Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan says1 there is a surprising
intimacy about Psalm 73, whilst in the opinion of Walter Brueggemann2 it stands theologically and canonically in
the centre of the Psalter. Accordingly, there appears to be something very
special about this Psalm which, in just 28 verses, confesses
the Psalmist’s doubts and sheer perplexity when considering the prosperity of
the wicked yet affirms that it is good to be faithful to God.
contains few of the usual elements found in Psalms of Individual Lament3
or Individual Thanksgiving (Declarative
Psalms of Praise)4
and neither category fits particularly well.
classification is a Wisdom Psalm, as it contains some of the elements of
comparisons and admonitions found in the Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament5.
However, it also has a flavour about it of an Individual Song of Trust6.
hybrid category of “Individual Declarative Wisdom Song of Trust” is needed
to cover the main ingredients of this Psalm!
Psalm 73 is
titled “A Psalm of Asaph”, the Psalter containing eleven other Psalms
In the Old Testament there are at least three different
men named Asaph. One is a
seer appointed by King David as the chief worship leader7
so this person may indeed have been an author of Psalms. However, Psalms 74 and
79, also ascribed to Asaph, include the destruction of Jerusalem and the
desecration of the Temple8 which happened long after Asaph’s time,
therefore he could not have written these two Psalms.
maintains9 that the name Asaph was prefixed to the Psalm because the
charge of singing it was committed to him, whilst David Freedman
these Psalms were performed in the style or tradition of a Guild bearing Asaph's
Perhaps all that can be said of Psalm 73 regarding Asaph is that it may have been written by him or by one of his descendants. Calvin asserts9 that its author was David himself, although this does not appear to be supported by other scholars.
Whilst a specific date is not known to be associated with
the Asaphite Psalms, many
scholars feel - presumably because of its maturity - that Psalm 73 must have
been composed late in Israel’s history. However, it must have been written before the Israelites’ exile
this Psalm, it is manifestly from a man undergoing serious doubts and who at one
was even in danger of falling away from God.
historical setting, then, is of a Psalmist who saw how the wicked
prospered and, being envious as a result, underwent a crisis of faith. Although
he adhered to God, all he seemed to receive as a result was suffering. In the
face of this he was tempted to give up his faith altogether until entering the Temple
and seeing everything in its proper context. Having received this revelation,
as Martens says13 “God, rather than the wicked, fills his
in Life (Sitz in Lebem)
From what is
known of Asaph and from the community or cultic nature of other Asaphite Psalms,
it seems highly probable that Psalm 73 was intended for cultic use, i.e. use in
public worship. It could also be used with much resonance in private worship by
anybody experiencing similar emotions as the Psalmist and seeking the clarity
revealed to him.
main intent of the Psalm is to confess the serious doubts of the
Psalmist which he had when he saw the prosperity of the wicked, something so
difficult to comprehend that it shakes his faith. He then relates how he came to
affirm that it is good to be faithful to God. As Coggan says1 “The
writer invites us to share with him his experience of God, an experience at once
of perplexity and of near relationship”.
us into empathy with his near loss of faith, a feeling of abandonment despite
personal righteousness and the injustice of all this when contrasted with the
fruits accorded to the wicked, the Psalmist then offers succour to others who
are experiencing the same problem. By explaining how, having withdrawn into the Temple, he came to realise the truth that the wicked are actually deluded and
impermanent, he invites us to partake of his confidence that the security of the
just emanates from God.
The Psalm includes a number of details worthy of note:
Hebrew is “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart”, the translation used by the NIV. However,
the RSV and NRSV have “Truly God is good to the
upright”, affording a better synonymous parallelism (as “Israel” and “the pure in heart” are not the same).
reconciles this discrepancy by propounding that the Psalmist is saying whom he
means by “Israel”, i.e. not everyone who lives in that land but only those
whose hearts are clean (those who love and obey God). There are other people in Israel
who do not do so and these the Psalmist refers to as the wicked. As Calvin
notes9 “Many proudly lay claim to the name of
All the ancient
versions translate as “to Israel” and if the Psalm was intended for
proclamation in public worship, this reference would remind hearers that God was
faithful to his covenant and gracious to his chosen people.
Martens argues13 that there is nothing in the Psalm to indicate verse
1 as being the conclusion of the writer’s struggle. Instead, he views this
verse as orthodox, traditional teaching but not confirmed by the Psalmist’s
observations of the prosperous wicked. If true then it is the Psalm’s
development which resolves these issues, not - as Martens concedes - in the
intellectual harmonisation of doctrine and experience but in the recognition of
God’s wider plan.
Hebrew reads “There are no pangs in their death and sleek is their body” but the NIV, RSV and
NRSV translate this as “
Calvin notes9 the Psalmist could be observing that the wicked go to
death easily, without anxiety or that they die suddenly, without struggle.
way it seems clear that the Psalmist is noting, with distress, the apparent ease
of the deaths of so many healthy and strong wicked in contrast to the slow and
painful demise of those of Godly ilk.
their necklace” is an interesting choice of words. Matthew Henry explains15
that this is like people puffed up with their prosperity, their pride having
tied on their chain or necklace. Calvin’s take on this9, which
appears sound, is that the language implies “the ungodly glory in their
audacity, as if they were richly adorned with a chain of gold”.
waters in abundance” is a powerful metaphor, going beyond mere following and
implying, as the GNB depicts, that they “eagerly believe whatever they say”
or, as we might say today, they “lap it up”, deeply and unthinkingly.
“I washed my hands in innocence” is another metaphor, which the GNB translates simply as “I have not committed sin”. However, the former powerfully portrays proactive spiritual cleansing, of heart, mind and soul by repentance and reformation and helps us to empathise with the Psalmist that all his cleansing appears to have been in vain. Only later in the Psalm is it appreciated, says Henry15, that “however the thing may appear now, when the pure in heart shall see God they will not say they cleansed their hearts in vain”.
This verse shows concern for others: it evidences the Psalmist’s loyalty to his fellow believers and this, in turn, helps to prevent his own falling away from faith. He would not speak of his observations because of fear of giving offence to God’s “children” - not just young persons but all people of faith. Mercifully, the Psalmist succeeded in retaining respect for God's people.
Hebrew reads “Like a dream when one awakens, Lord, so on waking
you will despise their image”. This may mean that in the “great
awakening”, i.e. the final judgement, God will set the wicked at nought.
Why the right
hand? The GNB depicts it simply as “You hold me by the hand”. Perhaps there
is a contrast here with verse 2. Although that refers to forsaking faith, the
imagery is clear: a man on the point of falling, clinging on desperately with
one hand whilst reaching out with his strongest hand to grasp safety. Also, the
right hand is the one normally used for a handshake, thereby symbolically
reinforcing the relationship between God and man.
“Heart” occurs six times in
this Psalm16. It is regarded17 as the key word, being a
metaphor for the inward organs where the emotions are located. Martens says13
This analysis has considered the Psalm in six sections23. However, the Easy English Bible Commentary contrives a three section division, based on the word “Surely” which opens verses 1, 13 and 18. This appears to be a somewhat artificial division, given the mix of ideas contained in the first and third of such sections.
Henry avers15 “This is a psalm of great use”. Indeed, the ways it can be applied today are manifold.
Importantly, the Psalm
affirms that good health and prosperity (even a quiet death) are not necessarily
signs of God’s favour, just as suffering is not necessarily a sign of God’s
disfavour. Martens notes13 that God’s goodness does not give the
believers a categorical right to claim health and wealth from him.
It also informs us of the
responsibility and importance of helping to sustain the faith of anyone who may
be severely tried, aided by being drawn into a close, loyal fellowship. We must
be careful never to say or do anything which may rock the faith.
One vital application is that answers to perplexity can come in prayer or worship. Until a person undergoing similar anguish and doubts is able to step into the majestic presence of God, there is little possibility of progress. Such withdrawal can be accomplished today by going into a church and focusing on God or perhaps going on a retreat or staying in a monastic setting for a few days. Only by having space and quiet to listen to God can we see everything in the right perspective.
Another application from
verse 24, if this is a reference to life after death, is that what we see in
this life is not the whole story.
words of this Psalm should never be discounted. “I will tell of your deeds”
reminds us that we too need to proclaim our faith to others.
In summary, this Psalm
reinforces the importance of always being faithful to God, whatever the
circumstances. Self-centredness18 can make one embittered19
and a beast20 towards God.
have the last word: “When men are merely under the guidance of their own
understandings, the inevitable consequence is that they sink under their
trouble. Provided we leave the providence of God to take its own course, in the
way which he has determined, matters will assume a very different aspect and it
will be seen that the righteous are not defrauded of their reward and that the
wicked do not escape the hand of the judge”.
Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire July 2016
1 in “The People’s Bible Commentary”
2 in “The Message
of the Psalms”
3 such as an Invocation, Petition or Motivation
4 such as a Call to Worship or Proclamation
5 such as the problem of punishment for evil, a
contrast between the just/wise and the wicked/foolish, the fear of the Lord and
an account of how the writer reached his conclusions
6 the main characteristic of such Psalms being that
they express trust in God even though there may be difficulties
7 see 1 and 2 Chronicles
8 in 598BC or 587BC
9 in his Bible
10 in “The Anchor Bible Dictionary”
11 see the
Pulpit Commentary www.biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/
12 the Court, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies
13 in “A Corrective to a Modern Misunderstanding”
14 Easy English
Bible Commentaries www.easyenglish.info/bible-commentaries/
15 in his Bible
16 at verses 1,
7, 13, 21 and twice in verse 26
17 by Martin Buber, a Jewish scholar
18 such as that expressed in verses 13 and 14
19 verse 21
20 verse 22
21 Psalms 50 and 73 to 83 inclusive
22 Verse 2
23 (i) verses 1-3: summary; (ii) verses 4-12: description of the
wicked; (iii) verses 13-16: Psalmist’s feelings; (iv) verse 17: the turning
point; (v) verses 18-20: the revelation; (vi) verses 21-28: relationship between
the Psalmist and the Lord, including a contrast in verses 27 and 28 between the
faithless and the faithful.
= Good News Bible
= New International Version
= New Revised Standard Version
= Revised Standard Version