THE BOOK OF PSALMS
The Prosperity of the Wicked
Earlier when we studied Ps. 22, we claimed that the OT introduces a question which finds its fullest answer in the NT: “Why do the righteous suffer?” This issue has a corollary: “Why do the wicked prosper?” It is one thing for the righteous to suffer but quite another for the wicked to prosper. In fact, if it were not for the fact that the righteous suffered, the psalmist probably would not have cared that the wicked were prospering. His suffering, however, became unbearable when he saw the wicked doing well. It appeared as if the moral order of the universe had been turned upside down. The psalm before us delves into the issue of why the wicked prosper while only the righteous seem to suffer.
We need to note one thing before we look at this psalm. This issue was neither a theoretical nor academic issue for Asaph who wrote the psalm. It was not theoretical because in his experience had actually saw the wicked prospering. It was not academic because this issue shook his faith to the core. In fact, as we shall see, the sight of the wicked prospering almost destroyed his relationship with God. In this psalm, Asaph will take us through the process which help4d him come to grips with this issue.
THEME OF THE PSALM—GOD IS GOOD TO HIS PEOPLE (73:1-2)
Before describing the process he went through, Asaph states the conclusion he arrived at in the process. Why does he place his conclusion at the beginning of the psalm? Because he does not want to lead any of his readers astray. At times in this psalm, it appears that Asaph is about to lose his faith in God. In order to do away with any such suspense and also in order to make sure that he does not lead anybody astray, he states at the beginning that God gives only good to Israel.
Most of our modern translations do not do justice to what Asaph tried to convey in the first verse. The NASB translation comes up short when it states: “Surely God is good to Israel.” Asaph is actually saying: “When it comes to Israel, God is ONLY GOOD, that is, to the pure in heart, He is only good.” It is not that most of the times God is good to Israel but that in all His dealings with Israel He is only good. James seems to be developing this when he writes: “Every good thing and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17). No matter what he circumstances may appear to say about God, the fact is that God is only good when it comes to Israel.
Before going further, Asaph adds a footnote to his claim about Israel. He defines what he means by the term “Israel”: “the pure in heart.” Even at this early stage in the history of Israel (1,000 BC), God’s people knew that being physically descended from Abraham was not enough to guarantee a right, saving kind of relationship with God. The true Israel was not just the physical descendant of Abraham but the pure in heart, whose who totally belonged to God. The question we then need to ask is who are the wicked? In this psalm, the wicked will not be the foreign nations opposed to God and His rule but rather those Israelites who are not pure in heart, those descendants of Abraham who do not subject themselves to the rule of God. In Israel’s history, such people will include Ahab, Manasseh, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees.
Although Asaph now realizes that with regards to the true Israel God is only good, there was a point in his life when he did not realize this. On the contrary, all the evidence seemed to point in the opposite direction, that is, God blessed the wicked and cursed the godly. The effect this had upon him was that he almost completely rejected God: “My feet came close to stumbling; my steps had almost slipped.” As he was walking through life, he almost fell headlong to destruction because he was angry at the injustice of life. The rest of the psalm now showcases how he moved from this point to a deeper understanding of the way God operates towards the righteous and the wicked.
DESCRIPTION OF THE WICKED (73:3-12)
Asaph next describes the situation which almost caused him to abandon his relationship with God: “I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Look at the life of ease they enjoy. (1) Their death is free from pain. They pass peaceably into the night, while the poor righteous suffer terrible pains. (2) They are obese because of their wealth which led to excessive eating. It’s been only the last 100 years in which people have valued slender bodies. Large men and plump women were the rage for at least 3,000 years because obesity indicated that the obese person was wealthy. He had so much money he could buy enough food to make him/her fat. (3) All this wealth and freedom from pain has led them to be proud people. They feel like they are superior to the poor righteous who suffer terribly in life.
One result of this is that they oppress the less fortunate:
“The garment of violence covers them;
They mock and wickedly speak of oppression.
They speak from on high.”
Since life seems to teach them that there is no accountability, they feel like they can treat God and the weak any way they want. In their view, there is either no God or a god so weak that they can do as they wish with impunity. “And they say, ‘How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?”
I saw a sad display of this attitude the other day as I was walking through a mall parking lot. I smiled when I saw what appeared to be a Christian symbol on the trunk of a car—the fish. For some reason I looked a little closer and realized that something was different about this fish. Inside the fish was not written the name “Jesus” but the name “Darwin.” Moreover, the fish had 2 little feet projecting from its belly. The fish was in the process of developing into a land animal, a symbol of evolution. Although I don’t believe in evolution, I respect the right of those who do hold to this theory. I feel like they should extend the same courtesy to Christians. This Darwinian fish mocks a sacred Christian symbol. During the first centuries of Christianity when the Roman Empire was trying to stamp out the new faith, Christians used this symbol as a secret code in order to inform believers where they were to meet for worship. To take something this sacred and twist it really mocks God. It is bad enough for a person to reject God, and quiet another for a person to mock Him; however, that is exactly what the wicked are doing in Ps. 73.
The worst thing about their behavior is that they lead others to engage in the same type of behavior.
“Therefore his people return to this place
And waters of abundance are drunk by them.
And they say, ‘How does God know?
And is there knowledge with the Most High?’”
These arrogant wicked souls have contaminated others to such an extent that their followers are worse than they. Their arrogance surpasses even the arrogance of the wicked. Whereas the wicked “speak against the heaven and their tongues parade throughout the earth,” their followers go even further and claim that God is an imbecile who does not even know what is going on in His creation. Asaph was not the only one who felt that the moral order of the universe had turned upside down; the wicked in his day recognized it also. The difference is that whereas Asaph mourned the situation, the wicked believed it gave them the license to act without any kind of restraint.
COMING TO A RESOLUTION (73:13-20)
Asaph states that this situation led him to believe that he had been true to God in vain because he not only was not prospering but was actually suffering affliction: “For I have been stricken all day long, and chastened every morning.” From his perspective, it appeared that the only way to achieve prosperity was by being wicked, while living righteously resulted only in pain and suffering.
Now that he realizes that God is only good in His dealings with His people, Asaph realizes that if he had publicly proclaimed his dissatisfaction with God, he would have been guilty of leading God’s people astray. To us, this seems like a grandiose statement for any believer to make; however, remember that the psalmist was not just any believer but was Asaph the chief musician of the worship in the Tabernacle during the reign of David. His influence stretched far and wide; his falling away would have impacted the lives of many.
What brought him to a right understanding of the way God is operating the world? It did not result from meditation and philosophizing about the nature of the world. When he tried to philosophize about the world and its operations, he became even more troubled. Human wisdom and understanding do not lead a person to a proper understanding of the world. What did lead him to a proper understanding of the world and its operations was worship.
“Until I came into the sanctuary of God,
Then I perceived their end.”
All the soul-searching that the world can produce will not lead a person to knowledge of God. It is only by coming into His presence (worship) and seeking God that a person understands the way God operates in the world. It is only by being open to His Spirit and His Word that the mind of Christ can truly be developed within us (1 Cor. 2:12-16).
What did his encounter with God in worship lead him to see? That the prosperity of the wicked and the affliction of the righteous were mere temporal illusions.
“Surely Thou dost set them in slippery places.
Thou dost cast them down to destruction.
How they are destroyed in a moment;
They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors.
Like a dream when one awakes,
Lord, when aroused Thou wilt despise their shadow [illusion}.”
Although everything indicates otherwise, the truth is that the wicked will ultimately perish. They are living an illusion (shadows). The streets of gold they walk upon are actually thin sheets of yellow ice about to melt away at any moment. The truth is that it is not a matter of “if” the wicked are going to perish but “when” they are going to perish. Everything they’ve experienced has been simply an illusion, a shadow and not the real thing. What has kept them from perishing so far has been nothing more than a matter of timing. At the right time, after they have completely exhausted God’s patience, then God will bring wrath upon them.
As you read this, you detect that Asaph is glad that the wicked are going to get their comeuppance. Many of us tend to roll our eyes because we feel that we have progressed to the point where we are past such feelings. Since we now have the NT, we feel that love is the only feeling we should display towards the wicked. Well, there is a significant passage in Rev. 6:10 which echoes the sentiments in this psalm. John says that after Jesus broke the fifth seal, he saw beneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because they were Christians. They kept crying out to God: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood upon those who dwell upon the earth [the wicked]?” They are calling for God to bring wrath upon those who had persecuted them.
I want to be careful here because many times we’re calling down wrath from heaven upon those who have wronged us in some petty way. They did not wrong us because we are Christians but because we have opposed them in a matter which did not have anything to do with the kingdom of God. We view God as being the agent to carry out our personal vendettas. There is, however, a sense in which righteous indignation is called for, and to feel otherwise is to treat God lightly. For several years I have grieved over a person because I was not sure he was a Christian when he died. Well, recently I felt hat my grief was a little insulting to God. I don’t know for sure whether or not that person was a Christian when he died, but I do know one thing: if he was not, then it was his own fault. Year after year God had reached out to him, and if he did not accept Christ, it was his own fault. To continue in grief would be an insult to God.
IN CASE OF A RELAPSE (73:21-24)
Realizing that God is going to deal with the wicked at the right time is part of the conclusion Asaph came to. He will discuss the second part of the conclusion at the end of the psalm. Before he concludes, though, he discusses what would be true if he were to relapse.
“If my heart becomes embittered
And if I become pierced within,
Then I will be senseless and ignorant,
I will be like a behemoth [beast, ox] before Thee;
Nevertheless, I am continually with Thee.”
If you compare this translation to the NASB, KJV, and NIV, you will detect that these other translations translate the verbs in the past tense. The truth, though, is that these are future verbs in the Hebrew. Asaph is not speaking about what happened earlier but about what will be true if he relapses and starts grousing over the wicked prospering.
I know that we are all in process; however, some issues in ours should have been resolved a long time ago. God has dealt with these issues so many times in our lives that we should not have to deal with them again, or at least we should be able to handle our issues after an extended period of time. This is what Asaph is implying here. God has taught him in such a dramatic fashion that he should not envy the wicked because of their seeming prosperity. If he relapses, then he will be no better than some dumb hippopotamus which is all fat and no brain.
You and I naturally feel the same way. How many of us will extend mercy to a teenager for doing something crazy and yet criticize harshly an adult who does the same thing? We excuse the teenager, rightfully, because of his/her lack of experience in life. The adult does not have the same excuse. They have lived long enough that they do or at least should know better. Well, the same applies in the spiritual realm also. Some of us have no excuse for some of our behavior. Some adult Christians need to hear the same admonition that some teenagers need to hear: “Grow up!”
Although Asaph realizes this might happen, he knows that God has dealt with him in a wonderful way and that he will not relapse.
“Nevertheless, I am continually with Thee.
Thou hast taken hold of my right hand.
With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me
And afterward receive me to glory”.
When it is all said and done, Asaph is going to be OK in his relationship with God. It will culminate with him enjoying God in all His glory in heaven.
SECOND PART OF THE CONCLUSION (73:25-28)
Knowing that the wicked are going to get their just desserts one day is not the only conclusion which helped Asaph come to grips with his situation. In this process, he has learned the true meaning of prosperity. He had felt that things were right in the universe if he was rich, healthy, and successful, and the wicked were miserable. He measured God’s goodness solely on the basis of material blessings. The truth, though, is that he came to realize that the moral order of the universe was still intact even though he was not materially blessed. Why the change of heart? He had come to realize the true essence of prosperity—being with God. The way we respond to life’s misfortunes determines whether or not we really believe that having God is all that ultimately matters.
How many of us claim that God is all we really need and then grouse whenever we’re physically incapacitated, financially broke, friendless, etc.? For many of us, God is merely an agent we use to get what we ultimately desire in life—money, friends, fame, careers, family, etc. In our attitude towards God, we are like the Cuba Gooding, Jr. character in Jerry McGuire: “’Show me the money’, God!” Well, God will have none of that. In fact, in many instances God will withhold these very things in order to teach us once and for all that He is ultimately all that we need and ultimately all that He promises. I like the C.S. Lewis quote B.F. put in his article a few weeks ago. It sums up this psalm: “Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.” When we define prosperity the way God defines it, we will discover that the righteous are always prosperous and the wicked never are because the righteous always have God and the wicked never do.