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Do Not Fret—Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40

The Politics of Scripture

When we are tempted to anxiety in the face of the success of the wicked, the psalmist reorients us to the Lord.

1 Do not fret because of the wicked;
   do not be envious of wrongdoers, 
2 for they will soon fade like the grass,
   and wither like the green herb. 

3 Trust in the Lord, and do good;
   so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. 
4 Take delight in the Lord,
   and he will give you the desires of your heart. 

5 Commit your way to the Lord;
   trust in him, and he will act. 
6 He will make your vindication shine like the light,
   and the justice of your cause like the noonday. 


7 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
   do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
   over those who carry out evil devices. 


8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
   Do not fret—it leads only to evil. 
9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
   but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. 


10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
   though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there. 
11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
   and delight in abundant prosperity. 


39 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
   he is their refuge in the time of trouble. 
40 The Lord helps them and rescues them;
   he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,
   because they take refuge in him.

There is a sense in this Psalm of a looming menace. After all, if it is important to say “do not fret”—and this exhortation is repeated three times in the small selection for this week’s reading—it would seem for some reason the reader might be inclined to worry. Even if that worry turns out to be ultimately unjustified, something prompts the fear that the writer is addressing.

In this psalm, fear is prompted by the presence and success of the wicked. The phrase “the wicked” is used three times in the passage; “wrongdoers” is used one time; “those who carry out evil devices” are mentioned once; and the wicked are also referred to as “those who prosper in their way.”

The evil mentioned in the psalm is nebulous, undefined, menacing in its very ambiguity. The deeds done are “wrong” and “evil devices,” but there is no concrete charge to lay against these “wicked.” There is no definite plan that can be thwarted, no settled day on which an attack will come, but rather a sense that the wickedness is a cloud that obscures and is itself obscure. In such an environment, what would be more natural than anxiety?

The only hint at the nature of the threat comes in verse 6, which promises that God “will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.”The reassurance of coming vindication seems to imply that false accusations have been made against the righteous.

It is also clear that whoever the wicked are and whatever evil they are doing, they seem to be getting away with it. Those who carry out evil devices “prosper in their way.” While we are told that they will “fade like the grass” eventually, they are presently flourishing so well that the righteous must be warned against envying them (v. 1).

Where the wicked, in their prosperity, are vague, nebulous, distant and threatening, the expectations placed upon God’s people are numerous and detailed. The commands in this psalm can be grouped into two or three categories. There are both negative and positive commands, and the positive commands come in two varieties.

The negative commands are these: do not fret (repeated three times), do not be envious, refrain from anger, forsake wrath. These are the temptations that arise in a world where it seems like there is evil around every corner, especially evil that continues to flourish and grow while the innocent are trampled and the righteous are unjustly condemned.

It is easy to envy the prosperous wicked, imagining how much good we could do if only we, the righteous, had the sort of success that they do. It is easy to be wrathful and angry, to let our frustration and hunger for justice boil over into screeds and rants against all the evil we can find. It is easy, even if we forego envy and anger, to succumb to a state of generalized stress and worry, to a sense of defeat in the face of such overwhelming evil. These are the feelings we are told we should flee, forsake, and abandon.

The positive commands speak both of what we should do, and how we should relate ourselves to God. The commands are to trust in the Lord (two times), do good, delight in the Lord, commit our ways to the Lord, be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for the Lord.

Notice first the emphasis on stillness: “be still” and “wait patiently” push back against the impulse to frantic action which accompanies both worry and anger. Just as we are supposed to refrain from fretful anxiety and from fuming wrath, we are supposed to actively seek a state of patient stillness as we put our trust in the Lord.

Even more strikingly, the positive commands of this psalm tell us that we should orient ourselves and our lives to the Lord. Notice how many of the commands end with some sort of phrase about the Lord: trust in the Lord, delight in the Lord, commit your way to the Lord, be still before the Lord, wait patiently for the Lord. To do this, we would have to be consistently thinking about the Lord. In other words, the focus of our mind should not be on the wicked but on God and his promises.

In this, we are being taught how to forsake wrath and worry. It is hard simply to stop thinking about something that troubles us, or to stop feeling anxiety about the world around us; something has to take the place of the thoughts we are trying to stop. The best way to leave wrath and envy and worry behind is to find something new to which we can turn. When we fill our minds with God and his promises, and focus on dedicating our actions to him, we find that it is much easier to abandon what should be abandoned.

The promises that God makes in this psalm relate both to the eventual fate of the wicked and to the fate of the righteous. The wicked will “fade” and “wither” like grass and herbs; they will be cut off; they will be “no more”—eventually even invisible to history. Their end, as they vanish into nothing, is fitting when compared with their threat as seen in the rest of the psalm. They begin as a looming cloud, and they will simply vanish in the light of God’s vindication.

The righteous, on the other hand, will “live in the land, and enjoy security.” God will give them “the desires of [their] heart.” They will “inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” One reason that the righteous have no need to envy is that all the prosperity that the wicked enjoy for a moment is promised to God’s people as their secure inheritance.

Not only is the prosperity of the wicked temporary, so is their apparent success in persecuting the righteous. God promises that he will act, and will vindicate his people. If God is on our side, there is no need to whip ourselves up into a frenzy of anger against the injustice of the wicked.

What this psalm gives us, in other words, is an ethos of Christian citizenship in troubled times. It may seem like the wicked are prospering. News headlines and social media feeds push us into a state of generalized, but nebulous, unease. Maybe we are not doing enough to fight injustice? Should we be sharing more, raising more awareness, speaking out, doing something, adding one more post to the hashtag, if that will even do anything?

It seems like the powerful are the powerful, and when they pass wicked laws or say wicked things we have nothing that can stop them. And we want to be able to stop them ourselves; if only we were in power, if only we had the kind of success they have, then the world would start to go right again.

In the face of this, the psalmist calls us to refocus our attention. We should cultivate a patient and courageous stillness. This stillness may mean, for some, a decision to stay out of the political fray entirely (although obeying the command to “do good” will probably at some point lead to conflict in the political realm). For those who are actively engaged in shaping political life, this psalm instructs us to participate with a particular attitude.

Much of activism is built around creating a sense of desperation in ourselves and others; the exhortation here is that we should not act like those who have no hope. We should orient our lives to God; instead of compulsively reacting to each new apparent victory of evil in the world, we should anchor our hope to the Lord who has promised that he will act and will vindicate our cause.

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