Into the Sanctuary: Psalm 73

Psalm 73 is one of my favorites. I will briefly comment on the different parts of this Psalm in order to explain why I like it so much. (I’m quoting the standard RSV translation.)Slipping Falling

73:1 Truly God is good to the upright,
    to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
    my steps had well nigh slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant,
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

This is a common complaint in the Psalms. The godly person is scandalized by the prosperity of those who are wicked and far from God. But before he gets into his complaint he repeats the shibboleth that every religious person is supposed to believe: God blesses and does good to those who are good. This is an early form of what we today call the “Prosperity Gospel.” Perhaps he repeats this common belief at the beginning in order to avoid offending God or the common religious beliefs. He confesses that by looking at the prosperity of the wicked he almost stumbled – which means he almost lost his faith in God.

He then goes on and on to describe the comforts of the wicked:images

For they have no pangs;
    their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as other men are;
    they are not stricken like other men.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
    violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness,monopoly-man_6
    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.

These are pretty wicked people he describes. Yet, their bodies are sleek, they have no illnesses or problems, they are well fed – everything the poor are not!

10 Therefore the people turn and praise 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.
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 chastened every morning.

But the people praise the wicked! They are fooled by their wealth and comfort into thinking that perhaps God blesses them or, worse, that God doesn’t even know or care! The writer of Psalm 73 even starts to question whether his own faithfulness has been in vain. He is suffering, while the wicked prosper. How can this be? Now comes the turning point:

15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
    I would have been untrue to the generation of thy children.
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 perceived their end.
18 Truly thou dost set them in slippery places;
    thou dost make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment,
    swept away utterly by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes,
    on awaking you despise their phantoms.

He goes into the sanctuary – that is, into the Temple of God – and there it all becomes clear to him. He sees that their earthly prosperity and comforts are only illusions. God is not ignorant, God will punish them! He realizes his own stupidity in envying the rich and wicked, and reassures himself that God is with him after all, and everything will be okay:

21 When my soul was embittered,
    when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was stupid and ignorant,
    I was like a beast toward thee.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with thee;
    thou dost hold my right hand.
24 Thou dost guide me with thy counsel,
    and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but thee?
    And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.

27 For lo, those who are far from thee shall perish;
    thou dost put an end to those who are false to thee.
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 thy works.

At the end, after honestly expressing his struggles to understand the easy life of the rich and the wicked, he takes comfort that they’re going to be punished after all. God is not going to overlook their wickedness. If that satisfies you, this Psalm is for you. If you believe in the “prosperity gospel,” this Psalm could be for you, except that nowhere does it say that riches are a sign of God’s blessing and approval. Quite the opposite.

The Prosperity Gospel is false teaching. Psalm 73 says nothing about riches being a sign of God's blessing.
The Prosperity Gospel is false teaching. Psalm 73 says nothing about riches being a sign of God’s blessing.

The complexities of life are beyond our comprehension. We ask why we suffer, why our loved ones suffer, why there are tragedies, why there are terrorists and Ebola afflicting people far from us, why people near us commit heinous acts and sometimes get away with it. We ask the same questions this Psalm asks: Why are there so many selfish, mean-spirited people who are wealthy and comfortable, while many sincere believers and practitioners of the good go hungry?

There are no satisfactory answers to the questions of suffering and injustice. Our conclusions might be different from those of Psalm 73. If you take comfort in knowing that even the mighty will fall someday, whether in life or in death, this Psalm  works for you.

Psalm 73 works for me for other reasons. It tells me that it’s okay to have doubts. It’s natural to be angry about injustice and suffering. And I should be angry! But the Psalm tells me to come into the sanctuary, to church, with my doubts and lay them before the presence of God. That’s the crucial turning point: Verse 17, where he goes into the sanctuary and there he understands how the world works. To be honest, my own understanding of how the world works is different from what Psalm 73 reveals, but like the author I come into the sanctuary – I come into the Liturgy – with all my confusion and doubts and pray that God will help me understand. Miraculously, it usually happens, and I leave Liturgy in a better place than when I arrive.

That’s what I carry from this Psalm: My need to come into the sanctuary of God’s wisdom. There is no better place to confront God and all your anger, doubts and confusion. Come into the sanctuary. Allow the Liturgy and the Sacrament of Communion to show you how the world works. Be illumined!

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