Psalm 73: The Suffering of the Righteous and the Success of Sinners
My first occasion to preach from Psalm 73 resulted from a tragedy within our church family. The telephone awakened me in the early hours of the morning. The voice on the other end of the line was that of a friend, whose words were enough to shock me out of my slumber. “I hate to bother you at this hour of the night, Bob, but I just discovered that my wife beside me here in bed is dead.”
She was only 28 years old, a godly woman and a devoted wife and mother. There was no apparent cause for her death at the time, nor has there been any medical explanation to this day. It was her husband’s employer whose comment caused me to turn to our text of Scripture for the funeral message. He said something like this: “Why is it that the good always die young?”
The fundamental question underlying Psalm 73 is, “How can a good God allow the righteous to suffer?” This question has puzzled saints and pleased skeptics over the centuries. This psalm and the question with which it deals is extremely important to us, both for the purpose of apologetics (defending our faith) and in order to preserve our faith in the midst of life’s trials. Many Christians today seem to think that faith in God comes with a guarantee of freedom from adversity. In fact, too many of our evangelistic appeals are tainted with the false promise (implied or stated) that coming to faith in Christ will deliver men from their trials in life. When young Christians come to the realization that this is not so, their faith is sometimes severely shaken.
The suffering of the saints and the prosperity of the wicked is an issue which is frequently addressed in the Word of God. We find the Book of Job dealing explicitly with this matter. We come face-to-face with it again in Psalm 73. In each passage of Scripture the issue is considered from a slightly different perspective.116 The unique contribution of Psalm 73 is that it deals with suffering not so much on the level of defending God as defining good.
The question, “How can a good God allow the righteous to suffer?” reveals several fallacies in our thinking. The first is the assumption that suffering is always evil and therefore irreconcilable with God’s goodness. The second is a failure to understand righteousness, so far as it relates to the saint, the true child of God. In answer to the problem of pain, this psalm forces us to take another look at our definition of good, lest we accuse God of being the author of evil by allowing us to suffer. Let those who suffer look to this psalm for a word of instruction.
Psalm 73 divides nearly evenly into two parts. Verses 1-15 depict the trial of the psalmist’s faith when he observes the blessing of the wicked. Verses 16-28 describe the triumph of Asaph’s faith, when he turns from protest to praise, from doubt to the declaration of the goodness of God.
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 came close to stumbling; My steps had almost slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant, As I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 For there are no pains in their death; And their body is fat. 5 They are not in trouble as other men; Nor are they plagued like mankind. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; The garment of violence covers them. 7 Their eye bulges from fatness; The imaginations of their heart run riot. 8 They mock, and wickedly speak of oppression; They speak from on high. 9 They have set their mouth against the heavens, And their tongue parades through the earth.
10 Therefore his people return to this place; And waters of abundance are drunk by them. 11 And they say, “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?” 12 Behold, these are the wicked; And always at ease, they have increased in wealth. 13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, And washed my hands in innocence; 14 For I have been stricken all day long, And chastened every morning. 15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,” Behold, I should have betrayed the generation of Thy children. (NASB)
The Psalmist’s Affirmation of Faith (v. 1)
Several years ago a funeral service was conducted for a young boy who has been tragically killed. In the service a song was included which was said to be the boy’s “affirmation of faith.” The name of the song was “Zippidy Doo-Dah.” What a far cry this is from the affirmation of faith of Asaph in verse 1: “Surely117 God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” Here, Asaph declares the truth on which his faith is founded as well as the truth which troubles his faith. The faith of the saints has always been rooted in the firm conviction of God’s existence and the assurance that He rewards those who diligently seek Him. “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
In one sense, verse 1 is the conclusion of the matter. Asaph believed that God existed, that He was good, and that He was sovereign. In another sense, however, this verse was the basis of the psalmist’s problem. If God exists, and He is good so as to reward the righteous, and He is all-powerful, totally in control of His creation, then why is it that in God’s world the wicked seem to be doing better than the righteous? Aren’t the facts inconsistent with Asaph’s faith? How can God be good to the pure in heart if observation convinces us that sinners succeed and saints suffer?
This is a serious spiritual issue and one that has precipitated widely diverging explanations. The atheist answers by explaining that there is no God. The cynic says that there is a God, but denies that He is good. Life is just one of God’s cruel jokes. The liberal believes that there is a God who is loving, good, and kind. He explains suffering by denying the sovereignty of God. God is all-good, but not all-powerful. As a liberal preacher once said in the funeral message he delivered for a young wife and mother who died of cancer, “I am convinced that it was not the will of God for this woman to die.” He believed in God’s existence and His goodness, but not in His greatness. If it was not God’s will for that woman to die, and yet she did die, God must have been willing, but not able, to spare her from death.
A biblical faith does not require nor permit us to deny any of the attributes of God. We maintain not only that God exists, but also that He is good and great, a rewarder of the righteous and a judge of the wicked. How, then, do we explain the problem of the suffering of the saints and the success of sinners? The psalmist takes us through the steps of his personal struggle in verses 2-28, from the low point of his doubts and protest to the pinnacle of his renewed devotion and praise.
The Psalmist’s Two Problems (vv. 2-3)
I am deeply impressed by the honesty with which Asaph describes his trek through the “slough of despond.” His dismay is the result of two problems: the first is theological; the second is personal. The first concerns the apparent departure of God from His covenant promise to bless the righteous and curse the wicked. The second is Asaph’s personal struggle with envy concerning the lifestyle of the wicked.
The first problem which Asaph describes in verses 2 and 3a is his personal spiritual turmoil. In poetic terms Asaph describes his frame of mind and heart as precarious: his feet had almost slipped and he had nearly lost his footing (v. 2). The spiritual stability of the psalmist had been shaken. We might say in our own idiom, “he had nearly lost his grip.” The cause of this instability is identified as “envy” in verse 3.
Asaph’s confession is crucial because it is intended to qualify his description of the wicked which follows. Everything the psalmist saw, and over which he agonized, was colored by his own sinful attitude of envy. It is one thing for us to observe sinners who are arrogantly flaunting their prosperity, and for us to be vexed by their wickedness. The righteous should be grieved by sin, even as “righteous” Lot “was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men” (2 Pet. 2:8, cf. also v. 9). But Asaph was consumed with greed, not grief. Asaph was not distressed so much by the sin of the successful as he was by the success of the sinful. He was like the prodigal son’s brother (cf. Luke 15:28-30), who was angered to think that sin could be so enjoyable and that his righteousness seemingly profited him so little.
We can easily deceive ourselves by becoming distraught over the wrong things. Besides this, we can be grieved by the right thing (sin) for the wrong reasons (envy, rather than purity). This is why we are instructed, “Do not fret because of evil men. Or be envious of those who do wrong” (Ps. 37:1).
It is indeed difficult to see life clearly through our own tears of self-pity. Even though the wicked do seem to prosper in this life, the description which follows in verses 4-12 is a distorted one. It was not correct for Asaph to conclude that all the wicked prospered or that all the prosperous were wicked. Not all the wicked are wealthy, and not all the wealthy are wicked. People with sinful attitudes are hardly able to judge others objectively. As our Lord put it, those with a plank in their own eyes have trouble seeing a speck of sawdust in the eye of another (Matt. 7:3-5).
The second problem which troubled Asaph was the “prosperity” of the wicked (v. 3b, AV, NASB, NIV). I do not dispute the rendering “prosperity” here, but it hardly conveys to us all that the original term, shalom, meant to the Israelite of that day. This is a term pregnant with religious significance,118 which we must pause to consider, for it is at the heart of the psalmist’s struggle.
The root meaning of shalom was “completion” or “fulfillment.” Quite often the term was used of “peace” in the sense of a cessation of war or hostility (e.g. 1 Kings 4:25). Shalom implied wholeness and harmony, not only a mere absence of hostility. It was thus used to describe harmonious relationships (e.g. 1 Kings 5:12). Often shalom was used of physical well-being, that is, of good health. It is in this context that it became used both as a greeting and a farewell (e.g. Judg. 19:20; 1 Sam. 25:6, 35), implying a blessing. In modern Hebrew shalom is used for both “hello” and “goodbye.”119
To the Israelite, shalom summarized in one word the benefits or blessings which were promised in God’s covenant with Israel. Nearly two-thirds of its occurrences relate to the fulfillment which comes as a result of God’s activity in covenant with His people and as a result of righteousness (cf. Isa. 32:17). Consequently, we find the expression “covenant of peace” (Num. 25:12; Isa. 54:10).120
While shalom was viewed primarily as God’s material blessing,121 this did not exhaust its meaning. God was viewed as the source of Israel’s “shalom” (cf. 1 Chron. 22:9-10). He would also speak words of “shalom” to His people (Ps. 85:8). This “spiritual” dimension of the concept of “shalom” was, at first, quite general. The priests, for example, were instructed to pronounce this blessing on the people: “The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you: The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26).
As time went on, the prophets began to speak of Israel’s “shalom” in much more specific terms, for ultimately the blessings of God would be realized through the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, whose sacrificial death would bring “shalom” to men.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, And the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end (Isa. 9:6-7).
But he was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, And by his wounds we are healed (Isa. 53:5).
And while the prophets of God promised that God would establish “shalom” in His good time, the false prophets spoke of “peace” as well, but not based on righteousness, faith, and obedience:
“They dress the wound of my people As though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, When there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14; cf. 14:13; 28:9; Ezek. 13:16).
As seen from the theological perspective of the Old Testament saint, we can understand why Asaph would have been perplexed by the prosperity of the wicked. From his point of view the covenant blessings of God were being poured out on the wicked, while divine chastening was the lot of the righteous. As he saw it, sinners were being blessed and saints cursed. It was as though God had turned His covenant upside-down. No wonder Asaph was puzzled!
The Success of Sinners (vv. 4-12)
These verses describe the three characteristics of the wicked which have caused the psalmist great consternation: (1) their well-being or their “shalom” (vv. 4-5); (2) their wickedness (vv. 6-9); and (3) their wide-spread popularity (vv. 10-11). Let us consider these three characteristics and how they caused Asaph to contemplate a course of action (vv. 12-14) that would have been spiritually disastrous.
Verses 4 and 5 describe the prosperity, the “shalom,” of the wicked, which he mentioned in verse 3. His definition of “shalom” here is one that is almost entirely materialistic. With regard to their physical well-being, the wicked are described as having sleek and healthy bodies (v. 4). Depending on the correct reading of the text,122 we find that while the wicked are not exempted from death, even their passing appears to be relatively free from struggle and pain. The affluence of the wicked enables them to care for their bodies so that they are almost immune to the maladies common to mankind. In general, the wealthy wicked seem to live above the trials of life, which are nevertheless the plight of the righteous (v. 5). In short, the wicked are experiencing the kind of “shalom” which Asaph believed should be experienced only by the righteous.
The psalmist was not an ascetic who believed material prosperity was evil and therefore to be avoided. As a devoted Israelite, he is not condemning prosperity, but rather protesting God’s choice of who should prosper. The Old Testament frequently promised prosperity to the pious (cf. Deut. 28:1-14). It also warned of divine judgment (cursing) when God’s law was ignored (cf. Deut. 28:15-68). On the basis of these promises, the psalmist expected that he should have been one of those described in verses 4 and 5, rather than the wicked. Here is where the envy of Asaph is evident (cf. v. 3). His protest was therefore two-fold: first, in response to his own suffering, he cried, “Why me, Lord?” Second, in response to the prosperity of the wicked, he complained, “Why them?” Asaph had nothing against owning a Rolls Royce; it was just that he wanted to be the one in the driver’s seat rather than his ungodly neighbor.
In verses 6-9 it is the wickedness of the wealthy which troubles Asaph. If he had difficulty with the comfort and well-being of those described in verses 4-5, he was even more distressed because the wealthy were also wicked. Then, as now, the mentality was, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” If these well-to-do wicked did not take their prosperity to be a sign of divine blessing, at least they interpreted their success in life as an evidence God either did not know or did not care about their sinful means of gaining wealth. Perhaps they reasoned that He was not able to do anything about it. The result was that pride and evil plans were promoted. The pride of the wicked was openly displayed. The psalmist described it as a necklace which was worn in the Ancient Near East as a sign of status (cf. Gen. 41:42).
In the Old Testament, as in the New, wealth was not only a blessing, but a stewardship. The wealthy had an obligation to the less fortunate. The wicked wealthy whom Asaph observed had none of the compassion which was to be expected. Instead of using their success and status as a means of helping others, the wicked used it as a tool for gaining even further riches, at the expense of the poor. The psalmist looked at the callousness of the wealthy and saw that they were not content with what they had but continually schemed to gain more and more (v. 7). Compassion was set aside and oppression was the rule of the day (v. 8).
The pride of the wicked was not merely reflected in their attitudes and actions toward men. The wicked became so bold that they openly blasphemed God by elevating themselves to god-like levels (v. 9; cf. Isa. 14:13-14). As Kirkpatrick put it,
The wealthy were not only wicked, they were also popular and prominent. They had little trouble gathering a large following, which was yet another source of the psalmist’s distress. Verses 10 and 11 are difficult to interpret, consequently there is disagreement among Bible students as to exactly what is said. While the specifics of the expressions used here may be uncertain, the overall activity is clear and, I think, a matter of general agreement.123 The wicked who prospered gathered others about themselves who had also tasted the “good life” (they had “drunk waters in abundance,” v. 10) and wished to imitate the wicked both in principle and practice. Thus, they went so far as to say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” (v. 11).124
No wonder Asaph was so distressed! He had concluded that the wicked were prospering not only materially and physically, but also in numerical growth. With Elijah-like reasoning, Asaph concluded that the righteous were being outnumbered. Asaph seems to have said within himself, “I alone am left” (cf. 1 Kings 19:10).
I believe it is important for us to know just who these “wicked” are. Until now, I had always thought of them as pagans—Gentiles. The wicked, I thought, were ungodly foreigners who surrounded the Israelites, who persisted in their sinful ways, and who not only got away with it, they got ahead with it. I have now come to the conclusion that this is not the case. Let me point out some of the reasons why this cannot be.
(1) Nowhere in this psalm are the ‘wicked’ called by any name which would distinguish them as Gentiles. “Why do the nations rage And the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand And the rulers gather together Against the Lord and against his Anointed One (Ps. 2:1-2). To my knowledge, there is no clear identification of the “wicked” as non-Israelites.
(2) Verse one seems to focus on God’s relationship to Israel, rather than on mankind in general. The psalm begins, “Surely God is good to Israel.” Asaph is not really interested here with God’s relationship to pagans, but to His people. The blessings and the cursings of Deuteronomy 27 and 28 are primarily directed toward Israel, not others.
(3) The theology reflected in verse 11 is not one that is pagan in origin, but it is decidedly that of an Israelite. When would a pagan refer to only one God, as opposed to many gods? It was Israel’s God who was known as “God” and the “Most High” (v. 11).
(4) The sins which Asaph depicts are not those of the surrounding nations, but those of wicked Israelites. From the superscription to this psalm we learn that Asaph is its author. We know that he was one of David’s three chief musicians, who played a significant role in directing the worship in the temple (cf. 1 Chron. 6:39; 15:16-19; 16:5, 7, 37; 25:1-2).
In the other psalms written by Asaph we see a distinction made between the surrounding nations which are Israel’s enemies and the wicked Israelites who are also a threat to Israel’s well-being. There are, then, the enemies without and the enemies within. In Psalms 74, 79, 80, 81 and 83 the enemies of Israel are the surrounding nations who would destroy Israel. They are called the nations (79:1,6,10), the adversary (74:10,18; 81:14), neighbors (80:6) and enemies (80:6; 81:14). In Psalm 83 the nations are listed.
In Psalms 50 and 82 the enemies within are described. In Psalm 50 God is portrayed as the judge of His people (50:4), who will condemn His people for their empty religious rituals. Their practices are an abomination to God (vv. 16-21). In Psalm 82 the wicked are actually the rulers and leaders of the nation who have not exercised their authority in righteousness. In Psalm 50 the unrighteous are called the “wicked” (50:16).
It is my conclusion that the wicked of Psalms 73, 50 and 82 are the same group—wicked Israelites. In part this is true because the term “wicked” is used of them, while other designations are employed for the foreign enemies of Israel. It should also be observed that the sins of which the “wicked” of Psalm 73 are accused are those characteristic of wicked Israelites, and not those of the pagans which are mentioned in Asaph’s other psalms.
It is the prosperity of wicked Israelites which brought such distress to Asaph, and I think I can understand why this would be true. Asaph, as best as I can tell, was a professional, full-time religious worker. In those days, the musicians were paid. Those who served in religious endeavors were supported by the tithes of the congregation. If the people of Israel were prospering and Asaph was not, it was because the people were not being obedient to God, not only in the way they obtained their wealth, but in their use of it.
Asaph’s vantage point was from the perspective of the choir loft. I can almost see him there in the temple, looking out over the congregation. They had healthy, well-fed bodies, fine clothes, and expensive jewelry. He had aches and pains, meager clothing, and no luxuries of life. He was serving God; they were not. It wasn’t fair! Doesn’t this help you to understand the agony of Asaph? The wicked were those very people who came to the temple to worship, but in a very perfunctory way. They gave lip service to their faith, but showed no genuine heart for God.
(5) Religious leaders of our Lord’s day almost perfectly fit the three-fold description of Asaph in Psalm 73. Asaph’s characterization of his fellow-countrymen as prosperous, proud, and popular is not difficult to accept when one applies these same criteria to New Testament times. The Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees were just like the wicked who caused Asaph such distress.
These religious leaders were certainly prosperous. We are told, for example, that it was the family of the high priest, a Sadducee, who owned the concession at the entrance to the temple which exchanged currency and sold sacrificial animals at exorbitant rates, turning the temple from a “house of prayer” to a “den of thieves” (cf. Matt. 21:13). We know also that the wealth of the Scribes and Pharisees was obtained by taking advantage of helpless widows (Matt. 23:14). And rather than to meet their obligations to others, legal technicalities were fabricated to preserve their wealth and indulge only themselves (Matt. 23:16-24; Mk. 7:11-12).
The religious leaders were not only prosperous, they were also proud. In Matthew 23 our Lord accused them of loving the place of honor at banquets and taking the chief seats in the synagogue (v. 6). They made a show of their religious activities to be seen by men (v. 5). And, worst of all, they took for themselves titles (Rabbi, Father, and Leader), all of which belonged to God (vv. 8-12).
Finally, the scribes and Pharisees were aggressive in seeking to lead men in their sinful ways. Jesus said to these religious leaders, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15). He then goes on to call these same men “blind guides” (v. 16). The people whose prosperity, pride, and popularity caused Asaph so much pain were the wicked within the nation Israel, those who called on the name of Yahweh, who worshipped in the temple, but whose hearts and lives were evil and proud. It is bad enough when the heathen, who do not even profess to trust in the one living God, flourish. It is pure agony however, when those who claim to know the God we serve, live in sin and yet prosper, or appear to profit.
Verse 12 summarizes the complaint of Asaph concerning the wicked: they were carefree and they continued to prosper, even in their wickedness. In short, the wicked in Israel enticed others to follow them and their evil example, and yet their lives were seemingly blessed with financial prosperity and physical well-being, a fact which seemed contradictory to the covenant God had made with Israel.
The Secrets of the Psalmist’s Soul (vv. 13-14)
I have chosen to title the theme of verses 13 and 14 in such a way as to emphasize a very important fact. The thoughts with which the psalmist toyed for a time were never shared until after he had seen how sinful they were. To put it more bluntly, Asaph knew when to keep quiet. He did not share the soul-stretching questions of his heart until after he had found the answer to them. How often, in the name of honesty (or, more piously, a “prayer request”) we share unsettling questions and problems, only to create difficulties for others. I am deeply impressed with the honesty of the psalmist on the one hand and his sense of discretion on the other. When the confession of his sins could aid his fellow-saints, he did so, but when this would only tempt others, he agonized alone, until he had the answer he sought.
Verses 13 and 14 give the conclusion toward which the evidence led Asaph. If God is not blessing the righteous and cursing the wicked, the very thing promised in the Old Testament Law (Deut. 27–28), then what was the good of being righteous? The cost of remaining pure was exceedingly high and the rewards for which Asaph had looked went to the wicked instead. Righteousness seemingly was not rewarded but punished. Such religion certainly appeared to be vain. It looked contradictory to both God’s covenant and common sense.
It should also be noted that this tempting thought with which Asaph wrestled was the presupposition of Satan:
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face” (Job 1:9-11).
It is inconceivable that Satan was not involved in the temptation which Asaph was going through as he watched the wicked doing well and as he agonized in his own affliction.
The Catastrophic Consequences of Asaph’s Anticipated Actions (v. 15)
Having described the course of action with which Asaph was flirting in verses 13 and 14, the psalmist now describes the impact such a sinful response would have had on others. To have doubted God’s faithfulness and forsaken a godly life would have been a betrayal of Asaph’s brethren. As a religious leader he not only would have been responsible for his own sin, but he would also have encouraged others to walk in his steps. Just as sin would have devastated his ministry and his witness (v. 15), so his faithfulness and worship promoted his testimony and ministry among men (v. 28). Our actions have a profound impact on others.
16 When I pondered to understand this, It was troublesome in my sight 17 Until I came into the sanctuary of God; Then I perceived their end. 18 Surely Thou dost set them in slippery places; Thou dost cast them down to destruction. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, Thou wilt despise their form.
21 When my heart was embittered, And I was pierced within, 22 Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before Thee. 23 Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. 24 With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. 28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works. (NASB)
The Perspective of Worship (vv. 16-20)
In verse 16 we come to a dramatic change of heart and mind where we move from the testing of Asaph’s faith to its triumph. The inner debate and doubting of the psalmist, as portrayed in verses 2-15 were the result of his efforts to resolve the problem by mere reason. Human reason could only lead Asaph to the conclusion that personal piety was profitless and painful. But suddenly in verse 16 there is a new perspective and a complete change in Asaph’s attitude. Instead of protest there is praise. What changed his outlook? The answer, I believe, can be summed up in one word—worship: “When I tried to understand all this It was oppressive to me Till I entered the sanctuary of God; Then I understood their final destiny” (vv. 16-17).
It was not a change of place that transformed Asaph’s outlook, but rather a change in his perspective and in his vocation. Asaph is now a man of worship. While God’s name was hardly mentioned in the first 14 verses (except in v. 1) other than on the lips of the wicked (v. 11), now Asaph is communing with God in worship.125 There is a dramatic change in the pronouns employed. In the first half of the psalm the wicked (“they” and “them”) are the object of Asaph’s attention, but in verses 15-28 God (“you”) is central. The exact nature of worship and its effect on Asaph’s heart is described in this second half of the psalm. Let us look carefully at worship’s composition and how it can transform the critic into a contrite and grateful saint.
First, worship reminded Asaph of his responsibility to the righteous (v. 15). Worship in ancient Israel was most often corporate, something done as a part of a community of worshippers. When Asaph came to worship he was not alone. There in the congregation were not only the wicked, whose prosperity had so troubled Asaph, but those who were righteous, the “generation of God’s children” (v. 15). To have adopted the attitude described in verses 13 and 14 and abandoned his faith would have been to tempt others to follow in his steps. Such a sin in the life of the saint is not only an offense to God, but also a stumbling block to fellow-believers. True worship reminds us that we cannot ignore our brethren. Indeed, we cannot worship God while we offend others (cf. Matt. 5:23-24). It is possible that Asaph has come to realize that these godly brethren are, themselves, far greater treasure than the meager material gains of the wicked.
Second, worship dissolved Asaph’s envy of the wicked by reminding and reassuring him of their ultimate destiny.126 Asaph had concluded that the wicked prospered and the righteous suffered, but this was a decision too hastily made. His conclusion had been reached on the basis of observations which were superficial. The fate of the wicked was viewed from a temporal perspective, not an eternal one. Asaph’s reasoning was based on human thinking, not on faith. While the wicked do prosper, their ultimate destiny is now viewed through the eyes of faith in accordance with the promises of God given in the Old Testament Scriptures.
The prosperity of the wicked can now be seen to be passing and precarious. If the psalmist’s footing was shaky (v. 2), that of the wicked is even more so (vv. 18-20). God has placed them on “slippery ground” (v. 18). In a moment’s time their prosperity will turn to peril and punishment (v. 19). God has chosen to delay His judgment, but once He is aroused, they will be despised and their momentary success will be seen like a passing dream, a mere fantasy.
The destiny of the wicked, rather than their immediate prosperity, served as a cure for the envy which Asaph had in his heart toward these evil-doers. While one might be tempted to envy the present ease of life in which they lived, who would possibly desire to share in their future condemnation? Looking only at the short-term they were an object of envy, but from a longer range view they were to be pitied. Worship, for Asaph, had brought the prosperity of the wicked into focus. Worship caused him to view life from an eternal perspective rather than merely an earthly one.
Self-Righteous Pity to Penitence (vv. 21-22)
Worship also gave Asaph a new perspective on himself. It dissolved false pride and brought about a penitent spirit. Underlying Asaph’s protest in verses 1-14 was a faulty assumption—that while the wealthy were wicked, he was righteous. Only a man who thought himself righteous could reason: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; In vain have I washed my hands in innocence” (v. 13).
Asaph was convinced that he was a righteous man. If the prosperous were wicked and deserved to be punished, he was righteous and deserved to prosper.
But Asaph did not deserve God’s blessings for he too was a sinner. His problem was not different in kind, but only in degree, from that of the wicked he hoped to see suffer. Asaph had hinted at this in verse 3 when he indicated his attitude was one of envy, not grief. Before he went to God in worship, Asaph viewed himself as distinct from others whom he saw as more wicked than himself. When contrasted to these “sinners” he was righteous, much like the self-righteous Pharisee who compared himself with the publican in Luke 18:11. At worship Asaph was forced to view himself in comparison with God, not wicked men. Finally he honestly admitted that he too was a sinner. In his moments of inner struggle Asaph was upset and bitter, senseless and ignorant. He was like an animal (vv. 21-22). Worship forces us to look at ourselves as God sees us. Comparison to others is set aside.
The Advantages of Affliction (vv. 23-26)
At the outset of his struggle Asaph assumed that affliction was inappropriate for the righteous. Furthermore he believed that adversity was evil. If the consequence of sin is judgment and suffering, then how could adversity possibly have a beneficial effect in the life of the saint? The success of sinners and the suffering of saints was a problem too great for the mind of the psalmist to grasp; but when he worshipped God, Asaph came to understand the blessing adversity had been in his life. On the other hand he was able to see that affluence had been detrimental to the wicked.
Worship is, first and foremost, something spiritual. At worship, Asaph began to consider the spiritual dimension of life as opposed to the merely physical aspects. Asaph had, like most of his contemporaries, defined prosperity (“shalom”) only in material and physical terms. The wicked, he protested, had sleek and healthy bodies and they were free from life’s trials (vv. 4-5). But what he had failed to appreciate was the detrimental effect prosperity had on the spiritual lives of the wicked. Prosperity made the wicked even more greedy, violent, and oppressive (vv. 6-8). Worst of all, the prosperous became proud, even to the point of blasphemy (vv. 9-11).
Rather than bringing men closer to God, affluence only made men more independent and ungrateful. Prosperity led to spiritual complacency and even blasphemous pride.
Asaph’s affliction, while unpleasant, had the beneficial effect of drawing him closer to God. While there was an initial reaction of bitterness and complaint, he finally came to the point of worship and praise. Now, rather than dwelling on what material things he lacked, he delighted in the greatest blessing of all—having God as an intimate counselor and guide, a present and a future source of comfort and security (vv. 23-26).
The sufferings of the psalmist were not God’s hand of judgment, as Asaph had too hastily concluded, but His loving hand, a course in God’s school of suffering. He did not intend to drive Asaph away, but to draw him to Himself. In all of his trials God never left his side. He was guiding and guarding him throughout his ordeal. Asaph’s experience of God’s care in the present brought assurance of His continued care and fellowship in the future, no matter how limited his understanding of this might be.
The faithfulness of God in the midst of present trials is further evidence of God’s faithfulness in the future. This is what Paul spoke of in the fifth chapter of his epistle to the Romans: “
Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Rom. 5:3-5).
This is why Asaph was able to say with confidence that although suffering may be his portion in life—his “flesh and his heart may fail”—nevertheless, God will be sufficient for his every need (v. 26). God was in the present, and He would be in the future, Asaph’s “refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
Worship has reminded Asaph of yet another important truth. God has never promised to keep His people from suffering, but He has promised to be with His people in suffering.
The Psalmist’s Summation (vv. 27-28)
God’s promised blessings and His cursings are now seen in an entirely different light, therefore Asaph concludes the psalm by summarizing the peril of the wicked and the blessings of the righteous. The wicked, those who are not near to God (v. 27), will ultimately perish. No matter how comfortable they now seem to be, destruction is their final destiny. The God who is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart (v. 1), is also the God who will destroy those who are unfaithful to Him (vv. 18-20, 27). Their momentary ease of life is no longer the object of Asaph’s envy, but their final destiny is a sobering reality.
If the blessing of God had previously been measured only in terms of material prosperity and ease of life, it is now viewed as being, in the words of one hymn, “near to the heart of God” (v. 28). This was the case with Asaph (vv. 23-26) and so he can conclude the psalm with the confident statement that he has made God his refuge and that he will publicly praise God for His wondrous deeds, which may include sending adversity into the life of His loved ones (v. 28).
Do you see how Asaph’s thinking has radically changed? He began by complaining that the wicked were prospering and that he, as one of the righteous, was being punished. He believed that suffering is evil and that since God is good He cannot allow affliction to touch the life of the righteous. “Good” was somehow inseparably intertwined with material prosperity and physical well-being. But worship taught Asaph that the ultimate good in life is knowing God. If knowing God is the highest good in this life and in eternity, then we must conclude that whatever draws us away from Him is evil and whatever draws us to Him is good. Since affluence had only promoted the wickedness of the ungodly and adversity caused Asaph to draw more closely to God, his initial thinking is revealed to be reversed. The suffering he shunned was actually a blessing, while the success he sought was really a curse.
In the light of this principle—that affliction is often a gift of God—I am greatly distressed by an all-too-common theme which is prominent in Christian circles, a theme which is almost identical to the thinking which caused Asaph such great agony of soul. It is the mentality that God’s blessings always come in the form of financial success, material abundance, and physical well-being. We are led to believe that the righteous can claim such things as their rightful possessions. We are also told that when we experience financial setbacks or physical illness it is because we lack the faith to possess what is ours in Christ.
Such theology can only be maintained by a selective reading of the Bible. Some choose to study only those passages which promise us the “good things” of life, but systematically ignore those which speak of suffering and trials. They convince themselves that a good God would never cause his saints any sorrow. That, my friend, is not what the Bible teaches. It is, rather, a doctrine which Satan himself originated and which he actively promotes in the world today. He suggested to Eve that a good God would never withhold such a pleasant and attractive thing as the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He was certain that Job would not serve God unless God continued to prosper him. He even had the audacity to suggest to the Lord Jesus that suffering was inappropriate for Him when he sought to tempt Him at the outset of His ministry (cf. Matt. 4:1-11). Jesus responded that obedience is more important than personal satisfaction (Matt. 4:4) and that God alone must be worshipped, no matter how appealing immediate pleasure or success may seem (4:10).
Nowhere did the Old Testament teach that material prosperity was the inevitable result of righteousness. Adversity was a tool God used as freely in those days as in our own. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, not because of his sin, but because of their contempt for his righteousness. The Israelites spent 400 years in captivity in Egypt, not so much as a punishment for sin as a preparation for future blessing. And the difficulties Israel experienced in the wilderness were God’s school of discipline, to teach His people obedience and to develop their faith in Him as a trustworthy Father.
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you (Deut. 8:2-5).
Many scholars believe that the Book of Job may be the oldest book of the Bible. If this is true then we should realize that one of the first truths God communicated to man was that suffering may be used of God to accomplish His purposes (such as providing instruction for Satan, Job 1–2) and to strengthen the faith of His saints (Job 42:1-6). While the saints may suffer temporarily, they can be assured of God’s ultimate blessings (Job 42:10-17).
Anyone who wishes to think that God’s people have the right to expect a trouble-free life of ease and prosperity apparently read the Scriptures superficially and have an inadequate grasp of the process God uses to conform us to the image of His Son. Suffering is one of the central themes in the New Testament Book of Hebrews. In chapter 10 the author commended the Hebrews for their diligence in spite of their suffering and persecution, urging them to continue and to endure in the present (10:32-39). In chapter 11 we are reminded that the heroes of the Old Testament were men and women who endured suffering, confident in God’s promise of future blessings.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (11:13-16).
The material blessings which these saints of old sought, they did not receive in their lifetime. Their hope and trust was in the promise of God and they were willing to look beyond the grave for its fulfillment. The delay, we are told, was so that we too might share in their blessings:
And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect (11:39-40).
In chapter 12 of this great Book of Hebrews we are reminded that one of the proofs of sonship is that we, like Israel of old, will be taught in the school of discipline. Suffering is not a denial of God’s love, but a demonstration of it, for it prepares us for the blessings for which we look, just as it did the saints of old. This is the lesson which Asaph had to learn in order to appreciate the adversity God had brought into his life.
It is not hard to understand the strong materialistic emphasis of the Old Testament saint, but it is nearly as pronounced today as it was then. For example, what comes to your mind when you think of heaven? Probably you think of the streets of gold, the absence of sorrow and pain and tears, and the great joy we will experience. I know of songs which speak of heaven in terms of the absence of war or of the possession of a pair of shoes. None of these descriptions is really wrong, but they are all distorted. You see, we are predisposed to think of heaven in material terms just as the saint of olden times thought of his blessings in such ways. Heaven, however, is not merely the absence of all those things which we think of as painful, nor is it merely the presence of what we would call pleasure. Heaven is, first and foremost, dwelling eternally in the presence of God and worshipping Him.
Psalm 73 has underscored a very important truth concerning our witness. We can state this truth as a principle: envy is the enemy of evangelism. Both halves of this Psalm end with a statement concerning the effect of Asaph’s attitudes and actions on evangelism. To have given up godliness as vain would have been to betray his brethren, to encourage others to walk in an ungodly way (v. 15). To worship God and find Him to be all sufficient is to enable one to encourage others to trust and obey God (v. 28).
It was only as I reconsidered verses 15 and 28 that I saw how important this principle is in the Psalm. It is very difficult to evangelize those whom we envy. To envy the wicked is to desire to be like them. Worldliness is devastating to our witness because we desire to be like the wicked more than we desire that they be like us. We want what they have more than we want them to have what is ours. It is only when Asaph sees the wicked in the light of eternity that he can be fervent in his witness. Their prosperity is fleeting and their destruction is sure. They may have some passing pleasures, but they do not have the blessing of knowing God and having intimate fellowship with Him. Let us learn this lesson well. We will never be effective evangelists when in our hearts we envy the way of the wicked.
Whenever we reduce the blessings of God to physical and material well-being we put ourselves in the same place that Asaph was when he observed the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. When we think of heaven as prosperity, we look at life on earth as hellish, for here we find suffering and trials. But when we view heaven as everlasting fellowship with God in uninterrupted intimacy, then we realize that we can experience a part of heaven here and now, even in the midst of adversity. In fact, it is adversity which lessens the pull of this life and its pleasures and intensifies our desire for heaven (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16–5:10). Let us seek to keep our view of heaven in biblical focus, not thinking as much about the gifts as the Giver, with whom we shall dwell forever.
Finally, let this psalm instruct us concerning the vital role which worship should play in our lives. If there was one turning point in Asaph’s change from temptation to triumph it was his worship experience (v. 17). At worship, Asaph gained a right perspective about himself and about others. He stopped focusing on the present, passing pleasures of the wicked, and pondered their ultimate and certain judgment. He ceased to consider himself as righteous, compared to the “wicked” about him, and viewed himself as a sinner, not deserving God’s gifts, but dependent on God’s grace. He ceased to envy the wicked and began to consider his obligation to the righteous. He realized that fellowship with God was not inconsistent with adversity, but often was its result. He then appreciated suffering as a gracious gift from a loving God.
Worship is not so much the leaving behind of life and coming into the presence of God as it is bringing life before God and coming to view it as He does. Worship is seeing things as they are. God is good and faithful. Life on earth is fleeting. Thus we should praise God for all that He is and for all that He does, even when He brings suffering into our lives.
Worship is not just important because it delights the heart of God. Worship is vital because it renews the perspective of the saints and enables them to live in a world of suffering, praising God, obeying His word, and looking ahead to the fulfillment of all His promises.
116 “We may indicate the distinctive nature of the solution offered in this psalm by noting that it penetrates deeper than does any other that has ever been attempted on the Old Testament level. It mounts to the very presence of God, holds close to Him, and then views the situation from that vantage point.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House [reprint], 1969), p. 523.
Perhaps Kirkpatrick best summarizes the contribution of Psalm 73 with regard to the other passages which deal with the same subject. He writes: “In Psalm 37 we have a simple exhortation to patience and faith in view of the prosperity of the wicked, for the triumph of the wicked will be short-lived, while the reward of the righteous will be sure and abiding. In Psalm 49 the impotence and the transitoriness of wealth are insisted on, and contrasted with God’s care for the righteous and the final triumph of righteousness. In this Psalm the problem is still approached from the side of the prosperity of the wicked, though there is a side-glance at the sufferings of the righteous (v. 14). It represents a deeper and probably later stage of thought: the difficulty has become more acute, and the solution is more complete; for the Psalmist is led to recognize not only the instability of worldly greatness, but the supreme blessedness of fellowship with God as man’s highest good. In the Book of Job the problem is approached from the side of the suffering of the righteous, but it is fully discussed in its manifold aspects. A further step is made towards the conclusion implicitly contained in the faith of this Psalm, that this world is but one act in the great drama of life.” A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: University Press, 1906), p. 431.
117 “The very first word allows for two possibilities of interpretation. Most of the commentators who follow the English tradition translate the ‘akh as ‘surely.’ The German tradition for the most part (except Luther) follows the equally acceptable meaning ‘only,’ i.e., God has been only good to Israel. The choice is difficult since both usages are fully warranted.” Leupold, pp. 531-532.
One can see that if verse one were rendered, “Only good is God to Israel,” the psalmist’s anguish is even more acute.
Delitzsch says, “It may therefore be rendered: yea good, assuredly good, or: only good, nothing but good; both renderings are an assertion of a sure, infallible relation of things.” Franz Delitzsch, The Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company [photolithoprinted], 1968), II, p. 311.
118 Gerhard von Rad writes: “Seldom do we find in the OT a word which to the same degree as shalom can bear a common use and yet can also be filled with a concentrated religious content far above the level of the average conception.” Gerhard von Rad, “EIRENE,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans [photolithoprinted], 1968), II, p. 402.
Carr adds, “Shalom, and its related words … are among the most important theological words in the OT. Shalom occurs over 250 times in 213 separate verses (so Durham, p. 275. BDB lists 237 uses). The KJV translates 172 of these as “peace.” The remainder are translated about 310 different ways, many only a single time each.” G. Lloyd Carr, “Shalem,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), II, p. 931.
122 A comparison of the various translations will show some differences in the way verse 4 is rendered. This reflects a slightly different reading of the text, which some feel is both justified and necessary. For example, Kidner writes: “Death seems to be introduced too early in the passage. ‘In their death’ is a single Heb. word, lemotam; divided it is read as lamo; tam, i.e. as the italicized words in the sentence: ‘… no pangs for them; sound and sleek is their body.’” Derek Kidner, Psalms (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), II, p. 260, fn. 2.
123 Kirkpatrick writes concerning verse 10: “A difficult verse. The general sense appears to be that, attracted by the prosperity and pretensions of the wicked, a crowd of imitators turn to follow them, and in their company drink to the dregs the cup of sinful pleasure.” Ibid.
124 There are two major ways of interpreting verses 10-14. The first is to understand that it is the followers of the wicked who are speaking in verses 10-14. They come to the conclusion of verse 11 (How can God know?) and they justify it on the basis of their observations of the wicked, which are expressed in verses 12-13. The wicked, they conclude, are getting away with it, and even prospering in their sin. They decide that godliness is in vain, and that God really doesn’t care (vv. 13-14, v. 11). Like those addressed in the Book of Hebrews, it would seem that they considered the cost of obedience too high, and have determined to give up. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The psalmist speaks for himself, then, only in verse 15. He considered joining his peers in abandoning his faith, but decided against it.
The second view of verses 10-14 is that those who have chosen to follow the path of the wicked who have prospered speak only in verse 11. The psalmist then takes up in verses 12-14 and speaks for himself, honestly confessing the thoughts he has pondered, but finally rejected. This is the view of Kirkpatrick, which he ably defends (pp. 434-435). I have adopted this latter view. The substance of the psalmist’s words is little different, in the end.
The expression “the sanctuary of God” is literally “the sanctuaries.” Just how this should be understood is debated. Leupold writes: “It is not easy to determine whether this statement refers to the visible Temple as such and the attendance of public worship in it, or whether it refers to an entering into the truth that God knows and imparts to others concerning His strange dealings with the children of men. Perhaps one had better allow for both possibilities. All commentators are agreed that a mere physical entering into the sanctuary gives no deeper insight. One must either hear something of God’s truth uttered in the sanctuary, or one must at least, while worshiping there and pondering upon divine truth, have been led by the guidance of the Spirit of God into new insights that resolve the troublesome problem. It is true that the latter may occur without the former. Both might have occurred in sequence.” Leupold, p. 528.
126 It should be pointed out here that there is considerable discussion among Bible scholars as to how specific this passage is concerning the future judgment of the wicked. So too there is debate about such statements as are found in verse 24 concerning the “glory” which awaits the saint. My personal opinion is that the specifics are not at all spelled out in this psalm, but that room is left for the more complete revelation of the Old Testament prophets and the even more particular instruction of the New Testament. I believe that the Old Testament saint had a hope beyond the grave, but that it was not nearly so well defined as we might think, looking back as we do from the New Testament teaching.
Related Topics: Suffering, Trials, Persecution