Psalm 73:13-17 – Questioning the Value of Innocence

Like Job and Jeremiah, the writer of Psalm 73 wonders if there is any value to being “pure in heart.” This should not be understood as arrogance, the writer has done what he believes to be all that he can to approach God in the proper way. He claims to be both pure and innocent.

100 PureIf the proverb in 73:1 is true, then the person with a pure heart ought to be the most blessed because the Lord is near. He says he has “washed his hands in innocence.” This probably alludes to proper ritual purity. He has followed the rituals as commanded and is able to wash his hands, declaring his innocence. Compare the Psalmist’s claim to be innocent to Psalm 26:6 and Isaiah 1:15-16. In both cases, the writer is simply expresses his belief that he has done what God wanted him to do, he believes that he is “near” to the Lord.

It is possible to see this as an extremely self-centered prayer – “Why was I pure? What did it profit me to behave this way throughout my life, if the end is to suffer in silence while the wicked prosper?” Derek Kidner described this psalm as “pathetically self-centered” (Psalms, 260). This is the attitude of the older brother in the prodigal son story, and it is possible it is a thought many of us have had, although we may not allow it to rise to the surface too often for fear of our response!

washing-handsThe writer has a legitimate question. Despite being pure, he is plagued and punished daily. Both of these words are associated with judgment. To be plagued is often a violent punishment, the second word is nearly always used for correction or reprimand. The writer is basically saying, “if I am pure in heart and ceremonially pure as well, why am I being punished every day?” Either the writer is not as near to God as he thinks (and the proverb is true), or God is not near to those who are pure in heart after all, and the proverb is false.

He knows if expresses his doubt, he will betray the “children of God.” This is perhaps a hint that the writer is in some sort of leadership role, others are looking to him for answers, how he expresses his doubts will have an effect on the children of God who come to him for spiritual guidance.

It is not wrong to wonder and question, it is wrong to cause others to sin. The writer is therefore struggling with his doubt that the covenant actually works, that being pure in heart has any value at all, and he is wondering seriously if it might not be a better idea to live a life of arrogant wickedness if there is not value to his purity.

The solution to the problem is found in worship: no understanding is found until “I entered the sanctuary of God….” This verse is the key turning point in the psalm. When the writer enters into worship, his perspective changes. Notice the contrast in verses 16-17. “When I tried to reason this thing out on my own, it was oppressive to me.”

This human attempt to understand God’s working in the world is radically changed when he entered into worship – he began to focus on God and God alone. In doing so, he saw his suffering and the prosperity of the wicked from a different angle altogether, but he also saw his own suffering from God’s viewpoint as well.

The fact that our writer enters into the temple to worship ought to be at least some confirmation that he does have a pure heart and innocent hands, since these are the requirement for approaching God’s holy hill (Ps. 24, again).

Genuine Worship is therefore critical to our understand of God and his relationship with the world.

6 thoughts on “Psalm 73:13-17 – Questioning the Value of Innocence

  1. “how he expresses his doubts will have an effect on the children of God” even as you and I come today to this very honest psalm. I look forward to the rest of your series on this pivotal psalm.

    This is the first time in the Psalter that the word for heart spelled with its double-bet is used more than once in the same poem. Here it is used 5 times, verse 1, identifying the theme, verse 13, 21 a frame for the middle section, verse 26 twice, the central verse of the last section of the poem, 23-28.

    This psalm in the middle of the two books (2 and 3) reflecting the laments of exile, anticipates Psalm 91 with the word ‘my refuge’. This word will not occur again in the psalms until Psalm 91 in book 4, a book that is framed by Moses and two prayers (90 and 102) that each twice use a word that can be rendered as ‘renew’. These are the only 4 times that this word is used in the Psalms.

    So this psalm with its focus on the individual heart with its double tendency to good or ill is key to us children in allowing us to know our selves – like Fagin, we can be ‘reviewing the situation’.

    • Thank you for these canonical observations! I am treating this simply as an example of a wisdom psalm, so your comments on some of the finer details are helpful. I have one more part to post, tomorrow morning.

      • Thanks, Phil. You are right that I do little more than observe. I have this niggling question in my own heart – ‘why can you not draw conclusions’? I answer, ‘well, it doesn’t seem my place, how about you draw conclusions in others for me because I am mute.’ Oh that my heart could speak!

  2. innocence is not a worldly value. it is a heavenly one. this is why we need to keep our focus on what is above, not below

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