When Evil Seems to Win (Ps 37)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached December 11th, 2022*

In 1835, the 22 year old Mary Longfellow, the wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, experienced a complicated miscarriage 6 months into her pregnancy that tragically resulted in her death. After eight lonely years of wrestling with depression, Henry married Frances Appleton, and they experienced 18 years of happy marriage, having six children together. Then, in 1861, while sealing letters with hot wax, Frances’ dress caught on fire. Henry rushed into the room, attempting to extinguish the flames first with a rug and then with his own body, but he was too late; his wife died the next morning from her burns. Henry was so badly burned himself that he was unable to attend her funeral, and was forced to grow a long beard to cover his scarred face. Henry entered a dark, dark season of depression, experimenting with opium to self-medicate, to shut his brain off from the grief. In a journal, a year later, he wrote on Christmas Day, “A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

The following Spring, in March of 1863, Henry’s eldest son, Charles, joined the Union Army against his father’s will, eager to fight for the righteous cause of the North in the Civil War. Henry was a staunch abolitionist, but had reservations about the brutality of the war being fought against fellow countrymen. And by the end of 1863, at the battle of the Mine Run Campaign, Charles was shot through the chest.

While waiting to hear if his son would live or die, Henry thought of the great bruise that his life had been and questioned why the Almighty would allow such events. His son miraculously survived, but it was uncertain whether he would remain paralyzed for the rest of his life. Why would God permit this? Why let the country be torn asunder by the evils of slavery and horrors of war? As he sat by his son’s bedside, on December 25th, Henry heard the Christmas bells ringing outside and reflected on the promise of Christ’s birth from Luke 2:14, “peace on earth and goodwill to men.” The music of the bells stirred something in Henry, and he grabbed and pen and wrote these famous words:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The poem, which would be later set to music, reflects on the hope of Christmas: the promise of peace on earth, good-will to men. But Longfellow then contrasts that with the calamity of the current war which had led to many families being deprived of their sons:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

If Christmas is the promise of peace on earth, then why do we seem to be in such short supply? If Jesus arrived as the king, why do so many refuse him? And what do we do when it seems like evil is winning? This is what Psalm 37 addresses.

1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
2 For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.
3 Trust in the LORD, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
4 Delight yourself in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.
7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
9 For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land
and delight themselves in abundant peace.
12 The wicked plots against the righteous
and gnashes his teeth at him,
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that his day is coming.
14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose way is upright;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.
16 Better is the little that the righteous has
than the abundance of many wicked.
17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
but the LORD upholds the righteous.
18 The LORD knows the days of the blameless,
and their heritage will remain forever;
19 they are not put to shame in evil times;
in the days of famine they have abundance.
20 But the wicked will perish;
the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

–       Ps 37:1-20

This psalm (which carries on for 40 verses!) is an acrostic poem. Each stanza begins with the successive letters of the alphabet. This is something done elsewhere in the Bible (Ps 119; Prov 31:10-31) to convey comprehensiveness on a subject, an “A-Z” on whatever it is talking about. The subject at hand here in Psalm 37 is how God’s people should respond to the seeming triumph of the wicked. What should we do? Time won’t permit to talk about everything in this psalm, so we will limit ourselves to looking at two options for what we can do when it seems that evil is winning the day:

The Typical Path (and Why It Isn’t Worth It)

The first option we have is the natural response someone has when someone else is doing something they don’t like.

Three times in this psalm we are told “Fret not”

Fret not yourself because of evildoers. (Ps 37:1)

Fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! (Ps 37:7)

Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. (Ps 37:8)

The CSB translates “fretting” as “agitation.” The Hebrew word here (חרה) is usually used in reference to the kindling of a fire. So, the word picture is that of getting yourself heated, worked up, frustrated, like each grievance you have is another log on the fire. And, like a fire, this agitation grows, till it consumes you in a cold fire of bitterness and resentment.

David doesn’t have in mind merely getting worked up over evildoers simply because of their evil. It is rather that they are doing wrong and are prospering because of it. We saw that in verse 7, Fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! But it is repeated over and over again in the whole psalm. The wicked have weapons of war, symbols of power, like bows and swords (37:14). They have “abundance” while the righteous have “little” (37:16). They borrow money but their lack of scruples means they don’t feel any obligation to pay back what they owe, ostensibly giving them even more wealth (37:21). They have power to attempt to punish the righteous (37:32-33) and are compared to the seeming vitality and permanence of a “green laurel tree” (37:35).

If God is a righteous Judge who prescribes a Law for us to follow, promises us that it leads to life and blessing, and violating it leads to death and destruction…why do so many who throw off God’s Law seem to prosper? Why do we have criminals, porn stars, and blasphemers living lives of power, ease, and popularity? In our world today the sacred seems to only exist to be profaned, to be laughed at, to be ironically skewered and used as punchlines. The “inner ring” of sophistication, influence, power, and prestige, in our culture, do not align with Biblical Christianity. Which can lead us into temptations…

Envying

Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers! (Ps 37:1)

One temptation we face when we see the prosperity of the wicked is a secret jealousy. It could be a jealousy of the liberties they enjoy: be it sexual, financial, or ideological. Or it could be simply a jealousy of the prosperity itself: why am I not respected like that? Why don’t my endeavors find success like that? It might even turn into a desire for the kind of reception and popularity that the wicked seem to gain, where we alter our convictions in such a way to try to earn their approval. But, of course, if we do that we reveal that the only real conviction that we have is that we just want people to like us.

Are you ever envious of your non-Christian neighbors? Do your nurse secret jealousies for what they have? If so, consider reading Psalm 73 later today, a companion psalm to the one we are currently studying.

Anger

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. (Ps 37:8)

Another temptation is just anger and outrage. Which is so understandable, is it not? When you see wickedness and evil masquerading around like righteousness, it can feel like the only right thing to do is be angry. But anger that flows from “fretting,” from the agitation and frustration your experience at evildoers, must not be used. I believe there is such a thing as righteous anger, the kind of anger that God feels, but that is an anger that reflects the whole character of God. It is an anger that is not divorced from mercy. It is an anger that is centered on God and His name. Most of the time, that isn’t our anger. Our anger is typically centered on us. We are offended, we are inconvenienced, we are tired of being pushed around. That is the anger of man, and James is very clear that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). You don’t need to the Holy Spirit to be outraged at people you disagree with.

Perhaps the individual drawn to this temptation looks at the individual drawn to envy the evildoers and considers them “squishy,” and what we need is a hard, bristly reaction to the evildoers of the world, to trade barb for barb, blow for blow. And there is a small cottage industry in Christian circles today that are built on inflaming anger and outrage, by fomenting as much frustration in us as possible at the evils of our day. And the evil of our day is considerable! But if we use the fuel of wrath to respond evildoers, we unwittingly become evildoers ourselves, aping the thing we hate.

Why That Path Is a Bad Idea

Rolling around the sour stone of fretfulness in your mouth is typical when you see the prosperity of the wicked, making you jealous, angry, or both. But there is a better remedy that more thoroughly pulls up the root of resentfulness and envy: the wicked won’t last long. This is the overwhelming answer the psalm gives to what the righteous should remember when they chafe under the prosperity of the wrongdoers; we are told at least twelve times in this psalm that God will quickly and thoroughly destroy the wicked (37:2, 9, 10, 13, 15, 17, 20, 22, 28, 34, 35-36, 38). Consider just one image that is used to describe the wicked: the grass of a field,

Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
2 For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.

–       Ps 37:1-2

But the wicked will perish;
the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

–       Ps 37:20

“Before our own sight the mob of hypocrites grows green, blooms and increases until it covers the whole world; they only seem to amount to anything, as the green grass covers and adorns the earth. But in God’s sight, what are they? Hay that is soon to be harvested. The higher the grass grows, the closer are the scythes and pitchforks. Thus the faster the wicked grow and the higher they soar, the closer is their downfall,” (Luther, Four Comforting Psalms for the Queen of Hungary, 1526). 

When a bully sets himself up as a miniature despot on the playground, cruelly punishing those smaller than him, it is a terrible thing. And you could see how the smaller, picked on children could fret themselves over it, could be led to be jealous of the bullies strength, maybe even wish they could earn the bullies approval, or be led to a deep anger and want to just clobber the little tyrant. But if you are a child who is being cornered by the bully, boasting of what he’s going to do to you, but you see that standing just behind him is the principal who has the power and character needed to give this bully exactly what justice deserves, you breathe a sigh of relief. You know that in just a second, the bully is going to receive a tap on the shoulder and all his threats and bravado are going to drain right out of him. So, it is with the wicked before God. 

In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;

though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. – Ps 37:10

Does God’s justice seem slow to you, brother and sister? “What seems slow to you is swift to God; submit yourself to God, and it will seem swift to you as well.” – Augustine 

In a short time, the wicked who seem so prosperous now will perish. In just a little while, the wicked who seem so numerous and vast that they cover the earth, will be hard to find. Scour the earth diligently, but you won’t find them. When is this? In a way, this is referring to the final judgment that will take place at Christ’s second coming where the wicked will be consigned to eternal punishment, and the righteous to new heavens and new earth, where there will be no evil present whatsoever. But, in another sense, this is simply referring to the death of the wicked. The most powerful tyrant in the world can’t beat death. 

There has been only one man who has, and the only way you ever will be able to is by putting your faith in Him. Jesus teaches us:

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11:25-26)

If you believe in Jesus Christ, you will never die. It is the unrighteous who experience the grave. But Jesus has stripped from death its power by dying on behalf of our sins and granting to us His righteousness. So now, death doesn’t come to us. But it does come to the wicked. So, though they seem powerful and vast, in just a short while–20, 30, 40 years–the grave will snuff them out, and the righteous will remain, so fret not yourself.

The Path of Faith (And Why It Is Better)

Trust

Trust in the LORD, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.
7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!

–       Ps 37:3-7

Here we see the basic response of the righteous to prosperity of the wicked: trust in God. And because this is contrasted with fretfulness, that means that faith and fretfulness are mutually exclusive. When evil seems to be winning the day, we must make a choice of taking the path that is typical to this world, or the path of faith. 

We will revisit these verses next week and consider them more thoroughly, but here we see each stanza looks at a different facet of the diamond of faith. True faith gives rise to action (“do good,” 37:3), delight (37:4), confidence that God will act on our behalf (37:5-6), and patience (37:7). And you could see how the prosperity of the wicked could tempt you to abandon all of those. Just take the first of those: We could be tempted to forsake God’s Law that teaches us to love our enemies, to pray for them, to speak with “perfect courtesy to all” (Titus 3:2). What will we do if God tells us to trust him and “do good”, but “doing good” looks like losing the argument because you aren’t willing to use manipulative, ungodly speech? And you see how each of those (doing good, delighting, trusting God to act, and having patience) could be easily abandoned, even for a “righteous” cause of stopping the wicked.

Again, we will look at all of those more thoroughly next week. But let me give you two reasons why the path of faith is far superior to the typical path of fretfulness:

The Righteous Shall Inherit the Land

Seven times in this psalm we are told that the righteous shall inherit the land (37:3, 9, 11, 22, 27, 29, 34; maybe an 8th mention in vs. 18). What is that referring to? It is a reference to the promise God made to Abraham that he and his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan (Gen 12:1, 7; 13:15; 17:8). This is the land that Moses led the Israelites to after the Exodus (Ex 33:1), but were warned that if they broke faith with Yahweh and worshipped other gods, the land would be taken from them (Deut 28), and it eventually was in Israel’s exile. And if this is all David is referencing here, then it would appear that there is little relevance to us since we are not a part of Old Covenant Israel. But there are a few reasons to understand that this promise of inheriting the land means something more than just a thin slice of land on the east end of the Mediterranean.

1.     David was in the promised land when he wrote this. He had inherited it already, so holding forward the future hope of inheriting the land would be like promising an inheritance to those who had already received it.

2.     Jesus cites Psalm 37:11, “the meek shall inherit the land” in His sermon on the mount as one of His beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” (Matt 5:5), which Jesus applies beyond the old covenant people of Israel, but to the new covenant people of the new Israel, the Church.

3.     Hebrews interprets the land promise originally given to Abraham as pointing to something beyond the land: “By faith [Abraham] went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God,” (Heb 11:9-10). What is that city? Hebrews 12:22 makes it unmistakable: the heavenly Jerusalem, the new creation.

So, what does this mean? Consider a strange passing comment that Paul makes, “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours,” (1 Cor 3:21-22). 

But notice, it is the meek who inherit the earth. We do not conquest the world the way the world does.

God Defends His People

In all of the instances that describe the wicked perishing from the earth, it is because God is the active agent behind their destruction. They do not come to an end just by happenstance, but it is God personally responding to their evil for the sake of protecting His people. One of the most potent descriptions is found here:

The wicked plots against the righteous
and gnashes his teeth at him,
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that his day is coming.

–       Ps 37:12-13

The combined powers of the world to destroy the righteous simply cause God to laugh, much like a principal might chuckle to himself as he hears the grandiose and ridiculous boasts of a the schoolyard bully who imagines his power is infinite. And what a great comfort that is for God’s people. The powers of this world are considerable, and can feel terrifying. We hosted a pair of missionaries last year who were serving in China. One day, while the father was picking up his child from preschool he was met by the secret police who escorted him back to his apartment, where they proceeded to confiscate his laptop and hidden documents pertaining to his missionary work. They had bugged his house with microphones and cameras and had been monitoring him for months. The missionaries were told that they had 24 hours, and if they were still in the country, they would each be put in jail and their children would become wards of the state. So, they fled, terrified. What else could they do? What can we do against that kind of technocratic power?

But God just laughs. Their day will soon arrive where they will receive a tap on the should, but it won’t be a principal standing behind them, but the living God whose flaming eyes has seen everything they have done and will require from them a just punishment. God does not abandon His people. He rises up, and defends them, and brings His recompense upon those who seek to do them harm.

So, as Longfellow writes:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

He concludes with faithful confidence:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

The beauty of Christmas bells and the songs of Luke 2:14 are not sentimental schlop to distract us from the grisly realities of this world. They pierce our hearts like iron with the wonderful truth of the inbreaking of heaven upon earth in the son of God, Jesus Christ.

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