Note: This is an edited manuscript from the sermon I preached at Calvary Baptist Church on June 6th, 2010.

Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!

For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
– Psalm 37:1-7

Opening Thought

While I was in college I worked at an after-school program at my home church. I was one of the counselors over the 5 year-old boys and girls. We had about 20 kids. At about 3:15 everyday there would be a knock on our class room door. And all the kids knew what it was. The excitement was unbearable for some of them. They knew that the snack cart had arrived. On this snack cart was every candy[1] you can imagine. Every day, this was the most anticipated moment – all the kids had their change ready to purchase their hearts desires!

There was always one kid who did not have money when the snack cart arrived. Most of the time it was because this kid’s parents would send him to after-school with a zip lock bag that had a small snack in it. It was always something that no other kid, in the class, possibly in the world, wanted – like ‘wheat oat bran flakes.’ You need to imagine this kid trying to trade his ‘cardboard’ flavored cereal for his favorite flavored skittle. – Not going to happen.

Well, on one of these particular days this poor kid’s emotions were running high. Here he was eating cereal that tasted like cardboard when everyone else was enjoying the sweetest of candies. So, logical response for a 5 year old – he broke out crying – declaring that he ‘hated his snack’, and that ‘it wasn’t fair that everyone else could have candy.’ Me being the wise and compassionate counselor I was, leaned over and looked him in the eyes and as lovingly as I could said – kid, “life is not fair.” Like that was going to make his cardboard taste like skittles. Even though the words “life is not fair” are true – they don’t always taste good. Especially when life is hard and everyone around you seems to be doing wonderful.

Three Hypothetical Situations

I am going to give you three hypothetical situations – three situations that I want you to place yourself in. I think this will help us draw out the emotions we need to deal with this morning, the emotions that King David is dealing with in Psalm 37.

  1. Work: Let’s imagine that you devote your life to work – you sacrifice your time and effort to do the best you can at your job. You’ve done this for years and years. A position opens up in your company that would pay more, and get you higher on the latter of success. It’s a position you feel like you would thrive in. A few weeks go by, and the leadership announces that someone else was offered the position. What makes it worse is that to co-worker that got the job, in your opinion – does not work as hard as you. Is less than honest in their business dealings – and is, in your opinion, extremely arrogant and rude. Would that bother you? Why would that bother you?
  2. Relationships: Let’s imagine that you are single. You have a friend of the opposite sex that you have known for a long time, in fact you two do a lot of things together, You really enjoy the time you have with this person. In fact, you start to wonder if you are falling in love with this friend. Well, your friend meets ‘that special someone’ and eventually gets married. What makes it hard is that the person they are marrying does not like you that much. And to be honest, you don’t think they go that well together anyway. But, that does not matter – it’s done, and here you are, you are still single. Would that bother you? Why would that bother you?
  3. Self Image: Let’s imagine that you feel down abut yourself – Perhaps you are not as pretty or good looking as someone else. Your not as fashionable as someone else. Your not as fit as someone else. You are not as smart as someone else. Your not as achieved as someone else. You always find yourself feeling inadequate or ashamed about who you are when you are around others. What makes it worse is that all the people who seem ‘so beautiful’ on the outside, are so mean and rude. Do these types of things ever bother you? Why, ultimately, do these things bother you?

When things like this happen it stirs up emotions within us. These emotions are often stronger[2] when the people who stir them up within us are people we don’t like. I believe the Psalmist is dealing with in Psalm 37. I believe we can learn a lot about ourselves – what makes us do what we do? What drives us? I would argue that our emotional struggles reflect is our deepest desires. More importantly, they reveal our deepest questions about God.[3]

Intro to Psalm 37

Psalm 37 is a wisdom psalm. So, what we have in this Psalm is instruction, ‘ancient curriculum’[4] for the development of wisdom for everyday living. To help your imagination here, glance at verse 25 where the psalmist King David says, “I have been young, and now am old.”

The picture being painted here is that we are sitting under the teaching of an older, wiser man, much more than that, a King. Wisdom Psalms are simply a series of observations about life[5] – this Psalm is not a tightly outlined argument, but a poem that imparts wisdom. David wrote this Psalm in such a way that the Israelites could learn its contents by heart – in the Hebrew it follows a certain rhythmic pattern that makes it easily remembered.[6] This allows for easy recall when needed in day to day living. In this Psalm David deals with some of the deepest issues wrestled with in the human heart – mortal life and eternity, wisdom and folly, and reward and punishment.[7] The treasure of wisdom found in this Psalm is well worth plunging into the depths of God’s Word and letting it expose our hearts and actions.[8]

Psalm 37:1-7

In verses 1-2 David is saying ‘do not allow yourself to become heated, to boil inside because of others’ – namely others who get what you want, or what you think you deserve.[9] So, the warning in verse 1, not to “fret yourselves”, is in the context of ‘envy.’ Do not burn with envy!

Let’s explore this for a moment. What is envy? What causes it? What does it reveal? Well, envy is somewhat complex. John Piper helped me understand the different layers of envy by unpacking it like this:[10]

  1. Envy has an element of ‘desire’: Envy has an element of desire in it. When you envy someone, they have obtained something or experienced an advantage that you want for yourself. So you envy someone when they have something you desire. This is not always a bad thing, we can envy someone’s faith.
  2. Envy has an element of ‘resentment’: This is what makes envy bad. The envy talked about here in Psalm 37 is envy mixed with resentment. In other words, you are burning with bitterness because something is going so well for someone else, and not for you.

So, the underlying reason we develop resentful envy is desire, desire mixed with resentment towards someone else. Back to my illustration “three situations” – why would you desire that job, a spouse, better looks?

I believe we desire to obtain certain things because we believe they will give us fulfillment or satisfaction, we need them to obtain our idea of ‘the good life.’ We are all on this quest, this quest to obtain satisfaction and fulfillment, ‘the good life’, and we pursue it without ceasing.[11]

Now, here is where we are faced with the terrible reality of human sinfulness. This is where it gets ugly – where our sinful hearts are most revealed. Envy reveals that deep down; ultimately, we are at war against each other to obtain these things. We are in a never-ending competition with one another. See, when we burn with envy we are enraged in battle against others who are keeping us from getting what we want – keeping us from obtaining the ‘good life.’

  1. And what makes the situation even worse is that we live in a world with limited resources. There is only one job opening, there is only a few good men and women, there is such a little chance that we will look better than someone else.
  2. And even more than that – “life is not fair.” Other people will have better jobs, other people will find a spouse before you do, other people will look better and achieve more than you.

With our attention on the ‘three scenarios’, lets explore them on a deeper level: Work, Relationships, and Self Image. When it came to the hypothetical work situation, let me propose to you that ultimately it was not the job you wanted, it is what the job represented, what the job promised. That could be security, recognition, and value. In the same way, when it came to the relationship situation you were envious of the person who married your friend on a deeper level because of what that relationship represented for you, what the idea of a relationship promises. For many of us relationships promise intimacy, love, and belonging. And finally, when it came to self-image you are envious of others good looks and achievements because their lives, to you, represent and promise worth, acceptance, and happiness.

But in the end, these things will not deliver on their promises. There is always more. We are always left empty searching for fulfillment in the things of this world. I have always loved these words of C.S. Lewis, and they ring true here:

“If I find myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[12]

Now, you may be thinking well what now? I feel like a child with a bag full of corn flakes in the middle of a candy store. If all these things ultimately don’t deliver on their promises. And if we are all at war with each other[13] to obtain these empty things. Where is the hope? The picture here is depravity, war against each other, envy. This is the state of the world, the strategy and aim of every human beings life? If that is the case then the human race is one massive tragedy!

The Beauty of the Gospel

But, there is a God and He came into this fallen world amongst warring men. And He surrendered His own life, instead of warring with us, instead of joining the battle for the things that will not satisfy, he surrendered His life in order to freely give us that which will satisfy the deepest desires of our souls.

  • In Christ we find True love
  • In Christ we find Eternal security
  • In Christ we find Ultimate intimacy
  • In Christ we find Overflowing happiness
  • In Christ we find Unbiased belonging

The other things we try to find our fulfillment in fade in light of this glorious truth. Jesus gave his life so that we could have the deepest desires of our hearts satisfied – in Him forever. That is the beauty of the gospel.

If you are not a believer I call you to believe the gospel – the good news of Jesus. Place your faith in Jesus as the only one who can satisfy the deepest desires of your heart. Repent of your sinfulness and turn to delight in Christ and the Savior of your soul! For those of you who are already believers – let’s take off the Sunday morning mask for a second. It is quite possible that there are some of you in here who are:

  1. In Denial – “I don’t have a problem with envy.” If this is you, you are probably blind to your own self-righteousness. Remember the words of the Apostle John, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” While you may be saved from the penalty of sin, while on this earth you have not been delivered from the reality of sin yet. There are going to be times when you see resentful envy boil up in your heart.
  2. In Despair – “I cannot stop envying others.” I am always trying my hardest, but I always fail. I don’t understand? When I fail I don’t know what to do – besides loose hope or just despair. Possibly you look at verse 4, “delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart” and realize that every time you envy – it reveals that you really don’t believe that verse. If you did – you would not envy. Again, while you may be saved from the penalty of sin, while on this earth you have not been delivered from the reality of sin yet.

This is why we as Christians need to learn to preach the gospel to ourselves. In other words I am calling you to wage war – not against each other, but against your own deceitful heart. I want to offer you a few strategies for war against unbelief.”

Truths for the Fight to Desire God

1. The things of this world will never satisfy the deepest desires of your heart.

According to verse 2, the things of this world are passing away. So, regardless of how well-off some people seem, they – themselves – are fading.

(2) For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.

This is powerful imagery here. For some in King David’s region of the world this would be a very concrete example – in the Middle East “after the rainy season ends in the late spring, there is a great heat and no precipitation, so that everything green becomes parched and quickly withers.”[14] Therefore, the reasons you might burn with envy against others are fading. Plus, these things they delight in are not lasting, they are superficial and not to be envied, they will one day wither in the blazing heat of God’s glory.

Believe that the eternal delights of God will never end. While the temporary delights of this world will wither like parched plants in the blazing heat of the dessert. So “do not burn inside with envy”, in makes no sense. If we believe this it calls us to continually search our hearts to see which desires rule us – cravings for affection, attention, power, love, security, comfort – and enables us to repent and find God’s grace to change.[15]

2. Only God can satisfy the deepest desires of your heart in the gospel.

(4) Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

One of the most devastating realities about resentful envy, in the case of a believer, is that it reveals that you don’t truly believe this verse. Again, our emotional struggles don’t just reflect our deepest desires – they reveal our deepest questions about God.[16] Is God really good? Can God truly satisfy the deepest desires of my heart?

There are going to be times in your life when it does not seem like God is good – when life in not fair. And this is where resentful envy, if we allow it to become a ‘controlling emotion’[17] will lead us to despair. There is no therapeutic technique that can change hearts. Only God’s Spirit can change hearts. But the Bible tells us that we can describe what rules the heart and speak the truth that convicts and liberates.

Verse 4 tells us that when we “delight ourselves  in the Lord, he will give us the desires of our heart.”

  1. This does not mean he will give us the higher paying job, but security beyond what that job represents in your own mind.
  2. This does not mean he will give us the spouse we desire so much, but love and intimacy that is deeper than any other bring can give.
  3. Delighting in the Lord is not a means to be prettier or more stylish, it is acceptance and belonging deeper than any of these superficial things can give.

I beg you – taste and see that God is good – you will delight in Him. When you delight in Him, He will become the desire of our heart. This is much like conversion. When your eyes are first opened to the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ – it’s like tasting pure water from the fountain of delight in a dry and parched land. But this is also our means for Christian growth. Continue to drink from that fountain. Return to that fountain of ‘living water’ over and over, because it is the only source of delight that will fulfill your deepest desires. When we delight in God, God redirects our desires back to Himself as the only one who can fulfill our deepest longings. If you ever doubt this, remember the words of Saint Paul in Romans 8:32:

“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things..”

With this as your motivation I call you to, as verse 3 says, “trust in the Lord, and do good.” In order to, as verse 5 says, commit your way to the Lord [‘way’ literally means all of your life, every area of it] – you must fight to believe verse 4 – that in God the desire of your heart will be fulfilled. This shows you why you are not to envy, and how to think to fight envy in this fallen world, through the power of the Holy Spirit, as we wait until Christ makes all things new.

3. Because of God’s grace, one day we will fully experience fulfillment.

Why do I say ‘because of God’s grace?’ Well, look at verse 6.

(6) He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.

So, David says commit your way to the Lord, trust Him, He will act. He will bring forth your righteousness, your justice as noonday. The image here is, again, that of bright light, a consuming blaze of sun. God will bring forth His glory to be revealed like the blazing sun at noon, which breaks into the darkness. All sin will be exposed, all evil, all the temporary things of this world will wither like grass.

Now, in Romans 3 – Paul says of the every human: “None is righteous, no, not one…no one seeks for God. no one does good..not even one.” So what is David talking about here in verse 6?

I believe this is God speaking through David and talking about Christ! Later on in Romans 4-6 Paul argues that “the one who places their faith in Christ is justified and counted as righteous.” There will be one day when God eradicates evil. When Jesus divides the clouds and the bright radiance of His glory is going to pierce this dark world. In that moment you will rejoice because you will see God bringing forth – Christ your righteousness, Christ and your justice in all His glory. See, justice prevailed when Christ offered himself as a sacrifice to be slaughtered on the cross for you and I, and when you repent and place your faith in Him, Christ becomes your righteousness. In light of this truth, hold fast to verses 3:

(3) Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.

This idea of dwelling in the land was very important for David’s people. Remember that part of their collected experience involved wandering in the dessert – longing for the Promised Land. And once they got their, they were able to dwell – settle – and rest.

Again, there will be times when you feel like a kid with a bag of wheat oat bran in the middle of a world where everyone is enjoying the sweetest of candies. But you need to remember that your Father has provided a feast of salvation that will satisfy your deepest desires – fulfill your deepest longings. We need to continually dwell in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and rest.  

(7) Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!

  1. By the way, did you know that candy literally means “piece of sugar.”
  2. Jealousy, envy, anger, and hate.
  3. See Dan Allender and Tremper Longman’s book The Cry of the Soul, 41-45.
  4. Peter C. Craigie, WBC, 296.
  5. David is not building a logical, air tight argument – but keeps returning to a number of points through poetic illustration.
  6. Craigie, 297.
  7. Willem A. VanGemeren, EBC, 297.
  8. Take notice of the structure of this Psalm. Each stanza has a group of lines – which indicates a ‘complete thought. For a good introduction to the rhythm, language, and form of the Psalms see volume 1 of John Goldingay’s commentary on the Psalms in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament series, edited by Tremper Longman, pages 37-46.
  9. John Goldingay, BCOT, 519.
  10. See John Piper, When I don’t Desire God, How to Fight for Joy.
  11. See James K. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom.
  12. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.
  13. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” – James 4:1
  14. Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, 129.
  15. See chapter 8, “I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire”, in David Powlison’s book Seeing with New Eyes.
  16. See Dan Allender and Tremper Longman’s book The Cry of the Soul, 41-45.
  17. See Paul Tripp’s book Instruments in the Redeemers Hands.

One thought on “The Impossible Imperatives – Psalm 37

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