Psalm 73 - An Exposition  


Former 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.  


Psalm 73 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.  

A possible 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.  

Accordingly, a hybrid category of “Individual Declarative Wisdom Song of Trust” is needed to cover the main ingredients of this Psalm!  

Historical Setting  

Psalm 73 is titled “A Psalm of Asaph”, the Psalter containing eleven other Psalms likewise ascribed21.  

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.  

John Calvin maintains9 that the name Asaph was prefixed to the Psalm because the charge of singing it was committed to him, whilst David Freedman believes10 these Psalms were performed in the style or tradition of a Guild bearing Asaph's name.  

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 in Babylon because in verse 17 the Psalmist enters the Temple in Jerusalem, something he could not have done if exiled. The Hebrew translates literally as “the sanctuaries”, which refer11 to the three areas of the original Temple12, leaving no doubt that it is the Temple which is referred to in verse 17.  

Whoever wrote this Psalm, it is manifestly from a man undergoing serious doubts and who at one point22 was even in danger of falling away from God. The first three verses summarise the Psalmist’s situation and verses 4 to 12 give a description of the wicked, the Psalmist contrasting them with his own feelings in verses 13 to 16. At verse 17 there is a major turning point when, oppressed by trying to understand all this, he went into the Temple.  

There he received an answer to his problem, verses 18 to 20 highlighting what was revealed to him. In verses 21 to 28, the Psalmist movingly states that it is better to know the Lord and have all sorts of troubles than to prosper materially without God. Verses 27 and 28 give a summarising contrast between the lot of the wicked and that of the righteous.  

The 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 horizon”.  

Setting 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  

The 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”.  

Having called 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: 

Verse 1  

The original 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).  

One explanation14 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 Israel but none belong save those who purely and uprightly worship God”.  

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.  

Interestingly, 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.  

Verse 4  

The Hebrew reads “There are no pangs in their death and sleek is their body” but the NIV, RSV and NRSV translate this as “There are no pangs for them, sound and sleek is their body” (even though none of the ancient versions say this). “No pangs in their death” appears more in keeping with the tone of the Psalm, because the Psalmist clearly has doubts about the lot of the wicked given his perception that they apparently die without pain.  

As Calvin notes9 the Psalmist could be observing that the wicked go to death easily, without anxiety or that they die suddenly, without struggle.  

Either 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.  

Verse 6  

“Pride is 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”.  

Verse 10

“Drink up 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.  

Verse 13

“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”.

Verse 15

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. 

Verse 20

The 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.  

Verse 23

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.  

Other details

“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 says13The frequent usage of the word “heart” conveys both the intellectual side of the conflict and the way in which the writer’s total person is caught up in the situation”.  

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.

The text helps us to appreciate that it is no sign of unbelief to experience a difficult problem and that God honours those who honestly face the problems they meet.  

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.  

The closing 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. The only remedy is to place God first in everything. “It is better to be near to God than to have plenty of money and things. In a moment they will all be gone but God will always be with us14”.  

Let Calvin9 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 Commentary  

10 in “The Anchor Bible Dictionary”  

11 see the Pulpit Commentary  

12 the Court, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies  

13 in “A Corrective to a Modern Misunderstanding”  

14 Easy English Bible Commentaries  

15 in his Bible Commentary  

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.


GNB = Good News Bible

NIV = New International Version

NRSV = New Revised Standard Version

RSV = Revised Standard Version