.
So where do we go from here?
For some of you, it might be that you need to do what the Psalm says and commit your way to the Lord. You have not taken responsibility for your walk with Jesus, instead you are relying on the faith of parents or spouse or friends or even the routine of coming to church to be able to call yourself Christian. It is time you committed to following the way of Jesus and becoming meek by submitting your own life to Jesus’ calling. If this is you, I’d love to talk with you after the service because this is a lifelong journey, not just one prayer.
For others of you, going from here means you need to wrestle with scripture. The teaching today on God’s judgement has possibly raised some big questions, maybe of my understanding of scripture which I am more than happy to hear critique on, but it is necessary and right for you to dig into the word of God and test what I’m saying. I pray it has brought more clarity and light rather than confusion and disagreement. You can find a seminar on Hell on our YouTube channel from a café theology we did where we do a deeper dive into scripture and the various views found within the church.
For many of us we need to respond with repentance for where we have failed to trust God, where we have failed to do good or even where we cannot seem to delight in who God seems to be due to whatever is happening in our lives.
So lets do that, lets take a moment to recommit to trusting and delighting in our God who vindicates the righteous and promises abundant peace and a heritage that will outlast death for those who take refuge in him.
For all my research behind heaven and hell, start here: