Theologians and philosophers through the ages have wrestled with what C. S. Lewis once called “the problem of pain”: if God is good and just, loving and all-powerful, then why do bad things happen to good people?
After all, from our families, our congregations, and our culture at large, we internalize the message that making the right choices is supposed to bring happiness, success, and fulfillment. Eat the right foods and avoid cancer. Marry the right person and be happy for life. Pick the right major and enjoy a fruitful career.
But then the unspeakable happens, and we’re left questioning the fairness of the universe or the justice of God. Why did she, of all people, get cancer? Why did they, of all the couples we know, get divorced? And why can’t I get the job I’ve hoped and trained for, after putting in all that time, effort, and money?
These are not just “secular” questions. Psalm 1, as we’ve seen, promotes a worldview in which the righteous are supposed to prosper, while the wicked and those who rebel against God suffer destruction. Taken by itself, Psalm 1 could be read as supporting a kind of prosperity gospel.
The Psalter as a whole, however, gives us a far more complex picture of the life of faith. The psalmists understand that if they have sinned, they may have to endure God’s discipline — and they pray for wisdom and mercy accordingly. But sometimes they know they haven’t done anything wrong. So why, they ask themselves and God, am I suffering such persecution from wicked people?
The flip side of the question is also found in the Psalms. Bad things happen to good and righteous people, but good things also happen to wicked people. Indeed, sometimes the psalmist looks around at the world and it seems the wicked have everything and the righteous nothing. How can this be? Why doesn’t God do something about it?
In Psalm 37, the psalmist understands the temptation to fret and stew over such a situation. His counsel, essentially, is Don’t get mad — God won’t let this go on forever. Just keep doing what you know to be right. It’s the righteous who will inherit the land in the end, not the wicked. Wait for it!
In Psalm 73, however, it’s the psalmist who’s fretting. The psalm begins and ends with affirmations of the way things are supposed to be, as in the worldview of Psalm 1. “Surely God is good to Israel,” the psalmist declares, “to those who are pure in heart” (vs. 1, NRSV). The psalm ends on a similar note:
Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds. (vss. 27-28)
In between these bookends, however, the psalmist wrestles with the injustice of what he sees:
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (vss. 2-3)
The description of the wicked seems exaggerated:
They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills. (vss. 4-5)
The language reminds me of how we might blurt out in exasperation, “Nothing bad ever happens to them!” The psalmist goes on to describe the pride and arrogance of the wicked, which rise to the point of even scoffing at God (vs. 11). But the conclusion of the description circles back to the question of the wicked’s undeserved prosperity: “This is what the wicked are like — always free of care, they go on amassing wealth” (vs. 12).
. . .
We can track the psalmist’s frustration (and its eventual resolution) through the way he uses the word “surely” in the psalm. The first use, as we’ve seen, was in the opening line: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” That’s how things are supposed to be.
But then the psalmist frets over how things actually are, or at least how they seem. Well then, what’s the point of doing things God’s way? he seems to say:
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments. (vss. 13-14)
He seems to realize what a inappropriate and controversial thing that is to say, especially if he were to say in front of others (vs. 15)! But that declaration of futility is not the end of the story. There’s one “surely” left:
Surely you place [the wicked] on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors! (vss. 18-19)
In many psalms, the shift from lament to praise or from doubt to faith happens after God has done something to change the situation. That’s not the case here; there’s no indication that the wicked over whom the psalmist obsesses have fallen or met their end.
What, then? What could make the psalmist change his tune so dramatically from one “surely” to the next?
We’ll see what happened in the next post.