The meaning of Psalm 37’s command to “Trust, Dwell, Delight, Commit, and Rest”
This is Part 1 (& a high-level summary) in a study on how the first few verses of Psalm 37 give us a five-part prescription to combatting the envy and anxiety that come from comparing ourselves to others, & helping process the question, “why do good things happen to bad people?” For ease of reading we’ve split this very long study into individual parts, beginning with this and then linking to the subsequent sections at the end.
Do you fret often? It feels strange even typing that, so let me rephrase: do you get “worked up” when you see certain people thriving more than you are? Especially if you think they’re not a good person, or they don’t work as hard as you, or they don’t follow God, or…fill in the blank?
The psalms are a fascinating book, written in poetic verse and covering topics ranging from praising God to Messianic prophecies to lamenting personal trials. And because Proverbs tends to get the attention for practical life advice, we often forget that the Psalms have a ton of it as well.
Psalm 37 is a psalm of David, and he begins by telling us, “Do not fret because of evildoers, nor be envious of the workers of iniquity” (Ps. 37:1). Fret is a weird word to us in the modern world, and because of that I think we tend to miss what David is really trying to tell us here.
The word translated “fret” (charah, H2734) really means to grow warm, blaze up, be angry, or be incensed. You know that sudden rush of heat and adrenaline you get when something happens to make you upset? Your heart starts pounding, you get a kind of hot flash in your head. That’s part of charah.
So in other words, what David is telling us here is not to get super upset or react intensely when we see people who don’t appear to deserve it get rewarded. Throughout the psalm it really harps on these “evildoers” and “workers of iniquity” and how God’s people shouldn’t get fixated on what they do or don’t get in this physical life.
This isn’t just about “evildoers” in the truly evil sense (murderers and such), but the way we think about our neighbors, our coworkers, and more—whoever you look at and think “Why do things go right for them and not for me?” (or “Why don’t they get what they deserve?”).
The F.B. Meyer commentary summarizes this idea, noting that David is “grappling with the problem of the inequality of human life and the apparent failure of God to reward His servants and punish His enemies as they deserve”.
And honestly this idea is just so relatable. It is a core part of human nature to look around and compare our lives to other people, which is a “wide, easy path to both envy and self-righteousness” (see our study on Comparison & Envy: The Key to Unhappiness).
And it leads to anxiety—focusing on other people instead of fixing our eyes on God.
You might also like: A Practical Approach to Worry & Anxiety in the Bible
What does Psalm 37 tell us to do instead?
Right after warning us not to fret about those people (sure, easy to say!), David lays out his recommended approach:
“Trust in the Lord, and do good;
Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness
Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass…
Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Ps. 37:3-7)
When you skim through those verses, they sound really pretty but also a bit…vague. Like, “Cool, David, love the vibe, but what do I DO with this??? On the surface for a modern reader, these platitudes and abstract commands mirror many other passages in Psalms and don’t seem to offer much practical help.
But once we dig into each command a little deeper, we see that these verses actually give us a clear five-part prescription for the diseases of anxiety and envy brought on by comparison, all having to do with how we relate to God: trust, dwell, delight, commit, and rest.
We’ll dig into the meaning of Psalm 37 in this multi-part study, looking at each idea a little…this is not an exhaustive study but just uncovering some additional nuances, examples, or questions to ask ourselves that might help us internalize the instruction in these verses better.
I’ve broken this Psalm 37 study into a series of shorter posts rather than one super long one, so I’ll give a VERY high-level glimpse of each area below, and then link to the individual studies. You could, for instance, read one per day, only 5-10 minutes of reading and then meditate on it as you go about your day.
In the first part of Ps. 37:3 we focus on what makes us feel secure. As with many of God’s commands, this isn’t only a mind exercise, but rather mind AND body, faith and action. We’re told to put our trust in God and then go about our lives, doing good.
This part of the study looks at what “trust” really means, then provides some questions to ask ourselves about what WE are putting our trust in and what it looks like to “do good”—the myriad ways that it should show up in our lives. How do we find that balance between trusting God and trying to act in accordance with His will?
The second half of Ps. 37:3 tells us that if we put our trust in God, He will provide for us both physically and spiritually (a place to live and food to eat).
This idea of dwelling (living or “abiding”) with God was a big focus for Jesus in His last hours on earth, and ultimately has to do with how connected we are to Him and where we’re drawing our sustenance from—what feeds your soul. There’s also a really interesting translation aspect in the second part of this phrase that has to do with “cultivating” faithfulness rather than just feeding on (or consuming) it.
We don’t really use “delight” as much in our modern world, but this idea has to do with finding pleasure, joy, and contentment in God…His ways, commands, and our relationship with Him.
One way we can think of this is kind of like a healthy marriage relationship—where each person spends time thinking about the other, what they need and want, how to make them happy. When we are staying close to God and delighting in His ways, the “desires of our heart” will naturally come into alignment with His.
The concept behind “commit your way” is meant to encompass your entire being and daily life…placing the course of your life and the burdens you carry into God’s hands.
This really takes an immense amount of trust, and we have to ask ourselves whether we not only believe God *can* accomplish what He says or what we desire, but whether we TRULY believe that He will do what is best for us (even if it’s not always what we think we desire).
I’d argue that of all the commands so far, this is the most difficult. And we shouldn’t interpret this as a passive kind of sitting on our hands and waiting for God to do something—remember, God expects both faith AND action.
This is about not only finding comfort and peace in our relationship with God, but developing the ability to “turn down” the world in order to be more attuned to God’s voice. When we find ourselves “fretting”, getting worked up, it’s developing the discipline to stop dwelling on whatever it is that’s bothering or worrying us and re-focusing instead on God’s words.
Using Psalm 37 to overcome the envy and anxiety we feel when we “fret”
So going back to our original question, do you get upset (“fret”) when you see other people being blessed more than you are, or getting what you feel you deserve?
Do you get worked up observing people you know are bullies, petty, dishonest, or [fill in your own blank] living their best lives, and wonder why God isn’t DOING SOMETHING?
Like the prophet Jonah stewing over Ninevah’s (temporary) repentance and salvation, do you resent the idea of God showing grace to others you consider less worthy?
Do you, like Jeremiah, frequently ask “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do the treacherous all thrive?” (Jer. 12:1, CJB).
I know I sure do sometimes. And I know that God sometimes asks me what He asked Jonah after his outburst—“Is it right for you to be so angry [worked up]?” (Jon. 4:4). This is the same word (charah) that we started with in Psalm 37.
What do these five commands in Psalm 37 ultimately tell us? That the best way to stop getting worked up about the state of the world around us is to shift our focus to God…to try and see things as He does, think of things the way He does, and look for His will to be accomplished.
Remember what Paul says about those who “measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (II Cor. 10:12)? That’s a lot of “themselves” which can be hard to follow, but Paul’s point is to highlight the stupidity and illogic of comparing ourselves to others.
Envy and anxiety are both direct results of comparing ourselves to others, and different responses to getting worked up about the people and situations around us. The reason these verses in Psalms 37 are a “prescription” for envy and anxiety is that they provide specific instructions for how we must take our eyes off our circumstances and fix them on God.
Comparison is a lose-lose game, resulting either in discouragement and envy, or a clear path to self-righteousness.
“When you’re looking to the left or the right to see how you measure up to other people—whether good or bad—you have an inability to see what God is doing for you. In the case of both envy and self-righteousness, the answer is found in looking to God—being thankful for what He has given you (including the opportunity for eternal life) and using Him as the standard for righteousness, which can only produce humility since we fall so woefully short.” (excerpt from Comparison & Envy study)
Our response to other people getting what we want, or just going through low periods where it feels like things aren’t going well, should instead be like Paul: “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased and I know how to abound” (Phil 4:11-12).
Now…the truth is, that’s easy to say, but MUCH harder to do. Shifting our focus to God is ultimately an exercise of the mind and heart, but sometimes tangible actions can help “interrupt” the negative thoughts and feelings we experience when getting worked up. A few that I’ve found useful:
- Prayer – How often do you talk to God? One of the best ways to better understand His thoughts and purpose is to ASK. Relationships are built on two-way communication.
- A good practice to get into is to start every prayer with a combination of praising God’s awesomeness, and also thanking Him for blessings, protection, and other things He’s done in your life. Start there before diving into what *you* want.
- I also sometimes ask Him to put a shield or hedge around my mind when I’m struggling with constant spiraling negative thoughts, asking Him to keep Satan’s whispering influence out.
- Bible study and meditation – The other part of that two-way communication is how God talks to you, and while sometimes that will be an occurrence, more often than not it’s through His word. Spend time reading and just thinking about it. Bible study is a quality over quantity exercise.
- Occasionally books and blogs that dive further into God’s word can be a good complement, but shouldn’t replace actually spending time with your bible. One book I’ve really found encouraging and uplifting lately has been Max Lucado’s “You’ll Get Through This”, which really relates well to this topic.
- Listening to uplifting music – We should be careful not to rely on music to create emotion, or on emotion to substitute for real joy. BUT uplifting music (particularly music based on scripture) can be a great way to shake yourself out of a funk or help you focus on positive things.
- Thankfulness/gratitude – Thankfulness is a powerful tool both physically and mentally/emotionally/spiritually against anxiety, envy, and fear.
- When you’re having moments of anxiety and doubt, spend a few minutes consciously reflecting on times that God been faithful in the past, times when you’ve seen His goodness or deliverance. Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves of what we already know.
- Several years ago I started a practice I call “a year of good things”, where every Sabbath morning I write down at least one good thing from the week, something that made me happy or that I’m thankful for. Some weeks I have a bunch, and other weeks it’s a real struggle. I keep it as an email draft all year, then email it to myself so I have a record of the blessings God gives me…time with friends, a fun trip, a positive comment from a co-worker, snuggles with my kitties, and much more.
- Keeping our eyes on the vision of what’s to come – Sometimes I just have to step back for a minute and remind myself that the ins and outs, ups and downs, of this life are not that important in the long run, because God’s kingdom is the end goal.
After going through the five key commands—trust, dwell, delight, commit, and rest—David caps off the passage by reiterating why it’s important to master this: “Cease from anger and forsake wrath; do not fret—it only causes harm” (Ps. 37:8).
As I mentioned at the outset, this study was really just setting the stage for the individual deeper-dives into the message of Psalm 37, so I do recommend reading through each of those. In particular, these studies provide additional analysis of the commands but also probing questions to ask ourselves and meditate on as a means of self-examination.
“Better one handful with quietness [tranquility] than two handfuls with toil [weariness, worry] and chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 4:6, NIV).
Here are the remaining studies on Psalm 37, in order:
- Part 2: Trust in the Lord, and do good (Ps. 37:3)
- Part 3: Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness (Ps. 37:3)
- Part 4: Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4)
- Part 5: Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass (Ps. 37:5)
- Part 6: Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him (Ps. 37:7)