After the death of his son to a premature aging disease, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” The book addressed theodicy – defending the goodness of God in the face of evil. Kushner wrongly concluded God is good but does not have the power to prevent suffering. Yet the book became a runaway bestseller.
Many people wrestle with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Psalm 73 wrestles with the opposite question, “Why do good things happen to bad people?”
The superscription reads: A Psalm of Asaph. Asaph was one of the chief musicians of David. He was the director of the Jerusalem Mass Choir. Twelve psalms are attributed to Asaph – Psalm 50 and Psalms 73-83. Asaph was a godly and gifted worship leader who had a crisis of faith. Those who lead are finiteand sinful people like those who follow. The Lord sustained Asaph. He went through his test of faith victoriously and wrote this psalm to help others facing the same crisis.
Psalm 73 is hard to categorize. It reads like a Wisdom Psalm. But it is more testimonial than instructive. It begins like a psalm of praise. But it is not about being delivered from trouble. Sections feel like a song of lament. Yet Asaph reflects upon a dilemma he has already come through. It is best to read Psalm 73as a song of trust. Asaph believed in the goodness of God. His faith almost slipped and stumbled because of the prosperity of the wicked. The solution to his problem brought him back to where he started – the goodness of God.
Psalm 73 asks why the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. The psalm does not answer all our questions. But it draws one conclusion that can keep you on your feet and on the right path: The wicked will not prosper in the end. In the economy of scripture, that which lasts the longest is worth the most. The wicked may enjoy the lifestyles of the rich and famous now. But the wicked will not prosper in the end.
Why do good things happen to bad people? Psalm 73 responds by teaching us to look to God and not to man.
Faith Struggles When It Focuses on Man.
Myopia is nearsightedness or shortsightedness. Myopic vision sees nearby things. Far away things are blurry. Faith can also become myopic when you focus on the wrong things. It happened to Asaph. Verses 1-14 describe his spiritual myopia.
An Honest Confession. Verses 1-3 contrast how faith stands and stumbles.
How faith stands. Verse 1 begins with emphatic certainty: “Truly.” Asaph affirms the existence and character of God in three words: “God is good.” This is the foundation of faith. Who are the beneficiaries of God’s goodness? God is good to “Israel.” He provides for and protects his covenant people. He is especially good to “those who are pure in heart.” Purity of heart is not sinless perfection. It is wholehearted devotion to God. Matthew 5:8 says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
How faith stumbles. Verse 2 says, “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps nearly slipped.” Asaph almost slipped and stumbled away from God. Why? Isaiah 48:22 reads, “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.” Verse 3 says Asaph saw the wicked prosper. “Prosperity” is the Hebrew word for “peace.” He saw the wicked living their best life now. “Saw” is a gaze, not a glance.Focusing on the wrong things can trip you up. Asaph became envious of the arrogant. Proverbs 14:30bsays that “envy makes the bones rot.” Psalm 37:1 warns: “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers.”
A Warped Perspective. Verses 4-11 describe the prosperity of the wicked.
Prosperity. Verse 4 says, “For they have no pangs until death.” They do not suffer life-threatening troubles. While people around them starve to death, “their bodies are fat and sleek.” Verse 5 says, “They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.” Everyone else is stricken with trouble. But the wicked enjoy a carefree life.
Pride. Verse 6 says, “Therefore pride is their necklace.” The wicked wear arrogance like a status symbol. They are proud of what they should be ashamed of. “Violence covers them as a garment.” The wicked become prosperous by social injustice – legal or illegal. And they don’t hide it. Violence is characteristic of them, like wearing name-brand clothes. Verse 7 says, “Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.” They are consumed with spiritual indifference and overflowing spiritual folly.
Profanity. Verse 8-9 says, “They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.” The world is filled with their insolent speech. Verse 10 says, “Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them.” Because the wicked are rich and famous, people follow what they say without question. Verse 11 asks two blasphemous questions: “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” The wicked think there are no consequences for how they live their lives.
A Spiritual Dilemma. Verse 12 summarizes the previous verses: “Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.” This warped perspective created a spiritual dilemma. Verse 13 says, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” Asaph concluded that being godly was worthless. It was counterproductive. Verse 14 says, “For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” The godly suffer affliction while the wicked enjoy prosperity.
The prosperity of the wicked upended Asaph’s theology. Like Job’s friends, he assumed the righteous are blessed and the wicked are cursed. What he saw was the direct opposite. Here is a rebuke of Prosperity Theology. Faith does not guarantee health and wealth. The wicked prosper in this world. If you focus on it, it will lead to stumbling, not success.
Faith Triumphs When It Focuses on God.
- Verses 1-14 are about the prosperity of the wicked.
- Verses 15-28 are about the downfall of the wicked.
The wicked will not prosper in the end. Asaph saw this when he stopped focusing on man and started focusing on God.
The Turning Point. Verse 15 says, “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” Social Media makes people feel free to say whatever they think. Asaph did not say what he felt. To express his doubts would have betrayed the generation of God’s children. If your feet are about to slip, free speech can drag others down with you. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Verse 16 says, “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task.” He could not understand why good things happen to bad people. It wore him out trying to make sense of life. Then there was a turning point. Verse 17 says: “until I went into the sanctuary of God.” No livestream service would have kept Asaph from slipping and stumbling. He needed to go to the house of God to worship the name of God with the people of God.
When Asaph beheld the glory of God, he saw everything clearly. He says, “Then I discerned their end.” Psalm 37:10-11 says, “In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.”
The Proper Perspective. Verses 4-12 record Asaph’s warped perspective. Through God-centered worship, he gained a proper perspective. Verse 18 says, “Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.” Asaph almost slipped and stumbled. Now he realizes the wicked are in a slippery place. God will make them “fall to ruin.” Verse 19 emphasizes the sudden downfall of the wicked, “How they are destroyed in a moment; swept away utterly by terrors.” It does not take much or long to bring the high and mighty down.
Verse 20 says, “Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.” It may seem God is doing nothing about the wickedness of the world. But God will soon rise up in righteous judgment. And the wicked who seem so great will be like a bad dream you can’t remember when you wake up. It is said the one with the most toys at the end wins. Wins what? The one with the most toys at the end still dies. Matthew 16:26 asks: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
God created us, and we are accountable to him. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. God sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross and rise from the dead for our sins. Whoever calls on the name of the Lord in faith will be saved. Hebrews 9:26-27says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
The New Orientation. Walter Brueggemann placed the Psalms in three categories:
- Psalms of Orientation
- Psalms of Disorientation
- Psalms of New Orientation
Psalm 73 begins with disorientation. It ends with a new orientation. Verses 21-28 declare three truths about God that can keep faith from slipping and stumbling.
God is Faithful. Verses 21-22 say, “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.” Asaph’s soul was sour, and his heart was pierced through. He was brutish and ignorant. Asaph could not understand God, himself, or the world around him. Asaph was like a beast toward God. He acted more like a monster than a man. His problem was not the prosperity of the wicked. His heart was not right with God.
Verse 23 says, “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.” Asaph strayed away from God. God never left him. He survived because God held his hand. Verse 24 says, “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.” In the present, God guided him with his counsel. Psalm 23:3 says: “He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” In the future, God will receive him to glory.
- The wicked will not prosper in the end.
- The righteous will not suffer in the end.
There will be glory after this!
God is sufficient. Verse 25 says, “Whom have I in heaven but you?” Answer: No one. Heaven is not about patron saints, guardian angels, or family ancestors. Psalm 121:2 says, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Asaph says, “And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” C.S. Lewis said, “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God alone.” God is all we have in heaven and all we need on earth.
Verse 26 says, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Physically and spiritually, Asaph was at the point of death. But God was the strength of his heart and portion forever. In Canaan, God gave each tribe a portion of land. The tribe of Levi did not receive land. Numbers 18:20 says the Lord would be their portion. Jesus is our sure, satisfying, and sufficient portion.
God is Good. Verses 27-28 contrast the destiny of the wicked and the godly. Verse 27 says, “For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.” To be farfrom God is a choice with consequences. Psalm 1:6 says, “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” “Unfaithful” is spiritual infidelity or prostitution. Psalm 106:39 says, “Thus they became unclean by their acts, and played the whore in their deeds.” God will put an end to the unfaithful.
Verse 28 says, “But for me it is good to be near God.” Being near God is also a choice with consequences. James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Asaph says, “I have made the Lord God my refuge.” A refuge is a safe place, a strong tower, a panic room.” Why make the Lord his refuge?“That I may tell of all your works.” Asaph refused to complain. Now he determines to testimony. Do you have a testimony? Psalm 107:1-2 says, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble.”