"Does It Pay to Be Good?"
March 19, 2006 Psalm 37:1-6,21-33
The Problem of Perverted Prosperity
There is something that irks us when those in positions of power, wealth, or authority don't live up to their responsibilities. Sometimes we turn these frustrations into jokes about certain professions. In one cartoon, a woman in an apron is seen standing near a bedside saying, "Time to get up, son! Church will be starting soon!" A voice from the bed replies, "I don't want to go to church. I don't think the people there like me. The hymns are so long and dreary. And the sermons are pure torture." The woman replies, "But you have to go! You're my son, you're 54 years old, and besides, you're the PASTOR!"
Ravi Zacharias in a recent broadcast told this story which occurs in several cultures in some form or another. The parents of a young boy, no more than a toddler, are keen to get some inkling of what his future occupation might be. On a coffee table in the middle of the room they place three objects: a wine bottle, some money, and a Bible. The theory is that if the child chooses the wine bottle, he'll just live for pleasure. If he chooses the money, he'll be a businessman. If he picks up the Bible, he's bound to become a clergyman. So they arrange the objects so, then hide behind a door just open a crack so they can watch what their son does. In this case, he heads over to the coffee table, puts the money in his pocket, tucks the Bible under his arm, picks up the wine bottle and heads off. The father is heard to exclaim: "Well, who'd've thought - he's going to be a politician!"
We take a dim view of those in power, politicians, businesspeople, or others, who exploit their privileges or take advantage of their situation unethically. At a clergy breakfast this past week, I listened while some of my colleagues recalled it was outside a certain church Bill Clinton attended that he lied in response to media reporters' questions about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. My pastor friends commented it wasn't just that he'd committed adultery, but went on to lie about it.
But it's not just politicians that may be wicked and prosper while the innocent and vulnerable suffer. This past week an international police effort led to the arrest of at least 40 people across Canada, the US, Britain, and Australia who were involved in one of the biggest child porn rings in the world. On Friday, a 49-year-old Edmonton shipping clerk pleaded guilty to possessing and distributing child pornography after police caught him at his computer, and online with 90 clients, when they raided his home in January. The images he distributed were the worst type of child porn, too awful even to speak about. Yet the Edmonton man protested to police when he was arrested, "I just look at pictures, I don't hurt anybody." An Edmonton detective described it more accurately: "These were real children in real homes that were being tortured." How twisted and horrible that people should be getting enjoyment and profiting from the suffering of the innocent!
It's a big industry; In the United States, for example, porn-video rentals and sales had grown as of last year into a $4.2 billion-a-year business, constituting nearly 14% of all video transactions and more than a quarter of the home-video industry's revenues.
Pornography is pervasive; wickedness is widespread, infiltrating right down to the magazine racks at the check-outs. Going to pay for some vitamins at a pharmacy in Wingham this past week, I noticed the uncovered state of the women on the covers before remembering to 'bounce' my eyes. Then I saw the current customer at the till was an Amish woman with a baby in a carrier and a little 3- or 4-year-old girl, standing there beside Momma swinging back and forth in her skirt, looking up at me (this strange man) with big eyes. What must she think is in the minds of men, that publications routinely use such cover material? I felt sorry for this mother trying to raise her children morally in such a no-holds-barred culture. And a little angry. What hope do such families have of raising their young children with a sense of decency and propriety when every check-out screams lust?
Wickedness is not new, it just gets expressed in different forms. In Psalm 37, David under inspiration of the Holy Spirit reminds us that though the wicked may prosper for a time, ultimately those who do right will experience God's favour and inherit the good things He's promised.
The Apparent Prosperity & Success of the Wicked
The Psalms are very realistic in that they take seriously the situation at hand. These aren't fairy tales, but attempts to cope with real life in all its shortcomings and challenges. David acknowledges that we may sometimes observe bad people "getting away with it" and making a profit. V1, "Do not...be envious of those who do wrong": that implies there's something to envy, perhaps they're getting ahead materially. V7, "Do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes." 35, "I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil..." Other verses describe the techniques by which villains rip off other people: 12, "The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them;" 14, "The wicked draw the sword and bend the bow to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those whose ways are upright." 21, "The wicked borrow and do not repay..." Ever had a check bounce? Or had to go to small claims court to try to retrieve what you're owed? Or been the victim of a scam? 32, "The wicked lie in wait for the righteous, seeking their very lives..." The Message paraphrases vv7&35, "Don't bother with those who climb the ladder, who elbow their way to the top...I saw Wicked bloated like a toad, croaking pretentious nonsense."
Interestingly, Psalm 73 provides some elaboration to Psalm 37's description of how well-off some tricky types become. It says, "For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills...This is what the wicked are like-- always carefree, they increase in wealth." (Ps 73:3-5,12) Hmm- something's not right here! How come they get all the breaks?
The Bible records several examples of bad people who were "out to get" the innocent. David was personally acquainted with King Saul, who threatened and threw spears until David had to escape to save his life. In 1Sam (18:21; 23:9) Saul twists his vow to give his daughter to the killer of Goliath in order to require David to run the danger of being killed by the enemy. He thinks, "I will give her to him, so that she may be a snare to him and so that the hand of the Philistines may be against him." Again, in chapter 23(9), "David learned that Saul was plotting against him" - even though David was Saul's loyal supporter.
The book of Esther is another study in villainy, that of powerful Haman, whose goal in life is to wipe out the Jews throughout the whole Persian empire. In 5:11 to some party guests, "Haman boasted to them about his vast wealth, his many sons, and all the ways the king had honored him and how he had elevated him above the other nobles and officials." He's a real wind-bag when it comes to extolling his own success. He builds a gallows 75 feet high on which he plans to have Mordecai the Jew (who refuses to bow down to him) hanged. So Scripture is realistic in portraying the fact that sometimes evil does get ahead; the righteous are left asking themselves, "Does it really pay to be good?"
God Laughs at the Wicked, Lifts the Righteous
Those who are wicked may boast and scoff and laugh about how they 'put one over' on some poor victim, but in the end, the joke's on them. V13 of our Psalm says "the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He knows their day is coming." God holds evil-doers to account; sooner or later they reap what they sow, their deeds catch up with them. V10, "A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found." V36 echoes that the ruthless man who once flourished "soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found." Their underhanded methods prove to be their undoing. V15 talks about how evil boomerangs: "their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken." 17 adds that "the power of the wicked will be broken."
We see this come to pass very literally in the case of jealous King Saul, who at the last falls on his own sword rather than be captured by the Philistines - whom David, the fugitive, would later defeat; and would have helped Saul fight, if only Saul hadn't been so fearful of the youthful warrior. In the case of wicked Haman in the book of Esther, God orchestrates things in such a way that King Xerxes honours Mordecai (the Jew Haman hates), and discovers Haman's a threat to the emperor's Jewish Queen Esther, so orders him hanged - on the very gallows Haman had built intended for Mordecai! The ironic justice is perfect.
Coming to the New Testament, our Lord Jesus told the parable of the selfish rich man who could think of nothing other to do with his wealth than store it all up for his own luxurious lifestyle. But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" (Lk 12:20) Apparent successes can flop very fast.
Peterson paraphrases vv12f,15, & 38, "Bad guys have it in for the good guys, obsessed with doing them in.But Yahweh isn't losing any sleep; to him they're a joke with no punch line...They're out to...mug that nice man out walking his dog.A banana peel lands them flat on their faces - slapstick figures in a moral circus...The willful will soon be discarded; insolent souls on a dead-end street."
The apostle James wrote, "For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business." (Jas 1:11) The Psalm predicts the wicked will "vanish like smoke...the future of the wicked will be cut off." (20,38) Jesus wasn't any softer in tone, predicting (not in a parable, but plain speech now) that at the end of the age, "The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Mt 13:49f)
Psalm 37 not only answers the perplexing question about the prosperity of the wicked; it goes on to say that though God LAUGHS at them, He LIFTS the righteous. V22 summarizes the whole chapter: "those the LORD blesses will inherit the land, but those he curses will be cut off." In Old Testament Israel, "the land" was a prime component of God's covenant promise to Abraham. For Christians, it doesn't mean Palestine per se, but all God's inheritance for His saints - our needs, our daily bread. Jesus promised in the Sermon on the Mount that the meek are "blessed...for they will inherit the earth." (Mt 5:5) If we seek first God's kingdom and righteousness, He will take care of the things unbelievers worry about and run after - "What shall we eat?...What shall we wear?" (Mt 6:31ff)
The Psalm doesn't pretend things will be all rosey, or that we'll always be 'flush'. Just that God will help us through our challenges. V24, "though he stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand." We may still stumble, face challenges. Psalm 34(19) admits "A righteous man may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all..." Prov 24(16), "for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again..." I like the line from Batman Begins, "Why do we fall? So we can learn how to pick ourselves up again." But as a Christian, we have a Holy Helper, the Picker-upper Paraclete. Paul's experience was of being "persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed." (2Co 4:9)
Why does God bother? What motivates the Lord to have mercy on us when we do tumble? Look closely at v23: "If the Lord delights in a man's way, He makes his steps firm..." The righteous bring God DELIGHT. Proverbs 11(20) echoes, "The LORD detests men of perverse heart but he delights in those whose ways are blameless." (Pr 11:20) Parents are thrilled by their child's first word, first step, to see them graduate, even just to hear them on the other end of the phone. Likewise, God gets HIS jollies by observing His children, those who call Him "Abba, Father". V28, "For the LORD loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones." "The Lord upholds the righteous..." (17) He "exalts" or lifts you up 'to inherit the land' (34) We are held, supported by the Master's hand. Jesus declared that to those who listen to His voice and follow Him "I give...eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand." (Jn 10:28f) Isn't that precious? We're "un-snatchable"! The Message puts vv18&28 this way, "Yahweh keeps track of the decent folk...[He] never turns away from His friends."
When we stumble and fall in this life, our patient, loving heavenly Father lifts us up. He will most noticeably exalt us though at the end of time, when as Jesus says in contrast to the destiny of the wicked, "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." (Mt 13:43)
Knowing that it does pay to be good, that God will sort it all out and deal appropriately with the wicked in the long run and reward those who are His, motivates us to live for Him. God's blessing and endless support energize us to respond rightly to His kindness. Psalm 37 also hints at 6 ways we can respond, summarized by the letters TUGG-WD (tug-wood).
T is for TRUST Him. Vv3&5, "Trust in the Lord...Commit your way to the Lord, trust in Him." The Hebrew here has the sense "to roll upon, roll together". Think of it as being in a toboggan or wagon at the top of the hill. You can dally at the top of the hill as long as you want, but once you tip the toboggan and start rolling over the edge, you're committed - hang on for the ride! Keep trusting God, be fully committed to Him.
U is for Utter, how we speak. V30, "The mouth of the righteous man UTTERS wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just." Does what comes out of our mouth reflect what we purport to believe? Jesus said, "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him..." (Mt 12:34f) I was listening to a "Pastor to Pastor" tape in which HB London interviewed Annie Chapman, who advises parents-in-law to "bite your tongue...turn off the 'mommy' faucet." HB confessed there were times he and his wife disagreed with how their son and daughter-in-law were raising their grandchildren, and had bitten their tongues "pretty well all the way off." Be careful what you utter. As Paul advised, "Let your conversation be always full of grace..." (Col 4:6)
G is for "do GOOD": righteousness in the psalm isn't just a state before God, but involves action. V1, don't be envious of those who "do wrong"; by contrast, v3, those who trust in the Lord "do good". V27, "Turn from evil and do good..." Turning away from evil requires deliberate action, a choice to carry out what's good instead. Write that cheque. Make that phone call. Go see so-and-so, don't keep putting it off. The clock is ticking, so don't pass up the opportunity. Titus 2, God's grace teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives; Jesus "gave Himself for us to redeem us...and to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good." You don't get such an 'eager' reputation just by being a bump on a pew!
The second G is for Give. He gave Himself for us; now we give. V21, the stingy wicked don't repay, "but the righteous give generously..." 26, "They are always generous and lend freely..." Shirt-off-their-back types. Like the early church, they don't really count anything they have their "own", just a temporary entrustment (Ac 4:32). God told the Israelites to "be openhanded and freely lend [someone] whatever he needs...Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you..." (De 15:8,10) He who delights in us is noting our actions and will reward us; "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." (Mt 5:7) You can't take it with you, but you can send it on ahead!
W is for WAIT: 34, "Wait for the Lord and keep His way..." V7, "Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him..." The context suggests not taking one's own revenge when others 'do it to you'. David praised God for restraining him (with Abigail's help) from 'getting back' at Nabal for his unfair, rude, and insulting treatment of David's mobile security service; Nabal fell dead within 10 days. David was glad he waited.(1Sa 25:38f) Peterson translates v8, "Bridle your anger, trash your wrath, cool your pipes - it only makes things worse." Don't retaliate, but wait - and let the perfect Judge settle the score.
Last, D is for DELIGHT. We've seen that God delights in us (23); likewise, the righteous delight in God. I like the way John Piper's ministry puts it, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." V4 says, "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart." The Hebrew verb means "to take exquisite delight." What form does that take? V31 tells us what's on the heart of God's followers: "The law of his God is in his heart..." Treasure what He says, the great truths He wants to show you in the Bible. Make God's priorities your priorities. This ties in with Him giving you "the desires of your heart": if you want what God wants, informed by His word, of course He's going to be answering your prayers because you're both on the same page. 1John5(14f) says, "This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will [that is, it's in line with Scripture and the Kingdom agenda], he hears us. And if we know that he hears us-- whatever we ask-- we know that we have what we asked of him."
What Matters Most
Many people think money matters most, and greed fuels much of the world's wickedness. But Jesus criticized the rich fool for storing up things for himself but not being "rich toward God" (Lk 12:21). Really, in the long run, it's not money that matters most but trusting and delighting in the Lord, doing good as He leads.
The story is told of a businessman who had an angel come to visit him, an angel that promised to grant him one request. The man requested a coy of the stock-market quotes for one year in the future. A sheet of newspaper was handed to him, and the angel left. As the businessman was eagerly studying the one-year-later prices on the stock exchanges, he boasted of his plans, his shrewdness, and the increased riches that would be his as a result of his 'insider' look into the future.
He then glanced across the newspaper page, only to see his own name listed in the obituary column. Suddenly, in light of his certain death, money was no longer so important! Let's pray.