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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries
Psalms 73

 

 

Verses 1-28

EXPOSITION

THIS is the first of the "Psalms of Asaph," whereof the present book contains eleven. They are characterized by a preponderating use of the name "Elohim" over that of" Jehovah," by a great calmness and solemnity of tone, and by a pervading melancholy. The present psalm has for its subject the well worn problem of the prosperity of the wicked (Job 21:7-15; Psalms 37:1-38; Jeremiah 12:1-3, etc.). The writer has been troubled with respect to it, and has well nigh fallen away from God in consequence (verse 2); but, after a severe struggle (verses 13-16), his eyes have been enlightened on the subject, and he has found an explanation which is satisfactory to him (verses 17-20). He contrasts his former state of perplexity and danger with his present satisfaction and security (verses 21-24); and concludes by expressing an unqualified trust in the ultimate salvation of the righteous and destruction of the wicked.

Metrically, the psalm seems to fall into eight stanzas; the first and last of two verses each, the remaining six each of four verses.

Psalms 73:1

Truly God is good to Israel; i.e. verily, in spite of appearances to the contrary, which had for a time made the writer doubt. It is suggested that the triumph of Absalom may have been the circumstance that shook Asaph's faith. Even to such as are of a clean heart; i.e. to the pious in Israel, who are the true Israel. God is really on their side, though he may seem for a time to favour the wicked. (On the need of a pure heart, see Psalms 24:4.)

Psalms 73:2

But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped. The psalmist had doubted God's goodness and righteousness, on account of the prosperity of the wicked. He feels now that his doubt had been a sin, and had almost caused him to give up his confidence and trust in the Almighty. He had well nigh slipped from the rock of faith into the abyss of scepticism.

Psalms 73:3

For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked (comp. Psalms 37:1). To envy the wicked because they prosper is to make more account of the good things of this life than of God's favour—to prefer physical good to moral. It is also to doubt that God governs the universe by the strict rule of justice. The word translated "foolish" means rather, "vain arrogant boasters." Such the wicked commonly become when they prosper (comp. Psalms 5:5).

Psalms 73:4

For there are no bands in their death; or, no sufferings ( δυσπάθειαι, Aquila; "torments," Cheyne); comp. Job 21:13, "They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave;" and Job 21:23, "One dieth in his full strength, being wholly at ease and quiet." Such deaths often happen, and are a severe trial of faith to those who have no firm conviction of the reality of a hereafter. But their strength is firm; literally, their body is plump (Cheyne). But the Authorized Version probably gives the true meaning. They drop into the grave while their strength is still undiminished.

Psalms 73:5

They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men (comp. Job 21:8-10). There is, no doubt, something of Oriental hyperbole in this representation, as there is in the account given by Job (l.s.c.), which he afterwards qualifies (Job 27:13-23). But still a certain immunity from suffering does seem often to attach to the wicked man, whom God does not chasten, because chastening would be of no service to him.

Psalms 73:6

Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; or, is as a chain about their neck (Revised Version)—makes them stiffen their neck, and hold their head aloft. Not being afflicted, they regard themselves as favourites of Heaven, and are therefore puffed up with pride, which they show in their gait and bearing. Violence covereth them as a garment. Pride and self-conceit naturally lead on to violence, which becomes so habitual to them that it seems like their ordinary apparel (comp. Psalms 109:18, Psalms 109:19). The violence of the great ones in Israel is continually denounced, both by psalmists and prophets (see Psalms 11:2; Psalms 55:9; Psalms 58:2; Psalms 72:14, etc.; Isaiah 1:15; Isaiah 3:15; Isaiah 59:3-7; Hosea 4:1, Hosea 4:2; Amos 3:10, etc.).

Psalms 73:7

Their eyes stand out with fatness. Their eyes, which gloat upon the luxuries around them, seem to stand out from their fat and bloated faces (comp. Job 15:27; Psalms 17:10). They have mere than heart could wish; literally, the imaginations of their heart overflew. The exact meaning is doubtful.

Psalms 73:8

They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily; rather, they scoff, and speak wickedly; of oppression do they speak from heaven's height; i.e. "they scoff at the righteous, and speak wickedly concerning them; they talk of the oppressive acts which they meditate, as though they were Divine beings, speaking from the heavenly height" (Cheyne).

Psalms 73:9

They set their mouth against the heavens. So Hupfeld and Canon Cook, who understand the expression of blasphemy; but most modern critics translate, "They have set their mouth in the heavens," and regard the meaning as nearly allied to that of the second clause of the preceding verse, "They speak as though they were inhabitants of the heavens." And their tongue walketh through the earth. Their tongue is always busily employed—boasting (Psalms 73:3), lying, backbiting.

Psalms 73:10

Therefore his people return hither; rather, therefore he turns his people hitherward; i.e. by his great pretensions and his audacity, he (the wicked man) turns his followers to his own courses, and induces them to act as he acts. And waters of a full cup are wrung out to them; rather, and waters in abundance are drained by them. They "drink iniquity like water" (Job 15:16), "draining" the cup which is handed to them.

Psalms 73:11

And they say, How doth God know? Their wickedness breeds scepticism in them. They wish God not to know, and therefore begin to question whether he does or can know (comp. Psalms 10:4, Psalms 10:11, Psalms 10:13). And is there knowledge in the Most High? Does God concern himself at all with the things that take place on earth (comp. Psalms 94:7)? IS not man too weak and contemptible to attract his attention?

Psalms 73:12

Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; rather, and they prosper always. They increase in riches. This is the impression which the psalmist has received from the general course of human affairs in his day. It is closely allied to the view taken by Job (Job 21:7-15).

Psalms 73:13

Verily, I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. Such was the psalmist's first instinctive feeling, when he noticed the prosperity of the wicked. The Prayer book Version inserts, between this verse and the last, the words, "and I said;" which is correct, though somewhat free, exegesis. Compare with the expression, "I have washed my hands in innocency," Job's remarkable words, "If I wash myself with snow, and make my hands never so clean" (Job 9:30).

Psalms 73:14

For all the day long have been plagued. While the ungodly have prospered, and net been plagued at all (Psalms 73:5), I, the representative of the righteous, have been "plagued," or afflicted, continually. What, then, does goodness advantage me? And chastened every morning; literally, and my chastisement has been every morning (comp. Job 7:18).

Psalms 73:15

If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children; or, if I had said (Revised Version). If, when these feelings assailed me, and the lot of the ungodly man seemed to me much better than my own, I had resolved to speak out all my thoughts, and let them be generally known, then should I have dealt treacherously with (Revised Version) the generation of thy children. I should have deserted their cause; I should have hurt their feelings; I should have put a stumbling block in their way. Therefore, the psalmist implies, he said nothing—a reticence well worthy of imitation.

Psalms 73:16

When I thought to know this; literally, and I meditated, that I might understand this. A process of careful thought and consideration is implied, during which the psalmist tried hard to understand the method of God's government, and to explain to himself its seeming anomalies. But he says, It was too painful for me. He did not succeed; he was baffled and perplexed, and the whole effort was a pain and a grief to him.

Psalms 73:17

Until I went into the sanctuary of God; literally, the sanctuaries (comp. Psalms 68:35; Psalms 84:1; Psalms 132:7). The three subdivisions of both the tabernacle and the first temple, viz. the court, the holy place, and the holy of holies, constituted three sanctuaries. The psalmist, in his perplexity, took his doubts into the sanctuary of God, and there, "in the calmness of the sacred court" (Kay), reconsidered the hard problem. Compare Hezekiah's action with the perplexing letter of Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:14). Then understood I their end. There came to him in the sanctuary the thought that, to judge aright of the happiness or misery of any man, it is necessary to await the end (comp. Herod; 1:32; Soph; 'OEd. Tyr.,' ad fin.; Eurip; 'Andromach.,' 50.100; Aristot; ' Eth. Nic.,' 1.10).

Psalms 73:18

Surely thou didst set them up in slippery places. The wicked have at no time any sure hold on their prosperity. They are a "set in slippery places"—places from which they may easily slip and fall. Thou castedst them down to destruction. The fall often comes, even in this life. The flourishing cities of the plain are destroyed by fire from heaven; Pharaoh's land is ruined by the plagues, and his host destroyed in the Red Sea; Sennacherib's army perishes in a night; Jezebel is devoured by dogs; Athaliah is slain with the sword; Antiochus Epiphanes perishes in a distant expedition; Herod Agrippa is eaton of worms; persecutors, like Nero, Galerius, Julian, come to untimely ends. A signal retribution visits the wicked in hundreds and thousands of instances. When it does not, the question remains—Is death the end? This point is not formally brought forward, but it underlies the whole argument; and, unless retribution after death be regarded as certain, a single exception to the general rule of retribution in this life would upset the solution which the psalmist finds satisfactory.

Psalms 73:19

How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! There is something very striking in the suddenness with which the prosperity of a wicked man often collapses. Saul, Jezebel, Athaliah, Epiphanes, Herod Agrippa, are cases in point, likewise Nero, Galerius, Julian. The first and second Napoleonic empires may also be cited. They are utterly consumed with terrors; literally, they perish; they come to an end through terrors (comp. Job 18:11; Job 24:17; Job 27:20).

Psalms 73:20

As a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord, when thou awakest, thou shalt despise their image. As men despise their dreams when they awake from them, so, when God "stirs up himself and awakes to judgment" (Psalms 35:23), he will despise such mere semblances of humanity (Psalms 39:6) as the wicked are.

Psalms 73:21

Thus my heart was grieved; literally, for my heart was grieved, or "was soured." The "for" refers to a suppressed phrase of self-condemnation, "But at the time I did not see all this—the solution did not present itself to me." I was too full of grief and bitterness to consider the matter calmly and dispassionately. And I was pricked in my reins; i.e. "a pang of passionate discontent had pierced my inmost being" (Cheyne).

Psalms 73:22

So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee. I had no more intelligence than the brute beasts; I was wholly unable to reason aright (comp. Psalms 32:9; Psalms 92:7; Proverbs 30:2).

Psalms 73:23

Nevertheless I am continually with thee; i.e. "nevertheless, I have not fallen away, but have kept always my hold upon thee;" and, on thy part, thou hast holden me by my right hand; i.e. thou hast upheld me and prevented me from slipping (comp. Psalms 18:35; Psalms 89:21; Psalms 119:117).

Psalms 73:24

Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel. The psalmist expresses full confidence in God's continual guidance through all life's dangers and difficulties, notwithstanding his own shortcomings and" foolishness." He then looks beyond this life, and exclaims, And afterward (thou wilt) receive me to glory. Even Professor Cheyne sees m this the story of Enoch spiritualized." "Walking with God," he says, "is followed by a reception with glory, or into glory; and he compares the passage with Psalms 49:16, which he has previously explained as showing that "the poet has that religious intuition which forms the kernel of the hope of immortality."

Psalms 73:25

Whom have I in heaven but thee? Who is there in all the host of heaven on whom I can place any reliance, excepting thee? None of thy "holy ones," neither angel nor archangel, can afford me any support or sustenance, preserve or guide or save me, but THOU only (comp. Job 5:1). And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. Much less can earth supply me with a substitute for God. On him my heart's affections are centred (comp. Psalms 63:1, "My soul thirsteth top thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is").

Psalms 73:26

My flesh and my heart faileth. The meaning is, "Though my flesh and my heart fail utterly, though my whole corporeal and animal nature fade away and come to nothing, yet something in the nature of a heart—the true 'I,' consciousness, will remain, and will be upheld by God." God is the Strength of my heart, and my Portion forever. "A strong assertion of personal immortality" (Cook). "This is the mysticism of faith; we are on the verge of St. Paul's conception of the πνεῦμα, the organ of life in God" (Cheyne).

Psalms 73:27

For lo, they that are far from thee shall perish. As God is the source of all life, to be "far from him" is to perish—to have this life depart from us, even if existence of any kind remains. The psalmist is vague with respect to the ultimate fate of the wicked, confident only of the continued existence, in a condition which he declares to be "good," of the righteous. Thou hast destroyed all them that go a-whoring from thee. The strong phrase here used is rare in the Psalms, occurring only in this place and in Psalms 106:39. It commonly refers to idolatrous practices, but is used sometimes of other kinds of declension and alienation from God (see Le Psalms 20:6; Numbers 14:33).

Psalms 73:28

But it is good for me to draw near to God; or, "but as for me, nearness to God is my good" (Kay). Compare the well known hymn—

"Nearer, my God, to thee,

Nearer to thee;

Even though it be a cross

That raiseth me;

Still all my song shall be,

Nearer, my God, to thee,

Nearer to thee."

I have put my trust in the Lord God; literally, in the Lord Jehovah (Adonai Jehovah)—an unusual combination. That I may declare all thy works. With the intention of ever hereafter declaring and magnifying all thy works.

HOMILETICS

Psalms 73:24

Divine guidance.

"Thou shalt guide," etc. Asaph looked out on the world of human life, and beheld a sight which troubled and perplexed him, as it has troubled and perplexed many a pious heart since. He saw the wealthy sinner clothed in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously; godless, yet prosperous; adding field to field; spending in selfish luxury what he gained by fraud and extortion; and at last dying in peaceful old age, and laid in a splendid sepulchre. And he saw the devout, honest, patient worshipper of God, toiling hard to keep the wolf from his door, glad of the crumbs from the rich man's table to eke out his children's scanty meal; dying prematurely, worn out with care and hardship, and hurried into a nameless grave. As Asaph saw this, and much more like this, he could not help asking," Why is this? Why does not the hand of Omnipotence with a touch arrest the crooked balance, crown virtue and piety with prosperity, and overwhelm vice and injustice with misery and shame?" Then he "went into the sanctuary of God." He joined, though with troubled spirit, in praising God; "for his mercy endureth forever." He poured out his soul in silent prayer, while the priest ministered at the golden altar. Then the Holy Spirit shed a light into his mind that lighted up the whole prospect of human life. He saw that he had left the main element out of his reckoning—forgotten to ask," What will be the end?" He discerned the dangers of prosperity and the benefits of adversity; how pride, covetousness, lust, selfishness, injustice, thrive in luxurious self-indulgence, like rank weeds in a rich soil; and how the Lord chastens those he loves (Hebrew 12:10). Then understood he their end. He confessed his error. And with new humility and fresh faith he here entrusts himself and all his concerns to God's fatherly guidance and sovereign will "Thou shalt guide," etc. These words express a deep sense of need of Divine guidance; willingness to be guided; assurance that God will guide.

I. THE NEED OF DIVINE GUIDANCE. Man begins life as the most helpless of creatures. If not fed, clothed, cared for by others, he would perish almost as soon as born. Without the company and training of his elders, if he could grow up at all, he would lack language, if not reason. As he grows up, and reaps the fruit of all this guidance and counsel, he begins to be impatient of control, to imagine himself self-sufficient. He will be guided by his own counsel. This conceit becomes in many cases so unbridled, that the thought of dependence even upon God becomes intolerable. "Our lips, say they, are our own: who is Lord over us?" The truth is that what we really need, when we have outgrown our first lessens, is not less guidance, but of a higher sort. The stronger, richer, wiser, any one is, the more mischief he may do, and the more misery he may incur, if he takes a wrong course. You, young man, in the pride of your untamed energy; you, man of the world, in the ripeness of your gathered experience,—have not less, but more need of guidance than when you sat on the bench at school, or lay in your nurse's arms.

1. We need guidance because of our ignorance of the future. The only things we can certainly foresee are the motions of the heavenly bodies and the action of natural forces. The moment we get into the world of life we are in the region of uncertainty. True, we foresee a great deal. Business would be impossible, life would be impossible, without a great deal of foresight. But over all hangs a haze of uncertainty. Your plans are laid, perhaps, with wise forecast. But will the ship come in? Will the rise or fall on which you reckon take place? Will the demand for the goods you are making continue, or suddenly cease? Will the harvest be good or bad? You can no more tell than whether you will be able to attend to your business this day week, or be lying delirious with fever.

2. We need guidance because of the fallibility of our judgment. Were there no cloud on our knowledge, yet if the balance of judgment hang awry, we may easily involve ourselves and others in irreparable misfortune. This was what so humbled the psalmist. He perceived that his judgment of human affairs had been completely at fault. He had adopted a wholly false standard, and, if left to choose for himself and for others, he would have chosen disastrously wrong. God's thoughts, he saw, are not our thoughts, any more than God's ways are our ways. "What, then, is the guidance?" he asks. "With thy counsel." "Counsel" has a double meaning: "advice," and "plan, or purpose." He may mean, "Lead me by thy Word and thy Spirit, teaching me how to judge, making my duty plain;" or, "Choose my path and lot according to thine own wise purpose." But the first sense really includes the second; for if God shows us our way, it must be the way he chooses for us. Calvin says, "Although sometimes things turn out well when we are rash and foolish (for God mends our mistakes, and turns our wrong beginnings to happy endings), yet his more common and fuller blessing lies in giving wisdom to his people; and nothing is to be more earnestly prayed for than that we may be ruled by the Spirit of wisdom and counsel."

II. Therefore these words are A PRAYER FOR DIVINE GUIDANCE. As much as to say, "l need guidance; my future is hidden; my judgment is fallible. To thee the future is as the present; the darkness as the light. All events, all seasons, all minds and wills of men, are in thy hand. Choose thou my way. Lead me in thy path, and teach me. Make my path plain; but, even if it be obscure, let me rest in this—that it is thy counsel, not my own." It is one thing to believe the fact of Divine guidance; another to be willing to follow it. One thing, also, to trust God to lead us in the path we have chosen; another to say, "Not my will, but thine." And yet it ought to be easy! What is the whole Bible but one continued proof that God's way is the right way, and the ways men choose for themselves, wrong? "All we like sheep," etc.; "He that spared not," etc. (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 8:32).

III. ASSURANCE THAT GOD WILL GUIDE. Therefore what we need that God should do, because he can and we cannot; and what we are willing he should do, and ask]aim to do for us,—that we may expect him to do. These words are more than the cry of need; more than the surrender of self-will; are the triumphant utterance of faith. "Thou wilt guide …to glory." Here is a sunbeam of clear hope and inspired promise breaking through all the clouds of doubt, fear, and ignorance. One such test is enough to prove that it is a huge mistake to suppose the hope of immortality hidden from the ancient saints. (Indeed, even apart from inspiration, the Hebrews could not be ignorant of what was well known to the Egyptians, ages before Moses.) Here the balance rights itself. Why do the ungodly prosper? Because they are "men of the world, whose portion is in this life" (Psalms 17:14). Why does God not give his children their portion here? That he may prepare them for their portion hereafter (2 Corinthians 4:16-18; John 14:2-4, John 14:6). Here is the difference between the foresight of faith and the foresight of worldly calculation. To earthly foresight it is the near future that is plain; the further it recedes, the thicker the mists gather. To the eye of faith it is the near future which we can contentedly leave uncertain, because the distant, the eternal future, is revealed. "We know not what shall be on the morrow;" but we know what shall be when the heavens and earth that are now shall have passed away. "We know" (2 Corinthians 5:1).

Psalms 73:26

Strength in weakness.

"My flesh …forever." Asaph's psalms bear no less the stamp of Divine inspiration than David's; yet their character is widely different. The Holy Spirit employs different instruments for different ends. Reading David's psalms and David's life, one is ready to say we have an epitome of all human experience. Yet Asaph shows us depths of experience into which probably David never penetrated. This psalm opens abruptly: "surely"—or, as in the margin, "yet," nevertheless—"God is good to Israel!" This points back to that severe mental conflict in which Asaph had barely escaped overthrow (Psalms 73:2, Psalms 73:3). A struggle with doubt, in which many can sympathize. In Psalms 73:16, etc; he shows how his eyes were opened to the folly and injustice of his hard thoughts of God. From this deep abasement (Psalms 73:22) he springs at a bound to the loftiest height of faith. And in this twenty-sixth verse, he crushes together, as it were, the two extremes of his experience. At once a cry of defeat and a shout of victory.

I. THE CRY OF DEFEAT, A CONFESSION OF WEAKNESS, DESPAIR, FAILURE. "My flesh," etc. "Heart," in the Scriptures, stands for the whole mental and spiritual nature; "flesh" (often "flesh and blood"), for our nature as mortal, often as sinful. Here, as in Psalms 84:2. An utter breakdown of energy, bodily, and mental. Hope and courage seem spent. The past looks an abyss in which happiness has been engulfed; the present, a crushing burden; the future, a dark blank. If I were to call this a picture of human life, I should seem to many darkly, ungratefully exaggerating. Our views of life depend on our experience. Young, happy, strong, hopeful,—you find nothing like this. Past has few resets, present few drawbacks, future no clouds. Thank God for sunshine! But remember on what a brittle thread life hangs. Health may fail, friends die, most trusted investments prove a snare, calculations mistaken. (Like houses on brink of Lake of Zag.) The lesson of our own weakness one of great lessons of life. God has various ways—some gentle, some severe—of teaching it; but we need it. Those who do not learn it, not the happiest (Psalms 84:6-9). Extreme case—people ruined by their own prosperity. But take milder examples—those who have never learned humbling lesson of weakness; not ripest, richest Christians, most able to sympathize. Even our blessed Lord needed this lesson, not. only for perfection of obedience, but sympathy (Hebrew Psalms 5:7, Psalms 5:8; Psalms 2:1-12 :18). If you have never been forced to say, "My flesh and my heart fail," you have much to learn. Especially the full comfort and triumph of the other half of the verse.

II. THE SHOUT OF VICTORY. The utterance of triumphant faith. "God," etc.

1. This implies what the New Testament calls reconciliation to God. Theologians speak of God being reconciled to us. The Scriptures, of our being reconciled—God reconciling us to himself (Romans 15:10, see Revised Version, Romans 15:11; 2 Corinthians 5:18). God cannot be "the Strength" of a heart unreconciled—at enmity. I believe there are persons who have heard the gospel preached all their lives, yet never really taken in that the gospel is just this message. They know something is wanting to make them true Christians. But "unreconciled!—at enmity!" Not so bad as that! If they could see that it is even so, this would be first step to "taking hold of God's strength." An uneasy conscience is a great cause of weakness; a dead or sleeping conscience, worse. Peace is strength; righteousness, love, joy, are strength.

2. A mind at rest in God; satisfied as to the wisdom, justice, goodness, of all his dealings; not because we can thoroughly understand them, but can trust God. Asaph had severe trials (verse 14:). But worst, hardest, difficulty of reconciling what he saw in the world with goodness and righteousness of God. Such doubt as may arise in the most devout mind; the more devout, the more painful. Insoluble to reason (verse 16). "Light and peace come not by thinking, but by faith" (Perowne). In God's house, perhaps in public worship, perhaps in silent meditation and prayer, these two great truths dawned on him:

3. Accordingly, here is an infinite portion, a boundless hope. "My Portion forever." Guidance here, glory hereafter (verse 24). In this sunshine, the darkness and chill of doubt vanish. Not that the believer overlooks the difficulties, but looks beyond. Perhaps sees more forcibly than the unbeliever; but only shadows across the path; no longer barriers, stumbling blocks. "God" both "Strength" and "Portion." Not my views, my faith, but God himself. He does not say, "strength of my flesh," though that, too, is true (Galatians 2:20, "in the flesh"). Let that fail, decay, perish! Before Asaph spoke or wrote as a prophet, he had to learn as a believer. The same Spirit is willing to be our Teacher.

HOMILIES BY S. CONWAY

Psalms 73:1-28

The grievous conflict of the flesh and the Spirit, and the glorious conquest of the Spirit at the last.

I. THE BEGINNING OF THE PSALM. In this he ingeniously pointeth at those rocks against which he was like to have split his soul.

II. THE MIDDLE OF THE PSALM. In this he candidly confesseth his ignorance and folly to have been the chiefest foundation of his fault.

III. THE END OF THE PSALM. In this he gratefully kisseth that hand which led him out of the labyrinth.

Such is the clear and accurate summing up of the contents of this psalm by an old Puritan divine. Should any of us, unhappily, find our own portraiture in the conduct told of at the beginning, may it not be long ere the middle and the end of the psalm portray us equally well!—S.C.

Psalms 73:1-28

Asaph's trial and deliverance.

Asaph was greatly tempted, as this psalm plainly shows. It does not matter whether he speaks of himself or, as is likely, of some other servant of God. Consider—

I. HIS TEMPTATION.

1. It was a very terrible one. (See Psalms 73:2, "My feet were almost gone," etc.) How honest the Bible is! It tells the whole truth about men, and good men, too. It shows them tempted, and all but overcome.

2. It arose from his seeing" the prosperity of the wicked." A sight, to Old Testament saints, very hard to bear. For they had not our knowledge of the life eternal. Psalms 73:24 is no disproof of this statement. For had it meant, as we so commonly take it to mean, the being received to the future "glory" of God's redeemed in heaven, how was it that so large a portion of the Jews in our Lord's time did not believe in any future life at all, and that our Lord had to turn to the (to us) apparently irrelevant declaration, "I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac," etc; when, if the common interpretation be right, there was this and other plain Scriptures like it to appeal to? Hence, and for yet other reasons, we hold that the Old Testament saints had not the knowledge of the future life and the recompenses that should be accorded them. Therefore to them the sight of what seemed to be injustice—such as the prosperity of the wicked and the adversity of the good—was especially painful; for they knew of no remedy.

3. And it wrought him much harm. He became envious and bitter, Psalms 73:4-14 are one long protest and complaint against God; and sullen—"as a beast before thee;" and miserable—"it was too painful for me." And it all but overthrew him (Psalms 73:2). Such was Asaph's trial.

II. OURS IS THE SAME TODAY. We see just what Asaph did; and we are tempted to say, as many do say, "The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom, nor, indeed, wisdom at all;" and so they will have nothing to do with it. But our excuse is far less than that of Asaph, since clearer light and fuller knowledge are ours. Nevertheless, the facts of life do lead to unbelief, if we look only at them. Men feel that right ought to prevail. When we were children, we were told that it would. But very often, so far as we can see, it does not. We look at nature, and it appears utterly immoral, because cruel, relentless, unforgiving, murderous to the weak, favouring only the strong. We read history, and bow often it records only the triumph of the wicked and the abasement of the good! Society, also, is ordered on anything but a morally righteous basis. And do we not everywhere see the innocent suffering for the guilty, involved in their sin, and bearing their doom? It is not merely the suffering, though so great, that gives rise to unbelief in God, but the seeming injustice of its allotment. And hence, today, the drear cynicism and unbelief of the Book of Ecclesiastes tells the thought of not a few. But note—

III. SOME SURE SAFEGUARDS AGAINST THIS TEMPTATION. See how Asaph found deliverance, and came at length to the conclusion which he avows in the opening verse of this psalm.

1. He held his tongue—did not talk about his doubts, but kept them to himself, so far as men were concerned (verse 15).

2. He laid them all before God. (Verse 17.) He "went into the sanctuary." He prayed, but did not argue. And the result was that he came to see facts in their true light; that the ungodly man's wealth meant but so many "slippery places." Death for him was "destructions" and its certain prospect caused him to be "utterly consumed with terrors;" and even at his best he was "despised" of the Lord (verses 19, 20). Thus Asaph's envy was turned into pity, as well it might be.

3. He realized the love of God. He gained this by honest confession of the sin of which God had convicted him (verses 21, 22). Also by calling to mind the love which God had shown him (verse 23); the care exercised over him; and the sure prospect of blessedness set before him. Thus there came a great rush of love in his heart toward God (verse 25); and the settled persuasion both of the misery of being far from God (verse 27), and of the blessedness of drawing near to him (verse 28). Thus the mist and darkness cleared away, as, on the mount of communion with God, they ever will.—S.C.

Psalms 73:2

Narrow escapes.

"The victorious general, in the hour of triumph, has not unfrequently reason to remember how nearly, through oversight or miscalculation, he had lost the day. A little more pressure on this wing or that, a trifling prolongation of the struggle, a few minutes' further delay in the arrival of reinforcements, and his proud banner had been dragged in the dust. The pilot, steering his barque safely into port, sometimes knows how, through lack of seamanship, he nearly made shipwreck. And the successful merchant remembers crises in his history when he found himself on the brink of ruin—when the last straw only was wanting to precipitate the catastrophe." And like narrow escapes occur in the spiritual life.

I. NOTE SOME OF THEM.

1. The doubt and darkness of unbelief caused by brooding over the mysteries of providence (cf. Jeremiah 48:11).

2. Terrible temptation. See Joseph in prison, Moses in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, the martyrs. "The righteous scarcely are saved."

3. When brought very low, as the prodigal son was, by our own sin. Then the crisis is when we have to decide whether we will turn back to God or go on in our sin. The prodigal went back to his father; Ephraim was joined to his idols, and, like Amon, "sinned more and more." How many are in heaven now who once were all but lost! David, Manasseh, Peter, the penitent thief, Mary Magdalene, and many more.

II. WHAT SUCH INSTANCES TEACH US.

1. Never to despair of any one. God can save them.

2. Never to presume for ourselves. "Let him that thinketh he standeth," etc.

3. Great thankfulness, if we are kept.

4. Deep sympathy with those who fall.

5. Ever to abide in Christ.—S.C.

Psalms 73:5, Psalms 73:6

Much ease, much peril.

That is the teaching of these verses, and of innumerable Scriptures besides (see Psalms 55:19; Jeremiah 48:11). Thus—

I. GOD IS EVER TEACHING US THIS TRUTH.

1. In his Word. See also Hebrew 12, and the biographies of God's people in all ages. The history of the Church as given in Scripture abundantly reveals God's merciful law of change.

2. By analogy. God suffers nothing to be without change. Even the rocks and hills, the solid globe, are all subject to change. The seasons alternate. Storm and tempest make pure the air which, as in the Swiss valleys, would otherwise become stagnant. The great sea is "troubled, that it can never be quiet." In plant life, "except a corn of wheat fall into," etc. The processes of change are varied and ever acting in the entire vegetable world. And so in animal life. Not to experience change would be death. And it is so with the mind. No change there is idiocy. It must be stirred by the incoming of fresh truth, and the readjustment of old. In social life—

"The old order changeth, giving place to new,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world."

In ecclesiastical life. What was the Reformation but the tempest that rushed through the valleys of the Church life of that day, where the air had become so stagnant and corrupt that men could not live? And it is so in political and in moral life. Much peace is much peril. "Because men have no changes they fear not God." We cannot glide into the kingdom of God, nor, as the well known hymn mistakenly teaches that we may—

"Sit and sing ourselves away

To everlasting bliss."

Not so do we enter there, but "through much tribulation." So our Lord, and all experience, plainly declare.

II. BUT WHY IS ALL THIS? Because in our nature there are rooted evils, which can only be got rid of by the action of this law of change. Such as:

1. Self-will. See the stream come brawling noisily along, as it descends through the valley down from the hill. But, lying right in its way, lo! there is a huge rook. Down comes the stream full tilt towards it, as if it would say, "Just you get out of my way." But that is exactly what the rock does not do; and so the angry stream dashes against it. And oh, what rage and riot, what fret and fume, there at once arises! But if you wait a moment, and watch, you will see that the stream seems to be thinking what it had better do; for lo! it glides softly, smoothly, quietly round the rook, which still stands stubbornly and relentlessly just where it stood before. The stream seems to have learnt a lesson—it has become all at once so gentle and submissive. Now, that is one of the ten thousand natural parables with which the world is full. The stream of our self-will, determined to go its own way, rushes on its course; but the rock of God's law of change, sending adversity and trial, stands in its way, and will not move, and self-will is broken against it, as God intended it should be. Only so can this evil be cured.

2. Pride. Trouble and sorrow humble men, and bring down the haughty spirit.

3. Unbelief. The materialism and atheism of the day are shattered by this law. In the day of distress, the soul cannot keep from calling upon God.

4. Selfishness. Ease fosters this as it fosters so much more that is evil; but trial often teaches men to think of others as well as of themselves.

5. And so with indolence and the love of the world. To be "in trouble as other men are" has a salutary power to rouse men from the one and to loose them from the other. And what opportunity does this law of change give for bearing testimony to the sustaining power of God's grace! Trouble endured with patient God-given courage is a mighty argument for God, the force of which all feel.

III. WHAT SHOULD BE OUR ATTITUDE TOWARDS THIS LAW?

1. Faint not; fret not; fear not.

2. Humble yourself beneath the mighty hand of God, so that you may secure the blessing your trouble is destined to bring.—S.C.

Psalms 73:10

The doings of ungodly prosperity.

One of three of these doings seems to have been in the psalmist's mind, but we cannot certainly say which. The words warrant either interpretation. Let us take, first, that one suggested by them as they stand in the Authorized Version, and as commonly read.

I. THE PEOPLE OF GOD ARE LED ASTRAY. For by "his people" many understand the people of God to be meant, and that they, allured and ensnared by the glitter of earthly prosperity, turn from the ways of God to follow after these ungodly ones. "They are led away by the evil example, just as the psalmist confesses he himself was;" and they turn after them. (Cf. "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world.") How often this happens' But what is meant by the "waters of a full cup," etc.? Either the cup of unholy pleasure, which they drain to the dregs; or else it is, as in Psalms 80:5, and as actual experience attests, that when God's people go astray, as here represented, it will be a full cup of sorrow and tears that they will have to drink, as indeed they do. The most miserable of men are backsliders from God. It cannot but be so. This is what our translators meant to imply by their rendering. But another meaning that the words warrant is—

II. A CROWD FOLLOW THEM, THAT IS, THE UNGODLY. The people spoken of are the crowd of hangers on to the prosperous—those who will try to find favour with the rich and great of this world. The Prayer book Version thus sets it forth: "Therefore the people fall unto them, and thereout suck they no small advantage." These hangers on are the people who attach themselves to the world's rich ones, and "who gather like sheep to the water trough," in hopes of what they may get. But whether they get anything or no, the ungodly whom they follow do; they "suck no small advantage." They are yet more worshipped and fawned upon, and have ready to hand innumerable and willing tools to serve their purpose and to bring more "grist to their mill." And the result is that they get more proud and arrogant than ever (see Psalms 80:11). But, child of God, whoe'er thou art, say to thy soul, "My soul, come not thou into their secret."

III. THE PEOPLE OF GOD HAVE TO SUFFER BITTER PERSECUTION. So the Chaldee, the Septuagint, and the Vulgate seem to understand the words. The wicked turn upon God's people, who are, in consequence, "fed with the bread of tears, and have given to them tears to drink without measure" (Psalms 80:5). It is the predestined lot of the people of God; but our Saviour tells us that it is a blessed portion. The last and chiefest of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-48) declares, "Blessed are ye when men shall persecute you," etc. And it is so; for it shows, by your endurance of persecution, that you have found out the preciousness of the love of God, and know assuredly that, for the sake of it, you may be well content to die. That is knowledge which is, here and now, life eternal. May God keep us from exemplifying the first of these interpretations, and from forming part of that miserable crowd told of in the second! but if we are found amongst the third, then Christ will call us his blessed ones.—S.C.

Psalms 73:25

Supreme delight in God.

"It is not—What have I, but—Whom? Things, however many, rich, glorious, beautiful, cannot satisfy the soul, neither in heaven any more than on earth." Not in things, but in persons, the personal soul must find its portion. And not in many, but in One; to whom the soul can look, to whom at all times it can come, and to whom, as here, it can lift up its cry, "Thou art the Strength of my heart, and my Portion forever." But—

I. SUCH DELIGHT IN GOD HAS BEEN HELD TO BE IMPOSSIBLE. For example:

1. Calvin, a learned, devout, and in the main a true expositor of Scripture, but sadly wanting in those more gentle and tender instincts which are absolutely essential to its full and accurate understanding, has, in commenting on our text, actually said, "If we give the smallest portion of our affections to the creatures, we in so far defraud God of the honour which belongs to him." Now, that is utterly untrue and in dire contradiction to the Word which says, "If we love not our brother, whom we have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen?"

2. And there are many devout souls haunted with the fear that, in loving those around them with the intense affection which they know they bear towards them, they are somehow defrauding God of what is due only to him. And yet more, when they compare the love which they have for God with the love which they cherish for those dear to them on earth, the latter love seems so much warmer and deeper than the former that, when they come to a text like this, they hesitate, and confess to themselves that such words are not for them—for them they would not be true. And they are sore troubled about this, and scarce know what to do. They would like to be able to say them, but they feel they cannot. Now, of course, there are many people in whom it would be hypocrisy, gross and palpable, were they to speak as does the psalmist here. They are cold, hard, worldly, and so earth-bound that they never think about loving God. The utmost you can get from them is a vague confession that they "suppose they ought to." But we are thinking of really devout, godly souls, who nevertheless sorrowfully confess that the words of our text, and the many others like them, are far beyond what they can say. Such people believe, apparently, that, though our blessed Lord has commanded them to love the Lord their God with all their heart, they do not, and they doubt if any one ever has done so, or can. They do not seem to see how serious is the charge they thus bring against the Lord—that he has commanded what it is impossible to obey. Earthly parents do not deal with their children so, but they seem to think our heavenly Father does.

II. BUT IT IS POSSIBLE FOR US, NEVERTHELESS.

1. Here, at any rate, stands one declaration of it. The psalmist, if he did not express, as we are certain he did, his own deep and sincere feeling, must have been the victim of delusion, or else a wretched hypocrite. But who thinks that?

2. And he is not alone in such utterance. The psalms are full of them, and we have already referred to the first and great commandment. The New Testament also speaks of "perfect love"—just that sentiment which our text tells of.

3. And there have been and are thousands of souls in which such love dwells, to whom God is their "exceeding Joy," whose supreme delight is in God.

4. And what seems to does not really contradict this. For consider the elements of our love to God. They are—complete distrust of self; confidence in God only for the supply of our souls' deepest needs, such as pardon, peace, purity, eternal life; holy reverence and awe and gratitude. But all these are far other than what we cherish to our fellow men; so that they do not clash one with the other. On the contrary, the lower love may help the higher, and the higher cannot exist if the lower do not.

III. BUT IF SUCH SUPREME DELIGHT IN GOD BE POSSIBLE, IT IS ALSO INFINITELY DESIRABLE. All life, even the most mean and poor, becomes transformed, transfigured, glorified, by means of it. The soul becomes independent of all earthly favour, and heeds not this world's frown, nor all "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Unspeakably blest, and blessing is the characteristic of the soul in whom this love of God dwells. See Paul's "sorrowful, but always rejoicing," etc.

IV. IT IS ATTAINED THROUGH OBEDIENCE AND TRUST. "He that keepeth my commandments, he it is that loveth me," said our Lord. Such obedience is not only the fruit, but the root, of the love which grows out of it. We obey, and we come to love him whom we obey. Serving is the secret—not alone the sign, but the source also—of loving. Our love for our children is in proportion to the sacrifices we make for them. It is so everywhere and forever.—S.C.

Psalms 73:26

The failing flesh and the strengthening God.

Here is a vivid and blessed contrast. Consider—

I. THE FAILING OF HEART AND FLESH here told of.

1. Some understand this as the result of his foolish conflict with God; and here, as all who contend with God are, he was worsted and brought low.

2. Others, as telling of his passionate desire after God, how he was "sick of love," broken down with his longing for God.

3. Others, as telling of his heavy load of trouble. "He had a God's rod instead of a good piece of bread for his breakfast every morning; and the table was covered with sackcloth, and furnished with the same bitter herbs both at dinner and supper."

4. Anyway, it is a fact that heart and flesh do fail, both of the evil and of the good. The best herbs wither as well as the worst weeds. There is no discharge in this war.

5. What a rebuke it is to those whose treasures are all of the world!

II. THE STRENGTHENING GOD. How does he accomplish his gracious work?

1. By his Spirit in our hearts.

2. By his Word of promise for the future. The Spirit and the Word are his "rod and staff," which comfort us.—S.C.

Psalms 73:28

Drawing near to God, a good thing.

The psalmist is very emphatic about it. His words imply that he is quite sure of it. Let us ask, then—Why is it so good to draw near to God? Many are the answers.

I. IT IS SO BY WAY OF CONTRAST WITH WHAT HE HAD BEEN DOING—wearying himself to understand the hidden ways of God, the labyrinth of his providence. No good had come of that, but only evil. Gotthold, in his 'Emblems,' tells us of the freaks of his child. The father was one day sitting in his study, and when he lifted his eyes from his book, he saw, standing upon the window ledge, his little son. He was terribly frightened, for the child stood there in utmost peril of falling to the ground and being dashed to pieces. The little lad had been anxious to know what his father was doing so many hours in the day in his study, and he had at last, by a ladder, managed, with boyish daring, to climb up, till there he stood outside the window, gazing at his father with all his eyes. "So," said the father, as he took the child into his chamber, and rebuked him for his folly—"so have I often tried to climb into the council chamber of God, to see why and wherefore he did this and that; and thus have I exposed myself to peril of falling to my own destruction."

II. BECAUSE OF WHAT IT IMPLIES.

1. That he was at peace with God. A soul unreconciled cannot draw near.

2. That he knew the way. He had learned the blessed but difficult art of drawing near; for drawing near is of the heart, not of the lips merely; and Satan will always try, and too often he succeeds, to hinder that.

3. He had found how good it was by his own experience.

III. BECAUSE THE LIGHT IS SO MUCH BETTER in the region near God. What a fog and mist he was in until he "went into the sanctuary of God," and drew near to him! We see things truly there as we cannot elsewhere.

IV. THE TEMPESTS OF THE SOUL DIE DOWN THERE. It is the region of blessed calm.

V. THE AIR IS SO INVIGORATING. God is "the Health of my countenance," "the Strength of my heart."

VI. IS NOT GOD OUR GOD, OUR OWN GOD, OUR SOUL'S HOME? Where, then, can we be better than at home?—S.C.

HOMILIES BY C. SHORT

Psalms 73:1-28

The solution of a great problem.

The question here is—Why should good men suffer, and bad men prosper, when the Law had said that God was a righteous Judge, meting out to men in this world the due recompense of their deeds? The course of things should perfectly reflect the righteousness of God. The psalmist struggles for a solution of this problem. The first verse contains the conclusion he had arrived at.

I. HIS DANGER. Expressed in the second, thirteenth, and twenty-second verses.

1. The example and sophistries of the wicked had nearly wrought his own downfall. His feet had been tempted by their prosperity to forsake the ways of righteousness, and he had almost fallen into their infidelity.

2. His faith in righteousness had been nearly lost. (Psalms 73:13.) In vain had he cleansed his inward and outward life—at least, he was tempted to think so for a time.

3. Others had been induced to follow the example of the wicked. (Psalms 73:10.) "Therefore turn his people after them, and at the full stream (of their prosperity) would slake their thirst" (Perowne).

II. THE CAUSE OF HIS DANGER. (Psalms 73:4-9.)

1. The wicked and atheistic seemed prosperous and happy. They had no trouble, no sorrows that hasten their death ("bands"). They are proud and violent, oppressive and defiant of the heavens. All these are hasty and superficial estimates of the experience of the wicked.

2. He himself was troubled and chastened continually. (Psalms 73:14.) He who had been at such pains to cleanse his heart and hands. This was mystery that bewildered him.

3. But he restrains the utterance of his doubts to others. (Psalms 73:15.) He forebore to shake the faith of others, and cause them to stumble.

III. REASSURANCE BY THE RECOVERY OF HIS FAITH. (Psalms 73:17-28.)

1. He found the solution in the light of God's presence. (Psalms 73:17.) The sanctuary was the symbol of God's presence. Hitherto he had studied the matter only in the light of human experience; now in the light of God's righteous character.

2. Their prosperity would come to a sudden end. (Psalms 73:18-20.)

3. Communion with God is the realization of our highest destiny, not any unknown good. (Psalms 73:23-28.)—S.

 


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Psalms 73:4". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tpc/psalms-73.html. 1897.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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