Who is the “you” in “fret not yourself” (Psalm 37) ?

Bible interpreters ancient and modern know that it is vital to ask and answer the “person” question in any biblical text. Who is speaking, and to whom?

I always think of Bob Dylan’s qualified affirmation of the Ten Commandments. “‘I am the Lord your God’ is a great commandment, as long as it’s said by the right people.”

“Fret not yourself” is a great piece of counsel as long as the right people hear it and take it to heart, and the wrong people don’t misappropriate it.

This word is addressed to: the poor, the powerless, the voiceless, the herdsman, the artisan, the person excluded from the working economy. It is addressed to the person who is getting by but cannot get ahead, the person who is a cog in the machine, who has no agency, the person who is not actor but a victim.

There are two classes of people to whom this word is not addressed. It is not addressed to the prosperous, the powerful, or the wicked, and it is not addressed to the king whose responsibility it is to restrain the wicked.

How many times have I heard prosperous American Christians, including very wealthy Christians, appropriate to themselves biblical words like this Psalm, taking “don’t worry, be happy” as the word of God for themselves, expressing genuine gratitude (I do not for a moment doubt the genuineness of the gratitude!) for their great prosperity. They give generously to this or that cause, and to this and that person in need, not to such an extent as to diminish their own wealth in any painful way—but still, the sums are huge.

These prosperous Christians have a higher standard of living than biblical kings—by far!—and their wealth in combination with their status as citizens of the USA gives them great political power as well. But when it comes time to exercise their franchise, to raise their voice on behalf of the poor, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised not with donations here and there but with votes or advocacy that could alter the society-wide structures, it’s all “Fret not yourself” and “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”

“Fret not yourself because of evildoers” in its original setting was not addressed to the king or to the wealthy. In our setting, it is not addressed to the police detective, the prosecutor, the legislator, the governor, the president.

And it is not addressed to the voter—a class of person that did not exist in ancient Israel. Voting is a a modern democracy’s—despite the secularity of the modern democracy—way of acknowledging and activating the truth that every human being is an imago dei and as such, even if poor and downtrodden, is a king, and as king has the power and obligation to rule, and to rule in a way that upholds equity. And not just voting, but speaking out, in season and out of season, from the dais if you have a seat on the dais, and if not, on the streets and in the public plazas.

For the the legislator, the prosecutor, the judge, and also for the voter, “Trust in the Lord, and do good . . . befriend righteousness” entails doing something effective to restrain and demote the evildoers and lift up the downtrodden.

To cover complacency, inaction, and complicity in injustice by appropriating to oneself the “Fret not” that was spoken to someone else is bad faith.

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