An Hortatory Psalm for the Activists
Written in Chinese by
Simon CC Cheung
Associate Professor (Biblical Studies)
In the Old Testament time, land was essential for living, a resource that nations fought over, and often the source of social conflicts. The incident of Naboth’s vineyard (1 King 21) can perhaps be viewed as the biblical version of forceful occupation. Isaiah angrily rebuked the Israelites for their sins and foremost they “join house to house; they add field to field” (Isaiah 5:8), leaving no space behind while their properties increased, profiting from possessing other people’s inheritance – such is the ancient Israel’s version of ‘property hegemony’.1 Naboth was not the only victim of such oppression – only the Bible keeps few narrative accounts of such.
The root problem of the land supply
Psalm 37 might be a forgotten treasure that documents one of the accounts of land injustice in ancient Israel society. The psalm mentions “inherit the land” five times (verses 9, 11, 22, 29 and 34), and verse 3 invites the audience to “dwell in the land”. In fact, a similar counsel is also found in verse 27. Though some Bible translations (such as the NIV) make dwelling a result (“then you will dwell in the land forever”), whereas it would be more appropriate to make dwelling a parallel to “depart from evil.” Hence, “and dwell forevermore” is also an orientation given by the psalmist, associated with “inheriting the land”.
What was the root cause of those land problems? One of the most startling verses in this psalm is verse 11: “But the meek shall inherit the earth”, adapted by Matthew to be included in his third Beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). However, the Hebrew word rendered into ‘meek’ ( ענו ) is not usually about virtues but ‘poverty, hardship’ – a term describing an economic condition. There are quite a number of economic terms in the middle section of the psalm, i.e. verses 16-24, such as ‘the little’ and ‘the riches’ (v. 16), ‘satisfied’ (v. 19), ‘borrows’ and ‘lends’ (vv. 21 and 26), ‘repay’ and ‘gives’ (v. 21) and ‘begging bread’ (v. 25). All these wordings also appear in the instruction of the psalm. Through comparing the righteous with the wicked, it shows that people’s wealth cannot guarantee security, but rather choosing between good and evil determines whether they receive the LORD’s blessings or curses.
From these we can see that the root cause of the land problems is the result of an imbalanced distribution of economic powers – some powerful economic institutions, through oppressive means, take the land which should belong to the powerless.
More specifically, the victims in the psalm might well be small farmers in ancient Israel. ‘Land’ was their livelihood.2 Yet those covetous powers, by plotting schemes and wielding weapons (‘swords’ and ‘bows’), slay the needy poor then seize their land (vv. 12-14). All of a sudden verses 32-33 mention the wicked “watches” the righteous and seeks to slay him, even possibly through the judicial system falsely testifying against the small peasant farmers so that they would lose their rights to their land. Powerless and helpless, the farmers would watch their land being taken and exploited by the powerful enemies. This psalm refracts land conflicts in a society ailed by lopsided resources and economic injustice.
Exhortations for the activists
One may probably come to a natural conclusion that, this psalm would be written for the poor and the oppressed, encouraging the exploited and appeasing their anguish. No wonder some scholars allege this psalm as furthering social injustice: while seemingly soothing the victims to suffer in silence and wait for God’s promise to be fulfilled in the future, in reality it is affirming the status quo without averting any unjust practices.3 Yet, some scholars suggest that the ‘you’ in this psalm could be a social activist who was fearless of the powerful, even an elite passionate in leading social reform. This ‘You’ is at the moment facing slanders and attacks instigated by those with vested interest.4 Psalm 37:6 “He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” Both ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ here belong to ‘you’ the audience. If ‘you’ were part of the oppressed people, then it would mean that the truth about his suffering would ultimately redress. But had ‘you’ been an activist for land justice, then the verse would mean that his beliefs were regarded as ‘righteous’ and ‘just’ in the LORD’s eye, He was on the side of ‘you.’ One day He would show the world the meaning of ‘your’ actions as clear as the light shining.
If the psalm is really addressing an activist, then what does this psalm have to say to him? In fact, its beginning and end (vv. 1-15 and vv. 27-40) are echoing exhortations, and the middle section (vv. 16-26) provides the ‘theoretical foundation’ for his exhortations. The first round of exhortations was especially striking: in the first seven verses, the psalmist listed eleven instructions (vv. 1, 3-4a, 5 and 7) and gave three different reasons (vv. 2, 4b and 6) to support his arguments. What is the focus of all these instructions? There are but two directions: trust in the LORD (for instance vv. 4 and 5 talks about delighting in Him, committing to Him and trusting in Him) and ‘do good’. The latter includes exhorting the audience to ‘dwell in the land’ and ‘feed on His faithfulness’ (vv. 3) and ‘do not fret’ which appears three times (vv. 1, 7 and 8), or in some translations, ‘don’t be angry’. Verse 8 even gives the reason against anger: “it only causes harm.”5 If one is filled with anger, one would only repay evil with evil.
Choosing to hold onto the first love
From the above we see that this landfighter seems to be at the tipping point. He did not belong to ‘the righteous’ in the psalm because the psalmist addressed the righteous and their company in the third person, whereas he addressed this fighter always in the second person singular. Perhaps this ‘you’ was torn between the good and evil. When this ‘you’ faced a powerful economic interest groups who rallied against the poor and their supporters, ‘you’ would debate whether evil should be repaid tit for that. In the end the psalmist talks about an ending for a ‘man of peace’ (v. 37), making us wonder if ‘you’ is entertaining the idea of using violence to resolve the crisis.
Once again, the psalmist reminds ‘you’ that the end does not justify all means – a lofty ideal does not grant the permit for the use of evil means. Even when land problems are so real, attacks of the wicked also pressing, ‘you’ is not to tread on a road of no return of ‘doing evil’ and becoming the same as the wicked.
In the psalmist’s eye, prosperity of the wicked would not last long (vv. 2, 10, 20 and 35-36). Neither could their riches guarantee lasting advantages (vv. 16-24). Land problems would ultimately be resolved according to the LORD’s promise of ‘inheriting the earth’, but if this fighter became a replica of the wicked, then ‘you’ would end up like them ranked amongst those cursed by the LORD (v. 22).
It is certainly a calling for the children of light to enter into a wicked and twisted world, correcting the wrongs and defending the weak in the frontline. Yet, where vice is rampant, how are we to hold onto our first love and doing the Lord’s will by His Word? The psalmist seems to be telling us that we must keep an evertrusting heart, allowing God’s Word to shape our thoughts, not allowing the circumstances determine our present decisions, but instead let God’s Kingdom to come determine our choices today.
1. A phrase coined to describe the dominance of the leading property tycoons of Hong Kong in recent years, not only in real estate aspect but also across major sectors of the Hong Kong economy.
2. One scholar holding this view is Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 114-117.
3. Walter A. Brueggemann, “Psalm 37: Conflict of Interpretation,” in Of Prophets’ Visions and the Wisdom of Sages: Essays in Honour of R. Norman Whybray on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Heather A. McKay and David J.A. Clines, JSOTSup 162 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 229-256.
4. Narciso Crisanto Tiquillahuanca, Die Armen werden das Land besitzen: Eine exegetische Studie zu Psalm 37, BVB 16 (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2008), 201-02, 316-319.
5. “It only causes harm” is translated from Hebrew’s restrictive particle אך and preposition ל and the infinite verb רעע . The preposition ל is added to an infinite verb to express a goal or result.