Theme: The Word of the Lord
In this week’s lessons we are given a stark description of the wicked, while the contrasting attributes of God reveal what God will do for those who belong to him.
Scripture: Psalm 36:1-12
Psalm 36 is a lot like Psalm 1 in contrasting the ways of the righteous with those of the wicked, showing their natures, path of life and end. But there are two differences. First, the order is reversed. In Psalm 1, the righteous are described (vv. 1-3), then the wicked (v. 4), and then the ends of each compared (vv. 5, 6). In Psalm 36 the order is: first, the wicked (vv. 1-4), then the righteous (vv. 5-9), and then the contrast (vv. 10-12). The other difference is that in Psalm 36 the section on the righteous is not focused on these persons so much as on God, whose steadfast love and faithfulness they alone appreciate and trust.
The psalm is introduced as “an oracle.” Oracle is a common word in the Old Testament, being used literally hundreds of times. However, it is nearly always joined to the name Jehovah or its equivalent, meaning “an oracle (or word) of the Lord.” What is surprising about its use in Psalm 36 is that Jehovah is replaced by the word for “wickedness” or “transgression.” This led the King James translators to render the verse, “The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes,” thereby suggesting that the psalm is an oracle spoken by wickedness rather than by God. This is a strange idea, however, and the older commentators obviously struggled with its meaning.1
There is another possibility, however, and that is that the word “transgression” is an objective rather than a subjective genitive. This is the meaning adopted by the New International Version, indicating that the oracle is not spoken by transgression but rather is about it. That is, it is a word from God about the nature of evil and evil persons.2 The NIV says, “An oracle is within my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked.” The verses that follow (through v. 4) fit that description.
The insight given to David, “the servant of the LORD,” in this psalm is not a trivial one. On the contrary, it is as profound in its way as the Apostle Paul’s magnificent analysis of the same matter in Romans 1. In fact, it is likely that Paul had this psalm in mind as he composed the opening chapters of his great letter, since he quotes verse 1 (“there is no fear of God before his eyes”) in Romans 3:18. In Romans Paul analyzes the fundamental problem of human beings in their opposition to God (they “suppress” the truth about God because of their wickedness, v. 18), traces their inevitable decline (“God gave them over,” vv. 24, 26, 28), and shows their true end (“although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (v. 32).
This is exactly what we have in Psalm 37:1-4.
David’s great insight is that wickedness begins with the rejection of God: “There is no fear of God before his eyes” (v. 1). Fear usually means “reverence,” and that is probably the case here. But even if fear only means being afraid, which is what we usually mean by it, the analysis is still profound. David is saying that the wicked person is characterized above all else by the fact that he does not take God into account. Like the “fool” of Psalm 14, the wicked person lives as if God is non-existent, refusing to believe that he or she will need to give an accounting to God and be judged by him one day.
Explain what an oracle is.
According to verse 1, what produces wickedness?
Reflection: What evidences do you see of a rejection of God, both by people around you and in the broader culture?
1J.J. Stewart Perowne says, “Transgression is personified, and is represented as uttering its counsels to the wicked man, and finding the same ready obedience in his heart as the voice of God himself in that of the good man” (Commentary on the Psalms [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989], vol. 1, p. 310). Arno C. Gaebelein says, “The wicked carries in his bosom an oracle” (The Book of Psalms: A Devotional and Prophetic Commentary [Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1965], p. 161). But in order to get these meanings “my heart” has to be changed to “his heart,” that is, the heart of the wicked, which is not what the text says. John Jamieson asks, “How could the ‘transgression of the wicked’ speak within the heart of him who in the inscription of the psalm declares himself to be the servant of Jehovah” (cited by C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1b, Psalms 27-57 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968], p. 161)?
2H.C. Leupold wisely takes this view, saying, “The psalmist means that deep down in his heart insight was granted to him about what really is wrong with the wicked” (Exposition of the Psalms [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969], p. 294).