Have you ever looked for or seen lists of Bible promises? Psalm 37:4 probably appears on most of them. According to the New American Standard Bible, it’s “Delight yourself in the Lord; And He will give you the desires of your heart.”
It’s such a great promise. Unfortunately, it’s easy to miss what the verse actually says. We make it say what we wish it said instead. Even some modern Bible translations fall into that trap.
The New Century Version, among others, misses the point badly: “Enjoy serving the Lord, and he will give you what you want.”
Claiming a promise God doesn’t actually make can lead to heartbreak and loss of faith.
What God doesn’t promise in Psalm 37:4
The New Century Version is one of several intended to be easy to read. We need translations like that. They make great introductions to Scripture for people who have trouble reading more literal translations.
Lots of people have trouble with the King James Version. Almost as many people stumble over more modern translations. The New American Standard Bible is the most literal of them, and also the least easily readable.
I have a friend who now leads Bible studies. When she first became a Christian, she got the more readable New International Version and still had no idea what the Bible was about. She went out and bought a children’s Bible so she could understand it. Think of the translations made mostly for easy reading as children’s Bibles–whether for literal children or, in the case of my friend, infants in the faith. Sooner or later, mature Christians need to graduate to mature translations that aim mostly at accuracy.
Sometimes in the attempt to be easy to read, a translation or paraphrase can carelessly mislead. In the case of Psalm 37:4, the New Century Version unwittingly presents what too many Christians wish the verse meant. It also gives opportunity to examine this common error.
The substitution of “enjoy” for “delight yourself in” may help a lot of people. It comes closer to the way people actually talk.
But where does it get enjoy serving the Lord? That immediately takes the readers’ focus from God himself to what they do for him. In fact, the verse invites us to enjoy God, not our own activity.
I must confess that for years I took the promise as meaning that God would give me what I wanted. And he never did. I became angry with God. It seemed he had broken a very explicit promise. My anger took me even farther away from the actual promise. I was not delighting in him!
Let’s examine what the much more accurate New American Standard Bible says. Or you can look at dozens of other English translations.
Examining God’s promise in Psalm 37:4
Whatever God promises to give hinges on the first part of the verse. Delight yourself in the Lord. Or, if you prefer, enjoy God.
The Bible contains many conditional promises. The most common and basic way of expressing a condition is “if. . . then.” That simple “and” in the middle of the verse as much as makes it mean, “If you delight yourself in the Lord, then he will give you the desires of your heart.”
We can’t expect the desires of our heart apart from enjoying God. So if we enjoy God, then he promises to give us what we want? Not quite.
Let’s remember basic grammar.
A sentence has a subject and a verb. Some verbs require a direct object. These are the structural parts of a sentence. Other parts can add to the meaning, but we need to account for the structure before we can consider them.
He. Will give. Desires.
Do you see? This verse promises desires, not the thing desired.
I can desire all kinds of things. Seeing an advertisement may trigger a desire. It may even trigger a desire for something good and beneficial. Just not the kind of desire that God gives when I actively enjoy him.
When we consider that prepositional phrase “of your heart,” we see that God promises to put desires in the very depth of our being. And those are the ones he will satisfy.
When we want to a claim a promise of God for ourselves, let’s examine it carefully and see its meaning. God promises much greater blessings than the ones our flesh can twist from a half-understood verse.