In most translations (perhaps KJV a primary exception) you will find that Psalm 73 begins ‘Book III’ or the third division of psalms within the entire collection. Recall that the order of psalms is not chronological, but for the most part it is organized around several factors: when the book was compiled, psalms by authors and general themes. The five books include:
- Book 1 includes Psalms 1-41 and is often referred to as the “Davidic Section,” mostly written by David.
- Book 2 includes Psalms 42-72 and is called “Hezekiah’s Collection,” mostly compiled during the reign of King Hezekiah (729-696 BC), written by David and the Sons of Korah.
- Book 3 includes Psalms 73-89 and is called “Josiah’s Collection,” mostly compiled during the reign of King Josiah (638-608 BC), with a majority written by Asaph (11 of the 17)
- Book 4 includes Psalms 90-106 and are primarily intended to be used in temple worship (see Psalm 95 from week 6 of our study). These are mostly anonymous, but they do include one from Moses. These appear to have been compiled up to the date of the captivity, (586 BC).
- Book 5 includes Psalms 107-150, collected after the return to the homeland, perhaps during the time of Nehemiah and Ezra (450 BC). There are fifteen by David and most others are anonymous. Many are praises (thus connecting to the return from captivity) and others are decrees or directives.
Asaph was one of the three chief musicians appointed by David to lead the chorus and music of the sanctuary services (1 Chronicles 15). While others were appointed throughout the land, Asaph was chosen to preside over the music when the ark was brought up to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 16), and continued to lead the worship in Jerusalem. His sons were entrusted with the leadership of music at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (1 Chronicles 25). In short, Asaph and his sons were gifted and highly respected singers and worship leaders.
In Psalm 73, Asaph returns to the age-old problem of the seeming prosperity of the wicked, while the godly suffer. One interesting note is that this dilemma is addressed in previous psalms (Psalm 37 by David and in Psalm 49 by an unknown author), but here it is more resolved—through drawing near to God. In Psalm 37, David’s assurance was found in the idea of waiting on the Lord, or patience, for the evildoers will wither like the grass, perish and be no more. In Psalm 49 we are to watch and see what happens as none of the money, fame, glory and ‘pomp’ of the wicked will ever descend with them. In fact, they will be ruled over by the upright “in the morning.”
In verses 1-3, Asaph provides a summary to this perplexing condition. First, a reminder that God is good. Despite serious doubts by what we often see around us, God is good to those that follow after Him. Then he describes how he had almost lost this faith. As if saying, “You know, I came real close to believing that the ways of the wicked were the ways to go!” Sort of a “crimes pays” mentality. I think the idea of nearly losing a “foothold” (NIV) and that of “my feet were slipping, and I was almost gone” (NLT) should remind us of the slippery slope that exists when we allow greed, envy, and pride to consume our thoughts.
From verse 4 through 16, Asaph speaks to this issue in greater detail. The wicked seemed blessed by their actions, “they seem to live such a painless life” and “they are not in trouble like other men.” (verses 4-5). There are worldly benefits to the lifestyles of the wicked, “they have more than their hearts could wish” (verse 7). Again, on the surface, Asaph looks around and sees that the ungodly have money in the bank, influence and power, more provisions than they could ever need or use. Finally, they are blasphemous and seem to get away with it; “they have set their mouth against the heavens” (verse 9).
The Answer: In verses 17-28, Asaph first admits that he was having much difficulty in comprehending how God could let this happen. He writes, “but (transition from previous thought – in other words, the wicked seem to prosper, 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. Truly you set them in slippery places, you make them fall to ruin.” (verses 17-18). Asaph is saying that it was when he came into God’s presence, when he came to worship God, then he could understand that evil does not pay. Ultimately, it is the wicked that exist on a slippery place. It was made clear to him, after he had set his heart right before the Lord, that God does despise evil and His plan will be fulfilled.
Finally, Asaph concludes with another reference to this need to worship and be near to God. It is in close relationship to God that we are free from our envy of those that prosper without Him; “But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all of your works.” (verse 28).