During my final year in seminary, I decided to take an elective course on the Psalms. While I typically prefer stories over poetry, I greatly admired the professor who was teaching the course, and I wanted to learn how to better translate Hebrew poetry. The entire grade for the course was based on a final research paper which analyzed a psalm that the professor assigned. The emphasis here is on the word “assigned.” Instead of allowing us to pick our favorite psalm, which really means the shortest and easiest to translate, we were assigned to examine a psalm that was notoriously difficult, challenging and long.
I was gifted with Psalm 73. I am sure that I had skimmed Psalm 73 at some point before the day it was assigned to me but, I couldn’t pick it out of a line-up. While Psalm 73 would never be read at a wedding or printed on a funeral program, it was important enough to be selected among only 150 poetic masterpieces to be included in the Hebrew Bible. My personal challenge was to find out why.
Once I started working on better understanding Psalm 73, I quickly began to see its wisdom and artistry. While translators will never be mistaken for Indiana Jones, I felt a bit like the whip-slinging archeologist as I dug deeper into the Hebraic treasures of this incredible piece of ancient literature. To this day, Psalm 73 is not only my favorite piece of Hebrew poetry, but it is also the passage I turn to when I am facing moments in my life that are heavy with uncertainty, or when darkness seems to be stretching its cold shadow over the world. When I am lost for words, the author of this psalm has found a way to speak through the generations directly to me. Today, I want to share my discovery with you.
In order to show you why this psalm has become so important to me, I need to tell you a little bit about how the author designed Psalm 73. When we talked about the Lord’s Prayer a few weeks ago, I mentioned a literary tool called the chiasmus. If you don’t remember what that is (and I would hardly blame you if you didn’t), let me briefly summarize the definition.
In the ancient world, the chiasmus was a literary device that helped highlight the central theme that an author was developing. A chiasmus is based on the letter X (chi) in the Greek alphabet, hence the name. In a chiasmus, the first (A) and last statements (A’) are related, then the second (B) and the second to last (B’), and so on. In the center of the “X” there is typically a turning point or statement critical to understanding the main point. If you click here, you will find a translation that I have put together which highlights the chiasmus by the position of the paragraphs. The parallel sections of the chiasmus are indented the same amount.
There are five sections in the chiasmus of Psalm 73. The first and last verses form a set of bookends. Let’s start there. The psalm opens with the declaration that God is good to Israel, to those whose mind is pure. We could spill a lot of ink (or electrons) on exploring the depth of this verse. But for now, I want to highlight one part of this opening verse.
Right at the beginning, the author declares that God is good to those whose mind is “pure.” I dare say that we all want God to be good to us. But, to have a pure mind, seems like a pretty tall order. With the amount of skewed information, negative imagery and digital pollution that is persistently flooding our minds each waking moment, maintaining any semblance of purity is as difficult as keeping white gloves clean while making mud pies. Does the author have a more attainable definition of purity in mind? Before we go in search of a dictionary (Hebrew or English), let’s take a step back to see if the author will provide us with an answer.
Skip down to the last verse. Since this is a chiasmus, and the last verse is literally or thematically related to the first, we might be able to find a clue here. Verse 28 reads: As for me, nearness to God is good, I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works. Once again, the author mentions goodness, but with a twist. As compared to the beginning, God seems more personal at the end of the psalm. What started as a concept, a statement of belief in God’s goodness and our need for purity, ends with a more relational statement. Goodness is no a longer a distant or unattainable concept. Instead, goodness is simply defined as being near to God. Keeping God at arm’s length or comfortably at a distance is not helpful or necessary. Even more importantly, nearness to God appears to be attainable. And significantly, for the first time in the psalm, God’s Name (YHWH) appears. God is not a concept, a theory or ideal. In the end, God is personal and relational.
The real power of these two statements is found in the verses that lie in between them. Here, we find a passionate spiritual journey that might seem very familiar to many of us.
Beginning in verse 2, the psalm takes a dramatic turn. Take a look at verses 2 through 14.
2 As for me, my feet nearly stumbled;
my steps (almost) slipped, like nothing.
3 For I envied the arrogant,
I witnessed the peace of the wicked.
4 For them, there is no pain in death;
their bodies are fat.
5 They (do not experience) the troubles of mankind;
they are not afflicted along with (the rest of) humanity.
6 Therefore, pride is their necklace,
and violence enshrouds them like clothing.
7 Fat covers their eyes;
and the conceit of their mind overflows.
8 They ridicule and speak of evil,
from their prominence they talk of oppression.
9 They set their mouth against the heavens,
and their tongue struts throughout the earth.
10 Therefore, His people turn to them,
and the waters of abundance are drained by them.
11 Then they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 These are the wicked;
always prosperous, they accumulate wealth.
13 Certainly it is in futility that I kept my mind clean,
and washed my hands in innocence.
14 I was afflicted all day long,
and my punishment came every morning.
So…how do you think the author really feels about the world around him? Everywhere he looks, all he can seem to find is wickedness, injustice, and arrogance. Not only are the wicked unashamed of their actions, but they are also arrogantly proud of them. The national and religious leaders openly speak out against God, oppress His people, and destroy the prosperity of a nation to feed their personal coffers. Yet, despite the depth of the darkness that surrounds him, his real complaint is not externally focused. Instead, the author is upset that he was beginning to buy into their morally bankrupt system. When God was looking for a pure mind, he was allowing corruption to poison his soul and infect his mind. Instead of resisting the arrogant, he began to envy them. Instead of standing firm on his ideals, he started to stumble toward a precipice. Instead of trusting in God’s future, he was afflicted by the fleeting reality of his present.
The author reminds us that we can choose how to see the world and what parts of it we will focus on. He is not pointing a finger and blaming his situation on everything “out there.” Instead, he is taking full responsibility for himself and the identity he is shaping in his mind.
Now before we get to the center of the psalm and its climax, let’s look at the parallel section in the chiasmus. The author has a much different outlook on the world in verses 18 through 27.
18 Certainly, You put them in slippery places,
You cause them to fall into ruin.
19 How suddenly they are destroyed,
they are completely consumed by terrors.
20 Like a dream from which one awakes,
when you awake, O Lord, You despise their image.
21 When my mind was full of malice,
and my emotions were pierced,
22 I was stupid and lacked knowledge;
I was like an animal toward you.
23 Yet, I was always with You,
You hold my right hand;
24 You guide me by Your wisdom,
and afterward, you receive me with glory.
25 Whom else have I in Heaven?
and being with You, there is nothing else I desire on earth.
26 My body and mind may waste away;
but God is the rock of my mind, and my portion forever.
27 Those who are far from You perish;
You annihilate all who are faithless to You.
In short, the author points out that the wicked will eventually get their comeuppance. Not by his hand, but by God’s. After all, punishing wickedness and injustice is God’s job, not his. Several centuries later, in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul wrote, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Romans 12:19, NRSV)
The behavior of the wicked is not his problem. Their punishment is not his problem. Instead, the author chooses to focus on the only problem he can address. Look at verse 22 for a moment. He allowed his mind, which he was supposed to keep pure, to buy into a broken system. By focusing on the actions of the wicked, he turned away from God’s wisdom and goodness. In fact, God hadn’t moved. He did. He admits that God was always with him, supporting and guiding him. Although God was with him the entire time, he was facing the wrong direction. Instead of keeping his focus on God’s mission in the world, he was spending his time on everything that was wrong with it. Instead of embracing the brightness of God’s future, he was dwelling on the dark shadows of the present.
So, what made him change his perspective? What caused him to turn his back to the shadows and face the Light? The center of the chiasmus gives us an answer. And, it starts with two important, life-changing letters! If…
15 If I had said, “I will speak of these things,”
then, I would have been unfaithful to this generation of Your people.
16 When I tried to understand this,
it was sorrow before my eyes.
17 Until, I entered God’s sanctuary
and grasped their fate.
What stops his descent into the shadows? Remembering that he was part of something bigger than himself. He is not alone in the present darkness. He is part of an ongoing community of God’s people, past and present. If he gave into the darkness, he would be hurting those he cared about. He is accountable to them. For their sake, he needs to redirect his focus and turn back to trusting God with his future. It was his accountability and love for his community that saved his mind and soul. Psalm 73 reminds us that others are depending on us. All around us, friends, family members, co-workers, colleagues are looking to us for hope.
In verse 17, he says that he enters God’s sanctuary and found clarity. I wonder what he saw there? There is significant scholarly debate on where he went and what he observed when he got there. Some say that he had a vision of Heaven. Others believe that he was a priest or other religious leader and visited the Temple in Jerusalem. To me, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t think it mattered what he saw or where he saw it. What he needed was a reminder of where to look. The darkness and deepening shadows, are not where real life is found. If you spend your time peering into the darkness that is all you will ever see. Shadows are only projections. If you are looking at your shadow, where is the source of light? Behind you. Sometimes we need a reminder to turn around so we can see where the Light has been all along.
Where we look for our faith in the future defines and determines our hope in the present. Today, where are you looking? Where have you placed your hope? What do you see on the horizon of your life?
If you see shadows, you are facing in the wrong direction.