The Prosperity of the Wicked: Asaphs Lament (Psalm 73)

The Prosperity of the Wicked

Asaph's Lament (Psalm 73)
Written by: Pete McClanathan
We’ve watched our friend Asaph set the foundation for his Psalm 73 lament. He has proclaimed steadfast trust in God’s goodness (vs. 1), and shared deep doubt and despair over something he can’t reconcile (vs. 2). We now learn what it was that troubled Asaph:

“For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Ps. 73: 3)

Many decades ago when a problematic friend acquired a Honda Super 90 motorcycle, another friend lamented, “why do the jerks always get the cool things?” Asaph would relate. 

Well. Where do we start? Is this not a common struggle of mankind, one that takes various forms and intensities throughout life? Is there anything that can be said that would be new?  

Fortunately this subject appears often in the Bible. If we set before us some of the scriptures that address envy, we’ll discover that the topic is a serious one: 

“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” (Prov. 14:30). A sober description of the unseen costs of envy, resembling Asaph’s own cry (“my feet had almost stumbled”).

“Surely resentment destroys the fool, and jealousy kills the simple.” (Job 5:2). Strong words to describe those who allow themselves to be consumed by envy. 

“Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord.” (Prov. 23:17). The very struggle where Asaph found himself to be. 

“Do not covet your neighbor's house. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Ex. 20:17). Quite an inclusive list, one that addresses a wide segment of the idolatries we face today (lust, materialism, greed, competition, self-respect, success). 

There are many more scriptures warning of envy. We need look no further than Gen. 3, where we find the tempter stirring in Eve some dissatisfaction with her own lot, and a curiosity for more. And in Gen. 4, the dangerous fruit of envy and anger is manifested in Cain’s murder of Abel. Clearly the struggle has been common to mankind since the fall, and its danger would seem to explain the many warnings in scripture.

Asaph, a prophet and a leader in the temple worship, would have been familiar with such words. Yet we find him succumbing to envy nevertheless. How does this happen?

We can begin to take this difficult question apart by considering the meaning of envy. It involves many things, but they each can be reduced to this: some form of dissatisfaction with one’s life. And from there, the thought that something more, or something better, can bring greater satisfaction for me. And then the selfish belief that we deserve those things as much, or more, than some other persons. The belief that there is something about me that is particularly worthy or needy of whatever may be the coveted prize(s). And then follows the chorus of why’s.

We may as well be honest with ourselves, for each of us wrestles with thoughts of why, despite our knowing the many warnings. Here are some I’ve faced over the years. Yours will be different yet similar in nature.

Why did a childhood friend receive a popular toy or gadget that I felt I wanted? Don’t my parents love me? Or am I being denied on account of something I did wrong? The other kids seemed so prosperous. (Note how juvenile self-absorption can generate feelings of unworthiness and shame over very unimportant things. I was provided well, but it’s very common to want something just because someone else has it. Tragically, those feelings can take root at a very early age and lead to distorted understandings of life that can be lonely and painful). 

Why had I not been given greater athletic ability?  I loved playing and following sports but never could hope to play on the school teams. And truth be told, I envied the attention and praise that the jocks received. Especially troubling were the arrogant and obnoxious ones, who seemed to be in the majority and seemed so prosperous. (Of course the jocks themselves had their own insecurities but it was difficult to believe such could be the case). 

Or while we’re on the subject, why did it seem that girls flocked toward guys who were athletic or just obnoxious human beings? That form of prosperity seemed cruel and unfair. It easily can create the (false) belief that “there must be something badly wrong with me.”

But in reality such insecurities arise from distorted ideas of value, based on perception not truth. The girls and the jerks had their insecurities as well; they simply tried to hide them behind a social clique.  And really, what a stupid way to measure value anyway . . . allowing perceived group opinion, bad or good, to shape one’s view of self and others. A sure sign of insecurities all around. 

But as we know, those messages can leave emotional scars. And they will challenge our trust in God, in much the same way that Asaph describes. When we observe or experience things that simply don’t fit our understanding of God, our faith is the next target. And why wouldn’t it be? Our spiritual enemies may find entertainment in disrupting our physical lives, but their real goal is to separate us from fellowship with God. My own experience tells of rejecting God as a result of some very difficult times in junior high and high school.

Apply the psalm’s words to your own life and you’ll find a flood of questions. Why was I bypassed for a promotion, or why was I terminated when others who seemed less qualified were not? Why does a child drift from the Lord and embrace the values of the world? What do I make of my illness, or those of family members who have followed Christ closely? 

Make your own lists; the material is plentiful.

 The Hebrew word which is rendered as prosperity in vs. 73:3 is the familiar term shalom, often translated as peace in various parts of scripture. The term in fact carries a broader meaning in the Hebrew culture. It seeks to describe wholeness, satisfaction, contentment, a sense that life is secure and in good order. The word is used often to describe true fellowship with God, where life is understood to be under His protection and provision.  

Man was created in perfect shalom with God. Sadly the events of Gen. 3 broke that union, and the entire Bible is the story of God restoring that fellowship in Christ.  But we need to be reminded that full restoration will not be accomplished until a later season in God’s economy when heavens and earth will be destroyed and replaced. 

Meanwhile the believer in Christ owns a form of the new life through reconciliation with God in Christ. (2 Cor. 5: 17-19). Yet because sin continues to be present in the world, we too are required to deal with the confusion and temptations that it brings. (Rom. 6: 5-10).

And so we return to Asaph and his lament. These confessions from the heart and pen of a godly man demonstrate the struggles that flow from measuring life’s value by standards of the world around us:  

“For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.” (Ps. 73: 4-5)

Don’t miss how closely these laments of Asaph resemble those in our lives and of people through history. Comparison of one’s life with that of others is a sure blueprint for feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction. They encourage longing for the prosperity others seem to enjoy. And longing can bring us to wondering, questioning, and doubting. 

Pay attention to our use of the word “seem.” It describes that place where the actual is hidden by the apparent, and reality falls victim to perception, imagery, and opinions. Did the “wicked” in Asaph’s time really have no physical, economic, or emotional ailments? Of course not. Life does not arrange itself so, however hard we may try to bury actual weakness or struggle from the view of others.

Did the people who seemed popular in school actually have more quality, more confidence, more promise? I suppose it depends on who you'd talk with, but I’ll take a stand on no. Security reflected from the opinions of others is a precarious foundation indeed, one that is vulnerable to many things beyond our control. And it extracts tremendous cost and energy trying to measure up. Truly scripture is proved correct when it tells us that “the fear of man lays a snare.” (Prov. 29:25)

Much to think about . . . the lies we embrace, the false prosperities that we envy, the unstable places of refuge we choose. But for now we leave Asaph pondering his questions and crying out for answers.

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