From Learning to Love the Psalms
The first half of Psalm 73 poignantly introduces the theme of the crisis of faith that dominates Book Three. The psalm begins with a rousing confession of confidence in God: “Truly God is good to Israel.” But then it records a severe personal struggle with the unfairness of life. The particular pain the psalmist suffers is an envy of the wicked: “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked,” (v. 3). Why do the wicked seem to prosper in this life? If God blesses the evil man more than the good, why bother to be good?
The reality of this struggle for the psalmist is intense. Everything seems to go well for the wicked: “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. Behold these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches,” (vv. 4-5, 12). They are wealthy, healthy, and trouble-free.
The wicked even boast that God does not notice what they do: “And they say, ‘How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?’” (v. 11) They flaunt their wickedness before man and God. And God seems not to care.
The psalmist feels that his effort to live faithfully before the Lord has been pointless: “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence,” (v. 13). Indeed, he has suffered while the wicked have prospered: “For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning,” (v. 14). The psalmist’s confusion and envy were leading him to bitterness. He faced a severe temptation to abandon his Godliness and to follow the wicked into worldliness.
Jesus must have faced a similar temptation when the devil offered to give him the kingdoms of the world without requiring him to suffer on the cross. He, too, may have wondered about the prosperity of the wicked and the apparent vanity of goodness. Yet, he did not give in to the temptation.
The psalmist’s personal crisis of faith is remarkably resolved in the psalm itself: “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,” (vv. 16-17). The psalmist went to the temple, and there he regained his solid footing in the faith. He realized that in fact the wicked are doomed: “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!” (vv. 18-19)
Why did the psalmist come to understand the doom that awaited the wicked in the temple? What did he see when he entered the courts of the temple? In front of the Holy Place, he would have seen the altar for burnt offerings. It must have been a remarkable sight. Pictures that reconstruct the temple almost invariably misrepresent the scene as very clean and tidy. In fact, the altar must have been a rather horrible sight of blood and charred remains. It was surrounded with the odors of blood, burnt flesh, and death. Flies probably swarmed around. What the psalmist saw was what God intended his worshipers to see: that the wages of sin is death in all its horror. The altar testified that sin leads to destruction, and that the only way to avoid the just consequences of sin is to find a substitute and sacrifice. The altar testified that the blood of a spotless substitute was necessary for sin to be forgiven.
In the temple, the psalmist realized that the wicked had no substitute or sacrifice. Only the judgment and destruction that he saw represented on the altar awaited them. They might appear to flourish for a day, but in the end, they would face God and his judgment. The altar and the sacrifices point to Jesus and his saving work. He is the true sacrifice and substitute for his people.
As the psalmist comes to understand the fate of the wicked, he sees also how good his God is to him. First, he realizes that God has always been with him, even in his times of doubt and struggle: “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand,” (v. 23). God never abandons him. He is like a loving parent holding on to the hand of a little child and ensuring the child’s safety.
The psalmist also clearly confesses his confidence in the everlasting blessedness that is his as a child of God. It is not for this life only that we have believed. “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory,” (vv. 24). Beyond this life, God promises glory in his presence.
The child of God can endure trouble in this life not only because of God’s promise of future blessedness, but also because God himself is enough of a blessing for the believer even now: “But for me, it is good to be near God,” (v. 28a). He is the gift we desire even if we lose everything in this world: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever,” (v. 26). God himself is all the inheritance that we need.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with a very famous question: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is also celebrated: “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” What does the catechism mean by “enjoying” God? The authors of the catechism cite one Bible text as the foundation for what it means to enjoy God: Psalm 73:25. That verse is a most remarkable statement of how fully God is all that his people need: “Whom have I in Heaven but you? And there is nothing on Earth that I desire besides you.”
Here, the psalmist has scaled the heights of Godliness and devotion. He can let everything else go because God is enough for him. We are reminded of the closing words of Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” where we read, “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also. This body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still. His Kingdom is forever.”
This kind of utter devotion to God and his ways does not come automatically or easily. The psalmist shows us in his own experience how intense his struggle was before he could confess that God was enough for him. We should not expect that we or others will always live in such heights of confidence. But here is a wonderful picture for us of the faith that we ought to seek to cultivate, because then we can truly be said to enjoy God.
The psalm ends with a solemn commitment to “tell of all your works,” (v. 28b). God is good to Israel. God gave them a Land of Promise and a temple that spoke of his saving provision for them. God answered the psalmist’s prayer for help and renewed his faith. God is his refuge and portion. The psalmist will not keep silent in the face of all his blessings. He will declare to his brothers and to the world how great and good his God is. We who have seen the coming of the true substitute and true sacrifice in Jesus Christ must be as eager as the psalmist is to speak of our God’s great salvation.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How does this psalm record several personal struggles with the unfairness of life and envy of the wicked? Have you ever personally struggled with thinking that faithful living is pointless? Did Jesus ever wonder about the prosperity of the wicked and the apparent vanity of goodness?
- What caused the psalmist to come to understand the doom that awaited the wicked in the temple? What did he see when he entered the courts of the temple?
- How does the child of God endure trouble in this life? Why is it that utter devotion to God and his ways does not come automatically or easily? Do you find it natural to speak of God’s great salvation in times of trouble?