Eternal Lessons from an Old Psalm

Psalm 73 was written by someone who might have recently heard a political speech in the USA  Politicians routinely attempt to motivate people who report “less than $250,000” in income annually to envy the wealth and possessions of those who earn more than that. The psalmist went through an experience like that, but he discovered an outcome superior to income redistribution.

1      Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.

At the beginning of the Psalm, the writer meditates on God’s goodness. He remembers God’s blessings and the way of life to which God calls his people.

2      But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
3      For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

The psalmist confesses that he almost went over the precipice when he allowed himself to envy the prosperity of other people. The Bible teaches us that “The acts of the sinful nature are …  envy….” (Galatians 5:19, 20 NIV) Envy was almost his undoing.

4      They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
5      They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills.
6      Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
7      From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
8      They scoff, and speak with malice;
in their arrogance they threaten oppression.
9      Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10     Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
11     They say, “How can God know?
Does the Most High have knowledge?”

The psalmist then elaborates on his observations. He is seriously upset. He observes the arrogance of people who ask, (my paraphrase) “What does God know? What makes him an authority?” The psalmist, who has meditated on God’s goodness and has tried to draw near to God feels abused and neglected.

12     This is what the wicked are like—
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
13     Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
14     All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning.

He points out something many people claim to be true: he says that the wicked have no problems and grow wealthy. He, on the other hand, lives a life of discipline and innocence, yet his life is full of trouble. He says that life is grievously unfair.

This idea, of course, is the grist of class warfare. The psalmist lived in ancient times, long before anyone dreamed up that term. Yet he might have written this poem yesterday. His experience and his thoughts are so timely. Life is absolutely not fair. He whines, “I try to do good, but I get nothing.” He sounds like a presenter at a political convention.

15     If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed your children.
16     When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
17     till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
18     Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
19     How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
20     As a dream when one awakes,
so when you arise, O Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
21     When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
22     I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.

The psalmist had a revelation, an epiphany. In the midst of his victim’s lament, as he was whining that God was not fair, something happened.

He says, “If I had said these thoughts aloud, I would have betrayed everything God stands for. My testimony would have been treasonous to God’s kingdom.” In God’s presence, the psalmist begins to see things God’s way. He looks at the world from God’s point of view.

When people feel discouraged and downtrodden, they need to put all their hope in God and start looking at things from his point of view. This only happens when they draw near. Worship is not the only way to do that, but it is a good way. Every Sunday morning, everyone is invited to draw near to God and to worship him. It is in the midst of worshiping God that he is able to open our eyes and show us what he sees. That is what happened to the psalmist.

He let go of his sense of being a victim. The he started looking at things God’s way.

Whoa! The wicked may appear to be prosperous, but they are doomed. Their wealth and their importance is on the way to destruction.

He confesses (my paraphrase of verse 21) “When I let myself become bitter, I became like an empty-headed fool.” In that moment he realizes how ridiculous it is to envy people who possess only objects that can disappear in a flash. In his moment of enlightenment, he realizes that he possesses something eternal that nobody can take away from him.

23     Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24     You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25     Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26     My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

Instead of objects, the psalmist has God. The wicked people he envied have possessions that only have substance in time and space.

The psalmist turns away from envy of fleeting wealth to see wealth that is eternal. He has God.  In verse 26 he notes that the treasures of time and space are ephemeral, but God is a blessing forever.

27     Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28     But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.

The psalmist concludes by summing up what he has learned. He no longer envies anything other people have, because he recognizes the superior treasure of knowing God.

This is the same powerful understanding that encourages Syrian Christians and Egyptian Christians and Christians in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They are under siege and in grave danger. They don’t envy wealth so much as they might envy someone who is safe and at peace. They could have peace if they were willing to renounce Christ. Their world is in complete turmoil. Yet the knowledge that gives the envious psalmist peace, also gives peace, strength and hope to these besieged Christians. The psalmist turned to the presence of God; persecuted Christians remember Christ’s promise, “I will be with you to the end of the age.” It gives hope to everyone who feels that life’s circumstances have not been kind. No matter what circumstances surround us each day, like the psalmist we can enter into a worshipful attitude, draw near to God, and learn to view the situation from God’s perspective. God’s viewpoint shows us the real reality, reality in the light of God’s loving presence. He is our refuge, and we can share that story with everyone.