The psalmist confesses he has envied the wicked because of their prosperity (73:2-3). In doing so, the writer expresses what many people are afraid to admit, he is honest before God in a way which distresses the ordinary Christian. This embarrassing openness allows us to explore the issue of the prosperity of the wicked.
The writer uses a metaphor for his doubt – he nearly slips. Sure footing is a common metaphor in the wisdom literature for a wise person, the person who is protected by the Lord (Ps 17:5, 37:31, 40:3, 44:19 73:2, Job 31:7, Prov 14:15). This is very similar to Job’s description of his own righteousness, his feet have never “turned from the path.”
The reason for this doubt is envy, or jealousy of the wicked. Envy and jealously really do not need to be described since they are so common in human interaction. Frequently in the Bible envy ends up in violence. Envy of the wicked is also a common theme in the wisdom literature; the wise person does not envy the wicked, nothing good can come of envy (Ps 37:1, Pr 3:31, 23:17, 24:19).
The focus of his envy is the “prosperity of the wicked.” The word for prosperity in this verse is shalom, commonly used for peace, but the word covers a wide range of meaning. It is a word which describes things as they are intended to be. It is not just that the wicked have made money and bought large houses for themselves while the psalmist is poor and lives in a hut – the wicked person is in a state of shalom, a state which he believes is not proper. The writer ought to be in the state of shalom, not the arrogant, wicked person.
When the psalmist describes the wicked, his point is that these are not the sort of people who ought not be enjoying a state of shalom at all. Each line might be expanded with parallels to the psalms and proverbs, but the following summarizes the description.
The wicked do not suffer. The word in verse 4 translated “struggles” by the NIV is rare, used here and in Isaiah 58:6 where it has the connotation of injustice. The wicked do not experience the sort of hassles that the righteous seem to face daily. The next line refers to physical suffering. Verse 12 describes them as “at ease,” a word some commentators translate as “always in luck” (See wlec;, HALOT).
The wicked are arrogant. “Pride as a necklace” is in contrast to Proverbs, where wisdom ought to be worn as an ornament. The whole section gives the impression of bombast (the word for pride in verse six is “roaring” like the sea.) All of their thoughts are wicked because their hearts are wicked.
The wicked mock God’s knowledge. These people do not deny God’s existence (noon in biblical times was an atheist), but they deny the God of the covenant knows about what they are doing. It is as if they know what they do breaks the covenant but they think that they are outside of God’s view. This is something like a child who thinks they can get away with something because their parents are not watching them at the moment.
So is the proverb in 73:1 true? Experience seems to say the proverb is not true at all, verses 2-12 demonstrate that the wicked prosper despite being far from God.
If this is true, what about the one with a pure heart? Why even bother with the effort of maintaining a “pure heart” if it results in punishment rather than prosperity?