My first reading of Psalm 37 quickly left me confused. I don’t mean to say the words were incomprehensible, rather, I found the structure to be elusive. Being somewhat persistent, I studied and consulted commentaries to find some insight, but most of them said that other than it being an acrostic Psalm 37 has no discernible structure. Given that nearly every other psalm has a clear outline or an orderly progression of thought, I was not willing to concede this psalm to be any different. After reading a few more books and spending additional time in the psalm, I stumbled upon what I think to be a possible structure for this psalm.
As a result, instead of my usual meditations on a psalm, I’ve chosen to present a brief introduction to the outline I think forms the structure of Psalm 37 before offering some concluding comments. I hope you are willing to approach this psalm with new eyes and then provide some feedback on this broad outline should you feel so led.
There seems to be three themes present in Psalm 37: 1) the ultimate end of the wicked, 2) the inheritance of the righteous, and 3) an encouragement to follow in the Lord’s way of righteousness. (I will be using italics, underlining, and bold type to delineate between the three main themes in the psalm). I believe these three main themes are structured in Psalm 37 the following way:
The Psalmist opens by telling us the three main themes of his psalm:
1) We should not worry about the wicked for they will fade away (1-2)
2) But we should trust in the Lord for he gives us a good inheritance (3-4)
3) Therefore, we should commit our way to God’s righteousness (5-6)
The Psalmist then expands on each of these three themes in more detail:
1) He describes how the evildoers will be punished and tells of their eventual demise (7-20)
2) He describes how God chooses to bless the righteous (21-29)
3) He then asks us to follow God’s wisdom because God will not abandon you (30-33)
As a transition between the main body of the psalm (7-33) and the conclusion (35-40), the Psalmist provides a summary of all three themes in a single transition verse:
We should keep the way of the Lord, because we will receive a good inheritance, and the wicked will perish (34)
Finally, the Psalmist concludes psalm 37 by restating the three main themes in order:
1) Remember the eventual end of the wicked (35-36)
2) And the future of the righteous (37-38)
3) So keep the Lord’s righteousness as your source of help and strength (39-40)
If this outline is anywhere close to being correct, I think the original Israeli audience would have seen this as God’s promise to reinstate the promised land as long as they did not abandon the ways of the Lord and become lawless, like the wicked. We must, however, keep in mind this promise is specific to Israel. Our land, unlike the land given to the Israelites, is not a land of promise, we do not live in territory carved out by God, and we are not a chosen people: most people reading this post are Americans living in the United States.
However, with that being said, we should not be dissuaded in recognizing the truth of this Psalm. There are many evildoers surrounding us and we must realize their end is like the fading grass. It is often difficult to not be overwhelmed and tempted to join them in their ways, but nonetheless, we should patiently wait on the Lord because it is only from him that we will receive a righteous inheritance and only by him will justice will come.
I imagine the Israelites gathered together after hearing this psalm and sang of their hope in that which was to come. But I also imagine when they dispersed back to their houses and their fields, the places where they were no longer free, they asked themselves when God’s promises might actually be fulfilled. They lived a long time in exile waiting to return to the promised land and when they finally did return, they found themselves living under the hands of another ruling nation. I could be wrong, but I imagine this tested their trust and patience.
It is with the struggles of the Israelites in mind that realize being righteous does not guarantee immediate blessings nor does it guarantee the demise of the wicked. We, like the ancient Israelites, live in a time when the green grass of the wicked rarely shows signs of drying up like chaff and getting blown away by the wind. Even so, when times are confusing and we await God’s eventual and final justice, we must persist and take refuge in the Lord, for that is what trust means: in times of trouble we do not abandon our Lord.