Psalm 73 is a psalm of sanctifying honesty. Asaph—a godly worship leader in Israel—had become disillusioned by the prosperity of the wicked. While he eventually concluded that God was truly good to those who are pure in heart (v. 1), he walked through a season where he questioned whether it was worth it to follow the Lord. He was “envious of the wicked” (v. 3) because they experienced prosperity and a life of relative ease. Thankfully, Asaph’s struggles never swelled into unbelief (v. 2), nor did he ever vent his questions in the form unbridled public skepticism (v. 15). Rather, God used Asaph’s experience to teach him a valuable lesson and to provide him a cure for envy.
What is Envy?
But before we begin our trek through Psalm 73, we need to ask: What is envy? Envy is a feeling of discontented resentment toward another person or group of people because they have something you don’t: wealth, opportunity, possessions, position, and so on. Envy is a volatile mixture of both discontentment and resentment: discontentment because you are not satisfied with what you have and resentment because someone else has what you want. Envy is both vertical (toward God) and horizontal (toward people). When we are envious we are discontent with what God has given us, and we resent those who have what we don’t.
Why Was Asaph Envious?
The reason Asaph had become envious of the wicked is because they enjoyed earthly prosperity while he endured temporal difficulty. Despite their rejection of God, these prosperous folks lived pain-free lives, enjoying bodily health and sensual indulgence (v. 4-5). Due to their relatively easy life, these people grew in greater arrogance toward God and disdain for other people. Their godless indulgence was never met with stern turns of providence, so their hearts were never humbled. As a result, they wore “pride like a necklace,” railed against God, engaged in violence without fear of consequence, and boasted of their status and accomplishments (vv. 6, 9). Due to a lack of genuine humility, the hearts of these wealthy unbelievers were a constant stream of spiritual, ethical, and moral folly (v. 7). They scoffed at God’s people and threatened the vulnerable with oppression (v. 8). And, as if that wasn’t enough, they were able to gain a following among God’s people (v. 10) while openly questioning whether God even knew or cared about their sinful lifestyle (v. 11).
While such presumptuous evil was disconcerting on its own, it was the juxtaposition between what the prosperous wicked experienced and what Asaph experienced that drove him near the brink. Asaph began to think that his pursuit of holiness was pointless. Indeed, all that his integrity had garnered was a life of daily difficulty: “For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning” (v. 14). Thankfully, Asaph never publicly voiced his concerns over God’s justice. Even amid his struggles he knew he couldn’t indict God in the presence of God’s people.
Moving from Confusion to Clarity
How did Asaph come to spiritual and theological clarity? Well, clarity didn’t come immediately. His first attempts to understand what he observed in the world led Asaph to determine that synthesizing all the relevant facts would be a “wearisome task” (v. 16). Why? Because sheer empirical data—those who reject God enjoy earthly prosperity while those who follow God endure earthly suffering—cannot yield spiritual clarity until they are run through the interpretational grid of divine revelation. It wasn’t until Asaph “went into the sanctuary of God” that he finally “discerned their end” (v. 17). It wasn’t until Asaph pondered his observations in light of God’s revelation to Israel that he could come to some cognitive rest. What did he finally see?
Asaph realized that the unbeliever’s present prosperity wasn’t a blessing. Actually, their unfettered ease and growing wealth was God’s appointed means to their eventual downfall. God had set them in “slippery places.” The implication of this statement is that the wicked’s present enjoyment of earthly prosperity was the “slippery place” upon which God had purposefully placed them so that they might be “destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors” (vv. 18-19). Far from indifferent, God could judge the prosperous wicked in a flash (v. 20), and he had already set everything in place to facilitate their judgement.
As Asaph’s heart was being realigned by truth, he felt the pain of conviction. Comparing himself to a beast, Asaph confessed to the Lord that during his season of envy, he was “brutish” and “ignorant” (vv. 21-22). Importantly, he didn’t count his sin as small or inconsequential. Rather, he realized that he had acted like an animal instead of a man precisely because his mind—the very faculty that distinguished him from the beasts of the field—was no longer led by the truth of God’s Word. Now that he has been graciously chastened by God’s Word and beheld the truth of what is to come for those who reject God, his envy makes Asaph feel like a beast. In the blazing clarity of God’s justice and goodness, he repents in “dust and ashes.” This is repentance.
The Deepest Cure for Envy
But Asaph’s deepest cure for envy wasn’t in the coming judgment of the wicked. Rather, meeting with the Lord in the sanctuary also reminded him that he belonged to God, and any earthly trials would eventually give way to eternal glory. “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory” (vv. 23-24). The God-rejecting prosperous may have had earthly wealth and luxury, but Asaph had God, and God was infinitely better than any earthly possession or comforts. Asaph’s experience brought clarity to what was most valuable. “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” (vv.25-26). God was the true treasure. Earthly prosperity without God is worthless, and those who stockpile their lives with every worldly indulgence while rejecting their Creator are not rich. The poor, prosecuted man who belongs to Christ has infinitely more than the wealthiest atheist.
But it’s not just the prosperous wicked that will face God’s judgment. Asaph concludes his Psalm by noting that all people who reject God, whether rich or poor, will someday perish, and everything they enjoyed in this life, whether great luxury or simple pleasures, will be taken from them in a blaze of judgment: “For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you” (v. 27). God had used Asaph’s experience to deepen his conviction about what is most important. Unlike the unbelievers who reject their Creator in exchange for earthly pleasure, Asaph found his greatest joy in God.
From Envy to Repentance to Evangelism
But Asaph’s experience didn’t remain private. While it was good that Asaph kept his struggle with envy to himself and didn’t broadcast his questions about whether it was worth it to follow God (see vv. 13-15), it was also good for Asaph to speak publicly of God’s works after his repentance. “But as for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works” (v. 28). Seeing anew the value of knowing God and the worthlessness of prosperity without a relationship with one’s Creator, Asaph was ready to evangelize and tell others how wonderful God is.
God also moved Asaph to write this Psalm so that God’s people throughout the ages would have a guide for moving from envy to worship. Rather than merely rebuking us for our envy, God gives us a flesh-and-blood example of a godly man who struggled mightily with the temptation to resent his lot in life but who was able to repent, see his sin for what it was, and experience a renewed love for God. In the end, the aim of this psalm is to bring every reader to confess with Asaph: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (v. 25).