A Study in Wisdom
To contact us:
Psalm 73:1-14 -
A Stumbling Point,
by Scott Sperling
A psalm of Asaph.
1Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
2But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
3For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
5They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
6Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
7From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
their evil imaginations have no limits.
8They scoff, and speak with malice;
with arrogance they threaten oppression.
9Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
11They say, “How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?”
12This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
13Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
14All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.
This psalm deals with a crisis of faith. The Psalmist puzzles as to why he struggles to live a godly life, while the wicked seem to live prosperous and trouble-free lives. This is a not uncommon complaint, made by the godly and ungodly alike. “This is a Psalm that instructs us against that great offence and stumbling-block concerning which all the prophets have complained: namely, that the wicked flourish in the world, enjoy prosperity, and increase in abundance, while the godly suffer cold and hunger, and are afflicted, and spit upon, and despised, and condemned; and that God seems to be against His friends and to neglect them, and to regard, support and give success to His enemies. This offence has existed, and has exercised and vexed the godly from the very beginning of the church” [Luther, in Plumer, 709].
The psalm is “A psalm of Asaph”. Asaph was a Levite (1 Chr. 6:39-43), who was appointed by David to be the chief musician, in charge of leading in the worship of God (1 Chr. 16:5-11). This psalm, and the next ten psalms, are attributed to Asaph, as well as Psalm 50.
The Psalmist begins with a statement of faith, in which he always believed: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart” (vs. 1). He follows this statement of faith with the thoughts that almost made him stumble: “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (vss. 2-3). So the Psalmist sees and understands the goodness of God to His people, including God’s goodness to the Psalmist himself. The Psalmist errs, I believe, in focusing on God’s dealings with others, and finding fault with God’s patience with the wicked. It seemed to the Psalmist that God was treating the wicked better than the godly, and this sparked “envy”: “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (vs. 3). Yes, so the Psalmist said, “God is good to Israel”, but that was not enough. The Psalmist wanted God to be wrathful against the wicked.
It is a common problem, and a common stumbling block, for believers to be overly concerned with God’s dealings with others. We need to be eminently concerned with how God deals with us ourselves; but we should let God be God, and deal with others as God sees fit. By faulting God’s dealings with others, we are, in effect, saying that we ourselves would be better at being God, than God Himself. Perish the thought!
Nonetheless, have we not all stumbled in this way? Have we not all found ourselves envying the goods and prosperity of an ungodly man? To do so is to get all twisted up about what actually is good in this life. “To envy the wicked because they prosper is to make more account of the good things of this life than of God’s favour—to prefer physical good to moral” [Pulpit Comm., 70]. “If we consider with ourselves how unlikely a thing it is to grow big with riches, and withal to enter through the eye of a needle; how unusual a thing it is to be emparadised in this life and yet enthroned in that to come; it will afford us a matter of comfort if we are piously improsperous, as well as of terror if we are prosperously impious” [William Crouch, in Spurgeon, v. III, 257].
By the way, an evidence of the veracity of the Bible is that it shows us not only the strengths of its heroes, but also their weaknesses. We see Noah the drunkard, David the murderer, Solomon the glutton and idolater, etc. Here, we have Asaph, the worship leader of God’s people, chosen by David himself, having a crisis of faith. “Even good men, though gifted and inspired, are in danger of sad lapses into sin and sinful errors” [Plumer, 716]. “The faith of even strong believers may sometimes be sorely shaken, and ready to fail them. There are storms that will try the firmest anchors. Those that shall never be quite undone, are sometimes very near it” [Henry].
The Psalmist goes on to enumerate the advantages of the wicked, as he sees it: “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills” (vss. 4-5). I think here that the Psalmist is overstating the case. To say that the prosperous wicked “have no struggles… [and] are free from common human burdens… [and] not plagued by human wills” is to paint with rose-colored glasses the situation of the wicked on this earth. Perhaps the envy of the Psalmist was blinding him, so that he was not seeing the troubles that the wicked face in their sinful prosperity. We see a nice car, parked in front of a shining mansion, and we assume all is well within the mansion. We choose not to see the spiritual darkness, the drunkenness, the drug abuse, the profligacy of offspring, and all the other problems that are rife in the lives of the prosperous wicked. “Sanctified affliction is a blessing; unsanctified prosperity, a curse.” [Plumer 717].
The lack of trouble experienced by the wicked in verses 4 and 5 leads to the proud displaying of their evil in the next verses: “Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits. They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth” (vss. 6-9).
And then, the proud displaying of the evil in verses 6 through 9, draws others into the sphere of arrogant wickedness, and open defiance of God: “Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. They say, ‘How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?’” (vss. 10-11). God’s patience and forbearance with the sins of man often has opposite the intended effect. God delays punishing sin to give men an opportunity to repent and turn to Him. But instead of repenting, the wicked use God’s forbearance as proof that God does not see their evil, as here: “They say, ‘How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?’” (vs. 11). Paul alludes to this behavior: “Or do you show contempt for the riches of [God’s] kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). “So far were they from desiring the knowledge of God, who gave them all the good things they had, and would have taught them to use them well, that they were not willing to believe God had any knowledge of them, that He took any notice of their wickedness, or would ever call them to an account.” [Henry].
The Psalmist sums it all up: “This is what the wicked are like – always free of care, they go on amassing wealth” (vs. 12). And this leads to doubt as to how the Psalmist is living his life: “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence” (vs. 13). Apparently, adding to the aggravation of the Psalmist is that he is going through times of trouble himself: “All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments” (vs. 14). “The state of the Psalmist's mind was this: If these foolish, wicked, ungodly men are allowed to enjoy such quiet and prosperity under the government of God for a long time, what am I to think of the laws of providence? As yet, my own abhorrence of wickedness and freedom from iniquity appear to produce no advantage, but, on the contrary, unhappy results” [Plumer, 712].
Psalm 73:15-28 -
A Turning Point
15If I had spoken out like that,
I would have betrayed your children.
16When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
17till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
18Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
19How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
20They are like a dream when one awakes;
when you arise, Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
21When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
22I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
23Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
27Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28But 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.
To his credit, the Psalmist did not openly proclaim the frustrations and doubts he had concerning God’s dealings with the wicked: “If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children” (vs. 15). The Psalmist did not draw others into the same stumbling path that he was walking. “Here a voice within urges him to shrink from openly recommending ungodliness. It is sad to indulge in such hard thoughts of God's goodness and justice at all; but to preach or recount them publicly (as the Hebrew for speak means) would be utter treachery to the people and the cause of God” [JFB]. “Note, we must think twice before we speak once; both because some things may be thought, which yet may not be spoken, and because the second thoughts may correct the mistakes of the first” [Henry].
And also to the Psalmist’s credit, he worked hard to understand the reasons and the ways of God’s dealing with the righteous and the wicked: “When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply” (vss. 16). The Psalmist, rather than letting first impressions rule his attitude, sought out the solution to his dilemma. He deeply desired “to understand” God’s workings in the world, yet found he was still “troubled deeply”. We don’t naturally have all the answers. God’s workings in this world will at time puzzle us, even “trouble” us. When they do, we must continue to seek “to understand all this”. It is a teachable moment. “In all conditions in life there is much in nature and in providence above our comprehension” [Plumer, 717].
The turning point in the attitude of the Psalmist came when he stopped trying to solve the issue through mere human understanding, but sought out illumination from God in the matter: “It troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (vs. 16-17). “Whoever, in applying himself to the examination of God’s judgments, expects to become acquainted with them by his natural understanding, will be disappointed, and will find that he is engaged in a task at once painful and profitless; and, therefore, it is indispensably necessary to rise higher, and to seek illumination from heaven.” [Calvin, in Plumer, 713]. “When but half a story is told, or half a drama enacted, it is very unfair to pronounce on the character of the whole.” [Plumer, 716]. “There are many great things, and things needful to be known, which will not be known otherwise than by going into the sanctuary of God, by the word and prayer. The sanctuary therefore must be the resort of a tempted soul” [Henry].
For the Israelites, the “sanctuary” was “the appointed place of meeting between God and His people: then God manifested His glory and goodness to His people” [JFB]. In the “sanctuary”, the Psalmist surely met with others who themselves were seeking God and the wisdom of God. He read the word of God, allowing the Spirit of God speak to Him through the word of God. He sought out God’s enlightenment through His Spirit in prayer, and through the hearing of sermons, or the discussions with other godly people who were in the “sanctuary”.
Through any and all of these things, the Psalmist’s problem was solved when he “understood their final destiny” (vs. 17). This settled the matter. “The Bible brings this life and the next, time and eternity, human conduct and the last judgment, the sinner’s career and the sinner’s end into view at once. This makes a vast difference. Indeed it affords a perfect clearing up of doubt, and quite removes perplexity on this hard point of providence. In God’s house he learned that the lot of the wicked was not desirable” [Plumer, 713].
Through this realization, the Psalmist, when looking again at the lot of the wicked, saw things in a completely different light: “Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies” (vss. 18-20). “The prosperity of the wicked is short and uncertain; the high places in which Providence sets them, are slippery places” [Henry]. “Whatsoever may seem to the wicked themselves, or to the world, or to the godly who look upon the wicked, how little appearance soever there be of their fall; yet it is decreed it shall be” [Dickson, 159].
The prosperity and comfort of the wicked are as tenuous as any prosperity and comfort found in a “dream”. A “dream” is short-lived, and the dreamer is soon faced with reality. “What their prosperity now is, it is but an image, a vain show, a fashion of the world that passes away; it is not real, but imaginary, and it is only a corrupt imagination that makes it a happiness; it is not substance, but a mere shadow; it is not what it seems to be, nor will it prove what we promise ourselves from it; it is as a dream, which may please us a little while we are asleep, yet even then it disturbs our repose; but how pleasing soever it is, it is all but a cheat, all false. When we awake, we find it so” [Henry].
The Psalmist looks back at himself as he was before he was enlightened, and regrets his folly: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you” (vss. 21-22). It’s amazing how a little spiritual insight will bring a total change of attitude. Here the Psalmist thinks himself a “senseless” and “ignorant” brute for his previous, somewhat reasonable, doubts. The Psalmist was tested and tried by his temptation to doubt God, and through it, he learned about himself, and the weaknesses of his own intellect when without help from the Spirit of God.
He emerged from this trial more strongly dependent upon God: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vss. 23-26). “He who, but a little while ago, seemed to question the providence of God over the affairs of men, now exults in happy confidence of the divine mercy and favour towards himself, nothing doubting but that grace would ever continue to guide him upon earth till glory should crown him in heaven. Such are the blessed effects of ‘going into the sanctuary,’ and consulting the ‘lively oracles’ in all our doubts, difficulties, and temptations” [Horne, 259]. Know this, dear reader, God will reward honest, and diligent fact-finding about His ways.
The Psalmist is once again confident in God’s righteous justice: “Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 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” (vss. 27-28).
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Alexander, Joseph Addison. The Psalms Translated and Explained. Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1864.
Bonar, Andrew. Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860.
Calvin, John. A Commentary on the Book of Psalms. 3 Vols. Oxford: D. A. Talboys, 1840. (Originally published in Latin in 1557).
Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible with a Commentary and Critical Notes. Vol. III. London: William Tegg & Co., 1854. (Originally published in 1831).
Delitzsch, Franz. Biblical Commentary on the Psalms. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1892. (Originally published in 1860).
Dickson, David. An Explication of the Other Fifty Psalms, from Ps. 50 to Ps. 100. Cornhill, U.K.: Ralph Smith, 1653.
Exell, Joseph S. and Henry Donald Spence-Jones, eds. The Pulpit Commentary. Vols. 17, 18, & 19. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1884.
Henry, Matthew. An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament. Vol. II. London: W. Baynes, 1806. (Originally published in 1710).
Horne, George. A Commentary on the Book of Psalms. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1854.
Jamieson, Robert; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David (JFB). A Commentary: Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments. Glasgow: William Collins, Queen’s Printer, 1863.
Lange, John Peter, ed. and Philip Schaff, trans. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical. New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1865.
Perowne, J. J. Stewart. The Book of Psalms: A New Translation with Explanatory Notes. London: George Bell & Sons, 1880.
Plumer, William S. Studies in the Book of Psalms. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1872.
Spurgeon, Charles. The Treasury of David. 6 Vols. London: Marshall Brothers, Ltd., 1885.
VanGemeren, Willem A. “Psalms” from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, ed. by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
All of these books, except for The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, can be downloaded free of charge from: