In Sunday’s message, “The Exile’s Privilege,” we considered the temptation to envy the relative ease with which many in the world skate through life, a temptation depicted in numerous psalms. These psalms address a question that you may have pondered: what benefit is there in being faithful to the Lord if the ungodly are so clearly rewarded in this life? I would like to walk through one such psalm with you, drawing out some of the truths we heard from 1 Peter 1:10-12.
Psalm 73 begins with the writer exhibiting a right attitude toward the issue at hand:
1 Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. This is the conclusion to which he was led by God’s help. It is the right answer to the question above. What benefit is there to remaining faithful to God? God’s goodness. God is good to the pure in heart.
Then the psalmist starts at the beginning, showing how close he came to falling into the trap of thinking wrongly about God:
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. What clarity regarding the real issue! At the heart of this question is the sin of envy. “My feet almost stumbled”— stumbling in the OT is a perilous falling into sin, usually indicating a pattern or lifestyle. Falling into wrong thinking on this issue is perilous because it can lead one to give up and embrace the lifestyle of the wicked for its apparent rewards.
Next, he describes the prosperity of the wicked:
4 For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. 5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. 7 Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. 8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. 9 They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. 10 Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. 11 And they say, "How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?" 12 Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. It seems inexplicable to the psalmist that the wicked would not only be able to engage in ungodly behavior, but even blaspheme (vv9-11) and suffer no obvious consequences (vv5, 12).
So the psalmist voices his temptation in words that many of us may recognize from our own hearts:
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. 14 For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning. “They do whatever they want and even provoke God, but life only gets easier for them; I’ve walked uprightly and pursued holiness only to suffer for it.” So dangerous is that phrase, “all in vain.” That phrase and the next verse show just how close the psalmist came to stumbling:
15 If I had said, "I will speak thus," I would have betrayed the generation of your children. He recognizes that if he had made these thoughts his confession—that is, the truth by which he lived his life—he would have not only walked away from the faith, but he would have damaged the faith of others, i.e., “betrayed the generation of your children.” So, how was he rescued from edge of this cliff?
16 But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, 17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. This shows the psalmist taking one crucial step in the right direction— the same step that many of us need to take today in response to a host of unique circumstances perplexing us: He despaired of his own ability to make sense of what seemed like injustice, and he turned to the only One able to help him think rightly about these things. The result? Then he understood the truth about the wicked, which he explains in the coming verses:
18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms. The world has one thing that the believer does not and would never want: the wrath of God! They are without God in the world in this life and face His eternal wrath in the next. What a fearful thing to be “despised” by God!
By contrast, the psalmist then describes his own standing before God:
21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, 22 I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. 23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. The psalmist was ungodly in his attitude toward the Lord. “I was like a beast toward you” shows that his disposition toward God was just as arrogant as the wicked he formerly envied. Yet he is a recipient of the most precious thing in existence—the grace of God. Unlike the wicked of the world, the believer does not receive what he deserves, but what he does not deserve—God’s love and presence.
This realization leads him to exult:
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. 28 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. Remember the first verse of the psalm? Truly God is good to Israel… The psalmist is led to see that God’s goodness toward His own takes the form of something far more valuable than worldly ease and wealth. About what does he rejoice in these final verses—material things and relief from trials? No. He exults that he has God. God is good to His own in that He gives them Himself.
Vv16-17 are the pivot: 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. God was gracious to the psalmist not only by helping him to see the situation more clearly, but by changing what he valued. God helped the psalmist to see that what he had was far more valuable than anything afforded by the world.
It is the greatest of riches to know and have God in Christ. It is the greatest eternal poverty to be without Him now and to know only His wrath after death. Let us not stumble by envying the wicked. With the psalmist let our song be, My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.