Many years ago Don Carson was preaching at a conference here in South Africa, and he told the story of a time he had gone to see Leon Morris toward the end of the latter’s life. Morris had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and by the time Carson went to see him he was well-advanced. The disease had ravaged his body. Carson recalls sitting across from Morris in the home, and asking him whether he felt frustrated that the disease had taken such a toll on him. Forcing the words out, Morris replied, “There is no future in frustration.”
More recently, comedian and actor Robin Williams was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Morris responded in faith; Williams responded in frustrated despair and took his own life.
Psalm 37:1–11 is an antidote to such despair. Three times in these verses, we are told, “Do not fret” (vv. 1, 7, 8). The word translated “fret” literally means “to be warm” or “heated,” and speaks of agitation or anger. It is used for the first time in Scripture in Genesis 4:5–6 of Cain’s anger at God’s rejection of his faithless offering. We might say that the term speaks of faithless frustration.
What does this “fretting” look like? It displays itself in an angry disposition to (perceived) injustice or general hopelessness due to hurt. It manifests as bitterness due to suffering. It shows itself in fear of the future. It is frustration from a sense of meaninglessness. Those who “fret” get sinfully worked up. And when you are worked up like that, you cannot worship.
The solution, as I have already suggested, is a good dose of Psalm 37:1–11. Someone has said of poetry, “What the poet learns in suffering he teaches in song.” So here. We will consider these verses under two broad headings.
The Temptation We Face
In vv. 1–2 we read of the temptation we face: “Do not fret because of evildoers, nor be envious of the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb.” The temptation is to look at the obvious rather than at reality, to be angry because of adversity and adversaries. As noted above, the first use of this word in Scripture is in Genesis 4 with reference to Cain’s anger, and that is in the context of worship. The temptation, then, is to lose the centre in our worship.
Why do we fret? We fret because we forget the revelation of reality, because we forget the “end” of evildoers. We fret, ultimately, because we forget God. The challenge, then, is not to forget or fret. If we don’t forget, then we won’t fret.
We should note that to develop of non-fretting mindset usually takes time. David was an old man when he wrote Psalm 37 (see v. 25), and so he wrote out of vast experience. It also takes a good deal of practice through painful experiences. This is evident from the overall context of this psalm, which speaks of thugs, tyrants, the perverse, corrupt and unscrupulous. David had had a lot of practice in his life learning to trust God and not to fret.
Pay attention to God. If you don’t, you may well become jealous of your enemies and irritation and fretting may result.
The Truths We Have
In vv. 3–11, David draws our attention to a number of precious truths that the believer has to help guard him against fretting. We will consider these truths by using names or familiar lines of well-loved Christian songs. These are the songs we must learn to sing in our pursuit of overcoming fretting.
Trust and Obey
The first song we must sing is “Trust and Obey.” David writes, “Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on his faithfulness” (v. 3). Simply put: Remember your calling and stay put. Believer, you were called to obey God; do it! The New Testament is replete with calls to obedience. Consider just two samples:
John 8:30–32—As He spoke these words, many believed in Him. Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Philippians 2:12–13—Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.
The word “trust” means “to flee for refuge.” It speaks of confidence and certainty. To “dwell” means “to permanently remain.” Dwelling in “the land” is here a euphemism for remaining in the will (Word) of God. When we face hardship, we are tempted to run outside of the “borders.” That is, we are tempted to respond in kind. When others hate us, we are tempted to hate them. When others badmouth us, we are tempted to do the same. When our spouse mistreats us, we are tempted to return the favour. Worse, we can be tempted to stay one step ahead of them, to return more than what we are given. This psalm urges us to a different approach.
David urges us to “feed on His faithfulness.” The term “feed” is a shepherding term, which means “to tend” or “to graze.” Figuratively speaking, it can mean “to associate with as a friend.” The idea here is that we ought to befriend faithfulness. In God’s faithfulness, we find safe pasture and we dwell securely. The focus here is strongly on the faithfulness of God. That is why we trust, and our trust is why we obey.
The familiar Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 offers us examples aplenty of this attitude. The men and women in that Hall were men and women who obeyed God because they had confidence in His character. They knew God, and therefore they trusted Him enough to obey Him. Similarly, when we are tempted to despair we need to know our God. As another songwriter put it,
When Satan tempts me to despair,
and tells me of the guilt within,
upward I look and see Him there
who made an end to all my sin.
Are you tempted to find refuge in alcohol, drugs or pornography? Rather dwell in the land. Pursue the Lord. He is your refuge! Trusting and obeying makes fretting impossible.
Take it to the Lord in Prayer
The second song we ought to sing is, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” particularly the line, “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” Verse 4 reads, “Delight yourself also in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.”
The word “delight” pictures “lounging in luxury.” We must not merely learn about God, but we must lounge in Him. This implies a deep love for and Communion with Him. It implies prayer. If God is our supreme fear object, we will find ourselves communing deeply with him. He will be our continual focus. And, according to this verse, our desires will be granted—because as He is our delight, our desires will be transformed.
When your greatest delight is God, then your desires for revenge and envy will be transformed. You will desire Him rather than desire to be even. When we are under pressure, there is a battle for our hearts and affections—for our centre. Our centre will only hold to the degree that we are centred on the Lord. Jesus was centred on His Father, and He was able to stay focused in the Garden under intense pressure. He was able to desire God’s will rather than His own comfort. When He was crucified, He was able to submit meekly to His Father rather than lashing out in vengeance. Paul was centred on the Lord and, in his adversity, he wrote, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Philippians 4:11).
Jesus fights our sinful pleasures with His true pleasures. Therefore, when it seems as though the centre cannot, hold firmly to your centre. Delight in the Lord and allow Him to transform and thus to grant the desires of your heart.
Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus
The third song we must learn to sing is “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.” David writes, “Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday” (vv. 5–6). We will only do this to the degree that v. 4 is a reality in our lives.
The word “commit” means “to roll.” It can mean to roll away, down or together. The term “way” speaks of a trodden path or a road. The picture is of a journey. We must, then, roll our life’s circumstances onto the Lord. We must give our trials and the evildoers who harass us to the Lord. In this way, we imitate the Lord Jesus,
“who committed no sin,
nor was deceit found in His mouth”;
who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
(1 Peter 2:22–25)
As we commit our way to the Lord, “He shall bring it to pass.” To “bring … to pass” is causative. That is, God will deliberately cause our righteous conduct to be vindicated. There is no room here for passivity.
What trial are your facing? Are you perhaps facing dishonesty in the business world? Unethical medical ethics? A sinful spouse? A compromising church? A slanderer? How are you responding? If you respond with righteousness, the Lord will cause your righteous conduct to be vindicated. He may choose to do it in this life, or He may choose to do it on the final day. Do not allow yourself to be distracted by evildoers. Like Nehemiah, respond, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3).
Hear the Call of the Kingdom
Next, we must sing with vigour, “Hear the Call of the Kingdom.” David writes,
Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him; do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass. Cease from anger, and forsake wrath; do not fret—it only causes harm. For evildoers shall be cut off; but those who wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more; indeed, you will look carefully for his place, but it shall be no more. But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.
Here, we learn that we must rest in the Lord and look to the future. We must not retreat. Evil will not win the day. Therefore, we must stay focused and expect to be fruitful. And if this is our expectation, we must live accordingly.
The term “rest” literally means “to be dumb.” It means “to be astonished” and thus to “hold one’s peace.” David uses similar imagery in Psalm 38: “But I, like a deaf man, do not hear; and I am like a mute who does not open his mouth. Thus I am like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth is no response. For in You, O Lord, I hope; You will hear, O Lord my God” (vv. 13–15).
To “wait patiently” literally means “to twist” or “to whirl.” It speaks of dancing. It is a term that throbs with activity, for to wait patiently is not to wait passively. We must keep silent (“rest”), but while we do so we must keep serving (“wait patiently”). We must keep dancing, for we really do have something to celebrate.
David urges us in the second part of v. 7, “Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass.” This is a recurring theme in the Psalms. We must not fret over the wicked who seem to prosper, for this will not always be the case. Vindication for the righteous is certain. Things will change.
In v. 8, David again urges us to “cease from anger, and forsake wrath; do not fret—it only causes harm.” There is no need to be flustered or frustrated. We must instead be faithful about the future.
“Wrath” speaks of heat, hot displeasure or indignation. Literally, it speaks of flared nostrils. David is urging us not to get all worked up in times of hardship. Rather, we must wait—worshipfully so. If we do not, “it only causes harm.” “Harm” here speaks of evil. If we do not worshipfully wait on the Lord we will become like those we despise. The evildoers will convert us.
It may seem difficult to not fret in times of evil, but David gives us a wonderful promise to cling to in vv. 9–11. As we listen to the promise, we must learn to wait on the Lord (v. 9) and believe the Lord (vv. 10–11).
In v. 9, David assures us that the patient will prosper while the perverse will perish: “For evildoers shall be cut off; but those who wait on the LORD, they shall inherit the earth.” The word translated “cut off” literally means “to chew,” and implies destruction or consumption. To “wait” on the Lord is to look expectantly to Him. To “inherit” means to occupy by driving out a previous tenant. Evildoers may right now seem to occupy the earth, but the righteous will one day occupy it in their place. There is great hope in this verse!
I recently read an article by Carl Trueman titled “A Church for Exiles: Why Reformed Christianity Provides the Best Basis for Faith Today.” I have great respect for Trueman, but I was saddened to see what I perceive to be a sense of negativity on his part. He believes that we, the evangelical church, live in a time of exile. “The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.” The exile in which we live is one of “cultural irrelevance.” He believes that the Reformed faith “provides realistic horizons of expectation for this world.” He acknowledges that “in the past the Reformed faith has been a dynamic force in the public square,” but evidently holds out little hope for this in the future. He expects nothing but “cultural exile,” which “actually confirms our deepest convictions about the way the world is.”
I feel certain that David would differ with Trueman’s perspective. David argues that the righteous will inherit the earth, a claim that Jesus Himself repeated in the beatitudes. Paul did not expect defeat, but believed that we are “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37). The Bible foresees conquest by the gospel in this world, not defeat of the gospel. Biblical Christianity gives us great hope for Christianity in the public square—if only we will believe and obey! This brings us to vv. 10–11.
In these verses, David continues to affirm that the believer will inherit the earth: “For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more; indeed, you will look carefully for his place, but it shall be no more. But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”
The word translated “peace” here is that famed Hebrew word shalom. It describes an overwhelming, all-encompassing sense of wellbeing: happiness, friendliness, prosperity, rest, safety and welfare all rolled into one. It speaks of being full rather than furious. Those who are at peace are favourable rather than fretful. They are fruitful.
Don’t be frustrated; be expectant. As Carey said, expect great things from God and therefore attempt great things for God. Keep dancing and quit despairing. As another missionary wrote, the future is as bright as the promises of God. When the world is against you, respond like Stephen: Fix your gaze firmly on Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father, and live (and die) with hope.
Believer, stop believing the news—most of which is terrible—and start believing the good news. Good, not evil, will win, for Christ has finished His work. Meekness will one day be vindicated.
The title of Charles Wesley’s hymn—“Jesus Shall Reign”—must be our conviction. Therefore, believer, in the face of difficulty, trust and obey, for, after all, it is well with your soul.