The title of this psalm (A Psalm of Asaph) tells us that it was written by the great singer and musician of David and Solomon’s era (1 Chronicles 15:17-19, 16:5-7, 25:6). 1 Chronicles 25:1 and 2 Chronicles 29:30 add that Asaph was a prophet in his musical compositions.
This wonderful psalm may be best understood by the dominant pronouns within. When Asaph is troubled by the fate of the ungodly (Psalm 73:1-12), the dominant pronoun is they. When he describes his own frustrated thinking leading to the resolution (Psalm 73:13-17), the dominant pronoun is I. When he finds resolution of the problem (Psalm 73:18-22), the dominant pronoun is You, in the sense of God. When He proclaims the assurance of his faith and fellowship with God (Psalm 73:23-28), the dominant pronouns are a mixture of You and I.
A. The Problem Presented.
1. (1-3) The contradiction between the goodness of God and the prosperity of the wicked.
Truly God is good to Israel,
To such as are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
a. Truly God is good to Israel: Asaph began this psalm with a simple declaration of the goodness of God to His people. By this he indicated that he understood not only that God was good, but that He actively showed that goodness to Israel and to the pure in heart.
i. Asaph was an organizer and leader for the temple choirs in the days of David, and presumably for Solomon after him. He was one who prophesied according to the order of the king (1 Chronicles 25:1-2).
ii. “The writer does not doubt this, but lays it down as his firm conviction. It is well to make sure of what we do know, for this will be good anchor-hold for us when we are molested by those mysterious storms which arise from things which we do not understand.” (Spurgeon)
b. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled: Asaph knew what he said about God in the first verse was true; yet there was another truth that disturbed him greatly. It made him almost stumble; it made his steps nearly slip.
i. “It shows that having doubts like Asaph’s is not incompatible with responsible Christian living. It may have been true, as he says, that his feet ‘had almost slipped.’ But they had not actually slipped, or at least they had not slipped so far as to make him forget his responsibilities as a leader of God’s people.” (Boice)
c. For I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked: This was another truth that seemed to contradict what Asaph knew of God as declared in the first verse. He knew that God was good to Israel and to the pure in heart, but it also seemed that God was good to the boastful and to the wicked. It all seemed so unfair to Asaph, and this made him almost stumble and slip.
i. Asaph saw the same troubling evidence that many see every day in their own lives. Many people cannot deny that God is good to them; but it also seems that God is good – perhaps too good – to the boastful and the wicked. It is then easy to envy the wicked and their prosperity.
ii. Such deep questions cause one to question the moral order of the universe. After all, one asks, what good is there in being good? If the wicked enjoy the same prosperity as the pure in heart, then what is the reward of godliness?
iii. “If God is in control of things, the plans of the wicked should flounder. They should even be punished openly. The godly alone should prosper. But that is not what Asaph saw, and it is not what we see either. We see scoundrels getting rich. Utterly degenerate persons, like particularly vile rock musicians or movie stars, are well paid and sought after. Even criminals get rich selling their crime stories.” (Boice)
iv. “The faith in which he had been reared and to which he clung made his difficulties in this respect only the greater. He had been taught that the good always prosper and that the wicked always go to the wall.” (Chappell)
v. We could say that this was the same faith believed so strongly by Job’s friends – the same faith that prompted the question of the disciples, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)
vi. “It is a pitiful thing that an heir of heaven should have to confess ‘I was envious,’ but worse still that he should have to put it, ‘I was envious at the foolish.’” (Spurgeon)
2. (4-9) The good life of the wicked.
For there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes bulge with abundance;
They have more than heart could wish.
They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression;
They speak loftily.
They set their mouth against the heavens,
And their tongue walks through the earth.
a. For there are no pangs in their death: Perhaps Asaph had seen some of the wicked die agonizing and painful deaths; but he had seen enough wicked people die peaceful deaths to make him say, “there are no pangs in their death.”
i. “Men may die like lambs and yet have their place for ever with the goats.” (Matthew Henry, cited in Spurgeon)
ii. “‘He fell asleep like a child,’ say his friends; and others exclaim, ‘He was so happy, that he must be a saint.’ Ah! This is but their apparent end. God knoweth that the dying repose of sinners is but the awful calm which heralds the eternal hurricane.” (Spurgeon)
b. They are not in trouble as other men, nor are they plagued as other men: Here Asaph developed his argument even further. Not only are the wicked rewarded equally to the righteous, they seem to be more blessed than the pure in heart. Their lives seem to have less trouble and are not as plagued as the average man.
i. “While many saints are poor and afflicted, the prosperous sinner is neither. He is worse than other men, and yet he is better off; he ploughs least, and yet has the most fodder. He deserves the hottest hell, and yet has the warmest nest.” (Spurgeon)
c. Therefore pride serves as their necklace: In Asaph’s analysis, because God did not punish the wicked as He should, they simply became more wicked, and even wore their pride as a prominent necklace. They therefore became more violent, greedy, and more likely to scoff and blaspheme.
i. “Chains of gold, and golden rings, were ensigns of magistracy and civil power. As these chains encompassed their necks, or the rings their wrists and fingers, as the signs of the offices in virtue of which they acted; so violence, oppressive conduct, encompassed them.” (Clarke)
ii. We appreciate the poetic power of Asaph’s description. We see the wicked man with an ostentatious necklace of pride. He is covered with an impressive garment, but that covering is violence toward others. He is so filled with good food that his eyes bulge with abundance, and he has more than heart could wish. His mouth always scoffs and speaks wickedly, and his mouth is set…against the heavens. Worst of all, everyone seems to hear about this wicked man and his prosperity, because it seems as if his tongue walks through the earth.
iii. “The whole passage is a masterly picture of these darlings of fortune: overblown, overweening; laughable if they were not so ruthless; their vanity egging them on to hector the very universe.” (Kidner)
iv. Together with Asaph, we picture these rich, famous, proud, showy, violent, greedy, foul-speaking gangsters strutting about enjoying their wickedness. We are as troubled by their prosperity and the seeming indifference of God toward them as Asaph was.
v. Their eyes bulge with abundance: “By fatness, or corpulency, the natural lines of the face are changed, or rather obliterated. The characteristic distinctions are gone; and we see little remaining besides the human hog.” (Clarke)
3. (10-14) The doubts of the godly.
Therefore his people return here,
And waters of a full cup are drained by them.
And they say, “How does God know?
And is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the ungodly,
Who are always at ease;
They increase in riches.
Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain,
And washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
And chastened every morning.
a. Therefore his people return here: This wicked man has associates who are just like him, and they take and take just as he does (waters of a full cup are drained by them).
i. This is a difficult verse to translate and fit into the context. “Most modern versions find here the popular worship of success.” (Kidner)
b. They say, “How does God know?” In the previous verses Asaph told us that the wicked man sets his mouth against heaven. Here, he tells us what the wicked man and his associates say against heaven. They claim that God is blind or ignorant; therefore, they can do as they please and God is unable to do anything against them.
c. Behold, these are the ungodly: In his frustration, Asaph saw the ungodly life as the good life. They are always at ease; they always increase in riches. They are rewarded for their wickedness by a God who seems to be as unknowing as the wicked say that He is.
d. Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain: The frustration kept building for Asaph. He felt that it was vain for him to be pure in heart, vain for him to have clean hands before God, vain for him to be innocent.
i. “Poor Asaph! He questions the value of holiness when its wages are paid in the coin of affliction.” (Spurgeon)
e. For all day long I have been plagued, and chastened every morning: Asaph felt that his life was much more difficult than the life of the ungodly man. While the wicked man enjoyed all his wealth and ease and pride, Asaph had to endure being plagued and chastened, and he had to endure it all day long and every morning.
i. Plagued is bad, yet one might assign a plague to anonymous and natural causes. Chastened is even worse, because it implies that God Himself was afflicting Asaph with the difficulties. God was easy on the wicked and hard on Asaph.
ii. As we would expect in a poetic outpouring, Asaph was exaggerating. The life of the wicked was not as good as he observed, nor was his life as bad as he felt it to be. Yet one cannot deny or contradict the feeling that prompted Asaph in this psalm, and we can instead strongly identify with that feeling.
B. The Problem Understood.
1. (15-17) The power of a new perspective.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children.
When I thought how to understand this,
It was too painful for me—
Until I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I understood their end.
a. If I had said, “I will speak thus”: Asaph caught himself from sliding further into despair over the perceived prosperity of the wicked. He did not want to be untrue to the generation of Your children, in the sense that he did not want to promote this sense of injustice and despair that he felt.
b. When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me: Asaph was caught in a trap. He could not deny the evidence that said that the wicked and ungodly often have good lives. He could not deny that his own life was often hard, leaving him feeling plagued and chastened by God. He felt all this to be true, but he also felt he could not talk about it because it would be untrue to others. Therefore, it was all too painful for him.
c. Until I went into the sanctuary of God: The crisis seemed to build and build for Asaph, until he went into the house of the Lord. There he gained a perspective on his problem that he did not have before. There he was able to see things from an eternal viewpoint, and he then understood their end.
i. “What then did the psalmist do? The answer to some will seem perfectly childish. He went to church…. Just what others got out of this service we are not told. But the psalmist came into possession of certain gripping convictions that steadied him and enabled him to walk in the after days with firmness and assurance.” (Chappell)
ii. What did going to the house of God do for Asaph? There, he could gain understanding in several ways.
· By prayer and worship in the sanctuary, he understood that God was at the center of all things, and he gained a fresh appreciation of both God and eternity.
· By hearing the word of God in the sanctuary, he understood that there was a truth that went beyond what he saw and experienced in everyday life.
· By observing sacrifice at the sanctuary, he understood that God takes sin so seriously that it must be judged and atoned for, even if it is by an innocent victim who stands in the place of the guilty by faith.
iii. This is one of God’s great purposes in establishing a place where His people come to meet with Him. It is never to imply that there is only one or only a few places where man can meet with God, or that they must be ornate or glorious buildings. It is to emphasize that it is good to have a place separate from other places where we focus on a heavenly, eternal perspective.
iv. For Asaph, this was the sanctuary of God. It was the temple in Jerusalem, or the tabernacle that existed before the temple. For us, it is the place where we meet with God’s people for worship and fellowship and hearing the word of God.
v. When Asaph went to the sanctuary of God, he received understanding. It wasn’t only a place to impact the senses and the feelings, but the understanding of a man. Asaph didn’t remark on how he felt their end or even experienced their end; he understood their end. It isn’t a bad thing to feel and experience the right things in the house of God, but there must also be understanding – the communication of truth in ways that can be received.
vi. When Asaph went to the sanctuary of God, it only did him good because he connected with eternity, something that made him understand the end of the wicked. He didn’t need to go to the house of God to hear about the news of the day or the same talk one would hear in the marketplace or the business office. Asaph needed the ultimate relevance, the relevance of eternity.
vii. “Their end is literally ‘their afterward’, their future which will unmake everything they have lived for.” (Kidner)
2. (18-20) The unsafe place of the wicked.
Surely You set them in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction.
Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment!
They are utterly consumed with terrors.
As a dream when one awakes,
So, Lord, when You awake,
You shall despise their image.
a. Surely You set them in slippery places: This is part of the understanding Asaph gained in the house of the Lord. He understood that the ease and security of the wicked was really only an illusion, and they were actually set…in slippery places, ready to fall at any time.
i. Earlier in the psalm, Asaph worried that his feet had almost slipped (Psalm 73:2). Now, with a perspective gained from the house of the Lord, he sees that the wicked are the ones in slippery places.
ii. “Sinner you may fall now, at once. The mountain yields beneath your feet, the slippery ice is melting every moment. Look down and learn your speedy doom. Yonder yawning gulf must soon receive you, while we look after you with hopeless tears. Our prayers cannot follow you; from your slippery standing place you fall and you are gone for ever. Death makes the place where you stand slippery, for it dissolves your life every hour. Time makes it slippery, for every instant it cuts the ground from under your feet. The vanities which you enjoy make your place slippery, for they are all like ice which shall melt before the sun. You have no foot-hold, sinner, you have no sure hope, no confidence. It is a melting thing you trust to.” (Spurgeon)
b. Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment: Asaph could only understand this with the eternal perspective brought to him at the house of the Lord. In daily life he could only see what worked well for the wicked; with an eternal perspective he saw their destruction, their desolation, their terrors.
i. Earlier in the psalm, we had the feeling that Asaph would gladly trade places with the wicked man who seemed to be blessed. After gaining this eternal perspective, we see that Asaph would never trade places with them. Who wants destruction, desolation, and terrors?
c. As a dream when one awakes: With an eternal perspective from the house of God, Asaph understood that the good life of the ungodly is really as fragile as a dream, and they will soon wake to the reality of the destruction, desolation, and terrors that are their portion.
i. “Their happiness is like that in a dream, wherein a man seems to be highly pleased and transported with ravishing delights, but when he awakes he finds himself deceived and unsatisfied.” (Poole)
ii. “Let them flaunt their little hour, poor unsubstantial sons of dreams; they will soon be gone; when the day breaketh, and the Lord awakes as a mighty man out of his sleep, they will vanish away. Who cares for the wealth of dreamland? Who indeed but fools?” (Spurgeon)
d. So, Lord, when You awake: Asaph admitted that it seemed as if God were asleep because one could not always see His active hand of judgment against the wicked. Using this idea, Asaph knew that God would not always sleep in His patience toward the wicked, and one day He would awake and judge them; He would despise their image.
3. (21-24) Confessing foolishness and receiving guidance.
Thus my heart was grieved,
And I was vexed in my mind.
I was so foolish and ignorant;
I was like a beast before You.
Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You hold me by my right hand.
You will guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward receive me to glory.
a. Thus my heart was grieved…. I was so foolish and ignorant: Asaph confessed before the Lord his sinful lack of understanding before he went into the house of the Lord. He felt foolish that he had forgotten the obvious truths of eternity and God’s justice.
b. I was like a beast before You: Asaph rightly observed that animals seem to have no concept of eternity. They live their lives for momentary pleasures, satisfying natural urges. When Asaph forgot about eternity, he was truly like a beast before God.
i. “Hebrew, beasts, which may signify a great beast; a most stupid and sottish creature, like one not only void of grace, but of reason too…. I minded only present things, as the brutes do.” (Poole)
ii. “This was as far as Job got in his struggles with Asaph’s question. For when God finished interrogating Job, Job confessed that God’s ways were entirely beyond his understanding, and he despised his pride and repented.” (Boice)
c. Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand: Asaph here declared both that he was with God, and that God was with him. It wasn’t enough for Asaph to know and to say that God was with him; he also had to confess that he was with God.
d. You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory: With the new perspective gained at the house of the Lord, Asaph knew that God would guide him in this life and ultimately receive him to glory.
i. Significantly, Asaph expected God to guide him with His counsel. He expected to hear God’s wisdom and receive guidance through it. He didn’t expect to be guided primarily through feelings, circumstances, or experiences, but to be guided through counsel.
ii. Asaph had the faithful expectation of an afterward of glory. This is a deliberate contrast with the end of the wicked mentioned in Psalm 73:17-19. As a godly man, Asaph has his afterward and the wicked will have quite another.
4. (25-28) The glory of a heavenly hope.
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish;
You have destroyed all those who desert You for harlotry.
But it is good for me to draw near to God;
I have put my trust in the Lord GOD,
That I may declare all Your works.
a. Whom have I in heaven but You? This is the beautiful expression of a longing heart for God and for eternity. Intellectually, Asaph probably understood that there was much for him in heaven. There were angels and dwelling places and streets of gold and the companionship of the people of God throughout all generations. Yet all of that paled in the light of the presence of God.
i. “There is none in heaven, with all its stars and angels, enough for thee but Him.” (Maclaren)
ii. “Let sinners have an earthly prosperity, I am satisfied with thee, and with thy favour. Since thou givest me support and conduct here, and carriest me safe from hence to eternal glory, what do I need more? Or what can I desire more?” (Poole)
iii. Boice notes, “Verse 25 is a particularly fine expression and has been a blessing to many over the ages. Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the great Methodist hymn writer, was thinking about it on his deathbed and actually composed a hymn based on it as his final testimony. Calling his wife to him, he dictated:
‘In age and feebleness extreme,
What shall a sinful worm redeem?
Jesus, my only hope thou art,
Strength of my failing flesh and heart;
O, could I catch a smile from thee,
And drop into eternity.’”
b. And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You: For Asaph, God was not only a heavenly hope but an earthly desire as well. God was both his inheritance in heaven and his earthly desire.
c. My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever: Asaph recognized both his weakness and the strength of God, and the enduring character of God’s strength.
i. “In ancient Israel the priests enjoyed a privileged status of having the Lord as their ‘share’ and ‘inheritance’ (Numbers 18:20). Though they were denied the privilege of land ownership, they, along with the Levites, were taken care of by the Lord’s tithes and offerings.” (VanGemeren)
ii. “Allusion is here made to the division of the promised land. I ask no inheritance below; I look for one above.” (Clarke)
d. Indeed, those who are far from You shall perish: Asaph no longer had doubts about the destiny of the ungodly. With the eternal perspective gained at the house of the Lord, he understood that they would indeed perish.
i. “No human spirit that is not united to God can be saved. Those who are FAR FROM THEE shall perish – they shall be lost, undone, ruined; and that without remedy. Being separated from God by sin, they shall never be rejoined; the great gulf must be between them and their Maker eternally.” (Clarke)
e. It is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, that I may declare all Your works: It is staggering to see how much good Asaph’s visit to the house of the Lord did for him. It gave him understanding and an eternal perspective.
i. He saw the great benefit in drawing near to God, which he doubted before (Psalm 73:13). “It may seem good in the worldling’s eyes to go his way to his wine cups, and to make merry in the dance; it may seem good to yonder truster in an arm of flesh, to seek out his friends and his kinsmen, and entrust his case to their discretion; it may seem good to the desponding to retire in melancholy to brood over his sorrows, and to the dissipated, to endeavor to drown all care in vanity, but to me, says the psalmist, it is good, preeminently good, that I should draw near unto God.” (Spurgeon)
ii. He saw the value of putting his trust in God, now understanding that God was reliable and could be trusted.
iii. He had a passion to declare all God’s works. He would become a messenger of God’s goodness and of the eternal perspective he gained in the house of the Lord.
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org