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October 17, 2021 | Doug Sauder
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Have you ever entered a conversation midway? I often find one of two things happens when I’m in that situation: Either 1) I think to myself, What did I just walk into? as I hear something said in a vacuum that simply doesn’t make any sense to me or 2) I think I know what they’re talking about and then I chime in, only to discover I didn’t have all the facts.
In both cases, a misinterpretation or misunderstanding took place because I didn’t have a full picture of what was being discussed. In scenario 1, I pondered what I had walked into because I had heard something completely out of context. In scenario 2, I thought I understood the entirety of the conversation or the point being made based on a single sentence or two from within a much larger dialogue.
One of the first things I was taught in seminary—something that was repeated over and over again in a multitude of classes—is just how dangerous it is to do this with the Bible.
In our latest edition of the “Context is Key” series, we’re going to look at a verse from Psalms that is constantly misinterpreted, misused, and misunderstood:
"Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”—Psalm 37:4 (ESV)
Today, we’re going to try to put that verse back into the larger context from which it’s constantly pulled. We’re going to see what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and why taking it out of context can be so dangerous and damaging to our faith.
Oh, how beautiful the truth of this verse is, but also how dangerous when taken out of context! In a vacuum, it’s very easy to look at this verse independent from the whole psalm it’s pulled from and conclude that if you’re a Christian, God is simply going to give you whatever you want. After all, it does say that if we delight in Him, we’ll get everything our heart desires.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be awesome if God was like our own personal genie? It wouldn’t! As a parent of a five-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl, whom both love me very much, I want to give them everything they want. But as an adult—who sees a lot more than they do, understands the world better than they do, can see around corners and has experienced things they can’t yet fathom, and understands all actions have consequences—I know better than to give them whatever they want.
I know that if my son asks me to give him cake and ice cream before dinner, it will prevent him from eating the things his body actually needs in order to grow and be healthy. So, I don’t; not because I don’t want him to be happy, but because I know it’s not what he needs. If I obliged my daughter when she demands I give her the knife I’m using to dice potatoes, or the razor I’m using to shave my face, or to put her hands on the barbeque, I’d be a terrible, no-good, horrible dad. In the same way, if God gives us everything our hearts desire, He wouldn’t be a very good God.
Consider what Jeremiah says in Jeremiah 17:9 (NLT), which is reiterated all throughout this book: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked.” Think about it: Just like a child, we don’t know what’s best for us. We’re constantly changing our minds because we can only see a fraction of the picture. We have tunnel vision. But God sees everything. He knows our motivations, what’s best for us, and what will grow us and build us up into the people He wants us to be. More often than not, that doesn’t line up with the desires of my heart.
I can tell you for a fact that if God had granted every desire of my heart over the last 32 years, it would not have been pretty. Even as someone who loves the Lord, I am human, imperfect, selfish, and fickle. I can acknowledge that being given all the desires of my heart wouldn’t be beneficial, productive, or valuable for me or anyone else. And if I can see that, God surely knows it.
When taken out of context, this verse can be very dangerous, because it can trend towards a “prosperity gospel.” In an article in the Washington Post, Cathleen Falsani wrote, “The ‘prosperity gospel,’ an insipid heresy whose popularity among American Christians has boomed in recent years, teaches that God blesses those God favors most with material wealth . . . Few theological ideas ring more dissonant with the harmony of orthodox Christianity than a focus on storing up treasures on Earth as a primary goal of faithful living. The gospel of prosperity turns Christianity into a vapid bless-me club, with a doctrine that amounts to little more than spiritual magical thinking: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich.”
When we take Psalm 37:4 out of context and examine it on an island, it’s very easy to fall prey to the type of mentality that says God will bless me financially and give me everything on my wish list. No! This interpretation and view of Scripture is the antithesis of biblical truth, my friends! It stands in complete opposition to the teaching of Christ and the life He modeled. It’s a far cry from the reality of the Word.
Psalm 37 in Context
This psalm was written by David in his old age. Now, while most of the verses make up complete thoughts, it’s also what is called an alphabetical psalm, which means the first letters of the verses follow the Hebrew alphabet. This was commonly done in this type of ancient writing as a way of helping the concept stick in the mind. As such, it was meant to be read as a whole.
According to Charles Spurgeon, “It is a Psalm in which the Lord hushes most sweetly the too common repinings of his people, and calms their minds as to his present dealings with his own chosen flock, and the wolves by whom they are surrounded.”
Within the larger narrative of what Spurgeon describes as the “great riddle of the prosperity of the wicked and the affliction of the righteous,” Psalm 37:1–6 (ESV) tell us, “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. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. 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.”
From the beginning, David tells us not to fret because of evildoers, and more importantly, not to envy them. This is a major theme of Psalm 37—not getting upset when evil people find earthly success and prosperity and faithful followers of God don’t. This psalm is specifically speaking to people who feel disillusioned and wonder why the wicked prosper while they, along with many other righteous people, seem to receive no earthly rewards for their faithfulness.
Here’s where the issue of tunnel vision we spoke of earlier comes into play. We often see success, prosperity, and the desires of our heart through earthly lenses. And in our tunnel vision, we tend to forget that not all rewards come to us during this lifetime. So, we look on at the earthly success of the wicked and become discouraged. The same was happening in David’s day.
This psalm talks about how God will “bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” It constantly reminds us that the righteous will inherit the earth and will delight in abundant peace. This psalm is also filled with references to judgment and eternal life, making it clear that prosperity and the desires of our heart in this context refer to something much deeper and greater than earthly gain.
Does this mean God won’t give us what is considered prosperity on earth? No, it doesn’t! He can and often does. Many believers have been entrusted with earthly treasures, to be stewards of considerable resources. However, it’s not a guarantee or a necessity—and in fact, for some it may be a deterrent and stumbling block in their walk with God. In many cases, earthly desires and prosperity actually lead us astray from the Lord instead of drawing us to Him.
So what does this verse truly mean in the overall context of the picture David is painting for God’s people?
The Hebrew word for “delight” comes from the root anog, which means “to be soft or pliable.” Thus, to delight yourself in the Lord means to be clay in His hands, to make yourself pliable to His molding and shaping of your heart, mind, and life. It means to be soft-hearted, completely open to His refining fire, to His potter’s touch.
So, by the time we get to part two of this verse, the desires of our heart are no longer like a wish list. Instead, the desires of our heart look more like Galatians 5:22–23, Matthew 5:1–12, and 1 Timothy 3. The desires of our heart would be, like Paul’s heart, which says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . .” (Philippians 3:8–9 ESV). This is what the pliable heart that delights in God looks like!
This passage within the greater context of the psalm is a conditional promise from God. When we make ourselves completely soft-hearted and pliable to His molding, when the desires of our heart are to know Christ more intimately, to be conformed to His image, and to experience the power of His resurrection in our daily lives, He promises to oblige! We do not get the benefit of the promise unless we commit our ways to Him and offer ourselves up like clay into His hands.
So, what should we do with this? Simple . . . make yourself clay in God’s hands! Make knowing Christ your single-minded focus, your sole desire, your heart’s great delight, and pursue this desire with all your heart! When you do, He will grant this desire, and I promise you will experience a flood of peace, satisfaction, fulfillment, joy, and enjoyment like you never thought possible, the kind no other earthly treasure could ever even come close to providing!
If you have any questions regarding this topic, feel free to send me an e-mail at DanielS@CalvaryFTL.org.
Danny Saavedra has served on the staff of Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.