Psalm 73 is packed with good teaching, and that on several topics, including the question – “How can God allows the wicked to prosper?”
This psalm is ascribed to Asaph. It’s the first of 11 such psalms in a row by him, that begin the third section of the book of Psalms. Let’s jump right in.
He begins with a statement of faith about God’s goodness.
1Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
God blesses his people, that is, the faithful ones among them, whom he calls the “pure in heart.” But our writer immediately goes on to recount for us his near loss of faith in God and his temptation to give up on walking in God’s ways.
And that, all because of his envy of the wicked.
2But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. 3For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
This last phrase in v. 3, “the prosperity of the wicked,” is literally the shalom or peace of the wicked, referring to their easy, peaceful lives.
The stumbling block for him, and for many though-out the ages is why God allows this injustice to go on. It should be true that the righteous are blessed and the wicked are judged. But often the exact opposite is the case, the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer lack.
And so he was envious of the wicked and their good life. He desired what they have. As we will see, a key point of this psalm is about overcoming wrong desires and finding right desires toward God.
Next he gives a poetic description of the prosperity of the wicked.
4For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. 5They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. 6Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. 7Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. 8They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. 9They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.
Just a note, to be “fat and sleek” speaks to their prosperity in that they are wealthy enough to have food; they don’t go without.
Now, everyone suffers to some degree. But how is that the wicked live such good lives? Those who have cheated, stolen, lied, and oppressed others to get their wealth and power – why do they so often live lives that are easy, comfortable, luxurious and full of peace?And how is it that they can go on and even be arrogant and brag about this?
This then leads to his faith struggle.
10Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them.
That is, others among Israel see this and think, “they must not be so bad!”
11And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Maybe God doesn’t know what’s going on down here on earth; or keep track of unrighteousness and injustice.
12Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
They are doing just fine.
Perhaps you’ve seen this reality in business, work, politics,school or life relationships, where those who cheat, lie, steal and put others down not only don’t get caught, they succeed more than you, when you took the hard path of doing what’s right!
Asaph goes on –
13All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. 14For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.
He’s saying, “maybe it doesn’t matter how you live!” Here he has kept himself clean; he has walked in God’s ways, and unlike the wicked, he has been stricken and rebuked; he has suffered hard times. Is it all in vain? This is his struggle.
Notice how v. 13 directly contradicts his statement of faith in v. 1 – “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” His heart is pure, but the wicked seem to get all the good things, while he suffers.
This brings us to his solution.
15If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of your children.
If he had accused God of injustice, he would have spoken what was wrong and led others to stumble.
16But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, 17until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.
This is the turning point. Trying to think this through wore him out. But then, while worshiping, he “discerned their end.”
I see in this an example for us. When you have doubt, bring it to God. We all have doubts and questions at times. Don’t let this drive you away from God. Come before God’s presence with it. Seek God for insight and help with your questions of faith. I encourage you to do this.
What is the end of the wicked that Asaph discerned?
18Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. 19How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! 20Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.
Their end is “ruin” and “destruction” under God’s judgment. This reckoning may be delayed, but it will come. There is justice with God.
And Asaph also experiences a change in his heart, from wrong desire, envy toward the wicked to right desire toward God.
21When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, 22I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.
When he envied the wicked and almost said to others that serving God is vain, he was not seeing things correctly. He was ignorant.
23Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. 25Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
It’s not often that life after death in God’s presence is stated so clearly in the Old Testament. But this is just the background here.
The real point is that God is near. “You hold my right hand” speaks to guidance. Like a parent guiding a small child by the hand. “You guide me with your counsel.” In this life God is near and guides him.
And “afterward,” after this life, “you will receive me to glory.” God’s nearness will continue beyond this life after his flesh and heart fail; after the wicked are put to an end; this closeness will continue “forever.”
Now let’s step back and notice the movement in this psalm. It begins with him desiring the prosperity of the wicked. But it ends with him rightly desiring God above all else. He not only realizes that the wicked will be judged and he will continue with God in the future in a blessed state. He realizes that he is blessed now, even without the prosperity he envied. Because he desires something more now – God’s closeness; his relationship with God.
He is saying, “God’s nearness is better than the prosperity of the wicked.” He came to the place where he could say, “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” (It’s important to note that the solution to his problem was not just an intellectual one – there is an afterlife where justice will be served. It’s a fundamental change of heart and desires within him. He now desires something different, even though his circumstances haven’t changed.)
Asaph ends with a statement of faith on God’s goodness, which summarizes his insight.
27For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
The wicked will be judged. They will be put to an “end.” This is the fate of those who are not pure in heart, who are far from God.
28But 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.
His testimony of faith, having come through a great struggle of doubt, is that God is indeed good to the pure in heart, to those near him. And he will testify of the good works of God for others to hear and know.
Let me end by asking –
What is your desire?
Can you say with Asaph in v. 25 – “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”
Can you say that you desire God above all else? That you want to be near God? That you want to know God more? That you want to grow in your relationship with God above all else?
Is that burning in your heart? Is that your motivation in life? It’s not hard to tell what’s in your heart. Just look at how you spend your time. Do you pursue deepening your relationship with God in prayer, reading scripture, listening to and worshiping God?
May God work a work in each of out hearts, so that we desire him above all else.