Just a Bit O’ History… Psalm 37: A Psalm of Nobility, of State, and of Common Need.

Psalm 37

castle 01-1This Psalm was the basis of the hymn of Paul Gerhardt’s, Befiehl du deine Wege, which has taken national rank in Germany, next to Luther’s Ein’ feste Burg. It has become well-known in the English language through John Wesley’s translation:

‘Commit thou all thy griefs And ways into his hands, To his sure truth and tender care, Who heaven and earth commands.’

The story told of its origin is well known. When Paul Gerhardt was banished from Berlin by the Elector of Brandenburg, because he conscientiously refused some conditions attached to his ministry, he turned in with wife and children to a small wayside hostelry, not knowing where to betake himself. Seeing his wife deeply depressed, he quoted to her Psalm 37: 5 ‘Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him, and he shall bring it to pass;’ and then went out into the garden. There, sitting under an apple tree, he composed the hymn, and read it to his wife for her comfort. That same evening two messengers arrived from Duke Christian of Merseburg to offer him an honourable place in his dominions. There are circumstances which cast a little doubt on a few of these details, but this is certain, that the hymn was the expression of Paul Gerhardt’s character and life; and that it has spoken to the heart of many in troublous times.

Many years ago, it was the custom in some of the high schools in Germany, when pupils were leaving at the close of their course or school year, to accompany them to the gate of the town singing this hymn.

When the first Lutheran church was opened in Philadelphia, in 1743, it was with Gerhardt’s song.

When Queen Louisa of Prussia, in 1806, received the news of the disastrous battle of Jena, she sat down, after her first burst of weeping, and sang this hymn softly at the piano; when she rose, her eye was clear and her spirit calm.

This fifth verse was also the frequent promise with which David Livingstone, the African missionary and traveler, encouraged himself in the midst of his wanderings and perils. Livingston was a courageous man sprung from the island of Ulva, near lona, who one might say caught the mantle of Columba, and with it crossed oceans and planted the seeds of Christianity among races first discovered by himself.

Verse 25 was the promise which Robert Baillie of Jerviswoode left to his young son George, when his estates were confiscated, and he was condemned to death at Edinburgh, December 24, 1684. Robert Baillie was the great-grandson of John Knox, and was called the Scottish “Sidney”, and was feared and hated by the government of the time for his religious and political opinions, though no unlawful act could be laid to his charge. Dr. John Owen, writing to a friend in Scotland, says of him: ‘You have truly men of great spirit among you; there is, for a gentleman, Mr. Baillie of Jerviswoode, a person of the greatest abilities I ever almost met with.’

Bishop Burnet says: ‘This worthy and learned gentleman was brought to his death in a way so full of the spirit and practice of the Courts of the Inquisition, that one is tempted to think the methods taken were studied in them.’ He had a speech prepared for the scaffold, which was erected at the old Cross of Edinburgh, but on beginning, ‘My love for the Protestant religion hath brought me to this ‘ –the drums were beat, and he could say no more. In his dying testimony he says, ‘I leave my wife and children upon the compassionate and merciful heart of my God, having many reiterated assurances that God will be my God, and the portion of mine.’ He bade his son George, who visited him the evening before his execution, trust in the testimony of the psalmist,’ I have been young, and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.’

The son proved worthy of the father, rose to high office in the State after the Revolution, and the descendants of Robert Baillie are found among some of the noblest families in the kingdom.

Psalm 37.

Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed. Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass. And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday.
Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass. Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil. 
For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be. But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. 
The wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth. The Lord shall laugh at him: for he seeth that his day is coming. The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright conversation. Their sword shall enter into their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.
A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked. For the arms of the wicked shall be broken: but the Lord upholdeth the righteous. The Lord knoweth the days of the upright: and their inheritance shall be for ever. They shall not be ashamed in the evil time: and in the days of famine they shall be satisfied. 
 But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away. The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again: but the righteous sheweth mercy, and giveth. For such as be blessed of him shall inherit the earth; and they that be cursed of him shall be cut off. 
The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighteth in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand. I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. He is ever merciful, and lendeth; and his seed is blessed.
Depart from evil, and do good; and dwell for evermore. For the Lord loveth judgment, and forsaketh not his saints; they are preserved for ever: but the seed of the wicked shall be cut off.
The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever. The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment. The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide.
The wicked watcheth the righteous, and seeketh to slay him. The Lord will not leave him in his hand, nor condemn him when he is judged.
Wait on the Lord, and keep his way, and he shall exalt thee to inherit the land: when the wicked are cut off, thou shalt see it. I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree. Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found.
Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace. But the transgressors shall be destroyed together: the end of the wicked shall be cut off.
But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord: he is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord shall help them, and deliver them: he shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in him.

—————————————————— Written by John Ker, D. D. Taken from, “The Psalms in History and Biography”.