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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Psalm 37

On the seventh day of each calendar month, the Book of Prayer assigns Psalm 37 (part 1 &2) for recitation at Evening Prayer. The (St. Benedict) monastic practice of praying through all of the psalms each week (as they gathered for communal prayer seven times throughout the day) has influenced the formation of the Church of England and this is manifest in the Episcopal church. The psalms are also the book of prayer which Jesus would have known and many times He refers to them in His teaching and disputation (and His cry from the Cross, Psalm  22, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?").
Psalm 37 is an alphabetical acrostic. The first word of each verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet (the equivalent of a, b, c, d…), which creates some challenges in word choice. The psalm itself is part of the wisdom writings which might be called theodicy (or the problem of God and evil). The Bible has different streams of thought on this complex issue, and the particular author of this psalm might be said to embrace the belief “God is in charge, so trust Him.”
One recurring theme is the difference between the “righteous” and the “unrighteous.” The Pauline dictate (Romans 3:10 “as it is written there is none righteous, no not one” in reference to Psalm 14:3, Paul knew the psalms too!) is a central tenant of the Christian faith. However, the Biblical revelation is more complex and nuanced than this quote from Paul seems to imply. In Luke, for example, the issue of righteousness is more complicated. For example, Zachariah and Elizabeth (Lk 1:6) both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. In the next chapter Luke 2:25 declares that old Simeon is righteous, and Matthew 1:19 says the same about Joseph! (Others declared righteous are found Abraham in James 2:21 and Noah in Genesis 6:9). Jesus calls Abel righteous (Mt 23:35), says He came to call sinners not the righteous (Mt 9:13) and that God makes sun shine and rain fall on both the righteous and unrighteous (Mt 5:45). In Mt Jesus speaks of the righteous as a group numerous other times (10:41, 13:17, 13:43, 13:49, 23:27, 25:41). There are other similar uses in the Christian Scriptures because it is also a theme of the Jewish Scriptures. That is why we find it present in this Psalm. J. Clinton McCann (The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. 6) “Psalms”, p. 828-9 clarifies: blamelessness connotes not sinlessness but dependence on God…Thus, as in Psalm 1, the righteous are those who do not pursue their own ways but are open to God’s instruction because they recognize God’s sovereignty. James May (Interpretation: Psalms) similarly states (p160) The wickedness of the wicked lies first of all in their enmity toward God (v20), which is evident in their autonomous way of life. They follow their own way and their own schemes…Righteousness is first of all trust… As I have often said, ‘saved by faith’ is a very present revelation of the (so called) Old Testament!
Ps 37 (BCP 633)
Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; do not be jealous of those who do wrong. For they shall wither like the grass and like the green grass fade away.
The "fret" in Hebrew literally means "hot, kindled, heated up in vexation, or incensed" (the Psalmist is saying, "cool it" on anger) and is repeated later v 7&8. The spiritual issue here is the anger which blocks God’s salvation. Anger (based on our own sense of what is fair, what God should do) serves as an internal barrier to the “effectiveness of grace,” the “inflow of the Spirit” and the “fruits of salvation health. The image of withered grass (stereotypical of the Bible) is a declaration of the ultimate demise of the wicked (see Psalm 1).
The belief that the ‘bad guys’ are getting away with something is, in the end, a lack of faith in God. Is God just? Will God redeem? Our offended sense of justice (based on our disappointment with God) means that we are often angry with God. we are angry at others and even ourselves. Our failure to forgive is in part a refusal to believe that God will vindicate us, that He cannot be trusted to do the right thing. It is as if we have decided to “tell” God that He needs to vacate the Throne and let us mete out righteousness. “Burning” about how the “bad guys” are doing fine only cuts us off from the life and love of God. It is a self-imposed exile. Healing happens when we let go our our bitterness and resentment, our anger and unforgiveness--our lack of trust in God.
Put your trust in the Lord and do good, dwell in the land and feed on its riches. Take delight in the Lord, and He shall give you your heart’s desire. Commit your way to the Lord, and put your trust in Him, and He will bring it to pass.
We are saved by God, but faith/trust is the means that that salvation is manifest. Saved by faith is not an activity which earns salvation. Saved by faith is the action whereby we give ourselves into God’s care and concern to receive His saving/redeeming/rescuing love and grace. Trusting God is a foundational attitude (an expression of our base narrative) and what flows out of that is goodness. God is good and those in relationship with God must be good and do the good to others. To imitate God is to be good. To be good is to resonate with His intent at creation (see how often the word appears in Genesis 1!) If we are good where we dwell, we help create the environment to receive the goods. The Hebrew is literally “to shepherd/pasture/graze faithfulness/steadfastness/firmness.” The Good Shepherd is God (Ps 23) who provides for His flock.
Our heart’s desire (He will give, bestow, gift- ‘nathan’) will be realized. We are not self-aware enough to know our heart’s deepest desire. Those who know God is the center and delight in Him will get their heart’s desire. (Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and everything else will be added to you). These verses are the expression of the narrative which I have said we need to embrace. These verses say what we need to know about God. As we open up in trust we receive what He is giving.  

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