Psalm 37: Blessed are the meek

Reading: Psalm 37

If we listen to how Jesus opens the sermon on the mount, we quickly learn that he is teaching something that is far removed from more conventional wisdom. Jesus tells us that the poor, those who mourn, and the meek are all blessed. Jesus — as you can tell basically quotes Psalm 37:11 when he says: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.”

For us English speakers, most of us would not consider being called ‘meek’ a complement. In English, it suggests that the person is submissive, and weak spirited. Nietzsche suggests that praising meekness is offering a slave morality: the meek are better slaves. Needless to say, meekness as a virtue runs counter to everything we know.

When I looked at this, I had to ask myself what it means to be meek. I have an English dictionary, but sometimes words do not translate perfectly. The word that is translated meek is used many times in the Old Testament. The word is used to describe the state of powerless people, living under oppression. The word is also translated as humble — and is used to describe Moses as in: “now Moses was the most humble man in the world.”

What I can say about the meek is that they have not yet come into their inheritance. The people who currently seem to own the world tend to be arrogant, self-serving, and often violent. One challenge I have when election time comes is that it seems that everybody running for office is a politician. No matter how often the politicians are voted out, they are replaced with an unending supply of new ones. For some reason, humility and gentleness seem to be rare traits.

Psalm 37 also seems to have a family resemblance to Psalm 73 — though, this one is advice where Psalm 73 was ultimately a confession of the sin of envy. Psalm 73 brought out why we shouldn’t envy the wicked, the arrogant, and the people who are the very opposite of humble and gentle. You should recall what I told you — that the most certain way of being miserable is to count your enemy’s blessings.

While Psalm 73 mentioned that the arrogant and the wicked are on a very slippery path, it focuses more on how much envy is a joy killer. Psalm 73 deals more with the man who ruins his mood by engaging in envy: Don’t do that. Psalm 37 is different; Psalm 37 focuses on what happens to the wicked.

As I try to make sense of this passage, my mind keeps on going back to who is meek, who is humble, who is oppressed by the wicked? When I think about this, I notice that meekness is contrasted against wickedness — most specifically the wickedness of oppression. This Psalm talks about the oppressors and the oppressed — and it makes it clear that God is on the side of those who are oppressed — and it is them that will inherit the land.

The more I think about it — the more I think that Psalm 37 would ring true for the people of Israel; even though it seems counter-intuitive. Psalm 37 is an abstraction of the stories of how Israel formed — it is the moral of the story. God favors the oppressed, and will judge the oppressors harshly.

As a nation, Israel was born in Egypt. When Israel went into Egypt, Israel was a person who went there with his children. There was not a nation, only a family. When they were first a nation, they were an enslaved nation. Israel was oppressed, and Egypt was the oppressor — Israel was ‘meek’.

God judged Egypt, and Egypt suffered. God called Israel out of Egypt, and sent them to the promised land. The meek, the humble, the enslaved, inherited the land. God gave Israel the law — and the law said repeatably, “Remember when you were in Egypt.” The law commanded that Israel not become the oppressor, but to always be a nation that offered justice for everybody, especially the vulnerable.

Israel became jealous of other nations, and begged to have a king, and to be like the other nations. Sure enough, Israel got a king like other nations: Israel got a king that would oppress the people, and would pervert justice. The leaders of Israel became like Egypt, while the vulnerable were oppressed. The oppression was such that David’s grandson actually promised to exercise his power and to oppress the people more than those before him.

God might have been patient with Israel, but when they became the oppressor, they broke the contract God had with them. God did what God promised to do and sided with the oppressed. Israel faced God’s judgment, and lost everything. They were brought into captivity — and once again, they found themselves oppressed.

God brought them out of Babylon, returned the land to them, and they became corrupt. The high priest embezzled the tithes, government workers didn’t do their duty to preserve justice; oppression happened again at the cost of the least of those — and they lost their land again. The oppressors were humbled again.

As an American, I come from a culture that does very little long term thinking. We don’t look forward, nor back enough to see what should be right in front of us. As I said — this scripture seems to go against everything that we experience — as our planning never goes beyond next quarter. Just because our culture can’t see it does not mean it isn’t so. The very experience of being Jewish affirms this. God might not act quickly — but God is a God who hears the prayers of the oppressed, and a God who is on their side.

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