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Deeper Commentary

Psa 73:1

Book III. A Psalm by Asaph-

This "Asaph" could be the Asaph of Hezekiah's time (Is. 36:3) who used the Psalms in the context of the events of the Assyrian invasion. The Asaph Psalms all have parts in them relevant to that context (Ps. 50, 73-83). Or the "Asaph" may have been the singers who were relatives of Asaph, prominent at the restoration (Neh. 7:44; 11:17,22). It could mean that the psalms were a part of a collection from the Asaphites, and the name "Asaph" was therefore simply used to identify the temple singers. And again, parts of the Asaph psalms also have relevance to the restoration. The fact the Asaph Psalms speak of elohim rather than Yahweh would support the idea that they were used in the exilic / restoration period. But Asaph was the "chief" of the Levites to whom David assigned the ministry of praise before the ark (1 Chron. 16:4,5). It seems he did compose his own Psalms, which were used by Hezekiah at his time (2 Chron. 29:30). So I would again suggest that all the Asaph Psalms were composed originally by David "for" [not necessarily "by"] Asaph, but were rewritten and edited for later occasions.

A case can be made that the whole of book 3 of the Psalter (Psalms 73-89) was written / edited in Babylon. The Psalms of Korah (83-87) seem to reflect the longing of the righteous remnant in Babylon for the temple services. And it is just possible that the entire Psalter was re-edited there in Babylon, under inspiration- for so many Psalms have elements of appropriacy to the exiles in Babylon and the restoration. The LXX titles of Psalm 56 [“Concerning the people that were removed from the Sanctuary”] and 71 [“Of the sons of Jonadab, and the first that were taken captive”] speak for themselves. Likewise the LXX attributes Psalms 146-148 to Haggai and Zechariah.

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart-
This redefines "Israel" away from ethnic definition; the Israel of God are the "pure in heart". This Psalm may initially have been David's thanksgiving for God's restoration of his kingdom after the rebellion of Absalom. It describes a struggle with the problem of evil, but begins and ends with triumph that God ultimately is good to Israel. This was particularly relevant to Judah in captivity. But again we query why David so simplistically divides people into the very righteous, of pure heart [which none have ultimately], and the worst sinners.

Psa 73:2

But as for me, my feet were almost gone, my steps had nearly slipped-
David recognizes that his steps and feet had been stabilized by God (s.w. Ps. 40:2). He saw God's active involvement in helping him see through the problem of evil, and praises God for it. This internal psychological stabilizing of faith and understanding is just as much seen today, through God's work through the Holy Spirit. 

Psa 73:3

For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked-
David had calmly urged not to be envious of the wicked (s.w. Ps. 37:1), but he himself almost failed in this (Ps. 73:3 s.w.). We can profess clearly how much we are not envious of others; and then find ourselves like David, caught in a pang of crisis when we wonder why our lives cannot be like those of the world around us. Solomon simplistically commanded not to be envious of the wicked, drawing a simple contrast between the wicked, and the righteous who are not envious of them (Prov. 3:31; 23:17; 24:1,19 s.w.). But this is not how it was in reality with his father David, who admits to almost having given in to envy of the wicked (Ps. 73:3) despite his earlier simplistic condemnation of such envy (Ps. 37:1), and was only saved from that by God's gracious action on his heart (Ps. 73:2). Solomon's proverbs seem to fail to address this complexity of situations because of his own self-righteousness; and yet all he says is inspired and true so far as it goes.

Psa 73:4

For there are no struggles in their death, but their strength is firm-
"Firm" is the word used of the prosperous wicked amongst the exiles (Ez. 34:20). But as Ezekiel points out, this was only a temporary illusion. Ultimately, death is indeed a fetter (s.w. "struggles"), broken only by God's grace in Christ. The Psalmist is for a moment forgetting the Biblical picture of death, just as we can.

Psa 73:5

They are free from the burdens of men, neither are they plagued like other men-
Dt. 26:7 uses the word for "burdens" of the judgment of those who break covenant. And God is not unmindful of who breaks covenant with Him. David had earlier confidently stated that the "mischief" (s.w. "burdens") of men would return upon their own heads at death and judgment (Ps. 7:16; 140:9). But in Ps. 73:5 he momentarily doubts this. Our understanding of basic truths can suddenly be eclipsed by moments of doubt, just as we see happening with the disciples on the lake during the storm.

Psa 73:6

Therefore pride is like a chain around their neck, violence covers them like a garment-
The conclusion therefore is that awareness of the reality of death leads to humility, and those who refuse to perceive Divine judgment in this life become proud and violent, believing they will not face judgment for their actions. Chains were worn around the neck by leaders and governors (we think of Joseph and Daniel being given one); so the implication is that such men were in leadership positions within Israel. Perhaps David has in view Saul and the Absalom-Ahithophel group.

Psa 73:7

Their eyes bulge with fat, their minds pass the limits of conceit-
This recalls the spirit of Job's complaints at the present prosperity of the wicked. "Conceit" is the word usually translated "image", with reference to idols. David perceives that idolatry is essentially a matter of the heart, and he sees materialism as idolatry- a conception absolutely relevant to our age.

Psa 73:8

They scoff and speak with malice; in arrogance, they threaten oppression-
The LXX appears to reference the crafty counsel of Ahithophel at the time of Absalom's rebellion: "They have taken counsel and spoken in wickedness: they have uttered unrighteousness loftily".

Psa 73:9

They have set their mouth in the heavens, their tongue walks through the earth-
The idea may be that they speak as if they are God; it is playing God which is the basis for arrogance and price. But LXX has "Against the heavens".

Psa 73:10

Therefore their people return to them, and they drink up waters of abundance-
"A metaphor for the enjoyment of pleasure". This was how they got people to turn after them, to follow them. David felt that by contrast he had few followers because he didn't have any great hope of prosperity to offer anyone.

Psa 73:11

They say, How does God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?-
It's unlikely they actually said those words. But this is an example of where the unspoken implications of positions are stated for what they effectively are. To accept God exists, as these men apparently did, but to say that He has no awareness... is self contradictory. But this is what their attitudes effectively stated.

Psa 73:12

Behold, these are the wicked-
The Psalmist has built up an image of wicked men having a great life and then dying in peace. This isn't actually the case, but it was and is the image which can be imagined as true.

Being always at ease, they increase in riches-
The wicked and indeed nobody is every "always at ease". This is the idealized image which the doubting psalmist had built up. It is the same false image offered by the media and subliminal advertising today.

Psa 73:13

Surely in vain I have cleansed my heart, and washed my hands in innocence-
This language is appropriate to David who considers he washed the blood of Uriah from his hands by repentance, and had his heart cleansed by God's grace for the entire sin with Bathsheba (s.w. Ps. 51:4; 26:6). He would be suggesting that because he still suffered the consequence of the sin, all his cleansing from it was pointless grief. And yet this sense that "In vain I have cleansed my heart" could refer to how David in his youth had tried to cleanse his way according to God's word (s.w. Ps. 119:9); and now he momentarily considers he may have wasted his effort. Solomon uses the same word in saying that nobody can say "I have cleansed my heart" (Prov. 20:9); as if disagreeing with his father David on this point. Solomon may be suggesting that all you can do is live an externally clean life, you can never cleanse your heart- and this refusal to allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse him inwardly is what led to his apostasy. For disregarding deep, core level spiritual mindedness and trusting in externalities... is a sure path to spiritual disaster. And Solomon took it.

Psa 73:14

for all day long have I been plagued, and punished every morning-
"Punished" is LXX "reproved". David may again be railing at how the consequences of his sin with Bathsheba continued, reproving him every morning. He struggled to accept Nathan's inspired words about this consequence. "Plagued" is used in the Bathsheba context (Ps. 32:6 s.w.).

Psa 73:15

If I had said, I will speak thus; behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children-
LXX "I should have broken covenant with the generation of thy children". He would no longer have been part of the promised seed if he chose to go the way of the wicked.

Psa 73:16

When I tried to understand this, it was too painful for me- "Painful" is s.w. "trouble" in :5. The wicked appear not to have pain or "troubles", but David struggled with the whole problem of evil and the apparent prosperity of the wicked, and this was a pain or trouble to him of itself. David was generally a very spiritual man, but we have here an insight into how even the most spiritually minded have their dark nights of the soul. 

Psa 73:17

until I entered God’s sanctuary, and considered their latter end-
This could not have been true for the exiles, who were unable to do this. The Psalm originated with David, but was reapplied to the exiles and all who later would struggle with the problem of the apparent prosperity of the wicked. On entering "the sanctuary", he saw the plates around the altar which were all that was left of Korah’s rebellion (Num. 16:38), those who were thrown down into the earth (:18). David perceived the wicked of his age as no better than the wicked within Israel during the wilderness journey.

Psa 73:18

Surely You set them in slippery places, You threw them down to destruction-
This continues the allusion to the fate of Korah and his supporters (:17). "Thrown down" or "fall" was to be the fate of the unjust princes of Israel (s.w. Ps. 82:7) just as it had been the fate of Korah and the princes with him (Num. 16:2).

Psa 73:19

How they were suddenly destroyed! They were completely swept away with terrors-
The lament is that the wicked seem to be so prosperous, and then David remembers that one day God will awake (:20). But it is ridiculous to think that God is now actually asleep. The judgment of the rebellious princes in Num. 16 is seen as a pattern for all later rebels; and perhaps David has in view the rebels against him at the time of Absalom. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23)- not 'it will be death at the judgment', it is right now the response God makes to sin. Because God is without time, the judgment has effectively happened to them. We are come to "God the judge of all"- even now (Heb. 12:23). And David perceived that. And yet mourned terribly when actually this happened, and Absalom was suddenly destroyed.

Psa 73:20

As a dream when one wakes up, so, Lord, when You awake, You will despise their fantasies-
LXX "O Lord, in thy city thou wilt despise their image". David envisages judgment day being administered in Zion, when these men would be resurrected, judged, and die "the second death". To be despised by God is judgment enough. Their "fantasies", their self image (the Hebrew implies) will be revealed as vain.

Psa 73:21

For my soul was grieved, I was embittered in my heart-
AV "Thus my heart was grieved" - for the tragedy of that rebellion, for the tragedy of men experiencing Divine condemnation. He didn’t gloat over the punishment of the wicked as he thinks about it at this point, although he does elsewhere. He grieved for it; it pricked his conscience, right within the depths of his being (AV "pricked in my reins").

Psa 73:22

I was so senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before You-
The LXX sounds very much like an allusion to Job in his final realization and resolution of 'the problem of evil': "But I was vile and knew not: I became brutish before thee" (cp. Job 40:4). Envying the wicked is indeed being senseless and ignorant, and David uses these terms elsewhere about those who shall be condemned (Ps. 49:10; 92:6). The fact is, even those as spiritual as David can at times be totally unspiritual in their perspective, and like him need to take a grip and return to reality. We surely have all known this.

Psa 73:23

Nevertheless, I am continually with You. You have held my right hand-
As noted on :22, David recognizes that he has temporarily lost perspective and spiritual focus during his time of envy at the wicked's prosperity. But he marvels that all through that weak period, be it minutes or months, God had remained with him and held his hand. This rules out for all time the attitude of separation from God's people whilst they pass through the dark nights of the soul which afflict all of us. We are to reflect God's continuance with us through it all.

Psa 73:24

You will guide me with Your word-
"Your word" probably doesn't refer to the "Bible", because David would probably only have known the Pentateuch and Job. And he didn't have the scrolls readily available to him for much of his life. Perhaps the prophetic word he had in view was the promise of restoration and kingship, the final flourishing of his kingdom. This was the same word which in essence the exiles were to be guided by as they too struggled with the problems of justice and evil. And the end point of that guidance was to be "glory"; perhaps a return to the sanctuary where the glory was visible, or the glory of the reestablished Davidic kingdom.

And afterwards receive me in glory-
In this life, David felt his prayers had been "received" (s.w. Ps. 6:9). His experience of answered prayer was therefore a foretaste of his faith that God would finally receive or accept him (Ps. 49:15; 73:24 s.w.). The desire to be received "to glory" may refer to David's belief that he would again be able to enter the sanctuary and see God's glory there, a desire he so often expresses in the exilic Psalms.

Psa 73:25

Whom do I have in heaven? There is no one on earth whom I desire besides You-
David felt forsaken by all at this time, so the origin of the Psalm (however it was later reused by the exiles) was at a time when he was largely forsaken by men; perhaps at the time of Absalom's putsch. For David, Yahweh was not one of a number of deities; he didn't believe in Yahweh as well as idols. And this is a theme he develops in :27.

Psa 73:26

My flesh and my heart fails-
Perhaps initially written in David's health crisis after the sin with Bathsheba and whilst on the run from Absalom.

But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever- There is a repeated Biblical theme that the believer's relationship with the Father too is essentially mutual. We are God's portion / inheritance (Dt. 4:20; 9:29; Eph. 1:18), and He is our inheritance (Ps. 16:5,6; 73:26; Lam. 3:22-24; Eph. 1:11 RV); we inherit each other. David felt he was alienated from his rightful inheritance whilst on the run from both Saul and Absalom; and the exiles felt likewise.

Psa 73:27

For, behold, those who are far from You shall perish. You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You-
This helps the exiles understand that distance from God is not a geographical question of being far from the sanctuary, but such distance and closeness to God is rather a spiritual matter. "Unfaithful" suggests idolatry (s.w. Ps. 106:39), and suggests that the wicked he had envied were in fact idolaters. If the initial context of the Psalm is Absalom's rebellion, then we can see another hint that they too were involved with idolatry.

Psa 73:28

But it is good for me to come close to God. I have made the Lord Yahweh my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works-
I noted on :27 that David is protesting his sole allegiance to Yahweh and not to idols in addition. In the course of this prayer, David persuades himself that it is he who is close to God, and those he has envied for their wealth are far from Him (:27). You are not alone, I am not alone; “For I am with you”. God is with us for us in His Son. Of course, we must draw near to Him (Ps. 73:28); and yet He is already near, not far from every one of us (Acts 17:27). David often speaks of drawing close to God, and yet he invites God to draw near to him (Ps. 69:18). Yet David also recognizes that God “is” near already (Ps. 75:1). I take all this to mean that like us, David recognized that God “is” near, and yet wished God to make His presence real to him. Truly can we pray David’s prayers. So often, prayer is described as coming near to God (Ps. 119:169 etc.)- and yet God “is” near already. Prayer, therefore, is a way of making us realize the presence of the God who is always present.

LXX concludes: "In the gates of the daughter of Sion". This was so relevant to the exiles, with their desire to return to the Jerusalem temple.