Psalm 73: Envy and the Slippery Slope

by Dr. Becky Luman

Psalm 73 (NIV)

1 Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.
5 They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence.
7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits.
8 They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression…
12 This is what the wicked are like— always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.
15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children
16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply
17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.

18 Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies…

23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing 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 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

“Envy resents the good others receive or even might receive.” (From the website: List of the 7 Deadly Sins.) This psalmist, traditionally said to be Asaph, leader of David’s Levitical choir, describes a time when he almost lost his spiritual perspective. He was envious. He became fixated on the seemingly perfect life of wicked, wealthy people, compared with his own life which seemed to overflow with afflictions.

In light of the whole experience, Asaph says of himself, “My feet almost slipped.” He almost fell off the godly path of walking with God. Envy is a slippery slope.

According to envy-distorted vision, Asaph portrays the wicked as having a trouble-free life. Although they are proud, violent, malicious, oppressive, God still allows them health and prosperity. In contrast, Asaph is suffering unspecified “afflictions and punishments” even though he had “kept my heart pure” and “washed my hands in innocence.” This writer is saying in this section of the psalm, “Lord, you’re being unfair! How can you permit evil persons to be healthy and wealthy, and yet, I who serve you enduring suffering? Is there no reward at all for being righteous?”

In verses 15-17 Asaph records his awaking from envy-distorted thinking. He came to see that if he verbalized this distrustful outlook, he would be unfaithful to God’s people. God is a God of justice, mercy and love — as Asaph knew. He was so troubled by this apparent contradiction in God’s treatment of the righteous and the wicked that he was driven to “sanctuary of God” where he could gain true insight from his Lord. With a flash of perception, the songwriter “understood the final destiny” of the wicked.

It was the wicked, not the righteous, who were “on slippery ground.” Without the firm footing of obedient faith in the Lord, suddenly the wealthy wicked would lose all that seemed to make them secure and happy. They would be “cast down to ruin” and “completely swept away by terrors.” The final word on and the final state of the wicked, though prosperous they seem, is total devastation.

In contrast, though the righteous suffer, verses 23 – 26 affirm, they have the presence of the Lord which is the greatest good in the world – (“earth has nothing I desire besides you.”) God is guiding the righteous. He is their strength and their inheritance (“portion.”) This inheritance in God himself, unlike the fleeting earthly riches of the proud wicked, is permanent (“forever”) and satisfying. While the wicked face disaster, God “will take me into glory.” Although it is unclear what the saints of the Old Covenant understood about the afterlife, the final word on and final destiny of the righteous is “glory” in the company of God who guides and strengthens them.

In regard to his own life, the enlightened psalmist says, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” God Himself is the reward of the righteous. Perhaps the opposite of the envy with which this psalm began is the loving trust expressed in the last verse of the song, “It is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge.” Indeed, it IS good to be near God. Nothing else on earth can compare!

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