The Taste of Heaven
"The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein forever." — Psalm 37:29
Some ideas really grate on modern-day Gnostic Christianity—for instance, even to whisper that the promises of God might contain something physical. Still, I can’t shake the idea. I understand that the land God gave to the ancient Hebrews only foreshadows the True Promised Land that we receive from Christ, Eden restored. It is the taste of heaven that lingers on our tongue and whets our appetite for the meal to come.
So I keep asking myself about Psalm 37. Why does the psalmist fit possessing land so tightly to blessedness? What’s more, he doesn’t point to some land in general, but to a place certain. Blessedness (it seems) arises not merely from living on the land, but also from owning a certain bit of ground. What’s more, it must pass to your children and their children. Now I certainly don’t aim at erecting any new heresy here (“Groundism?” “Landolatry?”), but ponder with me how often this picture arises in this psalm.
A STRANGE COINCIDENCE
Weird, isn’t it, that both Psalm 37 and Psalm 73 answer the same question: how do we handle the prosperity of the wicked? How should we react when the wicked ride high, and usually, roughshod over us? Both psalms warn us about the temptation to believe that God is powerless or indifferent. Where Psalm 73 spotlights the wicked in his prosperity and the suddenness of his downfall, Psalm 37 focuses on the duty of God’s people while they wait for his judgment, and the reward they can expect.
Now I cheerfully admit that you can read these psalms on two levels, temporal and eternal, but that still doesn’t erase the temporal. Both psalms command certain behavior on our part, and promise a gracious reward.
The first line of Psalm 37 summarizes it all: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.” A reason—a good, sound reason—is attached to this command: “For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb.
Here the psalmist begins to plait an intricate web that weaves through the whole psalm. Over and over he compares the fate and progress of the godly versus the ungodly, and declares how God deals with them both.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO WHEN THE WICKED PROSPER?
Don’t fret. You! Believer! Put your trust in the Lord (v. 3, 4, 5, 7, 35, 41) and do good; “dwell in the land” and God will feed you. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Don’t let the wicked distract you, keep on doing your duty, and you will continue to thrive in the land.
On the other hand, although the wicked appear to prosper, it can’t last. Their prosperity has no staying power (v. 2) and suddenly they will vanish utterly (v. 10, 20). When you look for the wicked, you won’t be able to find him or even the place where he lived (v. 10, 37). You will look for him and he “shall be clean gone” (v. 10). (At least, that’s what the 1538 Coverdale Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer says. The Authorized Version—“King James”—says it differently, but the Coverdale Psalter almost always expresses itself clearer and more forcefully.)
ROOTED OR UPROOTED?
Like a golden thread one very strong image weaves its way through the psalm: the godly will put down roots while God will uproot the wicked. The ungodly and their children will be rooted out, never finding any permanent place to grow (v. 9, 10, 12, 14, 22, 29, 33). Even though the wicked may appear to take root, even springing into a flourishing tree, still he will suddenly vanish. You won’t even be able to find the place where the tree used to stand (v. 36, 37).
The wicked cannot lastingly possess any place certain, but is condemned to wander and die still lacking a lasting seat of rest. Over and over the psalmist repeats this ultimate curse, that the wicked and their children shall be rooted out (v. 22).
Meanwhile, what about God’s people? He will not only cause them to put roots down, he will also cause them to inherit the land and “dwell forevermore” (v. 27). That makes sense: no dirt, no roots. While the place of the wicked vanishes utterly, the meek-spirited (those trusting in God and obeying him) will be refreshed in their place with “a multitude of peace.” The ultimate blessing God pronounces on his people is that they will possess the land (v. 22), and their children also. God’s gracious covenant hunts so tenaciously through time that even the children of the righteous enjoy it (v. 25, 26).
Not to hammer the point too flat, the psalmist associates blessedness with
- owning the land,
- a particular piece of land,
- the one where you belong, and no other, almost as much as it belongs to you, and
- you will possess it in peace, in fact, refreshed (made fresh over and over) in peace, undisturbed, unmolested even to children’s children.
THE WICKED ARE ALWAYS BUSY
But while God is busy blessing his people, the ungodly busy themselves plotting and conspiring against them. They hate the godly’s very existence (v. 12), but God laughs their fury to scorn (v. 13). Every weapon the wicked aims against the godly only backfires (v. 14-15). It conjures up pictures of those huge boulders the Coyote hung over the highway to crush the Roadrunner—you remember, the ones that bounced off the springboard and up to the mountain peak to unerringly land back on the Coyote.
THE LAND IS THE POINT
Verse 35 captures the whole burden of the psalm: “Hope thou in the LORD, and keep his way, and he shall promote thee, that thou shalt possess the land; when the ungodly shall perish, thou shalt see it.” Notice the reward for the steadfast: possessing the land.
HARD TO GRASP?
Is this bond to a fixed plot of earth really so alien to us, or does it answer some ancestral longing? What do we mean by “holy ground”? Country people speak of a “home place” even to the third and fourth generations who have only visited that place. How closely do we associate happiness with certain places? Indeed, what place on earth could possibly contain more happiness than that place (and only that certain place) where you enjoy life with your family? It leaves the taste of heaven lingering on our lips and hearts.
God, we are told, fashioned Adam out of the dust—dust to which he must return. Then he “planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man.” It’s a leap, I know, but I wonder still: Don’t we all remember that garden? Why does the whiff of a rose or a glance down a tree-strewn valley or the mysterious fog creeping across a meadow rouse in us that pale shadow-feeling that we’ve stood here before, and here is home? Don’t we all long to be, once and for all, put in our place? The rush of traffic and the dizzying exchange of place for place distracts our hearts, but still this promise woos us,
“Thou shalt possess the land.”