The Key to Not Being a Bad Bible Reader

Psalm 37:8 is one of the most important illustrations of the most important concept in my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. As I’ve been working on promoting the book, I’ve been talking about Psalm 37:8 in the KJV again and again. I’ve recited it probably 50 times to various people in the last year as I’ve explained my project:

Cease from anger and forsake wrath; fret not thyself in any wise to do evil. (Psalm 37:8 KJV)

But on Sunday at my church we read through the entire psalm in a contemporary translation and I, to my chagrin, noticed something: I’d spent so much time quoting the verse that I’d forgotten the context. I’d violated the cardinal rule of Bible interpretation. Bad Bible reader! Bad!

By itself Psalm 37:8 sounds oracular, proverbial. It sounds like a memory verse for a guy who is prone to blowing up at his kids. At least the first half of the verse sounds good for that purpose:

Cease from anger and forsake wrath.

The second half of the verse—again, taken by itself—sounds like a memory verse for someone who can’t stop worrying. The passage of years has made the English in this clause rather difficult to follow (impossible, I’d say, hence the illustration in Authorized), but “don’t worry” is basically what I’m getting out of it:

Fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.

If you feel that this is a slightly odd or random juxtaposition—don’t be angry; don’t worry—you’ve picked up a clue that you’re missing some context.

That’s because proverbs do not usually lurch from one topic (anger) to another (worry) for no reason. The two halves of a Hebrew verset are normally linked conceptually, with something stronger than “here are two random sins you should not commit.” So where’s the link here?

Well, the two concepts in this verse are linked, but to find that link you have to broaden your reading out to the context.

Looking at the whole paragraph is a great start. Take a look at how the NIV Reader’s Bible I had at church on Sunday formats verse 8 together with two more lines from verse 9:

Psalm 37:8 starts to make more sense when considered in light of its paragraph. The anger and worry in those first two lines are related to the work of the evildoers in the third line. Believers in the one true God don’t need to be angry at such people, because they “will be destroyed.” They don’t need to worry in the face of that evil, because “those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.”

Of course, that’s what the whole of Psalm 37 is about: the faithful and hopeful way righteous people should respond when it appears that the wicked are getting the upper hand. The command in that verse I’ve been repeating—“Cease from anger and forsake wrath”—is not a catch-all forbidding every kind of anger: anger against kids, anger against dumb drivers, anger against NBA refs. No, the anger the psalmist is discouraging is the anger that wells up when you watch the wicked get away with wickedness—“when people,” as the previous paragraph says, “carry out their wicked schemes.”

Use

The rest of Scripture shows that some righteous anger is good: the Levite Phinehas’ angry zeal for righteousness (see Numbers 25) led him to perform a violent act of retribution that pleased the Lord and turned back divine wrath against a deeply sinful Israelite nation.

But I’ve always felt it helpful to remember, both as a personal and a hermeneutical rule, Paul’s words: “Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath” (Eph 4:26). I think it was okay for Phinehas to be angry (and for imprecatory psalmists, and for Jesus when he denounced the Pharisees and cleansed the temple) because he didn’t hold on to his anger. If he had not been capable of doing something righteous with that anger, he would have had to simmer down and leave the problem in God’s hands. No one is supposed to maintain a state of anger or worry.

As I sat listening to my pastor read with feeling and expression through the entire psalm, I thought to myself, Psalm 37:8 wipes out a ton of talk radio. I’m not picking on conservatives or liberals; both of them seem to me to be guilty of whipping up anger at their demonic enemies and stirring up worry over their terrible machinations. Enemies are real; machinations happen—and the Bible urges us to take up the cause of the oppressed. But this verse, and the whole psalm, specifically tell us not to be angered by the wicked or worry about them in an ongoing way—because “their day is coming.”

What would a political TV show look like if the host were guided by Psalm 37? The show would not deny the reality of evil or encourage an escapist quietude. It just wouldn’t foment a bunch of alarm—anger and worry.

Conclusion

We don’t check the context of a biblical statement just because the Bible has more to tell us, although that’s always true. We check it because we won’t get what it’s telling us in the first place unless we pay careful attention to the flow of thought in a given biblical passage.

Be a good Bible reader.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Comments

  1. We still need to be careful. Psa 37 and the imprecatory Psalms never (if I remember right) are for us to attack. It is the Lord who will deal with them, not me offended person. Consider Romans 12:17ff, especially verse 19. Also see 2 Timothy 2:25 and Galatians 6:1

    17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
    18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
    19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.
    20 “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.”
    21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ro 12:17–21.

    • Right on. That’s a great cross-reference—and a theme that lies at the heart of Psalm 37. I can cease from anger and forsake wrath because God will execute all the final judgment necessary, not me. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • When I consider God’s economy, He takes what is meant to be evil and uses it for good. The beauty from ashes promise from God is a part of our worldview that makes us the odd-balls in society. When evil rears it’s ugly head Christians do not respond in self righteous anger and worry by reacting through fleshly acts that bring filthy rags, but by searching for righteous acts, unto the Lord, for the Lord and by His grace. If we do not know what to do, we seek wise counsel (opposed to the “wise to evil”) through godly men, resisting worry through prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.

  2. Lady Tess 57 says:

    Thank you a very balance view that we all can apply. My gratitude sir. I can always use balanced advice and discernment principles.

  3. Not just final judgment. I am convinced that we are to forsake any condemnation of a fellow Christian. We are to gently instruct not condemn.
    A pastor friend of mine disallows the phrase “Church discipline” he insists that one think of “loving restoration.”
    I work with some “post-church Christians.” They are all most always “post-church” because of condemnation by some local church or its members. These guys are dearly in love with God, Jesus, and Bible, they should not be the object of condemnation but loving restoration. PS. I am not post-church.

  4. Michael Hennessey says:

    Our Church Body is in the process of falling many other denominations in reinterpreting a portion of the Bible. My concern is by accepting the decision though I believe it wrong then I am losing my soul.
    What you write seems to say it is not my place to judge, so by staying with the church, I am not in danger as I am leaving it up to God.

    • There are other passages that speak to error within the church, such as 2 Thess 3:6, 14. This is a passage about how to react to overtly wicked and ungodly people, not fellow Christians. Does that help?

  5. Michael Hennessey says:

    Thanks

  6. Edward Hatch says:

    I couldn’t tell from the context whether we were not supposed to be angry at evil people or if, rather, our anger and wrath would turn us into evil people.

  7. I appreciate your article, and do so agree about the importance of context and not pulling a verse apart and away from the whole of a paragraph. I Likewise in reading the whole of this Psalm, and agreeing with the main idea of this Psalm of David as you say: “…specifically tell us not to be angered by the wicked or worry about them in an ongoing way—because “their day is coming.”
    I would however consider that this verse in question (vs.8) could be in fact a type of divine juxtaposition. That is in consideration that fretting and anger, just as with having emotional excitement induced by intense displeasure i.e. being mad and worrying, both do go hand in hand.
    In fact I myself have depression, and in my worrying be it of any kind, tends me toward getting angry. Even so when I fail to cease myself or refrain from that anger I become succumbed in mine wrath, wherein my words or actions that come next are always evil. Which kind of makes sense in the scheme of human experience. For indeed envy, pride, and lust do stem from one not having what they want, or have a lacking in like peace and pleasure i.e. that they think they deserve. Here these not uncommon to sinful men tendencies do seem to produce evil that finds its beginnings from sinful worry and anger, or anger and fretting.
    Consider Anger here (Psalm 37:8) before fret in word. Does it not make sense that if one is worrying about anything i.e. “…in any wise…” does tend toward “… to do evil…” stepping forward from angry continually (here relatively) unto and into a state of anger/wrath (staunch stance). Therein evil doing is always one step closer in word and or deed. Which concerning anger fits well with Ephesians 4:26.
    So yes in context this truth holds, yet even, so the general statement, kind of like as you reference Ephesians 4:26 (even vs 27), does fit. Kind of like interjections of generality put forth, almost out of the topic at hand in both Paul’s words and David’s!
    For I wonder about many such sections of Paul’s writings, when he seems to jump or side step his topic, to make proverbial type absolute truth statements, worth memorizing, or to be remembered such as: , “Watch ye stand fast in the faith, quit ye like men, be strong, let all your things be done with charity” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). (Yes I use the KJV)
    So I would suggest that you were right, and are right in your usage, memorization and contextual reading and understanding of Psalm 37. And in view of your fitting wording that is “…there day is coming…” I consider myself, my depression, my worrying, and mine anger, and yes in the right context, as Christians our day is coming and my day is coming and to this I say AMEN>

    keith