By Hannah Matis
Andrew Bird is not a musician I would expect, in the ordinary way of things, to take up biblical exegesis. A prodigy fiddler, possessed of a stage whistle worthy of the late great Ennio Morricone, Bird was once a member of the swing revival band, Squirrel Nut Zippers, beloved in my college days, but he has now been solo for some twenty years. He is an artist well worth seeing live (alas!), looping intricate fugues of melody with his fiddle alongside the trademark whistle and restless, complex lyrics. These vault through the history of medicine and science, usually the more obscure the better, taking occasional detours into history proper; I seem to remember one old chorus that managed to squeak in both the Ostrogoths and Visigoths.
My hunch is that Bird has fought hard against all the audience stereotypes one would usually associate with an indie folk musician, and a fiddler to boot: you’ll get no sage wisdom, no sentimental choruses, no Mumford and Sons barn-raising here. But it means that when Bird’s songwriting does finally turn to lyric simplicity, the effect is usually devastating: his cover of the Handsome Family’s ballad, “My Sister’s Tiny Hands,” on 2014’s Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of, is a good example. And now there is “Bloodless,” from last year’s My Finest Work Yet. With the album’s cover art, Bird has lovingly recreated David’s Death of Marat, and “Bloodless” in particular is chilling political prophecy, pre-COVID, with just a dash of samba: “It’s an uncivil war,” warns the first chorus, “bloodless for now.”
But here, for me, the song took an unexpected turn. Modulating into a major key, the light, ironic shuffle flowers out into a resounding paraphrase of Psalm 37: “Don’t you worry about the wicked. Don’t you envy those who do wrong. Then your innocence will be like the dawn, while the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun.”
This song struck me again with particular impact because, in a striking coincidence, I had heard that text not long before, and also from an unexpected quarter. In the wake of President Trump’s controversial photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, the much-loved British comedian James Corden — perhaps best known to families with children as the voice of the newly animated Peter Rabbit — asked his father Malcolm, a Christian book salesman, to demonstrate how to hold a Bible. If the political humor is not to your taste, it remains striking that, in a Britain whose popular culture is generally much more secular than the United States, a late show would read on air the first eight verses of Psalm 37.
Recognizing a nudge from the universe, I thought I would hunker down with this text. As I write this, the news is very grim indeed, with the likelihood of events turning even worse in the United States this coming autumn with the advent of flu season. Cases and deaths from coronavirus remain on a terrifying rise, schools are in limbo, and colleges, including seminaries, are moving online. We are bored of the word “unprecedented”; we have seen it so many times. We are anxious to the point of exhaustion, and we are tired of being tired.
Into the whirlwind, Psalm 37 makes its stately and genial way. The Holst’s Jupiter of psalms, it is magnificently not bothered, and its very serenity is a kind of tonic. Don’t worry, “don’t fret,” is the twice-given command — and in particular, “do not fret because of the wicked” (NRSV vv. 1 and 7). Psalm 37 is an interesting variation on the psalm genre insofar as the first section is made up almost entirely of advice and direct commands to the reader, perhaps the psalmist talking to himself. They are paradoxically restrained commands, however: do not fret, wait, be patient, look, mark, do good, take delight, commit, be still, refrain. It is an invitation to the reader to release the burdens of anger and anxiety, even when — and the psalmist is very clear about this — the anger in particular that is mentioned here we might call righteous indignation, even a thirst for justice. Nevertheless, and certainly in prayer, these must be placed in God’s keeping, and the reader with them. It is a call for detachment, perhaps detachment in the Buddhist sense: of ceasing to engage perpetually with exhausting and futile emotional patterns, particularly when the emotional patterns are getting in the way of real action, of really “doing good”. It is definitely reminiscent of Pascal’s maxim that “all of humanity’s problems stem from [humanity’s] inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
For me, the most problematic and troubling aspect of Psalm 37 is its rather blithe categorization of people into either “the righteous” or “the wicked,” and the easy assurance that the righteous will thrive and endure. Is this only a simplistic form of prosperity gospel? How do we read this psalm when so many hard-working and seemingly innocent people are facing joblessness and economic ruin, and when the coronavirus appears to be hitting African-American and Hispanic communities much harder than the gated mansions of the investment bankers and the yachting billionaires? How do we not read Psalm 37, shrug complacently, and let it confirm that, even with coronavirus, this is indeed the best of all possible worlds?
The starting point of Psalm 37’s reassuring promises is a place of tortured moral anxiety; only as it gathers momentum does it speak of “hope and a future,” endurance, prosperity, rootedness in the land. In the short term, Psalm 37 assumes the presence of acute, agonizing tragedy in the world, of famine, and of rapid social and political change. However difficult or unprecedented the circumstances we may face on a global scale today, fragile, contingent circumstances are, in fact, life as it is experienced by millions of people every day. At the mercy of weather, disease, or war, the psalmist was much closer to those living within developing societies than to any vision of American middle-class affluence. This does not, therefore, assume either third-world righteousness or first-world wickedness, but it does question too-easy assumptions that we in the first world — and everything about our Way of Life, however we define it without really thinking too much about it — are, automatically and of course, to be designated righteous and therefore to be promised to us in perpetuity. God’s justice and His purposes, by contrast, work themselves out slowly. What is unsustainable will, the psalmist promises with a relish worthy of Karl Marx, inevitably, eventually, self-destruct over time.
In the meantime, the reader is advised prayerfully to examine her conduct and actions before the Lord, to enjoy blessing whole-heartedly where it is given, to hold patiently to a moral course of action whatever anyone else may be doing, not to envy easy and ill-gotten luxury, and finally, to give generously of what has been given to her. Poignantly, in the words of the Coverdale Bible, “there is a future for the peaceable” (vs. 39).
As incarnated in Malcolm Corden, for one, Psalm 37 speaks of the enduring appeal of basic human kindness and decency, even “meekness,” over the aggressive violence permeating social media and political discourse. This is not say that there is no place for righteous anger — the rest of the psalter gives anger a powerful and abiding place — but it is held within a broader spiritual and emotional ecology in which we fret less about other people, and place our whole human person under the slow and patient judgment of God, and move slowly toward healing and freedom.
Dr. Hannah W. Matis is associate professor of Church History at Virginia Theological Seminary.