Psalm 73

A psalm of Asaph.

This third book of the Psalter starts with a group of psalms attributed to Asaph (Pss. 73-83). He was a descendant of Gershon, son of Levi (cf. 1 Chron. 6:39-42), and he was one of the leaders of music whom David appointed (1 Chron. 15:16-17; 2 Chron. 5:12). Communal psalms of complaint dominate this section of the Psalter (cf. Pss. 74, 79, 80, 83). If the introductory psalms are left out of the reckoning (Pss. 1 and 2) and also the doxological ones at the end (Pss. 146-150), then Psalm 73 is positioned exactly at the middle of the complete book. This fact, however, may just be accidental, not by the design of the compiler(s).

Psalm 73 is close in style to Psalms 37 and 49, in that it struggles with the problem of why wicked people seem to prosper as compared with the righteous. Only when the psalmist went to worship did he understand what was to be the final destiny of the wicked (vv. 16-17). The psalm is carefully crafted, with the association of the word ‘good’ (tôv) with God appearing at the beginning and end (vv. 1 and 28). (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984), pp. 282-87. Also, three key verses in the psalm are introduced by the Hebrew word ʾak, translated consistently in the NIV by ‘surely’ (vv. 1, 13, 18). Four times, too, a verse begins with ‘And I’ (Heb. vaʾa) with the NIV translating it as, ‘But as for me …’ in verses 2 and 28, ‘I was …’ in verse 22, and ‘Yet I am …’ in verse 23.

1. Complaint to God (vv. 1-3)

The psalm opens with a declaration of God’s relationship to his people. He is in covenant friendship with them. Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart (v. 1). The opening word (Heb. ʾak) allows the psalm to begin on a note of certainty. There can be no doubt about God’s goodness to his people Israel, who are further defined as the ‘pure in heart’., neb,nrsv) chose to change ‘to Israel’ (leyisrâʾêl) into ‘to the upright to[wards] God’ (leyâshâr ʾel). This emendation retains the consonantal text and provides an attractive parallel to ‘pure in heart’. However, no manuscript evidence can be cited to support it. Hence, the traditional rendering of the av and many later translations (rv, nasb, nkjv, nlt) should be maintained. Here and in Psalm 24:4 this phrase describes those with a single mind towards God, though the same word can be used of God’s commands (Ps. 19:8, NIV ‘radiant’).

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 (vv. 2-3). Though he knew well the truth expressed in the opening verse, the psalmist gave way to doubt. The expression at the beginning of verse 2, ‘But as for me’ (vaʾa), is very emphatic. Although the truth of God’s goodness was so real, yet when he saw the prosperity (lit. ‘peace’) of the wicked, he began to be jealous of them. Along with many other saints, his observation that the wicked seem to do so well led him to doubt God’s goodness.

2. The Character of the Godless (vv. 4-12)

They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills (vv. 4-5). Appearances often deceive. It seems at first to the psalmist that the wicked never suffer sickness. The NIV rendering is rather free, though it conveys the general meaning. The literal translation of verse 4 is, ‘there are no fetters in their death, and fat are their bodies’., ‘fetters’ (chartsubôt) and ‘body’ (ʾûl). The early versions do not help a great deal (a good survey can be found in J. J. S. Perowne, The Book of Psalms, (London: George Bell & Sons, 1886), II, p. 17). Various attempts have been made to alter the text. Cf. particularly Marvin Tate, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), p. 228, n. 4.a, who says that a change to something like the translation achieved by the rsv (‘For they have no pangs; their bodies are sound and sleek’) preserves the consonantal text and provides good parallelism. However, the MT is not unintelligible. Also, the assertion is that they are immune to the troubles that often afflict others. The full reality of the situation only dawns on him later in the psalm (see vv. 16-20). He has yet to learn that affliction is not necessarily a sign of God’s disfavour (see John 9:1-3; Heb. 12:7-11).

Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits (vv. 6-7). The arrogant deck themselves with their pride, as if it was jewellery to be displayed around their necks. Their boastful attitudes lead to violent actions, because they think that they can ‘get away with it’. Many different translations of verse 7 have been made, some depending on emendation of the MT. Literally it can be translated, ‘Their eye bulges from fatness; the imaginations of [their] heart overflow.’ ‘From fatness’ appears to mean ‘from fatness of heart’, the noun ‘heart’ only appearing in the second clause. Instead of ‘their eye’ some Hebrew manuscripts and the LXX have ‘their iniquity’. It is best to retain the MT and accept that we have archaic Hebrew idioms here, of which we lack enough other examples to be absolutely certain of the meaning. The NIV translation certainly gives the general sense. or esv. The nlt gets the meaning of the verse right, though conveys it using an idiom that is unlikely to be known to all English readers and is probably ephemeral: ‘These fat cats have everything their hearts could ever wish for!’ The reminder is given here that it is from the heart that all evil springs (Matt. 12:34-35; 15:16-20), and the schemes that sinful minds can think up, are endless.

They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth (vv. 8-9). The description of arrogance and pride in the wicked continues. As proud boasters they threaten others. They daringly talk as if they are God himself, and thus the whole world is theirs. Here we recognise attitudes and outward expressions of minds that dismiss God. Paul amplified the theme in Romans 1:28-32 (see especially v. 30). Another Old Testament wisdom passage reminds us that God resists the proud (Prov. 3:34), a statement that is quoted twice in the New Testament (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5).

Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. They say, ‘How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?’ This is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth (vv. 10-12). Verse 10 is difficult to translate (see NIV footnote), but its meaning determines the explanation of the following verses. The NIV text makes good sense, except that it requires ‘his people’ to be retained instead of ‘their people’, this probably being a reference to God’s people.) is to be retained, while ‘turn to them’ assumes that the Qere reading (‘turn’, yâshûv) is correct, indicating a turning away from God to the prosperity of the wicked. The people who are attracted to and who follow such proud boasters turn to them, and try and share in their success. They soak up ‘the waters of abundance’, i.e., the prosperity of the wicked. that has the idea of draining or wringing out (cf. its use in Lev. 1:15; Judg. 6:38; and Isa. 51:17). They mock at the idea of a God who has knowledge of their activities, and they act as if they will never have to give an account of their actions. Like the rich fool of whom Jesus speaks in his parabolic teaching (Luke 12:13-21), they hoard wealth for themselves, little expecting ever having to answer to God. Taking life easy – eating, drinking, and merry-making – conflicts with our calling to trust in the Lord.

3. A Personal Response (vv. 13-20)

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence (v. 13). After speaking in the third person up to this point, the focus now changes to the first person – ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘my’ are the dominating pronouns in the remainder of the psalm. The same certainty with which the song commenced (v. 1) is repeated here, as the psalmist openly admits that he has been troubled before with doubts. He has tried to live uprightly and he has avoided the overtly sinful actions of the wicked that he has just described. The idea of washing one’s hands in innocence (cf. the same phrase in Ps. 26:6) probably comes from Exodus 30:17-21, where Aaron and his sons were commanded to wash their hands and feet before they did service at the altar. But now, in spite of complying with the law’s requirements, doubt grips his heart. Has it all been for no real purpose?

All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed your children (vv. 14-15). Compared with the wicked, the psalmist has known constant affliction and punishment at the Lord’s hand. He has felt no respite, and so was tempted to express his doubts to the believing community. He knows that if he yielded he would have caused other believers to stumble. It would have been treachery on his part. What one believer does and says may have a profound effect upon the believing community as a whole.

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny (vv. 16-17). Trying to work out life’s problems without God’s help is futile. captures the sense well. It was a matter of grief and pain to the psalmist until he went to worship, probably at a local altar. of God’. The plural also occurs in the MT of Psalm 68:35, where some Heb. manuscripts have the singular. In this verse in Psalm 73 the LXX and Syriac both translate it as singular. It can be taken in both passages as a plural of extension or amplification (cf. GKC, §124; IBHS, p. 120). Alternatively, it can be regarded as denoting an indefinite singular, ‘one of the sanctuaries of God’, which makes good sense here (see GKC, §124o). It is clear that many altars existed, not just the sanctuary in Jerusalem (cf. 1 Kings 19:10, 14). There he suddenly came to a fresh understanding of the ultimate end facing the wicked. This could have been through some specific revelation, or through his purposeful meditation on God’s great goodness (cf. v. 1). God often resolves our perplexities when we think deeply about his revealed character. Present experiences must always be evaluated in the light of God’s final judgment (2 Cor. 5:10).

Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies (vv. 18-20). For the third time in the psalm a statement begins with ‘surely’ (ʾak). Here the certainty relates to how God will deal with the wicked. Apparent security and prosperity cannot help in the day of judgment, because a house built on sand will fall with a great crash (Matt. 7:24-27). Spiritual cultivation of heart and life is needed lest the sudden coming of the Lord finds one unprepared (Mark 13:36).) and ‘how’ (ʾêk) are similar in writing and in speech. Quite frequently the sudden intervention of God in judgment is described in the Psalms as if he awakens from sleep (35:23; 44:23; 59:4; 78:65). ‘Fantasies’ here mean mere vanities, unrealities, like the image-gods so common in the neighbouring cultures of ancient Israel.

4. A Confession (vv. 21-22)

When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you (vv. 21-22). As he looks back on his misunderstanding, the psalmist humbly acknowledges the great mistake he had made. The language is highly poetic but there is no doubt as to its meaning. His wrong attitude had been an affront to God. As for himself (with an emphatic personal pronoun being used at the commencement of v. 22),). he had nearly fallen in to unbelief. He had shown no more spiritual knowledge of God’s providential dealings than an animal. True understanding eluded him until he entered God’s presence. Spiritual truths are imparted by a direct and gracious work of God (1 Cor. 2:13-16).

5. An Affirmation of Faith (vv. 23-28)

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand (v. 23). The turning point in the psalm was reached earlier (v. 17), so now the profession of trust and confidence in God duly follows. Again, the psalmist draws attention to himself at the opening of the verse using the same emphatic personal pronoun as in the previous verse. We read of a powerful recognition of the relationship between the psalmist and his God. Despite his feelings in times of doubt, the truth remains that God has not deserted him. To be held by the right hand is a vivid way of expressing the help that God constantly gives his children (cf. Isa. 41:10, 13; 42:6).

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory (v. 24). What is affirmed is guidance in life, and presence with God after death, for in the context ‘afterward’ refers back to the ‘destiny’ that is coming for the wicked (v. 17). As in Psalm 49:15 (see the comment on that verse), the verb used for ‘take’ (lâqach) probably has connotations of God taking the psalmist as he did Enoch (Gen. 5:24) or Elijah (2 Kings 2:5). In the MT ‘glory’ is not preceded by a preposition, which is not at all unusual in poetry. The LXX took it to mean ‘with glory’ (meta doxês) which may be preferable as the Hebrew word does not seem to be used elsewhere to denote ‘heaven’. (London: Soncino Press, 1969), p. 235. In Christian circles ‘glory’ is often used as equivalent to heaven. In the Old Testament ‘glory’ is used repeatedly of the manifestation of God’s presence especially at the tabernacle, and so linking it with God’s action in taking believers to himself is a quite appropriate extension of that idea. While the thought of the individual believer’s heavenly dwelling comes into clearer focus in the New Testament, yet passages such as this show that it was a reality for Old Testament saints as well.

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 (vv. 25-26). The psalm draws to a close on the note of triumphant confidence in God. What other saviour and sustainer exists besides the Lord? ‘But you’ is not represented in the MT, but it is certainly implied by ‘besides you’., (New York: Doubleday, 1974), p. 195, suggests that ‘besides you’ (ʿimme) serves as a kind of swivel or hinge, serving both the preceding and the following phrases. In earth and heaven his desire is only for his God. Even though his physical and mental powers fail, yet God remains his ‘strength’ (Heb. ‘rock’, tsûr). Just as he was Levi’s portion (Deut. 10:9), so he was to all believers. The psalmist has seen that other earthly treasures fail, but that there is eternal blessing in God’s presence.

Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,

All his boasted pomp and show;

Solid joys and lasting treasure

None but Zion’s children know.

(John Newton 1725-1807)

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 (vv. 27-28). Unbelievers are far from God, and their continued unbelief keeps them there. It is only through the blood of Christ that those who are far away can be brought near (Eph. 2:13). The word rendered ‘unfaithful’ (zônâh) is the technical term for the prostitute, but it is used in this psalm and elsewhere (see, e.g., Lev. 20:6) to describe any form of departure from God and his standards. The final contrast of the psalm is in the last verse, which begins with the same emphatic ‘and I’ that occurred in verses 22 and 23. The psalmist returns to his opening theme (v. 1) and reasserts in personal terms how wonderful it is to be within God's saving mercy. He has found his lasting shelter, saying that he has fixed in the sovereign Lord his refuge (cf. the similar idea using the same Heb. root ch-s-h in Ps. 2:12). This is the highest good, and therefore he desires to tell others of all that God has done.