The Psalmist, David, asks God to deliver him from “men of the world, whose portion[i] is in this life.” (Psalm 17:14) David also calls these men, his adversaries, “the wicked who despoil me” (v. 9); “deadly enemies who surround me” (v.9); men with “unfeeling[ii] hearts” who “speak proudly” (v.10). We can understand why David sought God’s deliverance.
But reading on, David’s descriptions take a spin in an odd direction. In asking God to deliver him from these wicked “men of the world, whose portion is in this life”, David describes them further as men “whose belly[iii] Thou dost fill with Thy treasure”, who are “satisfied with children” and who “leave their abundance to their babies.” (vv.13-14)…. Wait… what?! These are good things that all good men desire, are they not? What is going on here?
One clue is that David is speaking metaphorically. In the phrase, “whose belly Thou dost fill[iv]”, the word translated “fill” has a piel[v] stem, indicating layered (metaphysical) application. David is speaking of the prosperity of wicked men who seem to have all that “life” has to give. David recognizes, though, that God has allowed it. God is sovereign so He could turn the tables, but He does not.
Anyone who has lived years of life knows that prosperity often does not follow along the lines of morality. Good people sometimes struggle and bad people sometimes prosper. This is nothing new. Jeremiah asked God, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” (Jer. 12:1) Perhaps no one has lamented this injustice more than Job:
Why do the wicked live and become old, yes, become mighty in power? Their descendants are established with them in their sight, and their offspring before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them. Their bull breeds without failure; their cow calves without miscarriage. They send forth their little ones like a flock, and their children dance. They sing to the tambourine and harp, and rejoice to the sound of the flute. They spend their days in wealth…. (Job 21:7-13)
The Psalmist asks, “Lord, how long will the wicked, how long will the wicked triumph?” (Ps. 94:3) There is nothing new under the sun: it has been this way long before the time of David and continues today[vi].
Obviously, physical fullness and prosperity is not the measure of a spiritual man. In fact, evil wicked men are often full of life and all that life has to offer. The phrase “unfeeling heart” means, literally, fat. Riches may make one fat (and therefore uncaring), but they do not satisfy. Life means much more for the spiritual man.
Another clue is found in the statement “satisfied[vii] with children”, meaning a sense-orientated fulfillment, as in not spiritual. I will come back to this.
First, look at the phrase that follows: “and leave[viii] their abundance to their babies.” The “word” leave is emphasized in the Hebrew by the conjunctive perfect tense, making it the key word in the phrase. It figuratively means “settled in, enjoying reposeful security, especially after triumph” with “overtone of finality”. At first blush, it seems an odd use of such a word when talking about evil, wicked men. Then the sarcasm seeps in.
Do these wicked men really intend to leave their abundance settled and secure with their “babies[ix]”? Does the phrase, “He who dies with the most toys wins” come to mind? It should. Wins what exactly? The answer is nothing! They are “satisfied” with what they have in this life, but they will end up dust (dust to dust). It is meaningless. (Eccl 1:1-11)
The wealthy often leave fortunes to their ungrateful, indulgent, lazy, good-for-nothing children who live off the wealth and also die. They have had their fill like the parable of the rich man who would not even provide his scraps to the beggar Lazarus. (Luke 16:19-31) Without attempting to get into all the meaning of this parable (see for instance), it is clear that the tables are turned in the “afterlife”. The beggar is treated like a king, and the rich man is left to suffer, as he chose his portion in this life rather in the afterlife with God.
Indeed, David finishes Psalm 17 on the same note: “As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake.” (v.16) In Psalm 16:5 David sings, “The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup.” For Job, his lamentations ended, and he was satisfied when God appeared. Jesus instructed his followers not to store up treasures on earth, but to store them up in heaven. (Matt. 6:19-20)
David, though he was a wealthy and powerful man himself, knew where his true treasure lay. It lay in his relationship with God! Where you treasure is your heart will be also. (Matt. 6:21) We cannot even conceive all that God has to give us! (Is. 64:4; 1 Cor. 2:9) Most importantly, though, we have and will have relationship with God who is love and who offers eternal life.
Contrast that to the unfeeling (fat) hearts of the wicked men pursuing David. They chose for their lot what this physical life has to offer. That is all they get, and they cannot take that with them.
Let not your heart be fat and uncaring. Check your heart when you begin to lament your lot in life and the seeming prosperity of “people who do not deserve it”. Ask yourself: where is my portion? Is it in this world? Or is it with God?
[i] 2506/Eleq (masculine noun) – a tract, portion, lot of land, real estate plot; something with immovable, prescribed boundaries; (figuratively) “one’s lot in life”. Compare to 2513a/elqah, a the feminine noun that highlights a portion of ground pertaining to the individual owner, i.e. their particular attachment to it. This “lot (portion, tract) in life” is a different term from the casting of lots (see 1486/gôrāl).
[ii] 2459/ēleb – literally, fat
[iii] Beten/105d; is from an unused word most often translated body or belly, but also translated birth, abdomen stomach, within, womb and other words.
[iv] 15c (SN 4390)/mālēʼ – properly, fill to the limit (maximum capacity)
[v] The fundamental (“inside”) meaning of the piel stem adds a meaning-layer beyond the literal (concrete) sense of the verb. Piel is used in contexts that add a figurative (metaphorical) meaning-layer – hence ideally suited to communicating on the spiritual plane with a moral or eternal issue at stake. Piel is also naturally suited for verbs taking multiple objects or having more than one level of application in-view, like on the moral, psychological, or spiritual plane.
[vi] For this reason we must reject the so-called “prosperity doctrine” that urges all Christians to “name it and claim it” and suggests that poverty and misfortune and sickness are simply signs of a lack of faith. In fact, the prosperity doctrine veers dangerously from biblical truth in my opinion. The rich young ruler would have been a great candidate for the prosperity doctrine, but he was not a good candidate for the kingdom of God.
[vii] 7646/śāaʽ – a sense-oriented term meaning “satisfied to the full”
[viii] 47b SN 5117/nûa – properly, to rest, repose; (figuratively) settled in, enjoying reposeful security, especially after triumph (TWOT); quiet, resting securely – with the “overtone of finality”.
[ix] עֹלָל olal/760c; from an unused word; a child (also translated babes, children, infants and little ones).
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