5 Aug 2013

Can the King be Trusted? The Vision of Psalm 73

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Discipleship, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Kingdom, Prayer, Psalms, Spiritual Disciplines, Worship
The book of Psalms contains not only the merry shouts of Israelites clapping their hands and making a joyful noise to the Lord. It contains also the groans and the pleas of the sick and the frightened and the dying. I had known that before. Now, I realized it for the first time.” (Stephen Broyles, The Wind that Destroys and Heals: Trusting the God of Sorrow and Joy, p. 21).
The Horizon of Psalm 73

Described as “the most remarkable and satisfying of all the psalms” [1], or a “microcosm of Old Testament theology,” [2] Psalm 73 is strategically placed within the canonical Psalter. Though hard to imagine in the face of the evidence, older scholarship virtually dismissed any notion of design to the book. Rather that scholarship focused on the origins and “setting in life” of individual psalms.  Some of that scholarship was, and is, very insightful but it dismissed the overwhelming evidence that the book of Psalms has been “put together” deliberately and purposefully. There is in fact a progression in the Psalter. When read carefully and attentively we even get the feeling that sometimes the various psalms are “talking to each other.”

The book articulates Israel’s worldview  (i.e. the biblical worldview) as powerfully, and brilliantly, as any book in Scripture. In short that worldview is:

1) Yahweh is the Creator God who is the Redeeming King,

2) God has called Israel into a relationship with Yahweh as a graced kingdom of priests worshiping God on behalf of the world, and inviting the world to worship,

3) that God’s kingdom is filled with justice, mercy and shalom – hesed is the law of the kingdom,

4) and finally that God will defeat the challengers and usurpers of his reign (thus his law) in this world.

Israel’s worldview and faith is anything but simplistic as it is revealed in the canonical Psalter.

The journey getting to Psalm 73 through the Psalter is like a journey over the Alps and through Death Valley.  It is intense and calls for openness.  The introduction to the Psalter, Ps 1, declares a certain world confessed to be true.  I believe Psalm 1 was specifically, and intentionally, created to be the door through which the rest of the book was to be read, sung, and understood.  This means that Psalm 1 was created AFTER all the rest had been gathered and was confessed only after the storms have been weathered. Thus Ps 1 is not naïveté but a confession of faith refined in fire about how the world really is … about what the Truth is.
But the world God’s People live in does not correspond to Psalm 1, it is Fallen and Rebellious. We learn that as soon as we read Ps 3. There is no deception in the psalter thus there are two books of Psalms prayed through before we arrive at Ps 73.  Many do a lot of lamenting the dissonance between “out there” and “in here.”  Psalm 73 shows a person, who I take to be representative of the entire people of God, who is serious about the values of Psalm 1 but had been the victim of injustice one too many times.  He/she questions whether God’s kingdom is real, whether God’s justice is real, whether having faith in Yahweh is worth the trouble.
But 73 stands at the head of Book III, almost literally the half way point in the book, and refocuses the people of God on what faith really means.  So Brueggemann is correct, I think, when he writes, “in the canonical structuring of the Psalter,  Psalm 73 stands at its center in a crucial role … I propose it is central theologically as well as canonically” [3]. It shows us how to integrate Psalm 1 in our theology.
The Psalm is structured in the following manner
I. Contested Claim (v.1)
II. The Protest and Evidence against the Claim (vv. 2-12)
III. Is it Useless to Follow the King (vv. 13-14)
IV. I Saw the Truth (vv. 15-20)
V.  Faith Refocused: Yes! God is Good and Worth Everything (vv. 21-28)
Verses 2 and 17 are the hinges of the Psalm.
The Contested Claim: The King is Good to Israel
Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart” (v.1)
The RSV/NRSV repoint the Hebrew text to yield the reading “God is good to the upright” rather than “Israel.” Westermann argues this is necessary because the Psalm is about an individual but I do not think it is necessary to emend the Masoretic text here [4].
But verse 1 is the thesis and conclusion of the Psalm.  It points back to Psalm 1 and affirms the truth of that worldview.  But it is a conclusion that that has been arrived at only through the valleys of the next several verses and the previous 70 psalms.  It is not naïve faith but tested and tried. The King is good to Israel.  Israel is not just an ethnicity here but is nuanced by “those who are pure in heart” likewise tying in to Psalm 1. Purity of heart means that the inner attitude actually coheres with the outward word or action. Jesus said his amen to this (cf. Mt 5.8).
The Protest and Evidence against the Claim
Israel’s faith has mettle. Israel’s is honest faith. The gathered people of God acknowledge that what they claim and what they experience is in profound tension.  No not tension, they are in conflict! In fact the next several verses are a full scale attack upon naive faith.  The world claims that God is not King, his will does not rule, and that he is irrelevant at best.  The experience of people “out there” does not cohere with the Faith confessed.  That is the crises! The verses, 2-12, recognize and confess the conflict and its power on the believing community.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumble;
my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious/jealous of the arrogant;
I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (vv. 2-3)
Clearly echoing the language of Ps 1, and contrasting its claim, the wicked are so prosperous that those serving God are “jealous” or “envious.” To the point of even “slipping” away so as to join them. The disciple has nearly fallen away because (as we shall see) the wicked have it so well.   This is “protest” language. Our faith is shaken in the justice and, therefore, the reign of God. They have it made.
The “wicked” described here, it must be noted, differs markedly from laments regarding the ubiquitous “enemies.” There is nothing in the psalm to indicate that the original writer is being attacked.  The language of verses 2-12 is that of observation, experience and even meditation.  Almost like in Ecclesiastes …
They have no pain;
their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are …
People turn and praise them
and no fault is found in them.
And they say, ‘How can God know?’ …
Such are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches. (vv 4, 5, 10, 12)
These are the reasons for the confession and protest in v. 2.  We almost stumbled asking ourselves the real question: Is it useless to serve God with a clean heart? What is the point of “being on God’s side?” The counter story affirms that it is just not worth it.
These observations are so realistic. Any Christian that claims that walking by faith is either “self evident” or “easy” is a false teacher and a deceiver.  Biblical faith acknowledges the struggle and the challenges of living by faith.  The Holy Spirit honors that honesty by “canonizing” it!
Is it Useless to Follow the King?
The testimony of countless suffering disciples bears heavy upon Psalm 73.2-12.  The nature of the evidence to subvert the claims of v.1 seems “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Case closed.  God is unreliable. Or he is just not there.  When “we” (i.e. the people of pure heart, the people of God, those actually seeking to live what is claimed) see the “facts of the case” – none of which are in dispute – the temptation to throw in the towel is powerful indeed (v.2). Thus the community, through its representative, does in fact sing in guttural tones …
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
and am punished every morning.” (vv. 13-14)
What!? We thought the righteous were planted like a tree and the wicked were like “chaff!” To live a life in view of the Kingdom of God is an absolute waste of time. Contrary to Ps 1 it is in fact the wicked who are at peace and it is the righteous who are blown away like so much waste.
Again I want to call attention the anguished honesty.  This is in fact lamentation. It is mourning. It is confession that the world is absolutely messed up and contrary to the torah of God.
If we do not embrace the honesty of the faith of Israel then the power of these Spirit words will be lost on us.
“I” Saw the Truth
Beginning in verse 15 we have a turning point. The reason for the turning point is given in v.17.  Just when we see the people of God ready to renounce allegiance to the King, to walk away from faith and join the wicked, something amazing happens. The psalmist confesses the power of being identified with the church.  The power of belonging! Identity is found with the group and the beginning step of resistance to the Story of the World is being firmly rooted in the community of believers.
If I had said, ‘I will talk on in this way,’
I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
The sense of belonging is a powerful motive.  It is in, and among, the “circle of your children” that the dawn of just what Truth really means begins to set in.  The wicked really are chaff. They really are nothing but hot air. They really are destined for the garbage heap.  How did “I” come to see this truth?
The truth was seen and ascertained through the memory and the participation in worship with that circle. Worship confronts the false claims of the counter story.  Worship pulls the veneer off the face of wicked. Worship refocuses the eyes of God’s People in order to see “the rest of the story” [5].  The people of God confess clearly the ground for renewed faith.
it [thought of the wicked] seemed to me a wearisome task,
UNTIL I went into the sanctuary of God;
there I perceived their end.”
Sometimes we disciples have very narrow tunnel vision. Scripture is replete with exhortation to have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” The training for such seeing and hearing is before the throne of God in prayer and praise.  Worship, like the canonical Psalter, is functionally eschatological. Psalm 1 is true because we know the End! Psalm 73.1 is true because we know the End (by eschatology we do not mean just denying the claim of premillennialists!).
The book of Psalms, as Walter Brueggemann observed, in its “final form” is “highly eschatological in nature. It looks forward to the future and passionately yearns for it.” In worship the circle of children experience the future in the present.  The Hebrews Preacher testifies to the eschatological nature of the assembly in 12.18-29.  Worship is not simply a matter of songs sung, instruments played or not played, or those mundane things we expend such great energy upon.  Rather worship is about what the community discovers in Psalm 73 – communion with the King.  In worship we have something that the wicked cannot dream of or imagine.  They are excluded from it by the very nature of things.  Only the “pure in heart” can “see God.” Verse 17 is the saving moment in the life this disciple.  He did not find the answer to the problem of the wicked rather he found fellowship with God among his people. Communion changes what we deem to be “the Truth.”
Faith Refocused: Yes! God is Good and Worth Everything
The last section of the psalm the community confesses its dismay over almost falling for the “truth” of the false counter story. The psalm confesses that in our jealousy and bitterness that we had actually become a “monster with you” (v.22). Bitterness is devastatingly revealed in its ugliness. The believers had assumed a monstrous disposition toward the King. God the King is truly merciful. Some of the most powerful and poignant words in all the Bible flow from the person enmeshed with the communities worship …
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me with honor.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I
desire other than you,
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.” (vv 23-26)
These are among the “most powerful, daring and treasured” words in the whole “Old Testament” according to Brueggemann. So radically altered is this person’s (i.e. = church) worldview because of the encounter with God in worship that all the old problems of the wicked, the claims of the world, and his/her own weakness (his/her flesh is still weak unlike the wicked!) are judged to be nothing.  No riches. No health. No position. No prosperity. Nothing at all! All that is required is God himself.  Yahweh is the only necessity of life. The Truth, the real Truth, has been embraced.  This is the renewed faith of the psalm.
Just as in Job there is no solution offered. What is offered is Presence. What is offered is God himself. What the psalmist discovers in the assembly of the children before the throne of God is simply communion with God. Everything else is trivial in perspective. God is good because he gives Israel himself!God is good to the faithful because he brings them, through his grace, into fellowship with him. Reorientation and refocusing takes place through communion with God in worship. Here the truth that the world cannot fathom, appreciate, understand, or even “see” is given freely and graciously to Israel. Resolution consists not in answers but in Encounter, not in rationality, but in letting ourselves to unravel before him.
As noted above these rich verses take on power precisely because they were not, and are not, arrived at without going through the heat of Death Valleys. This is the confession of the people of tried faith, of people who have faced the mocking, jeering crowd. It is the faith of those who have heard the evidence but have been with God.  It is the faith of those who have chosen to bear the scandal of the King.
Taking It All In, the Scope of Ps 73
The placement of Ps 73 is hardly accidental. Opening up Book III it provides sort of a summary what the community has learned through the first 72 psalms. What is that lesson? Blessedness is not material prosperity (though that at times comes) but with the assurance of God’s gracious Presence in the midst of his community and in our lives. Israel shall not be moved precisely because it is rooted in the Presence of God. [6]

Psalm 73 affirms what Paul confesses in Romans 8.37-39

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors  through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In the light of the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah – who read, breathed and prayed the psalms, including Ps 73 – our faith is victory because of his faithfulness.  Psalm 73 calls us to have a faith oriented to the “End.” That is the goal of God’s creative and redemptive work.  Through our worship, celebrating the Lord’s Supper is but one example, we begin to live the “End” in the present.  Through this orientation we do indeed confess the truth of Psalm 73 and the whole Psalter …

1) God does in fact Reign.
2) We do in fact belong to God.
3) No experience separates us from the reality of God’s Presence.
4) Blessedness means to live in dependence upon God and in community, not upon ourselves.
5) Renewed faith and correct “seeing” come through Encounter with God in Worship.
6) Yes! Got is Good to Israel!! He can Be Trusted!!
1] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Augsburg, 1984), 115
2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr, “Psalm 73: A Microcosm of Old Testament Theology,’ in The Listening Heart (ed. Kenneth Hoglund; JSOT 1987), 247-257.
3] Walter Brueggemann, “Bounded by Obedience and Praise: The Psalms as Canon,” JSOT 50 (1991), 81.
4] Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms (Eerdmans 1984), 134
5] Brueggemann, “Bounded by Obedience and Praise,” pp. 85-86.
6] John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 2: Psalms 42-89 (Baker Academic 2007), 417-419.

4 Responses to “Can the King be Trusted? The Vision of Psalm 73”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks Bobby
    U be the man.
    Blessed you are

    Rich clnstant

  2. Anonymous Says:

    “Tempted and Tried” has long been my LEAST favorite song in the hymnal because of its whiney tone. You have helped me see what inspired the song, and the reasoning behind it.

  3. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Phil I replied to you privately

  4. Julie Goldsberry Says:

    “Can the King be Trusted?” is so right on. It is what I have come to believe and treasure over a lifetime of trials and wrong turns in my own walk. I so loved reading this…thank you Bobby. We just don’t always understand the big messages of God’s word. And much of that is because we grew up misunderstanding or not really studying the Old Testament for its truth. I am thankful for the work of the Spirit in helping me “see” in my own life. God bless you Bobby.

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