Psalm 73, the wilderness of injustice

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It has been my experience that most of the Christian life takes place in the wilderness, not the Promised Land. That is, it is much more common to be struggling (spiritually) in one form or another or to one degree or another than it is to be sitting back and relaxing. One of the reasons for this is that spiritual growth requires work and effort, which means there will likely be a lot of struggling and failing. Another, and often overlooked reason I think, is injustice. Times when God does not do what he has promised to do.

One place in Scripture where I think this is phenomenon is illustrated is in Psalm 73:

Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
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.
Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.
Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them.
And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.

Psalm 73.1–14 (ESV)

For the psalmist it is the prospering of the wicked that brings about this wilderness experience. The wicked are not hungry. They do not suffer like others. They give into all their evil desires and are violent towards others and try to oppress them. They brag about all this and the people find nothing wrong with them because God does not punish them. Having observed all these things the psalmist states: All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. He’s seeing how nice and comfortable the wicked go through life and comparing it to how difficult his has been. He has obeyed God’s commands and devoted the entirety of his being to following them. Yet it is the wicked God seems to be rewarding and not the righteous!

Later the psalmist describes his experience:

When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.

Psalm 73.21–22 (ESV)

These two verses are a good description of what a wilderness experience feels like. You are angry at God because he is not doing what he should be doing, what he promised he would do. This emotion probably more than any other characterizes a wilderness experience. You might feel lonely, abandoned, betrayed, or any number of other emotions, but anger is likely chief among them.

Dealing with all these emotions requires an eternal perspective. For the psalmist it is remembering what his destiny is and that it is better than the destiny of the wicked. The wicked might have it good now, but the psalmist knows that he will have it good for eternity:

Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!
Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.
When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.
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.
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.
For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But 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.

Psalm 73.18–28 (ESV)

Now all that may sound good, but keeping an eternal perspective through temporary suffering is easier said than done. There can be a cavalcade of emotions experienced during such times that is not easy to control or quiet, likely similar to what the psalmist described earlier. Quelling these emotions and keeping an eternal perspective requires us to do the same thing the psalmist did:

But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.

Psalm 73.16–17 (ESV)

It is by entering into the presence of God (that is what “sanctuary of God” refers to; it is the place where God dwells) by prayer and worship that we can cultivate and keep an eternal perspective. But once again, this is something easier said than done. When you’ve done everything right and followed God whole heartedly, but yet are suffering, worshipping or praying to the God who has allowed this injustice is not going to be appealing. Especially when you see the wicked prospering and having a great, painless, care-free time.

Now when I say not appealing. I mean not appealing. In fact, you might even feel adverse to worshipping or praying. Speaking from personal experience, the last time I was in a situation like the psalmist’s the only reason I even bothered with church was because I needed to go somewhere in order to graduate seminary. I didn’t need to be involved or be serving in it or anything. I just needed to show up. I didn’t need to show up happy or joyful or whatever. I didn’t need to sing along or participate in whatever other worship elements might be present. I just needed to get my butt in my car, get to a church, and put it in a seat for an hour or so. Even this very low bar was sometimes difficult to clear.

There was no “prospering” or “abounding” during this time. The only progress I think I made was avoiding regression or denunciation of my faith. Much like living in the actual wilderness, the goal in a spiritual wilderness is survival. Anything that is not necessary for survival is discarded, either willfully or forcibly. This can be a hard lesson to learn as we see things that we considered needs done away with because they were luxuries, not necessities. Or in some cases even detriments. What specifically is a luxury, necessity, or detriment varies by person, I think. While I think that God has the same goal for all of us: holiness, we do not all get there by the same means. For example, marriage and singleness are both callings, I think. For the person called to singleness having a spouse would be a detriment, I think. Likewise for the person called to marriage being single (for too long) I think would also be a detriment. Single people can do things married people can’t, like being concerned only about pleasing God [1Cor 7.32, 34; 1Tim 5.5]. Likewise married people can do things single people can’t, like produce and raise children [Gen 1.28]. Both these things are good and both are needed. We need to create and raise future generations to follow God and pass on what we have learned to them so that they can in turn do the same. We also need people who are not burdened by a family either for travel purposes, cost of living purposes, or some other specific ministry purpose.

In short, the wilderness teaches us to be content. It teaches us:

… godliness with contentment is great gain,
for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.
But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.

1 Timothy 6.6–8 (ESV)

When everything but what is necessary is stripped away and we learn to be content then we can finally say with the psalmist that truly God is good to those pure in heart.

Photo by Hendrik Cornelissen on Unsplash

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary