YEAR C: EPIPHANY 7
(Sunday between February 18 and February 24 )
Psalm 37: 1-11, 39-40
Psalms 35 and 36 are conventional lament psalms where the psalmist seeks the Lord’s help in some difficult situations. In them the psalmist struggles against enemies and seeks to praise Yahweh (e.g. Ps 35:1-26) calling on the community to join that praise (35:27-28). In Ps 36:5-9 the psalmist either recalls some past deliverance or pronounces their trust in Yahweh (Ps 36:5-9). However, with Psalm 37 there is a definite change of context. Psalm 37, another acrostic psalm with each set of two verses beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, begins with a single voice speaking to an undesignated individual. This continues through v. 11. In the section not included in today’s reading (vv. 12-38) there is a long list of reflections, many proverbial in nature. They form an anthology or collection of verses on the punishment of sinners and the reward of the just. There is no logical development in the ideas within this section of the psalm. The verses are meant to be instructional, calling people to lead a righteous life.
There are no historical or cultural references to indicate a clear date for the writing of the psalm although it does have an interest in the possession of the land (vv. 3, 9, 11, 22, 29, 34). Possession of the land is the reward for obedience (vv. 11, 29). Life in the land is the way of obedience (v. 3). This fits well with the context of the Old Testament reading from Genesis 45 with the Israelites about to commence their stay in Egypt, after which they will journey to the Promised Land. The related themes of waiting and trusting on the Lord are prominent in Psalm 37 (vv. 3, 5, 7, 9, 34). While the content of the psalm could suggest it was written late in Israel’s history, it is certainly not out of place alongside Genesis 45.
The psalm contains echoes of much earlier psalms, at least earlier in the final collection. Psalm 37 takes up the sentiments of Ps 1:6 (cf. 37:28b) and develops them in one particular way. The material and physical reward of the righteous and the destruction of the wicked are seen as imminent (vv. 3-4, 5-6, 11, 19, 23-24, 25-26 etc.). These verses immediately raise questions for us. Do the faithful always receive their needs and the wicked always perish? Are the righteous never forsaken and do not their children beg for bread in many places? These questions will only be addressed much later (especially in Psalm 73). In some ancient communities, especially the Qumran or Dead Sea Scrolls community, the psalm was read eschatologically, that is, in terms of a distant future when the words of the psalm would be fully endorsed. In the meantime there is at least encouragement for the righteous in their struggle expressed at the end of the psalm (Ps 37:39-40) which is where our reading concludes. There is also an allusion in v. 13, where Yahweh laughs at the wicked, to Yahweh’s laughter at the kings of the earth plotting against him and his anointed in Ps 2:4). This draws a strong connection in the psalm back to King David. It is not clear.
The basic message of the psalm is conveyed by the overall effect of the collection of statements rather than by any developed argument. The psalmist believes the world is rightly ordered and that the Lord does indeed reward the righteous and punishes the wicked. The verses selected for today avoid the awkward questions which are raised by some verses in the psalm. In preaching from the psalm, however, it would seem less than honest to overlook such awkward questions, or to ask whether a surface reading of this psalm is not a little naive? Do the faithful always receive their needs and act in the way the psalm suggests (e.g. v. 26)? Do the wicked always perish? We are left asking whether we can accept the theology found in this psalm? In fact, a number of Old Testament writers asked the same question. Trust in the Lord and waiting for him proves in life to be much more complex than the psalm might seem to suggest. It offers a great opportunity to raise such issues.
Suggestions for use of the psalm in worship
A number of the verses set for today would go well introducing the benediction at the end of the service, especially vv. 3-7.
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