Psalm 73: For the Soul Sick with Envy
Now here is a Psalm that will keep your soul from getting pummeled by conspiracy theories, media melees, cancel culture, soft totalitarianism, and fifty other social causes of depression.
Psalm 73 is medicine. Like many prescriptions, it targets a specific problem, envy: “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (73:3).
The great trial of heart being addressed honestly and unsparingly in Psalm 73 is envy in the redeemed when they see those who care not for God rising in society. And most bitter, their ascendency must be the will of our sovereign God.
The psalmist of Psalm 73 is not yet wholly calloused toward God. He is not in the throes of apostasy. But he is afflicted by the sin of envy. He is sorely tempted to judge God. He is sorely tempted to regard his carefulness in righteous living as being overlooked by God. Has not keeping to the narrow way merited him some prosperity?
Before we see resolution come to this tormented soul, let us recall a few things about envy.
Envy is being dissatisfied that someone else is prospering while I myself am not. My envy may not be so bitter when the godly prosper in my place. But when the wicked prosper, and the righteous suffer, then envy sweeps away my graces: “I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you” (73:22). Thus, envy involves what others have, what I do not have, and what I am convinced I deserve to have.
The envy which grips this psalmist is toward the wicked. The wicked have ease – “no pangs until death” (73:4). They have health – “their bodies are fat and sleek” (73:4). They have power – “loftily they threaten oppression” (73:8). They defy God and rule men - “They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth” (73:9). And perhaps, most disheartening, they have the admiration of many of God’s people: “My people turn to them and lap up all they say, asking, ‘How will God find out?’” (73:10-11).
What, in contrast, does the psalmist have? He has a perplexing sense that his hard-won integrity before God has wrought him nothing – “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence” (73:13). He also has the perplexing sense that he is getting the miseries which belong upon the wicked – “For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning” (73:14).
Here is the bottom line: the wicked are prospering when they deserve to be miserable and the righteous are miserable when they deserve to be prospering. It is enough to make the righteous think they have judged God altogether wrong.
Nothing torments the soul quite like discovering we have misunderstood God.
By a work of God’s free grace the psalmist resisted speaking his dark thoughts about God: “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children” (73:15). He knew he must not only care for his own soul, but for all souls in the covenant community. To run into the streets with his tormented soul would have sabotaged the faith of many. He waited in silence. He tried to understand in silence. A “wearisome task” (73:16) all this ruminating, yet a work of faith which the Lord soon blesses: “I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end” (73:17).
Here the torment of his envy finally resolves - in the place of worship! In the place prepared and prescribed by God to make himself present to men; in the place where men confidently draw near to the eternal God through mediating blood. In the sanctuary envy dies. But now, in the fullness of time, this place is a person, Jesus Christ, the living temple of God. In Christ alone we dwell with God and discern the end of the wicked. Why? Because in Christ crucified and risen we see that the miserable-righteous are exalted and the self-exalting wicked are cast down.
In seeing the end of the wicked, the psalmist now sees who the wicked are long before their end. When they prosper, when they are ascendant, they are only being placed higher by God’s hand in order to aggravate their fall: “Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin” (73:18, cf. Rom. 9:22-24).
The inverse of this is the glory of the righteous. We are placed lower by God’s hand only to be exalted. We are first placed on the lowly cross, crucified with Christ to defeat our own wickedness. In his humiliation we receive an imputed righteousness (justification) and an infused righteousness (sanctification), thus we no longer live but Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20). On the earth we are fellows with the lowly man of sorrows, in the heavens we are co-heirs with the Son of glory.
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (73:25-26).
Envying the wicked is a common hazard for the elect of God. It explains much of our fuming and fussing as we look out upon the world. But envy always devalues Christ to our soul and so dishonors him. Let us look further. Let us discern their end and our own and be at peace.
John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.