Truly God is Good: A Journey Through Psalm 73 (part one of several)

Truly God is Good

A Journey Through Psalm 73 (part one of several).
Written by: Pete McClanathan

Truly God is Good: A Journey Through Psalm 73 (part one of several)

Our discussion of sin and idolatry (Gen. 3 and beyond) has reached a place where we can begin to apply that understanding toward other parts of scripture and to our own experiences. This will show itself to be very fruitful ground, a wealth of biblical truths winding through familiar struggles of life. We’ll linger here a good while.

Following no particular order, I’ve chosen as a beginning my favorite psalm, Psalm 73. 

You may know that the 150 psalms can be categorized by their content. Some fit more clearly than others, but generally the psalms fall into one or more of these groups:  praise, wisdom, confession, supplication, national/kingship, or lament. Some psalms are a blend of two or more subjects. And Messianic messages (those pointing to Jesus’ appearing and sacrifice, or the final coming of His kingdom) can be found within each type.

Psalm 73 is a psalm of lament. Laments are common in scripture: of the 150 psalms in the Bible, over one-third are laments. And for good reason. 

The Bible tells of the longstanding struggles of the people of Israel, as a nation and individually. Struggles with the uncertainties of provision, with neighboring tribes and nations, with personal and family matters, and most significantly with trust and obedience to the Lord in the midst of fear or oppression. To say that their troubles were traceable largely to their own sin and idolatry would be correct.

But not always. As is true in our own experiences, difficulties can arise that seem unconnected to our own character or behavior. And in some ways these times are the most difficult, as we try to resolve confusion and uncertainty with what we know of God and carry forward in the storm. Certainly there is abundant reason for lament among the people, and among humanity throughout the ages and today.

The laments are rich in wisdom and they display a similar form to each other, roughly following this pattern:

  1.  An acknowledgement of God, followed by a crying out over some personal or national matter.

  1.  Expressions of despair, helplessness, or simply inability to understand. Frustration and questioning are frequently a part.

  1.  A developing awareness that God is still involved moves the author toward renewed understanding of His character and purposes. 

  1.   A refreshingly new point of view toward life and circumstances. 

  1.  Reappearance of joy and worship.  

  1.  A refreshed heart for ministry to God’s people. 

Psalm 73 follows this pattern as it puts forth the wisdom of the author, Asaph. This man was a director of music in the temple worship during the period of King David, and is identified as a prophet in 2 Chron. 29:30. He is credited as the author of 11 psalms, all of them laments. 

A sensitive, melancholy personality is apparent in Asaph’s writings, which would be consistent with an artistic temperament. The man clearly is a thinker, familiar with God’s Word, and committed to seeking understanding of difficult matters. Psalm 73 is a masterpiece of wisdom developed through years of wrestling with life’s questions and  its seeming contradictions.

The psalm begins in a place that might seen unexpected:

“Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” (Ps. 73:1)

Asaph is about to spill his substantial confusion, disappointment, and despair before the reader. Yet the psalm begins with an acknowledgement of God’s presence and His character. We should not pass by this introduction quickly. It reveals the author’s commitment to the Lord and provides a framework for his lament.

That framework is to cling steadily to revealed truths about God and His character. Whatever questions or struggles might be confronting the author, he is making it clear from the outset that he is not challenging God’s faithfulness and goodness. And he will proceed to address his concerns through that lens. 

How well this can instruct us today, when confusion abounds in many arenas of life, and clarity and certainty are in short supply. Traditional landmarks of social order continue to collapse around us, and the concept or truth itself is scorned. 

In such times a typical response can be to seek relief by trying to understand, and by finding fault: fault with those around us, fault with family members, fault with government and society, fault with our church leaders. After all, we may reason, the unwelcome changes in those arenas are a large part of the insecurity and discontent that I’m feeling. It almost feels natural to want to reverse the changes, to pull life back into places where we felt more comfortable and fulfilled.

An unsettled feeling when life seems out of order is both common and understandable. We’ll address struggles arising from change in a later article. But let’s be careful not to miss the author’s focal point, which is not about dealing with change or the circumstances around us. Those are addressed throughout the psalm, but they are not the core message. 

The majority of laments in the psalms and other parts of scripture wrestle with forms of the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people, to me, to my family, my friends, my nation?” The despair of Asaph in Psalm 73 arises from an opposite question: “Why do good things happen to bad people?” We observe him offering examples and details of his lament as the psalm unfolds. And we see understanding and resolution emerge as he comes to realize he has been asking the wrong questions.

What are the wrong questions? No different from those that we face in any difficult situation. Why do things like this happen? Where is God in my struggles? Is God really good as I’ve been told? What might I have done to deserve what I’m experiencing? Will God ever again look with favor upon me?

These are not uncommon questions, though we try to keep them hidden from ourselves and others. Each of us has been in that place, maybe often. There is no sin in questioning why life doesn’t seem to line up with what we would define as goodness. But if you haven’t already figured this out, it can be a fruitless struggle, one that leaves us just as hurting and just as confused. And one that misses the mark of truth.

In the dark times of life, whatever they may be and whether we admit it or not, there is something in us that nudges us toward challenging God. Toward questioning His decisions and His character. 

Such uneasiness can lead us toward a gradual isolation from God, from His Word, from His people. It may or may not reach the level of outright anger, but it will have the result of eroding our faith and trust. Of causing us to ponder if we’ve believed correctly and strongly enough. Of anxiety leading to despair and hopelessness. Of turning to other sources of comfort in the world.

Asaph carefully redirects this question at the start. With the vision of a prophet and the wisdom of an experienced leader in the temple, he negates the common urge to question God.  

Not that he hasn’t struggled with it. We’ll see in later verses how deeply his struggles have cost his peace and energy. But he has come to realize that truth is not to be measured by his personal observation or understanding. And as the wisdom of the psalm unfolds, we shall see steady and sure movement in his point of view and his understanding.   
 

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