Aftermath of 1 Samuel—Why do the Wicked Appear to Prosper?
Psalm 37 is one of David’s masterpieces of alphabetic acrostic poetry. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet appears in order with each introducing a unit of a two-verse stanza. David wrote it about his patient waiting to be king as he looked back on an apparent mystery of why God allowed the evil to prosper and the righteous to suffer. David developed two main themes concerning the problem of the apparent prosperity of the wicked, and the need for the faithful to trust God. David will advise believers not to fret because the wicked will eventually get judgment, and the righteous will get an inheritance. Nevertheless, in the short term, we live in a fallen corrupt world where life is difficult and painful, so God can’t remove us from the trouble without removing us from this life. Therefore we must focus on God’s program for eternity, and trust Him to sort things out. In the meantime, David’s wisdom and advise is to follow eight precepts—Don’t fret over evil, trust in the Lord, delight in the Lord, commit your way to the Lord, rest in the Lord, show mercy and give to others, turn away from evil and do good, and patiently wait on the Lord.
The structure of Psalm 37 is: verses 1-11—trust God in spite of a world turned upside down, Verses 12-20—the way of the wicked, verses 21-26—contrast of the ways of the righteous and wicked, verses 27-33—David’s wise counsel, verses 34-40—advice to take the long (eternal) view.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
The key phrase in v.1-11 is “Do not fret”, meaning don’t worry and don’t get bitter over the apparent success of the wicked and troubles of the godly. The fate of the wicked is set. The successful wicked are like the green grass that looks good for a season, but then withers. Instead, trust in the Lord actively by doing good. We can read a series of positive imperatives in verses 3-6, to trust, dwell, delight, and commit to living for the Lord. In verse 6, if you do these things, then God will surely vindicate you ultimately. In verses 7-9, David tells his audience to be patient in the meantime because God will sort it out in the future. The natural response is to be angry at the wicked, and the temptation is to respond sinfully. Instead rest assured that God will fix things. In verse 10-11, David assures us that in God’s time, the wicked will not share space with the godly, but believers will be saved and given their inheritance.
The Largest Fraud in History
While reading Psalm 37, I could not help but think of some of the evil men in our time that appeared to benefit from, as David wrote, “wicked schemes” (v. 7). Chief among them was Bernie Madoff who pleaded guilty in 2009 to 11 federal felonies and admitted to carrying out a massive Ponzi scheme for as many as 40-50 years. Madoff founded his own Wall Street investment firm in 1960, and became one of the top “market maker” businesses on Wall Street. He became a third market provider in order to bypass NYSE specialist firms, by directly executing orders over the counter from retail brokers. He developed the technology that became the NASDAQ. He also opened an investment management and advisory division that became huge.
For 40 years Madoff’s competitors and Wall Street insiders knew that Madoff was not legitimate. He promised and showed supposed returns that were unrealistic and even impossible. Can you imagine trying to compete with an evil man that could promise and deliver any return on investment that an investor asked for? For years and years they watched this scumbag prosper, wondering and fretting about such evil being rewarded. In order to make himself immune to federal examination, he made large donations to senators and congressmen. He sat on the board of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, which is the primary securities industry organization. His niece Shana Madoff who worked for him, served on the Executive Committee of the Compliance and Legal Division, and she married the head lawyer in the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations. Later, after Madoff’s confession, the SEC estimated that Madoff’s two sons and his niece Shana had received over $80 million dollars in compensation. Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse! In 2004, a lawyer in the SEC informed her boss that she had found numerous inconsistencies, and recommended an investigation, but word came down from the top to stop work on any Madoff investigation. Later, after Madoff’s confession, he admitted that SEC Chairman Mary Shapiro was a “dear friend”. In 1999, financial analyst Harry Markopolis informed the SEC that he was certain that it was legally and mathematically impossible to achieve the gains Madoff was claiming. Five times he appealed to the Securities and Exchange Commission to look into it, but in spite of his overwhelming mathematical proof, they would not investigate. Markopolis then published a book about it entitled NO ONE WOULD LISTEN. Amazingly, none of the major Wall Street firms and none of the major derivative firms would trade or invest with Madoff, which tells us that everybody in the business knew he was crooked.
During the first week of December in 2008, it finally all caught up with Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. He had $7 billion in redemptions due and couldn’t pay. He ordered $173 million in bonuses to be paid in an effort to further enrich his family before the bottom fell out. His sons realized that they would be facing an investigation, so they reported their father to the federal authorities. On December 11, 2008, Madoff was arrested and charged with securities fraud. March 2009, Madoff confessed and entered a guilty plea. He said the essence of his fraud had been to deposit client money into his account, rather than invest it, and when clients wanted their money he just paid them with other clients money. The key to his longevity was the ability to raise more and more funds. The SEC report said that two of his office workers created false trading reports based on returns that Madoff had promised customers. They simply created a false trade and then entered a false closing trade for the amount of profit required. The SEC said we will never know how much money was defrauded from investors, but the amount missing was almost $65 BILLION. The SEC could only prove about $18 billion, and on June 29, 2009, Madoff was sentenced to the maximum allowed sentence of 150 years. One of his sons committed suicide, and the other went to prison for 10 years. As David said in Psalm 37, eventually “evildoers will be cut off…yet a little while and the wicked will be no more…the Lord laughs at him because the Lord sees his (the wicked) day coming…their sword will enter their own heart.” That literally happened to evil King Saul in 1 Sam.31:4.
The Fate of the Wicked
In Psalm 37:12-22, David wrote about the ultimate futility of the evil plots and schemes of the wicked. Now, they appear to be self sufficient, self reliant, and they are rebellious against the Lord. David gives us a series of contrasts that we could call “better this than that proverbs”. The wicked try to hurt the righteous, but God knows the day of judgment is coming. The wicked attack the afflicted and needy, but their “sword will enter their own heart”, meaning their schemes and actions condemn them. Sin carries the seeds of destruction in itself. For this reason the little that the righteous have is much better than the abundance of the wicked (v.16). The wicked may appear to be successful, but they will eventually perish and disappear, yet the righteous will receive a great inheritance (v.18-20). In verses 21-22, David gives the contrast of the generosity of the righteous with the self focused greed of the wicked. Verse 22 says that the righteous will “inherit the land”. This reminds us of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt.5:5 that “the meek will inherit the earth.” David may have been thinking in terms of Israel, but Jesus was making the same point about a future day in which believers will reign with Christ on earth after the second coming.
Blessings to Faithful Believers
In Psalm 37:23-29, David wrote a series of extended proverbs that make it clear that those who trust in God and follow God’s teaching will have security in the future. God guides them and protects them, and when they stumble, He holds their hand. In v.25, David makes a wild statement that he has “not seen the righteous forsaken or his descendants begging bread”. He has already said that in this world the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper, so he is now talking about an ultimate reality and a spiritual reality. When he says they will “dwell in the land forever”, the word in Hebrew for “dwell” means a settled residence after a life of instability.
In Ps.37:30-34, he gives contrasts of the present situation of the righteous and the wicked. The solution in v.34 is to “wait” on the Lord and continue to “keep His way”, meaning that even if things seem upside down now, even if the Bernie Madoffs of the world are making billions and living in splendor, believers should be patient and wait on God to right all things in the end. Verses 35-38 contrast the future of the wicked and the righteous. The wicked seem to be rewarded for a time, but only the believers have an eternal future. In verses 39-40, David concludes with a confident assertion that we are saved and that God is with us even when trouble comes because we “take refuge in Him”. We live now in a world run amok with a disparity between what is and what ought to be. Therefore, remember that God’s divine character is unchanging, and He is incompatible with evil. In His time He will end evil, and in the meantime we are to live by faith and follow Him.