“Be silent before the Lord and wait expectantly for him; do not be agitated by one who prospers in his way, by the person who carries out evil plans.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever seen someone get away with something? Maybe it was something small and didn’t really matter, but maybe it was entirely more significant than that. Either way, when a person escapes justice, something in us rises up to say, “No!” Injustice is simply out of sync with our souls. What do we do in times like this? David offers some wise counsel here in Psalm 37. Let’s explore what this does and doesn’t mean together this morning.
When we think about where to go in the Bible in order to find some wisdom, Psalms is not usually at the top of the list. Proverbs occupies that particular place. Psalms is where you go to find songs of worship, cries of lament, emotional outbursts of anger and passion, and unfiltered praises to God. But the beauty of Psalms is that by virtue of being such a large collection of works, it really contains just a little something for everyone. Take Psalm 37 here, for instance. We know that David wrote it from the helpful attribution at the top. But the heading reveals it isn’t going to be a “typical” psalm. The heading is “Instruction in wisdom.” True to its advertisement, the psalm reads more like something you would find in the book of Proverbs than Psalms. I guess we know where Solomon got at least some of his penchant for wise sayings.
Being a psalm of wisdom, there isn’t really a coherent theme connecting the various verses. It really does read like something out of the middle of Proverbs. Because of this, though, you can fairly well take each stanza on its own terms without worrying too much about the context of the rest. This particular stanza is about justice, or rather how to handle it when justice appears to be delayed.
Because injustice rings so bitterly with our souls, when we encounter it, we very naturally want to do something about it. Yet how do we square that very natural desire with verses like this one that seem to advise waiting on God to act? The debate here can rage rather hot. On one side you’ll have someone looking to quickly write off the whole of the Christian faith over the admonition to wait on the Lord rather than taking action ourselves to correct a contemporary injustice. On another side, there are followers of Jesus who would quickly argue that God calls us to act justly and to pursue justice. If believers hadn’t worked to oppose and overturn injustices in the past, our world would have never made any of the moral progress we have over the course of the last 2,000 years of history. Indeed, every single time a critical mass of people has collectively come to the point of recognizing something we understand today to be obviously unjust as in fact unjust, Christians have been at the forefront of the change. Then, there will be other followers of Jesus who take something more like the path of the Amish and withdraw until God does what only He can do.
What’s the right approach out of this? How should we be thinking about combatting injustice in light of our God who is ontologically just in a world that is so fundamentally unjust? Here are a few thoughts in light of what David writes here.
First and foremost, we have to get the character of God right. God is just. It is in His nature to do the right thing in every single circumstance. He will one day bring justice to every injustice. Those who have spent their lives being unjust to the people around them will face justice themselves. When that justice from God comes it will be thorough. Nothing and no one will be missed. All will be held accountable for what they have done. There will be no loopholes or exceptions save the salvation available in Christ, but even that won’t be an exception since Jesus satisfied God’s justice in His crucifixion on behalf of all those willing to receive Him as Lord.
Because of this, seeing sinners flourish should bother us, but not to the point of distraction. God will make things right eventually. If someone seems to be getting by with injustice and we are not in a position to do anything meaningful about it, that is no reason to turn to anger or bitterness or cynicism or a rejection of God. Instead, we turn to prayer. We trust in God’s word. We lean into God’s character. And we work for justice within our sphere of influence.
Yes, that’s right. We work for justice. Waiting on the Lord, you see, doesn’t mean doing nothing. While this particular verse may be able to ride fairly independently of its context in the rest of the psalm, it cannot be taken independently of the context of the rest of the Bible. Over the course of the rest of the Scriptures in both the old and the new covenants, we see God’s calling His people to work for and pursue justice within their spheres of influence over and over and over again. In fact, He is pretty clear that to be following Him and not working for justice is to not really be following Him at all. That kind of a lack on our part is an indicator that while we might be pursuing faithfulness to a religious movement that bears His name, we are not actually being faithful to His character. And if we’ve missed His character that badly, it’s hard to argue that we are really being faithful to Him.
In our pursuit of justice, though, there are a couple of things we must keep in mind. First, we must never get confused as to whose justice we are pursuing. We must always have God’s justice as our goal, not ours. Human justice rarely works out to be very just.
Lisa and I have started watching the Yellowstone prequel series, 1883. The series is about how the Dutton family of the Yellowstone series came to live on the land that plays such a big role in the story. We are only two episodes into 1883 so far. The Dutton family is preparing to make the journey from Texas to somewhere north. At one point in the episode, James Dutton (played by Tim McGraw) has to leave his family to attend to some business before beginning their journey. While he’s gone, some thugs come to the camp where his family is waiting along with some other families to begin their journey. The thugs stir up some trouble and ultimately end up shooting up the camp and killing several members of the party including Dutton’s niece. James and the other leaders go and report the attack to the Marshal in Fort Worth. He takes them into a local saloon where the perpetrators are likely hanging out. After clarifying the gang in question really were the offenders, the Marshal and his posse (including the newly deputized Dutton) shoot every member of the gang dead in cold blood. When Dutton’s wife (who also happens to be McGraw’s wife, Faith Hill) asks him if they found the gang members, he replies that they did. She probes further with single word: “And?” A very much conflicted Dutton replies, “We murdered them.’
Perhaps that was an exceptional example of frontier, wild west, Texas justice, but it wasn’t just at all. Not all human justice goes that same way, but much of it isn’t terribly far off. The simple reason for this is that we are not fundamentally just like God is. When we pursue our justice instead of His, things are going to get messy because our justice is broken by sin like the rest of us is and sin is always messy. It always destroys. It always creates more injustice.
This points to the second thing to keep in mind in our pursuit of justice. We must never fall to simply seeking vengeance. Vengeance is not justice. It is vengeance. Vengeance will never solve a problem of injustice because only justice will correct injustice. Vengeance may feel good in a moment, but that feeling will never last. It will necessarily create more injustice because vengeance is inherently unjust.
This is why we are called to wait on the Lord. When we set out on our own to obtain justice on our own terms, it will invariably turn into a pursuit of vengeance. Sometimes that vengeance will be private, sometimes it will be public. In 1883, the leader of the party heading north, Shea Brennan (wonderfully played by Sam Elliot, an actor who embodies the spirit of the American West better than anyone ever has), tells Dutton they need to leave in the morning after the shootout at the saloon. When Dutton protests some, Brennan responds that the members of the town will be coming to look for the Marshal’s posse with plans to hang every one of them as soon as they find them. The unjust vengeance enacted by the Marshall only served to invite more injustice.
We can and should pursue justice within our spheres of influence by every means available to us. But when we run into walls in our efforts, we respond to the walls not with anger and vengeance, but with prayer and patience. We wait on the Lord and rest confidently in the fact that He will ultimately bring justice to the whole earth. In the meantime, we make sure we are living lives of justice ourselves, rooted in Christ, so that when God’s justice does come, we will already be covered.