Psalm 73

A song for Aseph[i],

 

Surely God is good to Israel and to the pure of heart.

The path of my feet waiver as one without direction[ii],

the steps of my life have been poured[iii] out as if they were nothing.

I am envious of those boast;

I see the tranquility[iv] of the wicked.

For they go through life without trouble

and they are never hungry[v].

They do not share in the toil of the common man,

and his struggles do not touch them.

Therefore they wear pride as a necklace,

and they are clothed in violence.

They look at the world through the lens of their abundance[vi],

their desires go beyond the imaginations of the heart[vii].

The mock and speak evil;

they speak oppressively from their high position.

They speak as if they command the heavens,

and their decree goes out to all the earth.

They bring back the people of the Lord

and beat them until every tear is drained from them[viii].

And then they say, “How does God know?”

and “Does the most high have knowledge?”

Behold, these are the wicked ones

and, forever at ease, they grow more powerful[ix].

It has been for nothing that I have kept my heart pure

and I have kept my hands clean.

I have been stricken all day

and my reproof comes every morning.

If I had said these things,

I would have betrayed a whole generation of your children[x].

As I considered this,

I was troubled.

When I came to the sanctuary of God,

I then understood the end of the wicked[xi].

Surely you allowed them to be flattered[xii],

you caused them to fall into deception.

How will they be destroyed so suddenly?

In terror they meet their demise.

As one being awakened from a dream,

Lord you will wake up and despise their image.

When my heart was embittered

and my soul was pierced.

I was stupid and did not know it,

I acted like a beast with you.

But I am always with you

and you took hold of my right hand.

With your council you lead me,

and afterwards you will honor me.

Who do I have in the heavens but you?

When I am with you, there is nothing on earth I desire.

When my body and the beat of my heart has come to an end,

the protection of my heart and my portion is God forever!

Behold, the ones far from you will be destroyed,

You will annihilate those who commit harlotry against you.

It is good for me to be near God,

I made the Lord God my refuge, a place where I can speak about all your works.


Note: this is a difficult Psalm to translate because of its frequent use of vivid imagery that is not fully understood today. It is one of the most picturesque of all the Psalms; something that is obscured in most English translations.

[i] Asaph was a prominent leader of worship; he was appointed by David and he and his sons after him served as leaders for many generations.1 Chr. 6:2,1 Chr. 9:15, Chr. 15:17, 19,1 Chr. 16:5, 7, 37,1 Chr. 25:1-2, 6, 9,1 Chr. 26:1,2 Chr. 5:12,2 Chr. 20:14,2 Chr. 29:13, 30,2 Chr. 35:15,Ezr. 2:41,Ezr. 3:10,Neh. 7:44,Neh. 11:17, 22,Neh. 12:35, 46,Ps. 50:1,Ps. 73:1,Ps. 74:1,Ps. 75:1,Ps. 76:1,Ps. 77:1,Ps. 78:1,Ps. 79:1,Ps. 80:1,Ps. 81:1,Ps. 82:1,Ps. 83:1

[ii] The phrase in the Hebrew texts literally reads, “and I as little, my feet swerved/stretched;” it is picturesque language that is used only here and is not well understood.  The NIDOTTE states that “Often, however, the issue of quantity is inseparable from a notion of quality and can have important theological underpinnings. Deut. 7:7; Hag. 1:9; Pr. 37:16.” The Hebrew root נטה means to stretch (“an outstretched arm”, Ex. 6:6, Duet. 4:34; “he stretches out the heavens”, Ps. 104:2) or incline/turn/swerve (“do not turn to the right or the left”, Pr. 4:27; “have not turned aside”, Job 23:11). This root appears 216 times in the Hebrew OT and is translated as “slipped” only in this verse. I think it is much more likely that the picture the author envisioned was one of wondering aimlessly (turning aside/swerving) than it was of one “slipping.”

[iii] NIDOTTE states that “the verb form [of ashur (step)], a cognate to Ugar. ‘sr, occurs in the q.., pi., and pu. stems, usually in a figurative sense of pursuing a course of life.”  The idiom used here, lit. “as nothing my steps were poured out” is used no were else in the OT or early Hebrew literature. I think the intent was to give a picture of how meaninglessness the steps of life (good or bad) that have already been taken appear from the perspective of one who is in despair. Much of this Psalm emphasizes how distorted our perception is when we look at the situation around us rather than looking to God for the answers.

[iv] The word used here is “shalom” and is most frequently translated as “peace,” although it has a much broader semantic range of meaning i.e. peace, complete, success, whole, secure. The root from which this word is derived can mean “to reward, to repay, to complete, to be safe, to be peaceful.” While it is conceivable to translate this as “prosperity” as done in a number of versions, to do I believe misses the thrust of what was intended i.e. it is the peace, security, and tranquility that comes from riches and power that the author is alluding to here and not the wealth itself.

[v] This verse reads lit. “for there is not torment to their death and their bellies are fat.” The NIV, NET, NRSV, NLT, ESV have interpreted the phrase “to their death” properly as “throughout their life until their death” i.e. their whole life is painless. Other versions, like the KJV, NKJV, JPS, NASB have focused on the moment that death comes and in doing so have misunderstood the idiom and context of this verse.

Many versions have translated the phrase “their bellies are fat” as “their bodies are strong and healthy;” however, I think this is a little misleading to English readers because we picture the body of an athlete when we hear phrases similar to this. While it is true that the idiom “their bellies are fat” in Hebrew doesn’t necessarily bring to mind the picture of a “fat man” to those who lived in the ancient near east like it does in English, neither does it preclude the idea of a “fat man” like the phrase “their bodies are strong and healthy” does in English. This idiom communicates the idea that a person has had no want of food (or money) i.e. their hunger is always satiated and, in the mind of the ancient near eastern people, this really could have been a “fat man.”

[vi] This phrase literally reads “their eyes go out from their fat;” the ESV translates this very literally but entirely misses the imagery of this verse. Similar to Vs. 4, the idea of “fat” is a symbol of abundance and prosperity. Idioms about “seeing” are frequently associated with “the eyes going out or being carried” in the Hebrew OT; a similar usage can be seen in Ps. 17:2 lit. “your eyes will go out to see right.” This focus is on what was seen and not the eyes themselves. The NET translate vs. 7 as “Their prosperity causes them to do wrong” and the NIV translates it as “From their callous hearts comes iniquity;” both of these translations better capture the intent of the author but I think they are overly interpretive.

[vii] This phrase literally reads “imaginations passed heart;” the ESV and NRSV miss the imagery of this phrase by focusing on the overflowing folly of the wicked man; something that while true, is not inherent in the imagery of this phrase. The NKJV captures the idea well in its translation “They have more than heart could wish”

[viii] This is the most difficult verse in this Psalm to translate and no English version completely follows the Hebrew text of this verse which literally reads “therefore [he?] will return his people here and waters of fullness they will drain to/for them.” There are a number of difficulties in translating this verse; first is the question of whether “his people” the subject or object of the verb “to return?” i.e. did the wicked cause the people to return or did the people choose to return to the wicked? Grammatically, either is possible but treating “his people” as the subject in most circumstances would make better grammatical sense (as has been done in the ESV, NIV, NASB, etc..); however, the context of this verse makes this treatment difficult because it causes this verse alone to shift away from the excesses of the wicked and suggests that the wicked gave abundantly to the common people.  The NET has followed M. Dahood’s proposed emendations (Psalms [AB], 2:190) and reads the Hebrew text as follows: לָכֵן יִשְׂבְעוּם לֶחֶם וּמֵי מָלֵא יָמֹצּוּ לָמוֹ (“therefore they [the wicked] are filled with food, and waters of abundance they suck up for themselves”). While this emendation is reasonable, there is no textual evidence to support it in any known manuscripts. Both the LXX and the Targums diverge considerably from the Hebrew text strongly suggesting that the Hebrew text of this verse may have been corrupted very early. I have chosen to follow the Aramaic Targum because I believe it fits much better with the context of this passage; while I believe the NET version also fits well in the context of this verse, I don’t think there is enough evidence to support the Dahood’s emendation of the text.

[ix] The Hebrew word used here (חיל) is the word used for “solder” or “army” and is used frequently to describe power and strength. While it can sometimes be used to convey a sense of “wealth,” when it is used this way, it always carries a sense of power that comes from wealth.

[x] The reference here to “a generation of your children” appears to be a reference to the younger generation that still has its innocence; the author indicates that to speak aloud the words of pessimism from the first section of this psalm would be to betray the innocence of the next generation.

[xi] Lit. “their end”

[xii] חלק can either describe something smooth or metaphorically describe flattery i.e. smooth words.

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