What an amazing statement! I’m talking about Walter Brueggemann’s words describing Psalm 73. He wrote that it “may be the most remarkable and satisfying of all the psalms.” (# 2) I have to admit, even before I had read those words, I liked this psalm so much that I had preached on it a couple of times.
Firstly, a quick introduction. The title at the beginning of this psalm says A psalm of Asaph, i.e. the author was Asaph who lived around 1000BC. It seems he was King David’s music director and probably wrote much of the music for David’s psalms. He also wrote 12 psalms of his own, including Psalm 73.
Certainly, if you haven’t read this psalm recently, let me suggest you read it now, before reading my comments any further.
In his introduction to the Psalms, C Hassel Bullock writes: “Rarely has human history enjoyed the luxury of literature so cathartic [providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions]. And seldom has a people opened their souls so freely to all mankind as has Israel in the Psalms.” (C Hassel Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament – Poetic Books Moody Publishers 2007)
This description certainly fits Psalm 73 which Michael Wilcock describes as “the book of Job in a nutshell”. (# 5)
At first, it appears to be a Psalm of praise or even a Psalm of Wisdom, when Asaph proclaims in verse 1
1 Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
The statement, i.e. God is good, is the basic premise of this psalm, but as we read on, we realize that it is said by one who has had serious doubts about the truth of this. In fact, the time has now come for Asaph to tell his story publicly. It is a story of spiritual struggle, doubt, disillusionment and even a sense of betrayal. In his experience, life was just not fair and therefore, he pondered, was God really as good and trustworthy as he had always believed. Listen to his heartfelt words:
2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
Why did Asaph feel this way? There were probably more than one reason but it seems that it was due to the way Jewish people viewed life, in particular as regards good and evil and its consequences. Psalm 34:15-16 is a basic summary of this belief:
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are attentive to their cry;
16 but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,
to blot out their name from the earth.
It was a belief that those who do good, who live righteous lives, will be rewarded in proportion to their good works, but those who do evil, the rebels, will be punished according to their evil ways.
If you read the Book of Job, this was the argument of the so-called friends and comforters of Job in his suffering. The problem was that Job knew he had not lived an evil life; in fact, he had always sought to do the right thing before God and man. Yet, he suffered incredibly.
Both Job and Asaph believed this principle in their hearts. They really believed that God is good, but their belief in God, goodness and justice didn’t match their own life experiences and what they could see happening all around them.
Maybe this has also been your experience?
What a dilemma! What are our options in response? An easy option is just to walk away from any faith in God, goodness or justice and try and make the most of life. Many sadly choose this option and live the life of an agnostic or even an atheist. Another possibility is to just pretend that your experience is somehow false, that you misunderstand, so live a life of a hypocrite, believing one thing in public and doubting it in private. A tough way to live! The third alternative is the one Asaph chose, and that is to wrestle with the question openly before God, expressing his deepest feelings of doubt, and why. As we will see as we move further along in this psalm, there was “light at the end of the tunnel” for him.
Father, when we have doubts, we certainly do not want to walk away from you, for as Simon Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68). Help us to honestly work our way through our doubts and come through to a place of belief and assurance in the fact that you are good. Amen.