The Triumph of the Wicked? Thoughts on Psalm 73

“Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of your children. But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms. When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” -Psalm 73:1-28 (ESV)

The Triumph of the Wicked?

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From my earliest days as a student of accounting, I was taught the importance of ethical integrity. An accountant’s reputation is his or her most valuable asset, and if it is lost so also is his or her professional value. I remember the oft-repeated declaration of my college accounting professors: “there is no job in the world worth going to jail” and “lose your integrity and you lose it all.” Further, I remember the refrain of so many guest speakers and ethics-related lecturers: “crime doesn’t pay.” Over the course of these formative years, these mantras were drilled into my mind, burned into my memory, and fastened into my own ethical credo.

Many years later, as a college professor myself, I was in a position to be part of a group selecting a guest speaker for a conference. Among the individuals discussed as possible guest speakers was a prominent former accountant who went to prison for committing financial fraud. Several individuals in the group thought the testimony of this individual might make for an interesting and insightful experience for the group and so we inquired about the individual’s speaking fee. The answer received was stunning… Suffice it to say that the individual’s speaking fees were out of our particular price range and measured, not in the thousands of dollars, but the tens of thousands of dollars…

Crime…doesn’t pay??

As Christians, we affirm the truths of grace, forgiveness, and restoration in the Lord. Without these truths, no one in existence would have any hope (Romans 3:23). However, when we see those who have committed evil acts get away with or be rewarded for their evil acts and, worse yet, those who are unashamedly unrepentant of their evil choices be rewarded by them, it troubles us – morally and spiritually. This moral and spiritual dilemma is further enhanced by our knowledge that so many who live faithfully and righteously before the Lord face so many trials and difficulties in their journey through life. These facts bring us to the troubling question: how can a just God allow such things to happen? And how are we to live faithfully and find peace and contentment in the lives we lead knowing that such things happen?

In the remarkable song of Psalm 73, the Lord deals powerfully with these very questions. This Psalm reflects upon and deals with the perceived triumph of evil doers in the world around us. Knowing that, what should strike the reader immediately is the fact that a passage of Scripture dealing with such a difficult and troubling dilemma is written in the form of a song of praise and worship. This provides a key insight into the nature of the truth revealed in the chapter.

The Psalmist begins this song of praise in verses 1-3 by recognizing the paradox within virtually every Christian. While followers of Jesus recognize the undeniable goodness of God, they also face the very real temptation of envying the wicked. The key question is: why? Why would a follower of God – someone who knows His grace, His goodness, His mercy, and His forgiveness – even possess a tinge of envy for those who do not know God and have chosen to live lives of rebellion against God, His plan, and His purposes?

The Psalmist brings the answer to this question into stark relief in verses 4-12. In this portion of the song, the Psalmist describes, in great detail, the apparent trouble-free state of life for those who live pretending that God doesn’t exist. Despite their prideful, arrogant, and rebellious lives, they seemingly live lives filled with an abundance of pleasure and material possessions. While those who have chosen to follow the Lord faithfully face trials and troubles, those who live in open rebellion “are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind” (v. 5). As the conventional wisdom goes, “no good deed goes unpunished,” while every bad deed seems – far too often – to be rewarded.

The perception that the faithful are punished while the evil are enriched is a terribly perplexing and disheartening thought. Through the Psalmist, the Lord acknowledges this. In verses 13-15, the Psalmist’s bitter feelings about this whole perceived state of affairs are described: “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning. If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” With these words, the singer reveals an inner turmoil that convulses many Christian hearts. When we see the exaltation of unfaithful and ungodly people, we are seized with the temptation to believe that faithfulness to God is worthless. This frustration quickly becomes overwhelming when we consider the challenges of Christian faithfulness in light of what seems to be such an easy and care-free path for the unfaithful (v. 14). And yet, even in the midst of despairing this maddeningly frustrating conclusion, the Psalmist demonstrates his understanding of the consequences of unfaithfulness when he writes, “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children” (v. 15).

This deeply emotional declaration reflects the conflicting thoughts of so many Christians struggling through a fallen, sinful world. We grow frustrated, disheartened, and weary at what seems to be the advancement of unfaithfulness all around us. The Psalmist, too, clearly acknowledged the painful and exhausting effects of this understanding by declaring it a “wearisome task” in verse 16. Yet, we also recognize the dangers of joining in with their wicked ways. To “speak thus” (v. 15) is to destroy our witness for Christ.

 At the bottom of this pit of despair, the Psalmist then describes the intervention of God in His thoughts. And the setting of this divine intervention? The Psalmist found his answer in the sanctuary (v. 17). That is, when the Psalmist was overwhelmed with the pain and burden of his realization, God met him in the place of worship. What a powerful truth! So often, we think of worship as an obligation – a spiritual task or responsibility to be checked off the “to-do” list of life. However, worship is so much more than simply a task done in obedience to God. It is the ultimate source of power in our lives before Him. To go to worship is to recognize God, His place, and His purpose in our lives. To go to worship is to learn about God – not just that He is God, but the deeper things of God and who He is. To go to worship is lead others to God. To go to worship is to serve and honor God. To go to worship is to meet God.

Having declared that he found his answer in the sanctuary, the Psalmist then tells us of what that answer is. God’s answer to His dilemma is found in two points:

First, God will destroy the wicked (v. 18-20). They, as with all creation, are under His control. And in His own perfect time, He will render judgment upon their actions and their choices. We are not promised that we will see that judgment (and the reason for that is given in point 2), but we are promised that judgment upon those who oppose God and His purposes will occur. It is not a question of “if,” but “when.” We, like the Psalmist, can rest assured of that truth.

Second, God keeps us near Him and that is what we need (v. 21-28). You’ve probably heard the quote – more accurately, the verse – “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” It comes from Deuteronomy 32:35, “Vengeance and retribution belong to me. In time their foot will slip, for their day of disaster is near, and their doom is coming quickly” (CSB). Further, the Apostle Paul quoted this verse in Romans 12:19, where he declared, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (ESV). We recognize the truth of this verse, but, if you’re like most when witnessing the advancement of the ungodly, you’ve wondered and asked, “Lord, can’t I see it just this once?” It is a fair question to ask, “why not?”

The answer is clear and direct: vengeance upon others is not where our focus is to be placed. In this complex and complicated world, our ultimate purpose for living is simple: to glorify God. We do this by loving Him and others and obediently serving Him and others faithfully (and in that order). Nowhere in that commission is it necessary to witness the vengeance of God upon the unfaithful. That may initially sound harsh and unfeeling, but it is an important realization and redirection of our attention. We’re not always shown the downfall of our enemies – or the unfaithful in general – because that’s not where our focus is to be. Our focus is to be fixed on loving and serving the Lord and drawing near to Him in that love and service. God desires our nearness to Him and, as the Psalmist realizes in worship, that is all we need.

In the presence of God, there is strength and peace.

In the presence of God, there is love and joy.

In the presence of God, there is hope – eternal, victorious, and triumphant hope.

His presence is to be our focus because His presence is the Christian’s triumph.

For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;

    you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.

But for me it is good to be near God;

    I have made the Lord God my refuge,

    that I may tell of all your works.”       -Psalm 73:27-28 (ESV)

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