David A. Davis
February 24, 2019
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*The psalmist: Do not fret. *Everyone else: Yeah, like it’s ever that easy.
*The psalmist: Do not fret because of the wicked. *Everyone else: But the bad guys always seem to win.
*The psalmist: Do not fret when the bad guys always seem to win. *Everyone else: Seriously?
*The psalmist: Do not fret—it leads only to evil. *Everyone else: what does “fret” even mean.
*The psalmist: Do not fret. *Everyone else: No response.
*The psalmist: Do not fret. *Everyone else: I’m done with this conversation.
*The psalmist: (Now in Caps). DO NOT FRET. *Everyone else: (Now in caps) STOP.
Early in the week I kept thinking the psalmist just sounded like an old soul giving advice. Old soul, like your grandmother, or your Aunt Kate, or your old Pop-Pop. The psalmist sort of sounds like an old soul giving advice to a grandchild stressed out about school, or to a niece whose first job out of college isn’t going well, or to a son whose own now young adult child can’t seem to launch and is still living at home. “Now, now, do not fret.” The psalmist sounds like an old soul because it sounds like such an old word, fret. Does anyone ever use that word anymore? Fret. Fretful. Fretted. The Brits even use it as a noun as in “Ian is in such a fret.”
Do not fret.
What started in my encounter with Psalm 37 this week as sage advice coming from a well-worn traveler along the journey of faith started to turn a bit toward feeling like the psalmist was sounding annoyingly simplistic, naïve, and kitschy. Like “don’t worry, be happy” and “turn your scars into stars” and “the be happy attitudes.” After all, if you ever happen to hear it from an angel, “Do not be afraid”, we all learned in our first Christmas pageant that that’s what angels say. And when it comes from Jesus, “Let not your hearts be troubled and neither let them not be afraid”, it comes with the countenance of the Savior. But when the psalmist says, “Do not fret”, it sounds a bit lippy. Three times here in Psalm 37: Do not fret. Do not fret. Do not fret.
You will remember one of those car trip travel games you play when the kids are in the back seat and its going to be quite a long haul. When they are still too young to see how many license plates they can find from different states and before the plethora of electronic options were available. “I’m going to Grandma’s house and I am going to take an apple…. I’m going to Grandma’s house and I am going to take an apple and a black lab….I’m going to Grandma’s house and I am going to take an apple, a black lab, and a crockpot full of baked beans. So, you know the alphabet game.
Psalm 37 is a biblical version of the alphabet game. Each snippet, each phrase, some one verse others a couple verses, each starts with the consecutive letters from the Hebrew alphabet. It’s an acrostic. Rather than some form of poetic flow in content like Psalm 23 for instance, Psalm 37 is more like a smattering of takes on the flawed way of the wicked and an assurance of the comfort and salvation found in God and God’s way. All 40 verses of psalm 37 contains 22 stanzas each starting with each letter from the Hebrew alphabet: the wicked will soon fade like the grass….take delight in the Lord….yet a little while the wicked will be no more…but the meek will inherit the earth….Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked….Transgressors shall be altogether destroyed, the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off…..The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; God is their refuge in the time of trouble.
It is like an alphabetized summary of how the wicked are talked about all through the Psalms and the promise of God’s salvation is lifted over and over again. There’s really nothing new in Psalm 37, nothing different. It’s the wisdom of the psalms, of the whole of scripture for that matter. Trust in the Lord and do good…Be still before the Lord…the meek shall inherit the earth.
Nothing new. Nothing different. Except this: Do not fret. Fret. If I did my homework correctly, the word fret does not occur all that often in English translations of the bible. In fact, in most translations it only occurs here in Psalm 37 and in Proverbs 24 which says exactly the same thing; “Do not fret because of evildoers.” The King James has a couple of more citings in the Old Testament but only a few. In Hebrew, forms of the word can be translated “be angry, become heated, fly into passion.” The word in Hebrew is all through the Old Testament. But here in Psalm 37, uniquely translated three times, do not fret. Fret. One translation use “do not get heated”. Another reads “do not get upset” which sort of zaps the life right out of it and sounds like something a new age life coach would say sitting next to the babbling water device sitting on the end table in the dimly lit office of relaxation.
The psalmist may come off sounding annoyingly simplistic, naïve, and kitschy but you ought not to water it down either. In fact, it seems as if the unique refrain is intended to pop off the page at you. “Do not fret! Do not fret! Do not fret!” You really cannot miss it. Do not fret. You certainly can’t ignore it. Do not fret. And you can’t write it off, either. Do not fret. It is certainly not intended to roll off the psalmist’s pen like some sort of branded, cheap, catching advice. The psalmist just doesn’t say it all that much. Just right here. Fret.
Just right here. Here in a Psalm 37. The psalmist says that same thing in 22 different ways, 22 times, the way of the wicked will perish, and God’s way of salvation is steadfast and sure. Think about this: if the psalmist wrote in one way or another 22 times, if the psalmist was inspired to write and acrostic using the whole alphabet, if the psalmist was inspired to write in this not uncommon form of poetry about all the wicked, if the whole contrast between the way of the wicked and the way of God comes up all through the psalms, the way of the wicked and the way of the Lord, then the wicked must have been doing really well, thank you very much. There had to have been a whole lot of prospering going on for those who chose to carry out evil devices. It must have been the case that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer and that those had much were not doing much for those who had so little, and the sick and the widows and the orphans must not have been well cared for if at all, and violence and destruction and suffering must have been rampant. Life in the world must have been very far away from that which God intended. And the psalmist wrote “Do not fret”.
I went to the doctor for my annual physical this week. At the beginning the nurse was running down the list of questions on her computer screen. She asked if at any time in the last few weeks I found myself feeling down and helpless. I told her only when I watched the news. I didn’t intend to make light of the reality and the prevalence of depression. I wasn’t making a political statement. Nor was I trying to be funny. I just sort of answered without thinking. A reaction not unlike the one in my leg when the doctor later bopped me on the knee with that rubber hammer. A reaction to how far away life in the world seems to be from what God intends.
Psalm 37. Maybe the psalmist sounds a lot less like an old soul with a bit of wisdom, and not really as annoyingly simplistic, naïve, and kitschy as it sounds on a first pass, maybe psalmist is just being prophetic. For the powers of evil and darkness will never conquer the everlasting light of the promise of God. The never-ending earthly wiles that bring out the worst in humankind will one day fade away as the reign of God stretches to every corner of creation here on earth as it is heaven. Sinfulness in all its abundance abounds, and still justice will roll like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Put not your trust in the treasures of this world for they will perish, but trust in the Lord, take delight in the Lord, and God will grant you the desires of your heart. Twenty-two times the psalmist says it: the way of the wicked…the way of the Lord. Do not fret. Pray for it. Never stop working for it. Always yearn for it. But do not fret.
When our children were young there was a time when we decided to find a couple of new table graces that we use. All of us, including them, were ready for a change after the few we used all the time when they were very young. One of them we started back then was just the last few words of Psalm 27: Wait for the Lord, be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! Looking back now, the word thank you was no where to be found and food wasn’t even mentioned. But I bet they remember it. I hope they remember it. I pray that they remember it. There’s no thank you and no food. But it’s can be a prayer, nonetheless. Not just a meal time prayer but an all-day prayer. Certainly, an all-night prayer. A prayer for every moment. A pray for every fret. Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.
*The Psalmist: Do not fret. *Everyone else: We’re trying.
*The Psalmist: Do not fret *Everyone else: Only with God’s help and by God’s grace.
*The Psalmist: Do not fret *Everyone else: Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage.