A Psalm for Pandemic

In this long post, we’ll walk through Psalm 37 in light of the global coronavirus crisis. David’s prayer, in very different circumstances, offers us much in the way of insight, strategy, and hope.

 

Do Not Fret

Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight 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 do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun. (Verses 1-6)

 

We’re in a season when “fretting” feels natural and comes easily. We could justify or rationalize our worry effortlessly. Surely the Lord would understand! And yet, David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, commands us not to fret.

 

Thankfully, he also gives us three practical weapons in the fight against fretting—one each for the head, the hands, and the heart.

 

  1. For the Head (verses 1-2): We must remind ourselves of a simple truth in order to protect our minds from fretting: the way things are now is notthe way things will always be. In David’s situation, beset by enemies as he was, he had to remind himself that the wicked would not triumph in the end. Our circumstances are different, but the truth is the same. Covid-19, sickness, suffering, and death will not have the last word. Christ has risen. Our future is secure. Look ahead to that time, and fretting fizzles.
  2. For the Hands (verse 3): Fretting paralyzes us. Because fretting is inherently self-focused, it keeps us from considering those around us, whose needs may be greater than our own. However, if we “trust in the Lord,” fixing our eyes on him rather than our circumstances (and selves), we will “do good.” As we learned in this week’s sermon passage, loving God with all our being leads us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Rather than wring our hands in worry, we open them wide to serve others.
  3. For the Heart (verses 4-6): Most importantly, we delight in the beauty and goodness of God. Basking in the warm light of his Being—the “splendor of his holiness”—we discover joy where fretting used to reside. We worry because circumstances threaten our desires: security, comfort, community, health. When we delight in God, however, we soon realize he is what our hearts desire most—and nothing can threaten his presence in our lives, because nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39). So we “commit” our way to him, entrusting our lives to his loving reign, awaiting our “righteous reward.”

 

Let’s commit to employing these three strategies in the war against fretting today.

 

The Meek Will Inherit the Earth

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land. 10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. 11 But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity. (Verses 7-11)

 

In these next few verses, David points to the underlying attitude we should seek to cultivate in order to do away with fretting. In a word, we should seek to be meek (verse 11).

 

The word David uses, translated “meek” in the NIV, suggests humility in the face of adversity, and can be translated as humble, afflicted, or poor depending on the context. In this season, we are all afflicted to some extent or another, and almost all of us have become poorer because of the market crash, reduced hours, or even lost employment. The question we must ask ourselves is whether our affliction and poverty will produce meekness before God or not.

 

David shows us how to cultivate an attitude of meekness. First, in verse 7, he teaches us humble patience (long-suffering, forbearance) in difficult times. We must quiet our frantic souls through prayer and meditation, trusting in God’s perfect timing rather than our human schedules. Second, in verse 8, he implores us to keep from sin. Although David faced a different enemy, and thus a different temptation (to vengeance), we still need the reminder. In a time of isolation, uncertainty, and fear, we must guard against sins like self-pity, short tempers, fretting and sinful worry—which can lead to still greater evil. Finally, in verse 9, he urges us to put our hope in God rather than ourselves. We want to take matters into our own hands and “fix” the problems we’re experiencing, to practice self-reliance rather than God-dependence. But this crisis has revealed just how little control we have over our lives, and why we must hope in him, and not our own ingenuity and can-do spirit.

 

This is a big ask, impossible in the flesh. To cultivate meekness like this, we must allow the gospel to shape our thinking and motivate our obedience. Remember, Jesus said the meek would inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), which picks up on and expands what David says in verse 11. We inherit the fullness of life God has for us when we stop striving, humbly confess our inadequacy, and depend on Christ and his finished work in our stead. We pursue meekness because Christ humbled himself—became meek—for our sakes. He gave up everything so we could inherit everything. How could we not hope in and depend upon a God like that?

 

On What Is Permanent

The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; 13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming. 14 The wicked draw the sword and bend the bow to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those whose ways are upright. 15 But their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken. 16 Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked; 17 for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous. 18 The blameless spend their days under the Lord’s care, and their inheritance will endure forever. 19 In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty. 20 But the wicked will perish: Though the Lord’s enemies are like the flowers of the field, they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke. 21 The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously; 22 those the Lord blesses will inherit the land, but those he curses will be destroyed. 23 The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; 24 though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand. 25 I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. 26 They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be a blessing. (Verses 12-26)

 

In the face of crisis, uncertainty, and danger, David places his confidence in the God who knows and ordains the future. In essence, David lifts his eyes from the impermanent to the permanent, from the seen to the unseen, “since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). We can see our present circumstances, but not our eternal future (or the God who holds it).

 

In the present, the wicked draw swords to attack the poor, needy, and upright (verses 14-15). But in eternity, wicked deeds will have a “boomerang” effect, piercing the hearts of the wicked themselves. This is nowhere more striking than when Death slays Jesus (whose ways alone are perfectly upright!), only to defeat himself in the process. Sickness and suffering, enemies of God’s people, seem to reign unhindered today, but we can laugh with God, because we know their day is coming (verse 13). Christ has fully and finally defeated them, and we simply await the consummation of that defeat in glory.

 

In the present, we know times of disaster and days of famine (verse 19). People hoard wealth, covet what others have, and engage in self-preservation. But in eternity, the Lord’s enemies wilt like flowers of the field and are consumed, and his children enjoy an inheritance that will endure forever (verse 18). With that in mind, we give generously even when it costs us greatly (verse 21), because we know that investing in God’s kingdom is the only guaranteed return! We store our treasure where moth, rust, thief, and crashing markets cannot touch it.

 

In the present, we stumble (verse 24), suffering calamity and falling into sin. But in eternity we will reign with Jesus, if we continue in the faith. We cling to the promise that God will not allow us to fall forever, but will uphold us. Indeed, he will use this trial for our good, to form us bit by bit into our future “glory” selves.

 

Fixing our eyes on what is seen, we have cause for grief, worry, and despair. But fixing our eyes on what is unseen and permanent, we have cause for joy, trust, and hope!

 

Do Good, Be Just

Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever. 28 For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish. 29 The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever. 30 The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak what is just. 31 The law of their God is in their hearts; their feet do not slip. 32 The wicked lie in wait for the righteous, intent on putting them to death; 33 but the Lord will not leave them in the power of the wicked or let them be condemned when brought to trial. 34 Hope in the Lord and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are destroyed, you will see it. (Verses 27-34)

 

As we near the end of Psalm 37, David tells us to “do good” (verse 27). In verse 28, he explains that this means pursuing justice. The Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, entails two commitments. First, the just will treat all people equitably, not giving preference to one’s own group over another. Second, the just will care for the needy, vulnerable, and marginalized in society.

 

The Lord loves the just, and will exalt those whose hope in him is evidenced in their upholding his law in love and wisdom (verses 34, 30-31). Justice is not optional for Christ’s followers; it is an essential characteristic. So how do we pursue biblical justice in a time of plague? Let me suggest three ways.

 

  1. Practice self-denying generosity, not self-preserving hoarding.Justice demands we not stockpile for ourselves, but share with those in need. This affects more than how much toilet paper we keep in the house, which is a peculiarly “first world” mindset. We must open our eyes to the needs of people across the economic spectrum and across the globe. As the pandemic spreads to countries with little to no medical infrastructure, the physical and economic effects will be devastating. We are going to need to give more sacrificially than ever before—both as individuals and as a congregation. (And make no mistake: the church will open its hands to share with those in need. Your generosity to us makes our generosity possible.)
  2. Take special, sacrificial care of those at highest risk.As I suggested in the teaching this week, we submit joyfully to the dictates of our civil magistrates because we will not be careless with another’s life. Keeping the elderly and immuno-compromised safe will cost us dearly. We will suffer greater economic disruption, the pain of isolation, and the loss of gathering physically. But justice demands we willingly embrace this cost for the sake of the vulnerable. Indeed, the just will count a higher cost, giving up time and energy to reach out to the elderly and isolated, to offer love, encouragement, service, and prayer.
  3. Lean into our shared frail humanity.Justice demands we treat all people equitably. In times of crisis, the human tendency is to huddle with our in-group. While enjoying the comfort of (virtual) community is not wrong, treating with disdain those in the out-group certainly is. This means we choose not to respond with racist or xenophobic thoughts, words, or actions, which I hope is not a struggle for any of us. At the same time, our political ties tend to be stronger (and more vicious) than our racial ties these days. The just will reject all mocking, belittling, and needless blaming of people from a different political stripe, especially on social media. This virus cares not one whit for our race, culture, or political beliefs. It attacks humans indiscriminately, and so we indiscriminately join together in the face of a common enemy.

 

What does the Lord require of you even in a global pandemic? “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (see Micah 6:8).

 

A Secure Future

I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a luxuriant native tree, 36 but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found. 37 Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace. 38 But all sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked. 39 The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. 40 The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him. (Verses 35-40)

 

In the midst of so much uncertainty and suffering, how comforting David’s reminder is: “a future awaits those who seek peace” (verse 37). The enemies of God—including those who live for themselves at the expense of others (verse 35), but also sin, Satan, and death—have no future (verse 38). The plans of the God-denying, self-indulging will come to nothing. But the righteous, blameless, and upright will experience joy in God’s presence and eternal pleasures at his right hand (Psalm 16:11). Even in this world, fraught with pain and evil though it is, we can know eternal life, because we can know God—and to know him is eternal life (John 17:3).

 

We have this confidence not because of what we have done, but because of what Christ has done for us. If our salvation depended on our performance, our standing before God would fluctuate more than the markets in a pandemic. We could never be sure of our future, because each day would bring with it the possibility that we would stumble irreparably. But the “salvation of the righteous come from the Lord” (verse 39). He helps and delivers us because of his unfailing love, expressed in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus, not because of our “good” works.

 

In the light of grace, what confidence we have for our eternal future! Because Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection, a deposit and guarantee of the coming age, we know we will be resurrected too, if we trust in him. We do not fade into oblivion or get absorbed into a cosmic nothingness; we will be raised personally and physically to live with God on a renewed earth, to enjoy his glory forever.

 

“Till then I would thy love proclaim with every fleeting breath; and may the music of thy name refresh my soul in death!” (John Newton, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”)

 

One Reply to “A Psalm for Pandemic”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.