Psalm 73:18-22 – Viewing the World from God’s Perspective

Even though he questioned the value of his innocence, the writer’s perspective is changed when he entered into worship. The wicked are not as prosperous has he once thought (73:18-20).  The writer knew his feet were in danger of slipping when he became envious, but the wicked are in a slippery place as well, in ignorance!  Because they trust in their wealth and power, they are in the most insecure place imaginable. The prosperity of the wicked is compared to a dream.  It is not real and substantive, it is merely a vapor which will pass away when morning comes. The wicked are “unreal” or even naturally unstable, liable to fall at any moment.

Ashes-in-ManWe might think it strange that this new perspective might come out of a worship experience since we do not really sing worship songs about the damning of the wicked. This is true in the psalms, however.  Assuming the writer did engage in the liturgy of the temple, then there is a strong possibility that he would have sung some of the Psalms which reminded him that God is a righteous judge and would punish the wicked.

The writer’s change in perspective is also seen in his self-evaluation (73:21-24). Like most people who have “come to their senses,” he feels a bit foolish.  he calls himself senseless (only in  Pss 49:11, 73:22, 92:7, Prov 12:1, 30:2, parallel to foolish, etc.), he compares himself to an animal which has no reason or wisdom at all. In saying this, he is not deprecating himself out of a false humility.  Worship has taught him what he really is (a child of God) and his understanding of the way things really are in this world will be driven by that worship experience.

He recognizes that God is always with him, holding his hand as a parent with a small child.  The reason a small child can walk or play with confidence is the knowledge that the parent is nearby and watching over them. The psalmist is describing himself as a small child who simply needed to be reminded that his loving parent is keeping watch nearby.

This is a child-like faith, but it is not a simple, unquestioning faith.  In this psalm the writer has expressed very grave doubts about God’s justice in the world, perhaps even the ability of God to keep his promises.  He has critically evaluated both the world and his faith, and returned to an honest faith in the God who is very near.

The writer’s changed perspective is also seen in his renewed commitment to be near to God (25-28).  The last two verses of the Psalm returns to the theme of the first, “But for me, it is good to be near God.”

The writer’s commitment to God is based on God’s presence in his life.  He is always with me, he is near. This is an expression of God’s persistence.  The image of a young child is particularly good because a parent has to work pretty hard to watch over a child all of the time. A parent must be persistent, since the moment you let your guard down there is going to be crayon on a wall or a spoon in the light socket.

This also expresses God’s sufficiency.  God is all that the writer needs; as it turns out, he does not need to envy the prosperity of the wicked since God has given him all that he needs, he is able to be completely satisfied in the presence of God.  What more on earth could there be to satisfy me compared to true fellowship with God?

As it turns out, the proverb in 73:1 is correct. The one who is pure in heart is near to God, the external circumstances of the individual do not matter, whether they are wealthy or in poverty, whether they are in good health or suffering greatly.  True shalom, the peace which the covenant speaks of, is to be found in nearness to God and only in nearness to God.  Conversely, it is a fearful thing to be far from God, as are the wicked.  Their apparent prosperity in the present time is nothing, it is in fact not real prosperity at all.

Ironically, in the end, misery is to be far from God, while true shalom is to be near to God.

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.

Psalm 73:2-12 – Envying the Wicked

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.

Envy RichThe 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?

Psalm 73:1 – Surely God is Good!

The first line of Psalm 73 may have been a popular proverb at the time the Psalm was written. At the very least, it is a common theme in the Psalms. Those who are the true worshipers of God are pure in heart. In Psalm 24, for example, only those who have clean hands and a pure heart may ascend the holy hill of God (Ps 24:3-4). In Psalm 51:10 David famously asks God to create a clean heart and a right spirit within him.

But Psalm 24:5-6 goes on to say that the one who has clean hands and a pure heart will be blessed by God; they can expect that the blessings of the covenant will come their way. The converse of this would be that the one who is not pure in hear will not receive the blessings, but rather the curses of the covenant.  A “pure heart” is therefore a way of describing a total commitment to God (Kidner, Psalms, 259).

This proverb reflects the covenant relationship which Israel has with God. In Deuteronomy God promised he would bless the nation when they kept the covenant and that he would punish them when they broke the covenant (curses and blessings). If a person did make a good-faith effort to keep the Law and followed the Law when they encountered impurity, then they ought to experience physical prosperity. God ought to give the good health and peace because they are “pure in heart.”

stupidity_xlargeIs it really true that the Lord is good to those who are pure in heart?  Is it really true that the Lord sends curses on the wicked?  The Psalmist has some doubts about the truth of this proverb in the rest of the Psalm. This doubt is common: how many truly wicked (or exceedingly shallow) people are wealthy and powerful? How many people who have dedicated themselves to God’s work are poor and oppressed?

For me, I am less upset when an evil person succeeds than when a shallow, useless person succeeds. Like the Psalmist, I feel like shouting, “hey God, are you paying attention to these people? Read their twitter feeds and judge them with hellfire!”

If verse one is true on some sort of universal “proverbial” level, is it fair that a long time servant of God dies painfully with inoperable cancer when a mass murderer lives out his years in relative comfort?  This is the issue the psalmist explores in Psalm 73.

Psalm 49 – The Folly of Wealth

Psalm 49 describes the fate of the wealthy. Wisdom literature in general has a great deal to say about the folly of relying on one’s personal wealth. Despite this, it seems like contemporary American culture (especially conservative evangelicalism) ignores the biblical associate of wealth and folly. I am tempted to inset a Donald Trump joke here, since there are far too many Christians who are fooled into thinking his wealth means he knows something about running a country (or worse, his wealth means he is blessed by God). If anything, American politics should demonstrate the truth of Psalm 49, reliance on personal wealth and power is folly.


The wealthy are described as cheating the worshiper.
To “cheat” or “deceive” is the noun עָקֵב, the root behind the name Jacob.  The basic meaning is “heel,” Jacob was the second of the twins born to Rebekah and was given the name “heel grasper” since he was born grabbing the heel of his brother.  To “raise one’s heel against” another person is a threatening sign, Ps 40:10 uses this phrase to describe a betrayer, Jesus quotes that Psalm in John 13:18 to describe Judas.

Trump MoneyThese wealthy people trust in their riches (49:6). Rather than trusting in God, the rich are confident that they can weather any economic problems which come along. Remember Y2K? Some people stocked up on food and water “just in case.” If the worst possible things happened on that date, they could have “boasted” in their own preparedness, they survived because they earned it and deserved to survive.

The fate of the wealthy is the same for the poor, they will both die (49:7-12). Wealth cannot ransom a person from the grave. This line (v.7) begins with a rare interjection which is not in the NIV and is usually translated “alas!” The word (אָח) is a cry of pain, almost like a guttural scoffing noise. The syntax here is significant (infinitive absolute with an imperfect cognate, the same sort of construction in the famous “you will surely die,” Gen 2:17).  The ESV uses “truly” to get at the meaning here, the point is the certainty of this not happening: “he most certainly cannot buy his way out of Sheol!”

Olsteen NoPeople who boast in their wealth have foolish confidence (49:12-13). It is not wrong to have wealth, nor does this psalmist praise poverty.  The problem is that people who have wealth place their confidence in the wealth, often to their shame.  Wealth can disappear in an instant. Their confidence is described as “foolish” (כֶּסֶל). They are relying on something which is unreliable.  Imagine if you had an uncle tell you that he was going to help you pay off all your debts because his new business was just about to make a huge profit.  He is only waiting for his Nigerian contact to wire him millions….most of us would understand that this is relying on something which is foolish.  Perhaps one of the reasons they have such high confidence in their wealth is that they have an entourage of people telling them what they want to hear! There are people following behind approving of their boats, giving more confidence to the wealthy person.

Wealth does not follow a person to the grave (49:16-17).  The idea that one leaves their wealth behind when the die common in most cultures, “you can’t take it with you when you go.”  This is a common theme in the Hebrew Bible as well (Ps 39:6; Job 27:16, 17; Eccl 2:18, 21, 26; Jer 17:11; cf. Luke 12:20). The wealthy used to name territory after themselves, but after they have died they will live in a bit forever without any hope of returning to the land they once claimed.   All of the honor the wealthy expect will not continue after death.  The ESV translates יְקָר as “pomp,” probably because the word is used to describe precious stones on a number of occasions (Jer 20:5; Ezek 22:25, Job 28:10).  The word appears four times in Esther to describe the honor given to Mordecai when the king honors him. The wealthy expect to be treated with a higher level of honor simply because they are wealthy.

In summary, the writer of the psalm paints a realistic picture of the “rich and famous” foolishly relying on their wealth instead of the God who gave it to them in the first place.  The riddle might be, “how can rich people be that stupid?” But before we quickly condemn the celebrities for being foolish, we need to recall that “wealth” is a matter of perspective.  Everyone in our church is wealthy compared to the rest of the world – that we have shelter—multi-room homes with indoor plumbing and usually multiple toilets, heat and air conditioning, reliable electricity, cable TV, phone service, internet, etc.

While it is easy to condemn “those rich people,” it is quite easy for us to rely on our own wealth rather than look to the God who is the real source of our blessings.