When we think about life, there are certain expectations we have about how things are supposed to work in life. We can call these the unwritten rules of life that we teach our children. For example, we believe that hard work will always pay off in the end. You work hard in school, you will get yourself a good job. You work hard at the office, and you will get that promotion. This is what we expect from life, and most of the time that is true, but when it’s not, that really throws us off.
There is also the unwritten rule that, in life, the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. This is how life is supposed to work, and it is not surprising that we would think this way. After all, the God we worship, the God who created life, is a good God, who does not like sin. Therefore such a God is, of course, going to reward the good and punish the bad. This is what we believe. This is what we have come to expect from life that is governed by such a good God. After all, we tell our children that God loves good little boys and girls. When a blessing comes along in life, we say that we must have done something right. Of course, when something bad comes along in life we wonder, “What did we do to upset the man upstairs.” An unwritten rule of life that we have come to accept, “Blessings are for those who do what is right, and curses are for those who do what is wrong.”
This is what the writer of Psalm 73 believes. You can see it in his opening lines. “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” That is the unwritten rule of life that the psalmist knows so well. That is how things are supposed to be, but there is a problem. The psalmist looks around and sees what is going on, and realizes that life doesn’t always follow this rule. He sees the “prosperity of the wicked,” and that is not how things are supposed to be in God’s world. The psalmist looks around and realizes that everything seems to be backwards. Bad things are happening to good people, but, not just to good people, to God’s good people. On the other hand goods things are happening to wicked people, but not just wicked people, to people who are not God’s people. The godly are suffering while the ungodly are prospering. That is simply not how things are supposed to be in God’s world.
My guess is that we can all understand some of the frustration which the psalmist is enduring, because we see the same thing happening today. We can find countless ways in which the good are suffering while the bad are prospering. For example, how many times have you heard stories about drunk drivers who walk away from accidents without a scratch while the victims, who never once drank and drove, are paralyzed for life, or worse, are killed. Or heard about the elderly couple who have worked hard all their lives to own their home, only to have some greedy developer come along and steal it out from under them in order to build another shopping center that nobody needs.
I remember once talking to a man who worked for the North Carolina Highway Department. He told me that when the state is putting in a new road and they are buying up everyone’s property, there are times when people hold-out because they don’t want to sell their property. He said if need be, the state will simply condemned the property so that they can go in a take it. He admitted that it wasn’t, but it’s just how it was. We agree that it’s not right, because that is not how things are supposed to work in God’s world.
Why is that the good are struck down with cancer while the wicked never seem to get a sniffle? I am generalizing, of course, but there are just some things that are not supposed to happen the way they do. Innocent children are not supposed to go hungry at night. Lying politicians are not supposed to get rich at the expense of the people. Hard working employees are not supposed to lose their pensions. It can be almost unbearable when the unwritten rules of life are being broken.
It’s no wonder that the psalmist had to confess that his feet had almost slipped, that he nearly lost his foothold. After all, he had to wonder why he was trying to be good when it didn’t seem to be getting him anywhere. Look at what he says in verse 13, after a long list of grievances against the wicked. “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.” In other words, why be good when all it seems to bring are troubles. If the wicked seem to prosper so much, why not join them and prosper right along with them. It reminds me of the lyric from Billy Joel’s song, Only the Good Die Young. He wrote, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, because sinners have much more fun.” This was the temptation that the psalm writer was facing, but then something happens that changes everything.
Verse 17 is the turning point in this psalm. The writer has been trying to understand what is going on, but he just can’t make sense of it all, and it is becoming overwhelming. So, the psalmist does the only thing that he can do. He turns his attention directly to God, and everything changes. When the writer turns his attention to God, he gains a new perspective and with that new perspective came understanding.
When the psalmist goes to worship in the sanctuary of God, he gets a reality check. In the presence of God, he no longer sees things as they are, instead he sees the direction that God is leading his creation. In the presence of God, the psalmist realizes that there will come a time when this upside down life is going to be turned right side up. Though the good might be suffering now, there will come a time when they will be vindicated. There will come a time when they will be lifted up above all the hurt and pain that they have had to endure, and they will enjoy the good life that belongs to the people of God. The wicked on the other hand, who have been so blessed will find the blessing taken away, though they appear to be on solid ground, they are the ones who are going to find their feet slipping. The psalmist compares the wicked to a dream, and we all know what happens to a dream when we wake up. Five minutes later, it is forgotten, and so is the way of the wicked. The good on the other hand will be remembered forever and ever. Is that enough for us? Maybe, but probably not.
We can take some comfort in the notion that people will get what they deserve, especially when we have been hurt by others. Yet, the comfort we feel is usually short lived, because, more often than not, the pain is still there. It doesn’t simply go away. Another reason the comfort we feel is usually short lived is because we realize that there are things we have done for which we do not want to get what we deserve. Whatever the reason, we realize that we need something more than the knowledge that everything will be alright some day. We need something that helps us right now, and in order to find it, we need to join the psalmist in going deeper. In his encounter with God the psalmist learns more than the fact that God is going to fix everything in the end. The psalmist also learns the true definition of blessing and curse.
The psalmist, like we do today, thinks of blessing and curse in terms of material things, or the circumstance in life. To be blessed is to receive something that we consider good. We get a new job, we are being blessed; we get a clean bill of health from the doctor, we are being blessed. The team we are rooting for wins, we are being blessed. On the other hand, to be cursed is to receive something that we consider bad. If we loose our job, we are being cursed; if something shows up in the blood test, we are being cursed; if our team loses, we are being cursed. That is how we tend to see things, but the psalmist realizes that this is the wrong way to look at life.
The true blessings and curses of life are not found in material things, or even in the circumstances of life. They are found in one’s relationship with God. The blessed are those who are with God, even if the evidence seems contrary, while the cursed are those who are far from God, even if the evidence seems contrary. The wicked person who is on top of the world and has everything he wants but who is far from God, is really the one who is cursed. While the good person who seems to endure hardship upon hardship, but who is near to God, is really the one who is blessed. Does that sound like a contradiction? Probably. Yet, that is the reality we are to grasp; that is the truth that we are to hold onto and never let go.
When Jesus was preaching the sermon on the mount, everything he said, especially in the beatitudes seemed like a contradiction. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the mourners, the persecuted, the peacemakers. These ideas seem like a contradiction, and yet, Jesus tells us that this is the reality of the Kingdom of God. The cursed life is the one that is far from God; while the blessed life is the one that is near God.
The end of Psalm 73 takes us right back to the beginning. Surely God is good to his people, to those who are pure in heart. How can the psalmist say this after all he has seen, after observing that the good suffer while the wicked prosper? He has turn his attention to God, through worship. He has been reminded that God will make all things right. More importantly, he has learned that blessing and curse have nothing to do with the circumstances of life, and everything to do with our relationship to God. As my professor in seminary stated so beautifully, “God is good to the pure in heart, precisely in being their God.” Let us give thanks that God is our God and that we are his people. Let us give thanks for our truly blessed life.