I have grown to love Ps 73. It stands at the head of Book III (Pss 73-89) at the center of the Psalter. It is poignant. It is powerful. It is hopeful. It is missional.
Here is the text from the NIV:
Psalm 73:1 A psalm of Asaph. Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. 3 For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. 5 They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. 7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits. 8 They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. 9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. 10 Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. 11 They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” 12 This is what the wicked are like– always carefree, they increase in wealth. 13 Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. 15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children. 16 When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me 17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. 18 Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. 19 How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! 20 As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies. 21 When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. 23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
This Psalm is a journey of faith. If the Psalter as a whole moves from Psalms of lament and anguish to Psalms of Praise, this Psalm stands as a testimony to the sort of life-affirming faith that can a sustain us for the long road.
This Psalm knows no cheap answers. It pulls no punches. Its honesty is blunt and refreshing.
The Psalm opens up with a proverb or life verse: Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
Yet there is a problem. In verse 2, we discover that despite (or perhaps because of) the Psalmist inherited or professed theology (v. 1), the psalmist almost lost his footing. He says almost, because he doesn’t. This psalm is his story of going to the brink but turning back to find wholeness and truth in a vital relationship with the living God.
The Psalmist’s problem is described in detail in vv. 3-12. It is in a nutshell a problem of dashed expectations and envy. Ostensibly, the psalmist’s life is not going the way that he expects for a person of faith. In the midst of his own struggles, the psalmist looks around and notices that persons who live with no concern about the things of God seem to have no troubles or worries. They live a carefree life of pleasure; the psalmist lives a life of struggle.
How can this be in light of v. 1? The psalmist is convinced of his own “uprightness” as is clear from verse 13. If this is so, why is he not enjoying the good life? This is a question that many of us ask as well.
Many of my church-planting friends are growing weary around the world in the face of setbacks and disappointments in their Kingdom advancing work. Many faithful followers of Christ who have taken risks and stepped out in faith have encountered challenges in their lives when they expected God to open up doors. Many of my students are struggling with illness, financial problems, and family stress as they seek to follow God’s calling on their lives. If we are honest, we all go through times when we may feel like this psalmist–times in which our own feet have almost slipped.
In verses 13-17, the psalmist recounts his moment of transformation. He is sustained in his faith by the witness of the community of faith (v. 15). He cannot walk away from God. But he is tortured and perplexed inwardly. Verse 17 marks the tipping point. He encounters the living God. Scholars debate whether v. 17 reports an actual trip to the sanctuary or simply a sanctuary experience. Regardless, the psalmist is profoundly changed through an encounter with the only source of clarity and truth in the world: GOD.
This remains true for us today as well. We need God. We need to walk in a moment by moment relationship with God. The transforming moment may come to us in a variety of ways: it may happen in worship, it may happen in a small group reflection, it may happen in response to a message, it may happen while celebrating Jesus’s death/resurrection at the Lord’s Table, it may happen in a moment of individual or corporate prayer, it may happen in a time of Scripture reading. But it will come. God has a way of making his presence felt by those who are desperate for him.
Let’s look at what the presence of God means for the psalmist. It is crucial to note that his external circumstances remain unchanged. But at the same time, everything has changed for the way that the psalmist looks at life and lives it. He has been transformed.
Here are some concluding reflections from the transformation that occurs here:
1) God is good as aphorism vs. God’s goodness experienced personally. Look specifically at the language of verses 1 and 28. At the beginning of the psalm, the psalmist is able to articulate a proposition about God. Yet, his theology about God does not match his life with God. This is no longer true after his encounter. Now it is more than theology that matters to the psalmist; it is reality. When theology becomes reality, a person has crossed the Rubicon and is ready to follow Jesus Christ anywhere.
2) Apparent prosperity of the wicked vs. True State of the wicked.
Ultimately, this psalm is less about the wicked than it is about the person of faith. The wicked are merely a prop. It is not the fault of those who are far from the purposes of God than people of faith find them offensive. It would probably be humorous for a person judged to be wicked or lost by the community of faith to discover that their lifestyle creates envy in the life of the faithful. Nonetheless, this psalm offers a poignant reminder that the end of the wicked is certain. This is not a truth to be taken lightly nor is it something to jump up and down about in joy. Ps 73 reminds the community of faith of the profound lostness of those who are far from God. They are not a lot to be envied.
3) Envious and self-absorbed psalmist vs. Repentant, God-centered psalmist.
In the first half of the psalm, the psalmist is self-centered and self-focused. Life is all about him. Ironically, this is precisely the psalmist’s gripe about the wicked. After encountering God, this changes. The psalmist (re)centers his life in God. Knowing and living in the presence of God because the ultimate value. This is reminiscent of Paul’s words in Philippians 3, “I have counted all things loss except for the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ.”
4) Apparent absence of God vs. Experienced presence of God.
The psalmist moves from feeling apart from God to a renewed sense of the presence of God in his life. The truth of the matter is this: the Scriptures promise over and over that God will neither leave us nor forsake us. Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection guarantees this. This does not mean that we will not sometimes feel alone, but in light of this reality, we must not live as though we are alone. God is with us. God has guaranteed the future. The Risen Christ goes forth as the vanguard before God’s people as we seek to serve as God’s body broken for the world.
5) Complaining vs. Telling.
In the final shift, the Psalmist moves from complaining about the apparent injustices of life to (re)committing to serving as God’s witness in the world. This is the missional shift. The psalmist have completed this profound (re)conversion by expressing his intention to be deployed in the world for the furthering of God’s mission.
Friends, this is good news. May God profoundly touch you at the deepest core of your being to renew your sense of calling and purpose as God seeks to shape the future through your life.
© 2006 Brian D. Russell