Life presents us with tough situations that make us question our foundational beliefs; especially on God’s character. Asaph, one of the singers in the OT temple, wrestled to relate what he believed (about God) with what he observed in life. In his struggle, he challenged the notion that God always blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. He could not piece it together why the ungodly seem to prosper and why the godly to suffer. His reflections on God’s goodness to his people at the backdrop of the prosperity of the wicked are penned down in Psalm 73, for us today.
Epilogue: Affirmation of God’s Character (v. 1-2)
Asaph begins by affirming God’s character, “Surely, God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” The God he worshipped was good. Historically, He had been good to the nation of Israel. (Realize that, even with his questions, he had a good theology; that God’s goodness is with those who are committed to him). Though, seemingly, he struggled to see the goodness of this God (manifested at the national life of Israel), at an individual level.
The paradox of Life as Asaph perceived (v. 2-3)
Apart from knowing that the Lord is good to his people, Asaph struggled in his heart to reconcile this fact with his observations concerning the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the godly. As he considered this mismatch, he not only increased in DOUBT but also developed in his heart ENVY of the shalom/prosperity of the arrogant. Sure enough, as he trod this path, he admits that he nearly lost his foothold.
Ways and Prosperity of the Ungodly Considered (v. 4-12)
He observed that the ungodly have no struggles. Their bodies are healthy and strong. Asaph thought to himself, who does not want such a life? In his skewed observation, he noted that the ungodly are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. Like today, such people, even when they fall sick, their ill-gotten wealth assures them of stable insurance covers that would guarantee them better medical packages abroad. To Asaph, it looked like these people have it all. He could only envy them.
He also notes that these people are full of pride and violence. They use violence to acquire it what they want; and surely, they get it. Courts of law would not scare them. They are the types who switch jobs and get promotions anytime they want because of their evil maneuvers.
Their hearts and minds are totally corrupt. They have no limits of evil in their imaginations; they speak arrogantly and threaten oppression. But still, Asaph observed, everything seemed to work well for them!
They are popular, (they have the likes and following!) and everyone talks about them; and would want to stick around them.
They even mock God. In their iniquities, they say “’How would God know?’ Does the Most High know anything?’” (v. 11). Unlike Asaph, these people care less about knowing God or pleasing him. Yet, everything seemed is perfectly well with them!
These people don’t have church, Bible, or prayer and fasting in their vocabularies. They mock the very idea of prayer, God, and the Bible, and care less about God’s existence. Yet, again, they sound okay!
These wicked people are always free of care, and they go on amassing wealth, committing atrocities and injustices, taking everything under their own names. Yet, they go free.
These people seem to be enjoying everything about life, and having the best time of their lives; they are people who need not be concerned with tax compliance, they corrupt their way and hire the best lawyers to argue their cases, and bribe their way out in courts of law; they inflate tender figures, manipulate/cook accounts; they do evil and get away with it. They are a phone call away from a multimillion tender deal, money that will take you many years to get. They seem to have much fun and generally enjoy life.
So, why keep the rules when those who bend them always get ahead?
At least, in these verses, you can feel the struggles that Asaph went through. It certainly makes one sick.
How could God in his goodness allow these wicked people prosper and permit the righteous to suffer?
Certainly, Asaph may not have approved every detail of their prideful behavior but “it worked for them!”; they were prosperous in everyone’s eyes. And who does not want to be prosperous?
What then has been the value of my Godliness (v. 13-15)
Then the psalmist pondered about the value of his salvation. “Surely, in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence.” He questioned the value of his godliness at the backdrop of the prosperity of the ungodly. Yes, as a godly man, Asaph had suffered many afflictions (Ps. 34:19); but in his envy, admittedly, he’d also become blind to the fact that even the ungodly undergo through many afflictions.
Asaph felt he had cleansed himself in vain. In his puzzle, the Lord seemed to prosper the wicked and punish the righteous.
Today, like Asaph, we are tempted to ask, ‘how has my salvation helped me when those who are not saved seem to be doing so well in every area of life?’
Have I maintained a clean heart in vain?
Asaph is sure that if he had spoken out his heart-deliberations he would have betrayed God’s people who looked up to him. Nevertheless, he kept these questions alive within him.
These things continued to trouble and confuse him deeply. Has it all been in vain?
Today, similarly, a pastor can ask himself, ‘is it in vain that I have faithfully preached yet the panda mbegu preachers are making a kill each Sunday?’ A businessman can ask, ‘is it in vain that I have conducted my business in an ethical way and as a result downsizing my staff, yet my unethical neighbor who relies on many things including witchcraft keeps on expanding? A young person might be thinking, is it in vain that I have kept my purity yet those who care less about purity or God are ‘moving on well’? These are weighty issues.
One thing is for sure, it can never be in vain.
Take a close look at Asaph’s mistakes:
- He defined success, greatness, life, fun, pleasure, and prosperity through the eyes of the world/men.
- His human perspective made him see things in terms of HERE and NOW. If God is good, why do I lack this and that now?
- Envy and covetous (against the law of God: Ps. 37:1; Prov. 3:31). In this case, wanting the right things at the wrong time, in a wrong manner, and in the wrong amount.
This led him to:
- Question God’s goodness.
- Feel discouraged, embittered, and depressed.
- Waver in his confidence in God.
Asaph’s Paradigm Shift: (v. 17-22)
The psalmist went out to the sanctuary to worship, hear the word of the Lord, and commune with the Lord.
The solution to our problems lies not in complaining but in communing with God.
When he entered the holy place of God (the presence of God), something happened! Verse 17 marks the turning point of this psalm. Behold! His eyes were opened! Asaph received a revelation!
He received God’s perspective of reality. He received new lenses (God-view lenses). He started to see things from God’s perspective; In this new perspective, he received a deeper revelation concerning the ungodly and the godly. Let have a look at each.
As he embraced the God-perspective, he got to understand the FINAL DESTINY of the ungodly (v17). He started to realize that God has placed them on a slippery ground where they eventually stumble and fall. In due time, they will surely be cast down to ruin.
In his justice, God will arise and give them what they deserve. The end of the ungodly isn’t desirable at all; for they are on a pathway to destruction. The wicked are like a dream when one awakes; they are like fantasies (a dream), counterfeits of reality.
At this, point Asaph realized that his initial conclusion was wrong. His spirit was embittered/grieved noting that he had been senseless and ignorant before God (v. 21-22). His human perspective had led him along the same slippery path. He now started to overcome his doubts by considering the destiny of the wicked. The final destiny of the wicked is definitely miserable and NO ONE would not want to go that direction or walk along that path.
The Godly (v.23-26)
In this new God-perspective, the psalmist realized his glorious destiny. But he also acknowledged God’s help in the present time.
He acknowledged that:
- God has been with him always (v.23)– God’s right hand, has always sustained and upheld him and supplied his needs. The ungodly look all good, but they do not have God’s presence. To him, God has been his portion (Lam. 3:23-24). In the words of Psalm 103, Asaph realized that in fact, he should be grateful for God’s blessings upon his life: God had forgiven him his sins, healed him, crowned him with love and compassion, satisfied his desires with good things, and redeemed his life from the pit. Simply, God has been good to him.
- God has been his guide/counsel (v.24)– He had walked in God’s counsel. God had made known his ways to him. And he hasn’t allowed his feet to slip. He realized God guides his own through the puzzles and turbulence of life. He realized that he is standing because God had planted his feet upon a rock, to keep him from sliding.
- Finally, God will receive him in/with glory (v. 24)- The godly will finally receive honor and glory.
The psalmist realized that he was indeed blessed. In fact, the ungodly should envy him, not vice versa. He affirmed that God was his only possession and desire in heaven and or on earth. The wicked people prosper materially but only the spiritual possessions of the righteous will last.
He recognized that the one who is truly prosperous or blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers but the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord (Ps. 1:1-2)
He came to a realization that those who trust in God have their feet on a firm foundation and have a glorious ending. But the wicked and those who envy them are on a slippery ground and they will soon stumble, fall, and will be destroyed.
Epilogue (v. 27-28)
Asaph concludes that those who are far from God and are unfaithful will perish. But those who are NEAR to Him find joy and safety.
Although he had slipped in his confidence in God (v2), he was now reassured that God was keeping him secure and had planned a good ending for him. God was his refuge, and shelter from danger.
Nearness to God always helps believers maintain a balanced perspective on material things and on the wicked
Envying the prosperity of the wicked is a common temptation even for us today. This becomes more real when we look at the world around us using human or world perspectives. It only leads us to despair and faithlessness. Asaph could agree that what he saw in the lives of the ‘prosperous’ ungodly was not the real thing; it was a sham, fantasies, and things transient (1Jn. 2:17).
We need not take pleasure in the fact that sinners seem to be prosperous. We need not admire the ungodly, for they are on a slippery slope.
The prosperity of the ungodly should not be envied but despised. Their prosperity is short and uncertain; their destruction is sure and sudden. Soon, they shall be no more.
God intends to bless us (give us shallom/all-round wellness/prosperity) but he gives us success, wealth and prosperity that is true and enduring; therefore, we need to begin seeing fun success, prosperity, wealth and fame through God’s eyes.
God-perspective brought Asaph to where he began; that the Lord is good to his people. He now came to the conclusion that the Lord is not just good to the nation of Israel but also to individual lives of his people.
Such a transformed attitude, today, will lead us to behold God’s goodness to those who are pure in heart even when we see the ‘prosperity’ of the wicked.
The God-perspective he received helped him understand the puzzles and regain his spiritual balance, draw near to God, and to declare God’s works.