Bible Question:

What is the meaning of Psalm 37:20? What is the meaning of "Into smoke they shall vanish away."

Bible Answer:

Psalm 37 is a wonderful psalm. The psalm compares the righteous to the wicked. Repeatedly, we are told that God will not forsake the righteous, but He will destroy the wicked. In verse 20, we are told that those who oppose God will vanish like smoke Therefore, what is the meaning of Psalm 37:20?

Wicked Vanish Away Like Smoke

Meaning of Psalm 37:20

The NKJV Bible translates Psalm 37:20 differently than most other Bibles. It reads,

But the wicked shall perish;
And the enemies of the Lord,
Like the splendor of the meadows, shall vanish.
Into smoke they shall vanish away.
Psalm 37:20 (NKJV)

The NKJV implies that the wicked become smoke and then vanish away. But the rest of Scripture never teaches that the wicked become smoke and then cease to exist. If we claimed the wicked cease to exist at or after death, then we would contradict Scripture. We would be guilty of the false doctrine of Annihilationism.

A much better translation of Psalm 37:20 is given by the NASB translation. This translation corrects the faulty translation of the NKJV. It reads,

The LORD knows the days of the upright,
And their inheritance shall be forever.
They shall not be ashamed in the evil time,
And in the days of famine they shall be satisfied.
But the wicked will perish;
And the enemies of the LORD will be like the glory of the pastures,
They vanish — like smoke they vanish away.
Psalm 37:18-20 (NASB)

Notice the difference in the last lines of both verses. The literal Hebrew is,
“They come to an end—they come to an end like smoke.” Psalm 37:18-20 (NASB)  This helps us to understand why the NASB is a more accurate translation. The NASB changed “come to an end” for “vanish,” and changed the order of the words for the English reader.

Vanish Away

To understand the meaning of this passage, we must understand the phrase “vanish away.” What is the meaning of vanish away?

Verse 20 teaches us that the wicked do not become smoke, but they disappear like smoke. That is, the righteous will not be able to find or see them after they die. On the day of judgment, they will be finally sent to the lake of fire which is a place of brimstone, darkness, and flames that do not provide light. In the darkness of the life of fire, no one can see anyone or watch anything happen. The darkness of hell will isolate every person. Scripture does not tell us if those in the lake of fire can communicate with anyone. If they cannot communicate, imagine being in isolation in such a place.

Therefore, “vanish away” seems to imply that they disappear like smoke from the earth at death, and ultimately they will disappear like smoke in the lake of fire from the knowledge of anyone. It will be as if they had never existed since no one will see them, and maybe never be able to talk with them.

Revelation 22:15 also refers to those in the lake of fire as those who are outside,

 But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie. Revelation 22:15 (NASB)

That is, no one in heaven, where God will dwell, will know anything about them. They are outside by themselves in the darkness or fiery heat of a lake of fire. There will be no escape for all eternity.

Conclusion:

Romans 2:4-6 tells us that God is tolerant of our sins, but only for awhile!

Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?  But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS. Romans 2:4-6 (NASB)

God does not punish for our first and repeated sins. He is kind and keeps waiting  us for to repent of our sins and to stop sinning. The passage says that eventually, God will punish the stubborn and unrepentant person. We also discover the wicked store up punishment for themselves. That implies the more they sin, the greater their punishment will be. Wicked people do not want to submit to God. They are proud people.

Psalm 37 is a warning to the wicked. It teaches that eventually God will not be tolerant of those who reject Him. Have you submitted to God yet? Have you admitted that you are a wicked person who commits sin, deserves hell, and asked for His forgiveness? Only Jesus Christ can forgive your sins. You are urged to visit Searching for God.

Suggested Links:

Annihilationism — What does the Bible say about annihilationism?
Searching for God — In Search of God — Go To Heaven
Heaven, Paradise, Sheol, Hell, Hades and Lake of Fire
Is Hell a real place? — What does Jesus say about Hell?
Do the dead really go to heaven or hell?