Literary analysis of psalm 37 – So shall you delight in the Adonai, and He will give you what your heart desires.

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Song 37, a song of comfort; seemingly composed by a parent for his children, a grandparent for his grandchildren –certainly by an old man (one who identifies himself in verse 25 as “A youth I was, and have become old”) whose purpose is to instill hope in those who will follow him. Most likely, however, since the singer is David (v. 1), it is his, the old king’s, legacy to his people.

The song is framed in an acrostic. Each Hebrew letter, in order, begins two consecutive verses, but for the letters dalet (ד), chet (ח), and kaph (כ), which begin but one verse each (v. 7, 20, 34). The one letter omitted from the alphabet is ayen (ע), which, interestingly, is also the Hebrew word for “eye” (עין). But, in fact, it is not necessary to include it, for the “eye” in the song is David’s, and its perception is of God’s guardianship. David is thus a witness – the word itself appears three times (v.25, 35, 37) — the one who, now old, creates wisdom out of experience; who is at once composer, observer, and participant: witnessing, recording, and sharing in his people’s story.

The song follows a repetitive pattern, formed of three statements –that the wicked will not triumph but will, instead, wither away; that the listeners to the singer’s words need to be patient and trust in God and know they will be blessed; that the singer himself is voicing the wisdom that time and experience have given him. Though the order of the statements remains constant, the number of verses devoted to each varies. Nonetheless, the pattern repeats at least 7 times within the song. And though the wicked are quite simply that, wicked, the upright ones, who are their opposites in both qualities and acts, are identified in several ways –as those who “hope in Adonai” (v. 9); as “the humble” (v.11), “the man of wholeness” (v.37), those “cleansed of offenses” (v.18); those “blessed” by Adonai (v. 22); as the “devout” (v. 28), and, most often, “the righteous” (v.16, 17, 21, 25, 29, 30, 32 and 39).

Throughout the song, the singer connects the quality of goodness with the land of Israel (v. 3, 9, 11, 22 and 34); whereas the wicked are described as grass that, although it be green, will inevitably cease to flourish and will soon decay (v. 2, 20). In contrast, the upright will, the song repeatedly assures, “inherit the land” (v. 9, 11, 22, 29, 34).

The Psalm begins with the phrase “Do not be goaded” (v. 1), an admonition that is repeated in verses 7 and 8.The act of goading is insidious and, perhaps for that reason, warned against so particularly: in provoking a response in his victim, the goader causes him to participate in his own defeat; to give up, accordingly, his free choice. Verse 1 follows its admonition with another: “do not be jealous” of the unjust, for “like the grasses, they will quickly dry out” (v. 2), their very sprouting leading to their wilting away. Instead, the singer counsels,

Trust in Adonai, and do good.

                                                               Dwell in the land, and shepherd faith. (v. 3)

In so doing, those who take the singer’s advice will not only escape the fate of the wicked, but they will transform the condition of animality the goaders would have inflicted on them: rather than being goaded as driven animals are (a “goad” being a sharp stick used to drive animals), they will themselves “shepherd faith” (v.3). The assurance is, moreover, that those who both trust in God and do good –thought and act together– will not only be given their “heart’s desires” (v. 4), but will be granted justice:

and He will bring forth your righteousness like the light

                                                                and your justice like the midday. (v. 6)

The image implies that the natural world itself is configured according to the principle of justice.

Though certainly the themes are repetitive, the comparisons and the images are varied. “Let go of anger, and leave behind fury” (v. 8) contrasts the stillness that it advocates –“Be quiet before Adonai” (v. 7)– with the bitterness and hatred of the wicked man who “gnashes” his “teeth” against the just (v. 12), the goader become the animal. His violence is portrayed as an unsheathed sword and a tautly drawn bow (v. 14), yet the “abundant wholeness” (v. 11), the stillness, of the just will have a power that derives from the laughter of God:

The Master will laugh at him [the wicked man],

                                                                  for He saw that his day will come. (v. 13)

For then,

Their sword will come into their own hearts

                                                                   and their bows will be broken. (v. 15)

The anger and violence of the wicked implode.

Moreover, “the days of those who are perfect” will be of an inheritance, an “estate”,  that lasts “for all time” (v. 18), and, “in the days of hunger they will be satisfied” (v. 19). Their sustenance, without limit, is the opposite of that of “the enemies of Adonai”, for they, “like the choicest of succulents” –will “be extinguished”, as though “in smoke” (v.20). The image repeats that of verse 2 (the drying of the grasses) but adds the connotation of ashes: insubstantial and unable to thrive. The flourishing of the righteous is re-imagined in verses 25, 26 and 28: their “seed” will be nourished (v. 25), will be “blessed” (v. 26) and “guarded” (v.28), but “the seed of the wicked” will be “cast off” (v. 28). The imagery makes vivid the promise that, unlike the brief season of earth’s flowering (the brief tenure of the wicked ones’ power), the seed of the righteous –the generations they will birth– will reap a future continual.

The reason for the flourishing is stated explicitly in verse 30: “The mouth of the righteous will speak wisdom’s logic and his tongue will utter justice” (v. 30) because the “Torah of his God is in his heart” (v. 31). The very organs of the bodies of the upright –their mouths, tongues, hearts (v.30 and 31) – give form to a cluster of images, appropriately following upon the repeated promise of their vital seed, that are the opposite of the violent images of the bodies of the wicked, whose teeth gnash (v. 12), whose eyes scout out their prey (v. 32); their fate predicted in verse 17 which describes the loss of their physical power – their strong “arms” broken – in contrast to that of the righteous who are upheld, supported, by God. The images of blessings are set off by the two verses in which David emphasizes that his words sound his experiences (v. 25, 35); that his wisdom is forged out of his years, out of his very life.

The song closes with a reiteration that the upright will inherit the land (v. 34); though the wicked tyrant’s power might seem to be vigorous (v.35), that thriving is but an instant in time:

Yet, it passed, and, behold, he is not.

                                                                I asked for him, but he was not found. (v. 36, echoing v. 10)

The only “future” is that of “the man of wholness” (v. 37); only his will be the rooted seed, only his progeny the earth’s inheritors. Moreover, that future will be one of wisdom and justice (v. 30) as well as of surety, of peace (v. 37). The final 2 verses separate the righteous from the wicked, their fates divergent and irreconcilable: the just will be freed from the wicked by Adonai, their shelter and protector (v. 40).


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