Psalm 73is usually classed as a wisdom psalm, for it ponders a common topic in the Wisdom literature: the problem of evil. In the Bible, the problem of evil is usually posed as scandalous events: the prospering of the wicked and the suffering of a just individual. Like the similarly reflective Pss 32, 37, 49, and 139, the psalm views the unfairness and opaqueness of life as a personal and public reality. The psalmist, for instance, admits having at one time considered going public about the problem of evil (v. 15), though in the end decides to make a public proclamation of God's wonderful works (v. 28). The emotional dimension of the problem is seen in the expression of inner anguish. (Note the frequent use of the Hebrew emphatic first-person singular pronoun in vv. 2, 22, 23, 28.) As in Ps 32, the topic is explored by a conversion story: the movement from shock at injustice to peaceful rest with God. Unlike many conversion stories, however, it is thoroughly theocentric and applicable to every person. It is God who gives the illumination in the Temple; the movement from scandalized confusion to peaceful proclamation can be every believer's story.
Several formal features of the poem provide clues to the structure, the most notable being repetitions of key words. Examining these words makes possible an "objective" entry into the dense thought of the poem. The Hebrew particle ,ak is the most important structuring word. It begins the three verses (vv. 1, 13, 18; rendered "truly" in vv. 1 and 18; translated indirectly in v. 13) that introduce the three main sections of the poem, verses 1-12, 1317, and 18-28. Also important is the Hebrew phrase wa,anî ("[as] for me," "I"), which begins verses 2, 22, 23, and 28. The occurrence of "for me" in the final line (v. 28) brings closure to the beginning (v. 2), because "for me" and two other words from verses 1-2 ("God" and "good") are repeated in verse 28. Moreover, verses 1-2 and verse 28 have approximately the same number of Hebrew words, another indication that the ending is meant to restate the opening axiom of faith.
The placement of the Hebrew markers ,ak and wa,anî plus the change of topics mark off the subsections of the poem. The opening and closing lines (vv. 1-2, 28) are, as noted, set off by their vocabulary and similar word count. Verses 3-12 form a section because of their single topic (portrait of the wicked) and also by the fact that the Hebrew words rendered "prosperity of the wicked" in verse 3 occur again in reverse order in verse 12 ("wicked; always at ease"). Topically, the section falls into two parts (vv. 3-7, 8-12). The first part describes the physical appearance of the wicked ("I saw the prosperity of the wicked," v. 3. N.B.: Italics within scriptural quotations are the author's emphases.) and the second describes their arrogant words ("They ... speak with malice," v. 8; "And they say ...," v. 11). In other words, verses 3-7 record what the psalmist sees, verses 8-11 what the psalmist hears. Speech is exceedingly important in Wisdom literature because words are the defining human act, expressing the kind of person one is. Verse 12 is a summary statement.
The middle section of the poem (vv. 13-17), describing the psalmist's reaction, begins with ,ak ("all in vain," v. 13a). The final large section beginning with ,ak (vv. 18-27) is divided, like the first (vv. 3-12), into two parts: verses 18-22 and 23-27. The Hebrew phrase wa,anî ("I," vv. 22a, 23a ) serves as the division between the two parts. The topic of the first part (vv. 18-22) is the "end" or destiny of the wicked, and the topic of the second (vv. 23-27) is the "end" or destiny of the just psalmist.
The following structure appears: opening statement of faith and scandal (vv. 1-2); the prospering wicked (vv. 3-12); the anguished psalmist seeks a solution (vv. 13-17); the final state of the wicked and of the just (vv. 18-27); summary statement and promise to proclaim God's deeds (v. 28).
Opening statement of faith and scandal (vv. 1-2)
The psalmist begins by stating the principle that God is good to the pure of heart, that is, protects and rewards them, yet in the very next verse admits to having been scandalized by the experience of the opposite—God is not good to the just. One must therefore interpret the opening verse as the psalmist's present belief in God's trustworthiness, a belief that came through a process of education or discipline. The axiom is repeated in the last verse, thus framing the poem by statements of faith. In between, the psalmist tells us the story of coming to faith from doubt.
The prospering wicked (vv. 3-12)
In verses 3-7, the psalmist sees the affluence of those who live evil lives. Their well-fed bodies signify success; trouble touches others but never them; they wear beautiful clothes and exude confidence. In verses 8-11, the psalmist hears their malicious words and bullying threats. Verse 9 is a marvelous description of arrogance. They even deny that God has a clue about what is going on (v. 11). Verse 12 notes in exasperation that they take whatever they desire.
For the psalmist, life as a physical and social reality comes from God. When people live healthy and long lives, see their children prosper, have goods and property, and enjoy a good reputation in the community, they can only conclude that God is pleased with them. Thus the prospering wicked are a continual scandal, for they advertise the view that it does not matter how one lives. Might rules, and Yahweh is silent. This is exactly what the wicked conclude: "Is there knowledge in the Most High?" (v. 11b).
The anguished psalmist seeks a solution (vv. 13-17)
In contrast to the many wicked of verses 3-12, the psalmist must bear alone the bitterness of being punished for loyalty (v. 14). What response can one make to such inequality and divine silence? Verses 15 and 16 express the two options that immediately present themselves, but no sooner are they proposed than the psalmist rejects them as too costly. One possibility is to abandon all restraint and tell the whole community of God's injustice as Job did (cf. Job 15:17), but this is rejected on the grounds that it would scandalize the community (v. 15). A second option is to resolve the problem through reflection and study, but this is rejected as too costly physically and psychically (v. 16). Then, without explanation, another alternative presents itself: Go directly to God by visiting the Temple (v. 17). It is the climax of the series of options. There, "I perceived their end." "End" in Wisdom literature means the outcome in the light of which the whole is evaluated, for example, "Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, / but in the end it is the way to death" (Prov 16:25; cf. Sir 21:10; Matt 7:13). The "end" will be developed in the next section.
The final state of the wicked and of the just (vv. 18-27)
Resolution of the problem through God's revelation in the Temple takes place in the last section of the poem (vv. 18-27), introduced by the third occurrence of ak. The true situation of the wicked is described in verses 18-22 and the true situation of the just in verses 23-27. The wicked are walking on a slippery slope (v. 18); they can fall to ruin in a moment (vv. 19-20). What happens suddenly, "in a moment," is by definition abnormal and presumably of divine origin. A good parallel is Prov 24:19-20:
Do not fret because of evildoers.
Do not envy the wicked;
for the evil have no future;
the lamp of the wicked will go out.
Having no firm hope, the wicked are on the brink of annihilation. The psalmist admits previously not appreciating the precariousness of the wicked, having had, in fact, the understanding of a brute beast. The Hebrew verb "to know" in verse 16 ("understand") and verse 22 ("ignorant") frames the passage.
The second half of the section, verses 23-27, develops the psalmist's realization that God is always there, always at one's side. God's presence permeates verses 23-27, which has at least eleven references to "you." The psalmist, once plagued all day long (v. 14), can say now "you guide me with your counsel" (v. 24a ). The statement in verse 24b, "and afterward you will receive me with honor," has intrigued readers. Some understand it as reception into heavenly glory. The Hebrew verb "to receive, to take" can indeed refer to elevation of a righteous person to God's domain. Enoch in Gen 5:24, Elijah in 2 Kgs 2:11-12, and the righteous psalmist in Ps 49:15 are biblical examples. The elevation of Enoch into heaven (itself modeled on nonbiblical accounts of human beings taken up) became a model for any divine rescue. Another interpretation is that the psalmist was brought so low by the experience of injustice that the revelation of God's presence constituted a veritable resurrection to life with God. A third interpretation translates the phrase, "you will receive me with honor," in the sense of bringing me to your divine presence. Perhaps the psalm has deliberately used open-ended language. The psalmist at any rate has learned to trust God, who is never far away: When I am with you, I need nothing more. Even in the face of death, the psalmist trusts (v. 26a ); nearness to God is the only good, absence from God, the only evil.
In one sense, the divine visitation does not alter the situation; the wicked are still carefree and the righteous are still afflicted. Rather, the new understanding makes it possible to bear these afflictions, for God is now recognized to be there.
Summary statement and promise to proclaim God's deeds (v. 28)
The last verse (v. 28) restates the axiom of faith that began the poem ("Truly God is good to the upright") but in a more personal way: "but for me ... / I have made." One example of the change is that the psalmist who refused to "talk on" (sipper) in verse 15 about "my" injustice now resolves in verse 28c "to tell of all [sipper] your [God's] works." The assurance of divine closeness enables the psalmist not simply to endure but to see a new divine reality and declare God's praises.
Theological and Ethical Analysis
To maintain our religious beliefs by disregarding counterindications and repeating traditional formulations is all too easy. The psalmist is someone who came within a hairsbreadth of rejecting God as powerless and uncaring. Living in a world where enemies of God flourish, while the loyal seem plagued by the very God they serve, generated intense frustration. The psalmist asked: Should I rage publicly against the injustice and thereby disturb the faith of others, or should I try to figure it out? Fortunately, the decision to face the Lord directly by going to the Temple brought a life-changing insight: The wicked live precariously; they can fall in a moment; no god stands at their side. But as for me, I am with God who is there even when my path goes through the valley of darkness. That is enough for me.
The poem is for those who are not afraid of noticing what is around them, even if it disturbs their faith. Such clear-sightedness takes in not only the beauties of nature but also its horrors, such as famine, floods, and earthquakes. Willing to look squarely at injustice in individuals and institutions and unmerited suffering, the psalm affirms the Lord's abiding presence. It models how honest observations can become prayer and lead to a more profound relationship with God.
To live trustingly before God is always difficult, but never more so than when basic symbols of faith are destroyed with no assurance they will ever be restored. The faith symbol can vary: an inspiring person who has failed us, a principle that turns out to be false, or, as in this poem, God's dwelling place reduced to ruins by enemies. The Jerusalem Temple symbolized God's presence to Israelites, and its destruction signified, according to ancient ways of thinking, God's withdrawal "in anger" from them. Painful as that withdrawal is to the people, even greater pain and confusion comes from the silence that follows the destruction, for the community has had no word about when the Temple will be restored (vv. 1, 9); perhaps it never will. The community longs for an oracle telling it when the affliction will end. The Hebrew phrase (la)nesah, "without limit of time, forever," echoes through the poem (vv. 1, 10, 19), and the question "how long?" is repeated twice (vv. 9, 10).
The poem seems to have been written during the period in the sixth century BCE when the Temple lay in ruins; the "impious people" (v. 18) are therefore the Babylonians who destroyed the Temple in 587 BCE. The community lament petitions God to return and rebuild. Similar laments are Pss 44, 77, 80, 83, and 89.
The poem proceeds in three stages, the first stage approximately twice the length of the other two (vv. 1-11, 12-17, 18-23). Part 1 (vv. 1-11) expresses the community's pain and anxiety over the unlimited divine punishment and abandonment symbolized by the ruins at the Temple site. Part 2 (vv. 12-17) remembers liturgically God's primordial victory that created the world of which the Temple is a central part, posing the question, will you allow your creation victory to be annulled by a hostile force? Part 3 (vv. 18-23) transposes that question into a triple prayer that God act now (vv. 18-19, 20-21, 22-23).
Complaint at the unlimited divine anger (vv. 1-11)
The psalmist infers from the destruction of the Temple that God is angry, for ancient peoples customarily ascribed massive afflictions to the gods. The reason might be divine anger at human sins, the inscrutable ways of heaven, or the eclipse of one's personal or national god. What bothers the psalmist, however, is not so much that the Temple has suffered attack, but rather that the people remain without an authoritative word telling them whether God will rebuild it and punish its destroyers. One can bear a temporary set back but not one without a time limit. In antiquity, great afflictions were often accompanied by an oracle or a sign letting the people know how long they would have to suffer. An example in Akkadian literature is an omen text on the capture of the statue of the god Bel: "It is said that after thirty years vengeance will be exercised, and the gods will return to their place" (Roberts 1977, 478). A biblical example of a fixed time of suffering is the seventy-year exile foretold by Jeremiah (Jer 25:11-12; 29:10). Psalms 39:4 and 90:11-12 are also concerned with fixed periods of suffering (see the commentary on those passages). In Ps 74, the absence of oracular assurance might suggest to the people that their God has no power to alleviate the distress or, worse, no longer cares enough about them to do so. Verses 1-11 thus constitute an anxious plea to know how long God will let this shameful situation continue (vv. 1-2). They beg God to march forth as a warrior (v. 3, "direct your steps") and put a stop to the reckless destruction of the holy place.
The opening plea asks whether the destruction of the sacred precincts is a rejection of Israel (v. 1). Divine anger means that God has withdrawn and that the people have been left to their own devices—a dangerous situation, particularly when neighboring states' armies are powerful and there is no indication when divine favor will return.
Verse 2 asks God to remember the intimate bond long ago established between God and Israel. Divine remembering is important in the Bible. In Gen 8:1, God remembered Noah and his entourage and made the flood subside. The psalmist hopes for a similar "remembering." "Tribe of your heritage" means the tribe you possess and further develops the phrase in verse 1, "the sheep of your pasture." The latter phrase means the flock whose care you delegate to no other shepherd, for the sheep are your very own (similarly Pss 95:7 and 100:3).
The mention of Mount Zion in the third clause of verse 2 makes the verse into a tricolon, a three-line verse, the only such in the poem. Its extra length highlights the name "Mount Zion." The sacred mountain can be seen as an integral part of Israel's origins, as in the ancient hymn Exod 15:17-18 (Hebrew words identical to the psalm passage are in italics):
You brought [Israel] in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession,
the place, O Lord, that you made your abode,
the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established.
The Lord will reign forever and ever.