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Begging for Bread? - Psalm 37:5

Question
In Psalm 37:25 David says, "I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread." However, this is not always true, is it? People starve, even Christians. Even in the New Testament Lazarus is seen begging (Luke 16:20). I don't understand.
Answer
Psalm 37:25 I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.

First, in Psalm 37, David reflects on whether the righteous or unrighteous will enjoy the Promised Land. He contrasts the righteous with the wicked. The Psalm instructs the righteous not to envy the seeming outward success of the wicked, as what they have will be short-lived. The Psalm is about perseverance and ultimate justice. Ultimately, the righteous are victorious, as God will never leave them or forsake them (Heb. 13:5). The Psalm offers hope to the faithful saint.

Second, note that David uses "I" three times: "I" was young, now "I" am old, and "I" have never seen the righteous forsaken. These statements are declared to be in a range of time from when he was young until he was old. They are statements of his personal experience.

David draws from the span of his life's experience to make a point: God does not abandon his people! This range from young to old is very important as occasionally it may momentarily appear that the righteous are forsaken. Even David had himself desired bread of Abimelech the priest, (1 Sam. 21:3), and he and his soldiers desired food from Nabal (1 Sam. 25:8), but the Lord of the Sabbath provided (Matt. 12:1-8). David had tasted the sweet and the bitter. He had experienced both joy and pain. However, through everything David faced, whether good or bad, God had not forsaken him. There, we should have hope as well, for God will not forsake us either!

Third, the common course of life in Israel in the Old Testament was for Israel not to be beggars. The continual begging of bread was a curse against the wicked (Ps. 109:10), not the righteous. God provides for the needs of the righteous (Ps. 9:18, 10:12; 12:5; Isa. 41:17). Although God had told Israel that they would always have the poor with them, he also mandated their provision. Consider these comments from the Baker Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology:

The Old Testament. The Pentateuch emphasizes equitable treatment for the poor. Justice was neither to be withheld from the poor (Ex. 23:6) nor distorted because a person was poor (23:3). Such equity is illustrated by the collection of ransom money from rich and poor alike (Ex. 30:15). As part of the covenant community the poor person was to be treated with respect (Deut. 24:10-11) and supported, even economically, by other Israelites, since they were not to charge interest to the poor of their people (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-38).

Beyond direct legislation a number of institutions contained special provisions for the poor. Gleaning laws focused on the widow, fatherless, stranger, and poor (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 24:19-22). During the Sabbatical year debts were to be canceled (Deut. 15:1-9) and Jubilee provided release for Hebrews who had become servants through poverty (Lev. 25:39-41; 25:54). During these festivals the poor could eat freely of the produce of all of the fields (Ex. 23:11; Lev. 25:6-7, 12).

Further stipulations to aid the poor included the right of redemption from slavery by a blood relative (Lev. 25:47-49), support from the third-year tithe (Deut. 14:28-29), and special provisions regarding the guilt offerings. This latter law illustrates the relative nature of the concept of poverty. If someone cannot afford the normal atonement lamb he or she can bring two pigeons (Lev. 5:7) but further consideration, (substituting one-tenth ephah of flour), is made for one who cannot afford even two pigeons (5:11). Clearly, the Law emphasized that poverty was no reason for exclusion from atonement and worship!

Motivation for such legislation was God's concern for the poor. God listened to the cry of the needy (Ex. 22:27), blessed those who considered them (Deut. 24:13; 24:19), and held accountable those who oppressed them (Deut 24:15). The Lord based this position on his relationship with his people; he was their God (Lev. 23:22) and had redeemed them from slavery (Deut. 24:18).

Lastly, because of God's laws and faithfulness, David could say, "I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread." However, occasionally the righteous are brought to this sad degree of misery, whether it be cosmic (tornados, hurricanes, etc. - Ps. 107; Matt. 8:26-36), circumstantial (society's sin, etc. - Dan. 6), conscientious (for righteousness sake - 1 Pet. 3:14), or corrective suffering (sin - Heb. 12). Why?

We must remember that the promise of Psalm 37 belongs to those who trust in the Lord and do good (v. 3), take delight in the Lord (v. 4), commit their ways to the Lord (v. 5), and who are still before him and patiently wait (v. 7). At times, we get outside these divine boundaries and needlessly suffer, therefore God's children must be disciplined for their sin (Heb. 12) and at times are in want. I think all of us can identify with this. The covenantal blessing pertains to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, not unrighteousness (Matt. 5:6).

Yet for others, they must suffer for the furtherance of the Gospel: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (John 9:3). As the Heidelberg Catechism (Day 10) states:

Q27: What do you understand by the providence of God?

A27: The almighty, everywhere-present power of God, [1] whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, [2] and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, [3] health and sickness, [4] riches and poverty, [5] indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.

1. Acts 17:25-26
2. Heb. 1:3
3. Jer. 5:24; Acts 14:17
4. John 9:3
5. Prov. 22:2; Psa. 103:19; Rom. 5:3-5a

Now, this last point bears some further unfolding, as it is a blessing. "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him" (Phil. 1:29). Do you see the blessing? Why is it a blessing? It's because we fill up the sufferings of Christ in our suffering. Paul says in Colossians 1:24-29:

Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord's people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.

This is only one of many places where Paul expresses this truth (2 Cor. 1:5; 4:10-12; Gal. 6:17; Phil. 3:10). Paul suffered for the Church. He says, he filled up in his flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions.

But what kind of suffering is Paul speaking of? Was the suffering at Calvary incomplete? Is Paul setting himself up as co-Redeemer through suffering? NO! Paul is not saying that the redemptive sufferings of Jesus - the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 - on the Calvary were imperfect, incomplete, or deficient as though he or any other needed to do something else to be fully redeemed! Just a few verses earlier in Colossians he says, "Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation" (Col. 1:21-22). Paul says, NOW God has reconciled us though Christ alone! Later in Colossians, he says, "having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross." Jesus said, "It is finished!" (John 19:30). Christ's death secured eternal redemption and it is perfect and sufficient (Col. 1:12-14, 19-20; 2:13-14; Heb. 1:3; 9:12-14, 24-28; 10:11-14; etc.). Paul agrees with John (and others) saying our propitiation is complete in Christ! (1 John 2:2).

So what is lacking then? In a sermon someone once said what Paul has in view here is incomplete presentation, not propitiation. Presentation is the taking of the Gospel and presenting the word of God in its fullness to the elect of "every tribe, people, language, and nation" and extending the hope of the Kingdom (Rev. 13:8) to the whole world (Matt. 28:18-20). There was Paul, chained like a criminal, saying, "Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory" (2 Tim. 2:6-10). No wonder Paul and others could take joy in the blessing of suffering (Col. 1:24; Rom. 5:3; e.g. Acts 5:41; 1 Pet. 4:12-16). Seeing the salvation of others is a blessing!

God's people have difficulties! At times trouble befalls us (e.g. Joseph and Job). Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Paul says, "I am instructed ... both to abound and to suffer need" (Phil. 4:13 KJV). However, in all these trials, God is revealed as our ultimate provider (Ps. 68:10; 111:5; 147:9) and sustainer (Ps. 3:5; 18:35; 41:3; 51:12; 54:4; 55:22; 119:116; Is. 46:4). In suffering, we are given the opportunity to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). It is an opportunity to show others the mystery of the Gospel. Is there any sacrifice too great for the spread of the Gospel? NO! Is this not a precious blessing! YES! (Phil. 1:20,29).

As it goes through troubled times, God will not see his Church forsaken (Rom. 8:35-39; 2 Cor. 4:17-18). It (we) should be able to say with Paul, "We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed" (2 Cor. 4:8-9). We might get cast down but we will get back up. "[F]or though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again" (Prov. 24:16). Though we may get hungry at times, we will not be utterly forsaken, for God is our sustainer and provider.

Luke 16 (as does Psalm 37) contrasts the destiny of the wicked with the future of the righteous. From its context, the parable here 16 was designed for the furtherance of the Gospel. Ultimately, the beggar (Lazarus) was not forsaken by God and is seen in the riches of Abraham's bosom. As Charles Spurgeon once said:

Disasters and reverses may lay him low; he may, like Job, be stripped of everything; like Joseph, be put in prison; like Jonah, be cast into the deep. He shall not be utterly cast down. He will be brought on his knees, but not on his face; or, if laid prone for a moment he shall be up again ere long. No saint will fall finally or fatally. Sorrow may bring us to the earth, and death may bring us to the grave, but lower we cannot sink, and out of the lowest of all we shall arise to the highest of all.

Ultimately, the rich man became an eternal beggar, the thirst of which would never be quenched! (Mark 9:48). However, "For the LORD loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones" (Ps. 37:28). The righteous will not be forsaken!

Reference

Walter A. Elwell, Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Theology of the Poor and Poverty, Baker Books, 1996.

C. H. Spurgeon, Psalms, Crossway Classic Commentaries, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993.

Answer by Joseph R. Nally

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).