There are many things in life that gives us pleasure. We may delight in our our job, or a relationship or our children. Or maybe the newest car or gadget.
In Psalm 37:4, we read “Delight in the LORD and He will give you the desires of your heart.”
There appears to be a promise here that when we do one thing, we’ll receive something else in return.
Some people sometimes take this verse out of context and almost see God like a genie. That if we delight in him, He will grant us whatever our heart desires.
Is this what this verse is implying? What exactly does King David mean here in this Psalm?
Before diving deeper into this promise, let’s examine further what it means to delight in the LORD.
What does it mean to delight?
What does it mean to “delight” here? Well, in one sense it means to take pleasure in God like we do with other things.
However, when David uses the word “delight” here, it goes much deeper than that.
The Hebrew word used here in verse 4 is “anag“, which means to be soft, pliable or delicate. Think of it a bit like a potter with his clay.
God wants us to have soft hearts that can be shaped by Him. At the same time, He wants us to incline our hearts toward Him.
That’s the opposite of hardening heart where we become unpliable. We can harden our heart in many ways: either by ourselves, or by allowing life’s circumstances to affect us.
Perhaps you’ve endured a hard life. Maybe you’ve suffered injustice, or persecution from any enemy. It’s easy to feel enraged by these things or people.
Or maybe you’ve been lacking in a certain area – a job or a relationship. We can start to compare ourselves to others who are more fulfilled and can become envious. Sometimes we can even go as far as to envy those who do evil. We see that they seem to be prospering in the things they do wrong and wonder why we shouldn’t do the same.
On top of that, we can begin to blame God for our circumstances. We can harden our hearts not just against others, but against Him as well.
The earlier verses of Psalm 37 speak precisely of these types of situations. In verse 1, David writes:
“Do not fret because of those who do evil or be envious of those who do wrong” .
In fact, the context of Psalm 37:4 is in direct contrast to these earlier verses like verse 1.
When we harden our hearts in these ways, we can become unpliable in our hearts. We can end up focusing on all of these things instead of focusing on God. We want to delight in these other things, and when they don’t work out, our hearts can harden.
God wants us to focus and delight in Him instead. And when we do that, our hearts can remain soft and easily mouldable.
Who is “The LORD”?
So now we know what it means to “delight”. But who is the LORD in whom we’re told to delight?
I’ve heard other interpretations of verse 4 by the likes of Oprah Winfrey. She stated in an interview with Stephen Colbert that this was her favourite verse in the Bible.
However, Oprah tried to broaden the scope to mean something much more generic. She suggested that “LORD” had a wider range and could be substituted for virtues such as kindness, compassion or forgiveness. According to her, one could delight in those qualities where God’s character was revealed and not in a person per se.
However, in this Psalm, the LORD doesn’t refer to qualities or character traits. It’s a specific person. Whenever you see the LORD in upper case letters in the Old Testament (as opposed to simply “the Lord”), those letters are used in place of the name of God, which is Yahweh (or more precisely, YHWH).
So this is a very particular and personal name of the God of Israel, and not merely a generic god. Think of it like when you use the word “Dad” to refer to your own father. Whenever you say “Dad”, you don’t mean someone else’s Dad. It’s someone specific and highly personal to you.
Similarly, here in this Psalm, the LORD (or Yahweh) is someone very specific and personal. So when we delight in God or delight in the LORD, we’re delighting in Yahweh, and not just a generic god or even generic character traits.
What does God give you the desires of your heart actually mean?
So now that we’ve established what it means to delight in the LORD, let’s think about that promise here. If we delight in God, He will give us our hearts desires.
We might say “I want to be a billionaire” and think that if we delight in God, He will give this to us.” We assume that as long as we fulfil this one condition, He’ll grant us our wishes.
Is it really the case that we can treat God like a cosmic genie? Will He really give us whatever our hearts desire?
I’m reminded of a panel from the classic Marvel Comics mini-series “Secret Wars“ where all of earth’s mightiest heroes and villains are brought together in a cosmic battle by a god-like being called The Beyonder. At the start of the story, he tells each side that if they slay their enemies, all they desire shall be theirs.
Although the conditions for granting that desire are different here (slaying your enemies instead of delighting in the LORD), many treat God in much the same way as The Beyonder.
But this kind of promise is very transactional in nature: “you do something for me and I’ll do something for you.” A kind of quid pro quo, to use a Latin phrase thrown around a lot recently.
In Psalm 37:4, it’s not a case of God saying “if you worship me or if you take delight in me I will grant you all you could ever wish for.”
Otherwise this is too much like the devil’s promise in Luke 4:6 where he shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and tells him that he will give him all this if Jesus worships him. Like the Beyonder’s promise in Secret Wars, that is also transactional in nature and an empty one at that.
Not everything our heart desires is good
Not everything our heart desires is good. In fact, Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that the heart is deceitful above all things.
Think about it for a moment. What are our hearts desires when someone has wronged us? We want revenge. We may even wish harm on the other person. Or we may envy others and desire even the very thing they have – their spouse, their property etc.
James 4:3 also tells us that often when we ask God for things we don’t receive, because we ask with wrong motives so that we may spend what we get on our pleasures.
In other words, we often desire things so that we can delight in those things for themselves. What we desire can become idols in our lives. God isn’t going to grant us the very things that would take His place or draw us further away from Him.
God wants us to delight in Him and fix our eyes on Him for His own sake and not for any benefits that He can give us.
So what does that mean for the promise entailed in verse 4?
What are the desires of our heart that David refers to in this Psalm?
What are the “desires of your heart” that God promises He will give us if it doesn’t mean absolutely whatever our hearts desire?
The more spiritually expedient interpretation of Psalm 37:4 is that when we delight in the LORD for His own sake, the following two things will happen:
a) The LORD will become our heart’s desire.
In that sense, God will give you the desires of your heart. And as you delight in the LORD more, you also get to know more of His character and are able to trust Him more. God Himself becomes the very thing you desire and long for, and the more you seek Him, the more you know Him.
Psalm 84 would be a good example of this. In verses 1-2, the Psalmist writes:
“How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.”
Or again in verse 10:
“Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God.”
In those verses, the Psalmist desires God above all things. It is being in God’s presence rather than anywhere else that brings the writer delight.
b) God ignites or places in our hearts certain godly desires that come from Him.
Remember that imagery of our hearts becoming soft and pliable? When we delight in God, we make room in our hearts for Him to give or place in us the things that He wants. When we close or harden our hearts, we are unable to receive these things that God wants to give us.
Our hearts desires given to us by God could be a calling to serve Him in particular way with our gifts. Or it could be to feel compassion for things we did not feel before. Think of the lyrics of that Hillsong worship song “Hosanna” which says: “break my heart for what breaks Yours – everything I am for Your kingdom’s cause.”
An example of this principle from my own life.
Psalm 37: 4 is particularly relevant to me. For many years I’ve endured a long-term wilderness where things have not worked out in life as I had hoped. In those times I often felt unable to reach my full potential or find my purpose. I also had a deep desire to do something of eternal significance for God that would make a difference while using my gifts and talents.
Verse 4 kept speaking out to me. So rather than trying so hard to discern exactly what God wanted me to do for Him to make a difference, I simply decided to delight in God for His own sake, regardless of any benefit I might derive. This meant spending more time in prayer, reading the Bible and seeking the giver not the gift.
Although I have a Masters in theology, I’m also a very visual sort of person and like seeing pictures to a whole block of text. As a child I enjoyed reading comic books (hence the comic book reference above to Secret Wars). I figured that if I could find a comic book Bible, maybe that would motivate me to spend more time in God’s word.
Well, I tried out several comic book Bibles in pursuit of this. However, I wasn’t completely satisfied with any, because they were more like Bible stories and didn’t contain the complete Bible text that I could follow along with. I wanted to be able to read it like scripture and meditate upon it like a regular Bible, with the only difference being that it would have pictures.
I initially resigned myself to the fact that there was probably nothing on the market that would suit my needs. That’s when I felt God speaking to me: “Well, if you’re not happy with them, why don’t you create your own graphic novel of the Bible?”
At first I was hesitant because it felt like such a huge task. But as I prayed about it, I realised this was Psalm 37:4 coming into effect. As I delighted in God, He gave me the desire in my heart to create a graphic novel of Luke’s Gospel
You can find out more about the graphic novel here.
Who does Psalm 37:4 apply to? Well, it’s not a promise to those who have become enamoured or delight in the things of the world. Instead, it’s a promise to those who delight in the LORD – those who have made God the most important thing in their life.
And it’s about a specific person – the LORD or Yahweh as opposed to generic character traits.
Verse 4 could be read as “Be soft and pliable to Yahweh and He will mould and plant in you your hearts desires”
How have you delighted in the LORD in your own life? Did you find that you desired more of Him? And what kind of godly desires did He give you to use for His glory?
Let me know in the comments below.
Finally, I mentioned my graphic novel of Luke’s gospel above. You can download a sneak preview sample of the book by entering your email address below.
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.