Some Old Testament parables tell a complete story, e.g., Jotham’s parable of the trees crowning a king. Others, such as those in Psalm 37 are short and sometimes even appear terse. Whether long or short, each parable has a spiritual message that unfolds through ideas, incidents, or natural objects in the physical world. In Psalm 37 King David included three parables of one to two verses each. These short parables compared wicked, ruthless men to plants.
As we read reading Psalm 37, we imagine an older and wiser King David. He is no longer the brash aspirant to Israel’s throne or a newly crowned king. This King David comes across as a person has seen a wide range of events and people in his life time. David has dealt with his sin of having Uriah killed so he could marry Bathsheba. He knew his daughter was raped and subsequently dealt with the murder of Crown Prince Amnon. King David was deposed at Israel’s king and fought a heart-breaking battle to regain the throne. God, who David adored, told David that his hands were too bloody to build God’s temple.
Many of King David’s words were written as praise or prayers addressed to God (Adeyemo, 2006). In contrast, Psalm 37 is a teaching directed toward all who will listen. The 40 verses contain a number of separate thoughts loosely organized around a central theme. The theme is problems that result when good people see wicked, godless people prosper. Notice, that through David’s psalm God views righteous (good) versus wicked, ruthless individuals differently:
“Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like
the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away”
(Psalm 37:1-2 NIV).
“But the wicked will perish: The LORD’s enemies will be like the beauty of
the fields, they will vanish” (Psalm 37:20 NIV).
Psalm 37 begins with a parable in verses 1 and 2. Evil men are compared to grass which will soon withers and dies away. When I lived in San Francisco, plants bloomed all year around because of continuous rain and moisture in the air. It was difficult for me to imagine grass withering and field flowers fading (verse 20). But, sometime I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and travel up Highway 80 into the Sacramento Valley. In July, August, and even into September and October, the grass along the highway was brown and appeared dead. Few if any wildflowers grew along the highway.
The same was true of David’s Israel. There, the rains came October through March. At that time, the grass was green and flourished. As spring progresses into summer, the grass turned brown from the scorching heat of the sun and paucity of rain. The beauty of the fields to include any wild flowers that grew there, dried and turned brown. David identified that wicked men will vanish like the beauty of the fields (Psalm 37:20), i.e., in the heat of summer with little rain fall, plants turn into brown straw.
David’s third plant parable, verses 35-36, is the most complete. In it David compared wicked and ruthless men to a green tree in its native soil; but, over time these men disappear. In some Bibles (KJV and ESV), green tree is translated as a green bay tree. Characteristics of the bay laurel tree make it a fitting comparison to the transience of wicked, ruthless men.
“I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its
native soil, but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for
him, he could not be found” (Psalm 37:35-36 NIV).
In both the KJV and ESV versions of the Bible, green tree is translated as green laurel tree. In Israel, laurel trees are Laurus nobilis, called the sweet bay laurel because bay leaves come from the tree. Laurel trees grew on Mount Hermon, in the Judean and Samarian mountains, and in the Jordan Valley. Although laurel trees grow in a wide variety of soils, they thrive in moisture-retentive soils. The laurel is an evergreen tree that can grow 60 feet tall; however, most are much smaller at eight-to-twelve feet. Left unattended, laurel trees can form a small thicket. One way to identify a laurel tree is to bruise or cut a leaf and smell the sweet aroma; the aroma is of a bay leaf.
One of the most important attributes of laurel trees—and one that King David apparently knew—was that laurel trees thrive where they are planted. They tend to wilt and even die if they are moved repeatedly. Ideally, gardeners plant laurel trees and allow them to grow in place. Laurel trees prefer partial shade. Although they tolerate strong winds, laurel trees haven’t adapted to maritime exposure. The tree is frost-sensitive. A few master gardeners including myself planted laurel trees here in the Roanoke Valley. Although smaller laurel trees tolerated several of our (plant zones seven) winters, all died after a few years. We learned that in the Roanoke valley, laurel trees grow best in protected areas such as next to a building.
King David said that he saw wicked and ruthless men who flourished like a green laurel tree in its native soil. Probably, he was thinking of a mature laurel tree with a broad canopy and numerous branches. This tree never suffered the setback from being transplanting. Likewise, prosperous, wicked men never seemed to suffer set-backs. They achieved wealth and influence, caring little who they step on in the process. In spite of their seeming charmed lives, David noted that later he looked for these wicked men. They were gone. David concluded that wicked men don’t endure; they have no staying power. Perhaps, like a laurel tree wicked men can’t tolerate adversity—they are frost sensitive—and only flourish in a narrow environment.
In the threee these parables in Psalm 37, King David went beyond identifying the puzzle of seeing wicked ones prospering. In verse eight David elaborated on advice he gave in verse one. David said not to fret when evil men prosper because fretting leads to evil. When David said evil, he meant anger, resentful, or mimicking wicked and ruthless men’s business practices. Instead refrain from anger and hope in the Lord. When we hope in the Lord we take our bad as well as good times to him. We take our cares and our joys.
The spiritual focus of these parables is: righteous men and women’s incentive to act right (using biblical moral-ethical standards) comes from knowing that ultimate power on earth and in heaven is in the hands of a just God. Even if the righteous person doesn’t experience worldly prosperity, they will be rewarded in heaven for how they acted on earth. In a later Psalm, David averred that the righteous flourish like a palm tree and like a cedar of Lebanon planted in the Lord’s house (Psalm 92:12-14). Righteous men bear fruit in old age and stay both fresh and green.
In contrast to King David’s parables that speak to the transience of wicked men, probably each us have seen such men and woman thrived their entire career, even life. Was David wrong in verses 35-36? What did he mean? MacDonald (1990) wrote that King David may have been stating a general principle. He noted that Holy Scripture often makes sweeping statements; it describes a general, or normal, outwork of spiritual laws. Exceptions don’t disprove the overall principles.
Reflection: Have you studied the behavior of wicked persons? Do they have staying power?
Copyright: September 12, 2015; Carolyn A. Roth