In listening for God’s word to you in Holy Scripture, always check the context of a verse that comes to your attention. There is a potentially dangerous promise in Psalm 37:4 that almost invites us to misunderstand it. It says, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” But bear this in mind; the Lord, in His love and holiness, knows the desires of your heart and he knows better than you the danger that some of your desires would reap. In order to understand this particular verse, you have to read it in the context of the rest of the Psalm, and in the larger context of Holy Scripture.
There is the story of the old woman who had a not uncommon devotional custom. She would close her eyes, open the bible at random, and place her finger somewhere on the page, open her eyes and read God’s word for her that day. After all, she heard that it worked once for St. Augustine, so it ought to work for her. At the turning point of Augustine’s conversion, he heard children’s voices chanting “Lift! Look!” He rushed to take up “the book of the Apostle” and read the first verse his eyes fell upon and his life was forever changed.
But the old woman was not St. Augustine. She closed her eyes, opened her bible, put her finger on the page, opened her eyes and read that Judas, “went and hanged himself.” Not finding that particularly edifying she tried the same method again, and read, “You go, and do likewise." She gave God another chance to speak, closed her eyes, opened her bible, put her finger on a text, opened her eyes and read, “What you are going to do, do quickly."
If you want God to speak to you through Holy Scripture read systematically by reading His word in the appointed Psalms and the lectionary readings of the Daily Office; or if you are reading Scripture apart from the Offices, read it systematically, not haphazardly. Don’t just read a verse or a paragraph, read the whole chapter, or the whole epistle, or the whole book. And if you really want to know for yourself what God is saying, read the whole Bible and see the larger context. It is also helpful to consult a good commentary. For that purpose, I recommend: http://biblehub.com/commentaries/.
Does God promise willy-nilly whatever our hearts desire if we delight in Him? Familiarize yourself with the context of the verse that has drawn your attention and check the overall teaching of Holy Scripture on the subject. The promise in Psalm 37:4 is for those who delight in the Lord, and not in themselves. That immediately saves a lot of trouble. The Apostle John says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” [1 John 5:14-15]. As much as I might like an Aston Martin One-77 it may not be God’s will for me have one; especially seeing that the cost is $1.85 Million.
What is the context of our promise, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart”? This Psalm was written for those who are suffering at the hands of the wicked, and its counsel and its promises should be understood in that context. It begins, “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” [Psalm 37:1-3]. If that is your situation “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” But hear also both the immediate and larger context of this Psalm,
“Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. 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! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil” [Psalm 37:5-8].
The Psalm has several similar promises, among them, “For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land” [Psalm 37:5-9].
There is however something very serious in the larger context that needs to be considered. How do we understand this Psalm and other similar passages in the light of the ongoing testimony of the martyrs, not just in years gone by, but in this present day? After all this Psalm must be placed in the context of the teaching of Jesus who said,
“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake” [Matthew 24:6-9].
To put flesh on the bones on the promise in Psalm 37; in our diocese we are praying for the mother of one of our priests who is from an area where there is savage persecution by radical Muslims. The mother of this priest came to visit in the United States and accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior. On returning to her home a number of her friends have also accepted Christ. Join us in praying for the protection of these new Christians, “For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever” [Psalm 37:28-29].
Yet sometimes the way before us is hard, and in the words of Psalm 42 I pray for myself and others, “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” [Psalm 42:7-8]. However, we do not always get the deliverance that we pray for. St. Paul endured many things including eventual martyrdom; yet Paul also testifies,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Romans 8:35-39].
Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is indeed the point. Sooner or later, and most of us hope later, everyone has to die. The basic question is, “In what do we put our trust?” This life is transitory. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” [Matthew 10:28], and Jesus provides us with a model, saying, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [Matthew 16:24].
That brings us back around to the original promise, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” If we truly delight in the Lord, the desires of our hearts will be to do His will, whatever that is in our current situations, and we will pray with the Christ, “Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, "Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” [Psalm 40:6-8].
what an amazing thing!
In my darkness Light has shone
illuminating the way before me.
Adoring I gaze upon Him,
And I am becoming
Light and Love in Him.
In the discomfort of transformation
I ask myself. What can I do
To drop again into darkness
That I might be comfortable again?
But the Light catches me,
And Love envelops me,
And draws me up again.
There is a rhythm in the soul;
God’s Love crashing
on the stony shore of my heart
Drawing away the flotsam and jetsam
Of my past and washing it clean.
I throw myself into Love’s wave
Rejoicing, and I am made new.