Psalm 37 continues in the same theme as Psalm 36, the contrast between the evildoer and the righteous (v.1). Adam Clarke notes that the Psalm may have been written by David on behalf of Mephibosheth who, being falsely accused by his servant Ziba, had formed the resolution to leave a land where he had met with such bad treatment. David was convinced of Mephibosheth’s innocence. It is also likely to be addressed to the captives in Babylon, signalling the promise of their return to their own land.
Yet, David knows the heart of the reader – that our heart is that of a sinner, and we are inclined towards sinful flesh. Why else would we be envious (v.1)? That is because their joys seem immediate, that their legitimate desires are illegitimately obtained at first sight. The transitory nature of their sin is exposed by David in v.2 – “for they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.“, immediately followed by the statement that one should trust in the LORD and do good, and “dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness“.
The theme of dwelling in the land is repeated a number of times in this chapter – v.3, and inheriting the land under v.9, 11, 29, and 34. Contrast this with the temporary nature of wickedness, however desirable their current state of things may seem – v. 2 (they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb); v. 9 (the evildoers shall be cut off); v.10 (in just a little while, the wicked will be no more); v.13 (the LORD laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming); v.20 (the wicked will perish… they vanish – like smoke they vanish away); v.35 (a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree); v.36 (such wicked man passing away, and behold, he was no more); v.38 (the future of the wicked shall be cut off).
The inheritance of the land is something which hails from as early as Exodus 32:13, which in turn refers to the promises made in Genesis – “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.” (based on Genesis 12:7, 13:15, 15:7). In Deuteronomy 5 this is also particular linked to v. 16 (earlier stated in Exodus 20:12), where it states, “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” Indeed, this is consistent with this important commandment, so that one’s “days may be long“, unlike the withering days of the wicked.
V.7 speaks particularly to me – “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!“. How often is it that I would like to take matters into my own hand, as if the LORD is slow to fulfill His promises! Yet, even such temporary prosperity is within the LORD’s sovereignty and plan; the righteous man who hides in Christ shall see to it that he will last with Him who is everlasting. Such fretting and impatience would only tend to evil (v.8), as we will not be put to shame (v.19), and in the days of famine – just as in Abraham’s time – we will have abundance, but those who align with the enemy will perish (Genesis 26 and 41). Even a man established by the LORD may fall, but not be cast headlong, for the LORD upholds his hand (v.24) – the child of the Father, the co-heir of Christ, shall not be forsaken nor beg for bread, just as our Saviour was not forsaken on the cross nor his children begged for bread, as He sang Psalm 22:1, but was convicted of the Father’s holiness in Psalm 22:3, that the Father remains enthroned upon the praises of Israel. So the law of the LORD is in the righteous man’s heart just as it is firstly in the heart of Christ, the One Whom we imitate (Psalm 119: 9-11).
Note, in particular, v.35 – the reference to the “green laurel tree” (in the KJV, it is “green bay tree“, and in the NASB it is “luxuriant tree“). The Hebrew word for “luxuriant” also means “to be green, verdant” or, by analogy, “new” and figuratively, “prosperous“. This plays into the same theme as the chapter, as the wicked man may spread like a prosperous tree, but he shall pass away. Typically, a green laurel tree is associated to the Resurrection of Christ in certain Christian traditions, as the never-wilting laurel tree leaf symbolizes the eternal nature of the Son of God, and often a wreath of laurels is granted to victors in ancient contests.
Matthew Henry comments that David may have been referring to Saul who, in great power was the terror of the mighty in the land of the living, and who seemed to have been firmly fixed and finely flourishing, although producing all leaves and no fruit, like a native home-born Israelite, likely to take root. Yet, what became of him? Eliphaz, long before, had learned that when he saw the foolish taking root, his habitation is cursed (Job 5:3). Thus, Matthew Henry continues, that such bay-tree would wither away as soon as the fruitless fig-tree which Christ cursed (Mark 11).
Adam Clarke, on the other hand, refers us to the vision of the great tree in Daniel:
v. 35 – Does not this refer to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and to the vision he had of the great tree which was in the midst of the earth, the head of which reached up to heaven (Daniel 4:10)?
Yet, such great tree met its own demise (Daniel 4:14-17), as the tree is the king of Babylon (Daniel 4:22), cut down by an angelic watcher, a holy one, who descends from heaven, to be given over to the mind of a beast (Daniel 4:23-25). Just as the king of Babylon is advised to break away from his sins, so the wicked shall be warned to do the same, lest their temporary prosperity be cut short by the One sent from above.