Psalm 73 begins the third book of Psalms. This is the last book that was compiled before the exile of Israel. It begins with a Psalm of Asaph. Asaph was a song writer that David had appointed to work in the Temple. His sons also went on to continue his musical work. This book begins with a collection of eleven of Asaph’s psalms which includes all of them except for one, Psalm 50, which was likely moved to book two because its subject matter helps to set up the themes in Psalm 51.
This psalm is spoken by someone who has tried to do right, but is suffering while the wicked prosper despite their sin. This is a place that every Christian has or will find himself in. In response to this state of doubt, the psalmist reminds himself to rest in God’s presence and trust that God is just and that if it weren’t for God’s grace, he would be just as wicked.
Truly God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For a psalm that is going to dwell on hardships and seeming injustice, it might seem odd to begin with the assurance of boldly stating that God is good to Israel and those who are pure in heart. But, this is where one must start when feeling the inequality and unfairness of life. We have to set our minds on what we know to be true and not what we feel.
This statement of faith and truth is quickly followed by an admission of guilt. Later Asaph will state that he has tried his best to remain pure and righteous, but before that he does recognize that he is a sinner, therefore just as deserving of punishment as the wicked. But, punishment is not what he observes the wicked dealing with. Instead, he observes in the next stanza that the wicked seem to be doing well.
For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.
Therefore his people turn back to them,
and find no fault in them.
And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed the generation of your children.
Throughout this stanza Asaph oscillates between the idea that the wicked are well off (something that he is envious of) and that they are sinning and dishonoring God. After dwelling on these thoughts for some time, Asaph exclaims that it was worthless after all that he tried to please God. He is not realizing that his reward and the wicked’s punishment are ultimately not found on earth. It may appear that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, but this is only a temporary situation.
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end.
Asaph takes a moment to refocus his mind, and this pause will bring a new light to the rest of the psalm. He is honest in saying that he wrestled with these apparent inconsistencies in the justice of God. He grew tired of trying to figure it out. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to see heavenly things from a human perspective. We can’t make heads or tails out of these ideas on our own. We need to seek God’s perspective. That is exactly what Asaph does. He went to the sanctuary, and only then was he able to see what the wicked had in store.
Truly you set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
Like a dream when one awakes,
O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.
After gaining a heavenly perspective on this dichotomy, Asaph was able to see that God had set the wicked in slippery places and prepared ruin for them to fall into. It might appear that the wicked prosper, but we are unable to see things as God can; we are blind to greater realities–realities that end in justice.
Next, Asaph declares something unexpected. It might feel natural to rejoice in vindication and sing gladly that the wicked are brought to justice, but instead Asaph recognizes his own sin. He realizes that he too has dishonored God. It is good to remind ourselves that we are no less deserving of damnation, but it is only by the grace of God that we are free from it. When the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, we often ask why we are suffering. The more correct question is: why do they prosper? Our sinful word begets suffering, and it is only by God’s mercy and common graces that everyone does not constantly suffer.
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Asaph responds in humility and childlike dependence on God. He doesn’t run away or accuse God of injustice. He seeks God and longs to be guided by him. He looks forward to the day when he will be removed from this earth with its inconsistencies. Asaph began the psalm admitting that he was covetous of the wicked’s wealth, but now he says that in earth and heaven he desires nothing but God. He doesn’t even put his trust in his physical well being which the wicked also had. He finds his strength and portion in God.
For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works.
The ending of stanza five might seem like a good place to conclude this psalm, but Asaph needed to remind himself one more time of God’s justice. This is a good pattern for us. Often we may wrap our minds around a truth and walk away too early. It is good to dwell on the truths of God’s Word for longer than we think necessary. Not only does Asaph remind himself of God’s justice, but he states again that he desires God’s presence and responds to what he has learned in praise.
It may be easy for us to see apparent injustice and accuse God of not living up to His revealed character. It is in times like these that we should pattern our minds, hearts, and prayers after these words of Asaph. We need to seek God’s perspectives on these matters and trust that He is the ultimate Judge. And, rather than running from God when it is hard to trust Him, we need to seek Him and tell others what He has done.
All Scripture is quoted from the ESV.