“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.” Psalm 37
“Of the seven deadly sins,” so writes Joe Epstein, “only envy is no fun at all.” Sloth may not be a party animal, but certain it is that some of us, at least, on some mornings, would choose the pillow to morning coffee.
But envy, Epstein says in his book titled, simply enough, Envy, is neither pleasurable nor fashionable—and probably never has been. Envy is the principle sin of someone who is, as he says, small-hearted, or petty, neither of which are enviable descriptions. Furthermore, if you’re guilty of serial envy, you’re a whiner. Most people hate whiners.
Epstein claims that there is a word for envy in every human language, which suggests that the sin—and it is a sin—is perhaps most universal of any of the Seven Deadlies. We all know people without much pride; lots of people aren’t tempted by food or drink (I’m not one of them); some lust mightily, others not at all. Joe Epstein may be right—very, very few could say innocently than they had never envied anyone anything.
Why all this chatter about envy? The origins of the word fret are in eating, not so much as in “eating something,” as in “being eaten.” My mother’s fretting, on which I’ve already said too much, was more worry than envy, of course; but there is something similar in both conditions because what used to bother me about her worrying is that she can be eaten up by it and thereby fail to rejoice in the joys of this life. Similarly, envy—like jealousy—eats upon itself, as Othello knew only too well. As does King David.
In some ways, perhaps this single verse suggests why David wasn’t allowed to build the temple, the job he wanted more than anything. Nathan told him, after all, that it was a blessing reserved for his son, Solomon, but not for the King because David’s hands were bloody. The cause/effect sequence of this line seems clear to me: in a verse that has much to do with anger and wrath, David is warning us, in song, that envy has much to do with sin. The implication is that those who do envy compound their sin by getting burned about it and then acting. I don’t think I do, but David must have—and likely did.
While envy may well be something nearly universal among us, acting in wrath as a result of envy is not. David may be warning us about some weakness he darned well needed warning about; but his weaknesses may not be ours. At least they’re not mine. I certainly envy writers who sell a ton of books and photographers who take month-long expeditions to some African veld. But I don’t think I’ve ever become angry at them. David’s envy might have.
My sins—like his—are, I admit, more than I can count. My righteousness and his sinfulness isn’t at issue here. What may be, however, is David himself.
What I’m wondering is whether this particular line of scripture doesn’t describe David more fully than it does the rest of us. I think it does. Yet, I think the psalm is actually more inspired because it offers us the poet himself. He was human, like us.
Even though I may never fall victim to King David’s weaknesses, in telling us about him this passage still tells us more about ourselves as human beings. And that’s always a gift, and a blessing because it’s the truth, a significant component in the whole gospel truth.
I know David better, know myself better—and resultingly understand grace more fully than I did before. That’s good news.