Psalm 73 teaches that in order to have a true appreciation of Gods goodness, we must first spend time in His sanctuary. The lesson is therefore immensely practical: if we are not spending time in prayer we are robbing ourselves of our great resource. But if we are, we can be sure that the time has been wisely invested. It is thus an encouragement, and surely a challenge, to every Christian.
Written by Asaph, who relates a specific episode of discouragement he experienced while trying to live godly, the Psalm is presented in a striking "before and after" manner. He relives his problem (vv.3-16), recalls the turning point (v.17), and then describes his changed perspective (vv.18-28). The turning point came when he "went into the sanctuary of God". This pivotal moment has no doubt struck many Christians on their first reading of the Psalm. The slogan sometimes seen on Church notice boards would be a fitting title: "Prayer changes things". It does. But what we tend to forget is that it is first of all designed to change us! Prayer does this by giving us a true perspective on our problems and on everything else. Sometimes even the very act of committing a thing to God in prayer is enough to move the mountains that can form in our hearts and minds.
"Truly God is good to Israel." Asaph stamps firmly on the mind of his readers the one thing he learned from his experience. But his conclusion comes first in the Psalm for his own benefit too - lest the vivid retelling of his complaint that follows caused him to stumble over it again. "The Psalmist plants his foot on a rock while he recounts his inward conflict" (Spurgeon). Jeremiah, in similar circumstances, followed the same pattern: "Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously?" (Jer 12.1). Asaph and Jeremiah therefore teach us to remind ourselves of what we do know about God before addressing the difficult questions, namely: He is good, and He is right.
Asaph looks back and humbly admits that he had almost gone completely off track (v.2). This is all the more remarkable when we learn that Asaph was a Seer (2 Chr 29.30). And the fact that Asaph was envious of people God would one day destroy (vv.3,18) intensifies the shock. What a warning! Unchecked envy can lead to disaster. And if a Seer can be in that position, how much more do we need to walk carefully?
A portrait of the ungodly (vv.4-12)
Asaph identifies those he envied as "the foolish", and the "the wicked". The first title is elsewhere translated "boasters". It carries the idea of making a show, signalling that we are dealing with people whose folly manifests itself in flashy, ostentatious behaviour. The second tells us that they were actively bad people. Its first use is to describe the people of Sodom that God deemed worthy of destruction (Gen 18.23). In v.12 of this Psalm it is translated "ungodly". The root of Asaphs envy seems to be that the ungodly had none of the discipline that he suffered as a consequence of seeking to please God, and instead had all the pleasure this life can offer. Most likely, therefore, Asaphs own life was not pleasant, prosperous, and pain-free; otherwise he would not envy them. At least five of their characteristics got to him.
Their tranquillity (vv.4-5)
The first thing Asaph notes, which for him seems to sum these people up, was that they have a pain free death ("no bands") at the end of a worry free life ("They are not in trouble as other men"). These people are untouchable, nothing gets to them. They never go through something they cannot handle. They even face death with calm!
Their attire (v.6)
Their neck chain and their clothing caught his eye. Now a necklace is for personal decoration, but these people decorated themselves with pride. They made no attempt to hide their arrogance. And just as our clothes cover all parts of our body, these people were from head to toe marked by violence. They did not simply have an aggressive streak; it was closer to aggression saturation. Our clothing ought to be completely different (1 Pet 5.5), for God resists the proud.
Their affluence (v.7)
Overweight, and with an overflow of possessions, these people knew nothing of shopping to a budget. They did not just have everything they could dream of; they had even more! How easy to wish for this; but Pauls word to Timothy shows where our materialistic aspirations should be satisfied: "And having food and raiment let us be therewith content" (1 Tim 6.8). Although there is nothing at all wrong with money in itself, Scripture warns that vast amounts may replace trust in God (1 Tim 6.17). For the Christian, money brings a wonderful opportunity in Gods service (1 Tim 6.18), but the people here were light years away from using their money for the good of others.
Their words (vv.8,9,11)
Not knowing any trouble themselves, they are quite happy to scoff (literal meaning of "they are corrupt") at the distress of others. This is something God forbids (Prov 24.17-18). Their language is not the product of a diligent effort to keep the tongue bridled, as we are instructed in James (1.26). Instead, "they speak loftily". Jude tells us that "great swelling words" are a telltale sign of ungodliness (Jude v.16) and certainly should not mark Christians. Their words are so lofty that they reach to the heavens in verbal attacks against God (v.11). They question Gods knowledge of what is going on, and we often hear this idea repeated today. Because there is suffering there cannot be a God; somebody that powerful would step in and stop it. Yet those who propagate the idea are unsatisfied with the Bibles answer that suffering is a by-product of living in a cursed world.
Yes, these people are happy to turn their tongues in any direction horizontally at their fellows, or vertically at God. The imagery in v.9b is fitting: they give their tongues a completely free rein; nowhere is out of bounds, no-one beyond their verbal lashings.
Their effect on the saints (v.10)
The people of God are distressed by the blasphemy of the ungodly. The phrase "his people", "his" referring to the occupant of the Heavens against whom the ungodly speak, must refer to Gods people. And they "return to this place" (NASB), the place of discouragement in which Asaph finds himself. Thus, Asaphs difficulty over the apparent prosperity of the wicked was not an isolated incident; it is a potential pitfall for saints in every generation. The imagery of a full cup being drained suggests that the experience is very real; more akin to a drink than a drop of distress.
To be continued.