A Pepper Grinder Post

Delight Yourself in the Lord – Part 1

Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
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 do this:
He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Psalm 37:3-6, NIV

I started thinking about this passage when my wife and I were visiting a church a few weeks ago. One of the pastors read verse 4; "Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart." It just kind of washed over me, with my brain saying something like, "Uh-huh, I know that one." But I noticed that my wife wrote it down. This made me think about it a little, and I was suddenly very struck by it. We have had a number of instances in the past couple of years where God has seemed NOT to give us the desires of our hearts (though, to be fair, there are other ways that He has been very generous with us). Suddenly, piercing through the fog of religiosity, was the realization that here was a verse telling me how to get what I was missing. I decided to study the passage for myself and try to find out what I needed to do so that the Lord would give me the desires of my heart.

Here is what I found.

Psalm 37One of the first things to take note of about this Psalm is that it is an acrostic poem. This simply means that each verse (or, in this case, each pair of verses) begins with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order. The first 3 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are Aleph, Bet, and Gimmel, and, sure enough, verse 1 starts with a word beginning with Aleph (if we ignore the beginning note, "Of David"), verse 3 starts with Bet, and verse 5 starts with Gimmel. (This tidy structure gets a little messed up later on but is perfect here at the beginning.) What this means for us is that we need to look at verses 3 and 4 as one unit, and verses 5 and 6 as another.

Another thing that we need to keep in mind is the general structure of Hebrew poetry.  Traditional English poetry often followed the rule that a pair of lines would have the same number of syllables and would end with the same sound.  In Hebrew poetry,  a pair of lines would have the same number of syllables, but they didn’t rhyme.  What Hebrew poets did like to do, though, was bind the pair of lines together by the idea they were expressing.  The 3 most common ways of relating the lines are synonymous parallelism, synthetic parallelism, and antithetic parallelism.  Basically, synonymous is when the two lines express the same basic idea in different words, synthetic is when the second line builds on the first and antithetic is when the two lines have contrasting ideas (something along the lines of, “The righteous are as bold as a lion, but the wicked man is afraid of his own shadow”).  (For a more nuanced and in-depth discussion of parallelism in Hebrew poetry, I would recommend )

We can see several of these forms in Psalm 37.  For instance, verses 1 and 2 in the NIV read:

1 Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong;
2 for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.

Within verse 1 we see synonymous parallelism, where the same idea is expressed twice in different ways. The same thing is true in verse 2. However, we also see synthetic parallelism when we look at the larger 2-verse block. Verse 1 tells us not to envy evil men, and then verse 2 extends the thought by telling us WHY we shouldn't envy them. Now, if we zoom out one more level, we see that verses 1 and 2 together bring the message (which is the main theme of this Psalm) that we should not envy the wicked, while verses 3 and 4 say what we should do INSTEAD. This is the third kind of parallelism—antithetic.

So what’s the point of the poetry discussion?  Understanding the form and context will help us understand the verses we’re looking at better.  For example, verse 3 starts out saying, “Trust in the Lord and do good”.  Is this presenting a kind of salvation by good works?  No.  David is writing to people who are in a situation we can all probably relate to—they are seeing people doing things that everyone knows are wrong, and everything seems to be going just fine for the evildoers.  The temptation is to say, “Why am I trying so hard to do what is right?”  David is saying that everything may seem to be fine with the wicked now, but it won’t go on being good.  He isn’t just giving them a negative message, though. 

This is where our verses which are the INSTEAD come in.  He is saying: here’s how you should run your life INSTEAD of the way the wicked are doing it; and he is saying that a bad lifestyle will have bad results and a good lifestyle will have good results.  David is being extremely practical—much more like a self-help book than a moral treatise.  However, the amazing thing about this Psalm is that the advice given is practical, and yet it’s astonishingly spiritual at the same time.  Let’s look at the message in more depth.

3 Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.

sheep in pastureInstead of doing evil in order to reap immediate rewards, we should do good, even if there are no rewards right away, because we trust that God will reward us.  However, in the second half of the verse, David tells us (using the language of a shepherd) to enjoy safe pasture.  It is like we are sheep led to a green rich field by the shepherd and told to enjoy it and rest in it, with the assurance that he will keep us absolutely safe.

4 Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Here is the part that blows me away. Verse 3 seems like a great message, but it is not one that surprises a duty-driven person like me. Don't do wrong things, do what is right, and God will do wonderful things for you, even if you can't see how it will happen. "OK," I say, "focus on doing what is right." And that IS a good message, and it IS in the Bible. However, a deep relationship with God MUST go beyond duty. Imagine a marriage where the husband is faithful and dutiful but where there is no passion, no deep sharing, no real intimacy. Certainly it might be better than many marriages, but I do not think most people would feel truly satisfied by that kind of relationship.

dessertThis verse, on the other hand, starts out with an astonishing word. The NIV translates it as delight, but delight doesn't really go far enough. In almost all the times this Hebrew word is used in the Old Testament, it means to enjoy something that is a wonderful gift. One lexicon that consulted translated the word as luxuriate. Think of the most pleasurable thing you can imagine—eating your favorite dessert, taking a hot bath, making love, or whatever—and now picture doing that and KNOWING that it was exactly what God wanted you to do right then and that he wanted you to enjoy it to the full, fully to experience every wonderful sensation. That is the sense that this word conveys.

One of my favorite passages where this word is used is in Isaiah, where God is telling the Israelites about the wonderful things he will do for them when he brings them back to their land.
Isaiah 66:11(NIV) For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts;
you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance.

My wife nursed all eight of our children, and I think that anyone who has ever watched a baby nursing and seen the look of utter contentment on his or her face, will be able to relate to this. And THIS is what God wants us puny dirt bags to have with him, the Lord of the universe.

I worked with Amish carpenters for a brief period, and I found out at one point that the foreman of my crew had never taken a honeymoon.  He and his wife had married, and the next day he had been back at work.  I am sure that the honeymoon may be kind of a decadent western tradition, but I also think there is something beautiful about it, especially if you haven’t been having sex with your fiancé(e) before marriage.  Not only are you getting this wonderful gift of a lifetime partner and the wonderful gift of physical union with him or her, but you are given a special time to do nothing but ENJOY those gifts, to luxuriate in them.  And THIS is what we are here commanded to do (the Hebrew verb is an imperative—that’s grammar-speak for a command) with God Almighty.

It doesn’t seem too surprising when we read a passage where we are told to do something hard and promised something good if we do it.  We have all heard things along the lines of, “Eat your vegetables and you won’t get sick as often,” or “Study hard in school, and you’ll get into a good college.”  Along that vein, if this passage had said something like, “Obey God’s commands, and he will give you the desires of your heart” it would make sense.  But we have just been told to find pleasure in the Lord!  Now, not only are we told to enjoy something wonderful, we are promised that God will give us the desires of our heart if we do so.  This sounds like one of those too-good-to-be-true diet ads.  Eat whatever you want and lose weight!  “Uh-huh, sure” we say.  But this is the God of the universe speaking to us.

lamborghiniWe can’t help looking for a catch.  “If I find delight in God, he’ll give me that yellow Lamborghini I’ve been drooling over??”  Well, I don’t think there’s a catch, but I do think that we need to unpack what “the desires of your heart” means.  The Hebrew word for desires comes from the same root as the verb “to ask.”  So, another way to say this part of the verse is, “and he will give you the thing your heart asks for.”  The big question then becomes, “What is your heart asking for?”

When you want that new car or job or house or girl/boyfriend, what is it you REALLY want?  If the thing that you thought you wanted was what you really wanted, wouldn’t you be satisfied after you got it?  I have had the experience of getting something that I really wanted and being delighted with it for a little while.  All too soon, however, I start seeing the faults I was blind to when I wanted it.  Then I either become discouraged or start wanting something else.  The root problem here is that what I thought I wanted was NOT what my heart was asking for.  I thought I wanted a new car, but my heart was asking for excitement.  I thought I wanted a new relationship, but my heart wanted unconditional love.  I thought I wanted recognition and promotion at work, but my heart craved acceptance.

“Ah-hah,” you say.  “I knew there was a catch.  He won’t really give me what I want, but just some mushy spiritual thing.”  Actually, it’s just the opposite.  Instead of giving you the thing you think you want, which won’t keep you satisfied, God wants to give you the thing that you really, deep-down want.  The one thing that I would add to this from my own experience is that God really likes to give us things that will make us happy.  I have often seen him do something, where he does not give me what I think I want when I want it.  Instead, he is doing open-heart surgery on me to fix my real problems and work toward giving me the things my heart truly wants.  This is painful.  Then, later on, he will often give me the very thing I thought I wanted, or something similar to it.

This is exciting! God has promised to give us what our heart is truly asking for, and all he requires is one thing: that we ENJOY him.  Sounds great, but I am writing to you today from the perspective of someone who has had a fairly lousy day.  Enjoying God sounds like a nice idea in theory, but HOW in the world am I supposed to do it?

In the , I’ll look at verses 5-6 and think about how to find delight in the Lord.


*Photo Credits: sheep by , dessert by