It can be confusing when we look at the world around us and we do not see God’s justice playing out before our eyes. This is why we always must trust God’s Word and His promises and not be distracted by temporary circumstances.
Asking Seven Forbidden Questions
Today we arrive at Psalm 73. This Psalm begins the third of the five books of the Psalms. Scholars believe that while King David compiled books one and two, it was the Levite Ezra who compiled the last three and put the final arrangement on all five books.
Now let’s switch gears with a question: What if the man who was in charge of the music program for the nation of Israel said, “I’m going to quit my job and leave the ministry, and it’s all because of the wicked people around me who have it so much better than I do”?
Well, one Old Testament music leader almost did just that. His name is Asaph, and he confesses in Psalm 73 to nearly ending his ministry for that reason and more.
Asaph was a Levite, one of three chief musicians appointed by David to lead the choral services of the sanctuary. He was a composer, arranger, singer, and director. And I say all that to tell you that Asaph is the last person you would ever think would quit simply because unbelievers seemed to have it better than he did. But that is exactly what he admits to. In fact, he writes a song about it!
We arrive at that song today—Psalm 73. And Asaph starts out correctly here with this statement in verse 1: “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.”
That is true, but keep in mind that being pure in heart is not a reference to perfection but to connection. The pure in heart are the people connected to God by faith through His mercy and grace.
With that opening statement, Asaph now makes this rather startling confession in verse 2: “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.” The great composer and arranger of Israel admits that he almost slipped off the path. Now, everybody is awake!
Asaph then begins to pour out his inner battle with doubt and questions and confusion. Evidently, he has had a long, private battle with God, which he now makes public.
He proceeds to make a number of statements that clearly point to some underlying questions that are bothering him. These are what I call forbidden questions. They are questions believers don’t think they are supposed to ask—at least out loud. You might think of them, but you would never write a song about them!
The first question is this: Why do unbelievers have more money than I do? Asaph says here in verse 3, “I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”
Asaph looks around at people who have no time for God. In contrast, he is dedicated to the Lord. So, why is it that he has a hard time paying his bills and those unbelievers seem to have plenty of money left over?
Asaph moves on to ask another troubling question: Why do unbelievers seem to have less pressure in life? He complains to God in verse 4, “They have no pangs until death.”
The word for “pangs” here refers to fetters or chains or struggles that weigh them down. Unbelievers just seem to “glide into eternity without a struggle.” The road they are traveling seems to be paved, while Asaph’s road seems to have one pothole after another.
Here is another confusing issue for Asaph: Why do unbelievers enjoy better health than I do?
He writes here in verse 4, “Their bodies are fat and sleek.” To us that may not sound all that healthy, especially that part about being fat. You get fat when you eat too much chocolate cake.
Well, the Hebrew expression here means “healthy and strong.” In other words, Asaph is going to the doctor every other month, and his unbelieving neighbor hasn’t taken a sick day in ten years. Asaph is asking, “Why is that ungodly person healthier than I am?”
Asaph asks another forbidden question here that you are not going to put on the church prayer list, but you sure are wondering: Why do ungodly people seem to have trouble-free lives? In verse 5, Asaph writes, “They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.” They have trouble-free lives. Lord, why is that? he wonders. That just isn’t fair.
Asaph then quickly moves on to another question: Why are wicked people not exposed for who they really are? He writes here in verse 6, “Pride is their necklace.”
You might remember that when Pharaoh promoted Joseph, he gave Joseph a golden necklace (Genesis 41:42). Belshazzar did the same thing for Daniel (Daniel 5:29). Such necklaces in ancient days were tokens of dignity and status.
Asaph is wondering here why wicked people get promoted to places of status when they ought to be exposed. It appears that they are getting away with their wicked lives.
Here’s another question that bothers Asaph: Why are unbelievers allowed to blaspheme God without being silenced?
In verse 9, Asaph describes their blasphemy as he writes, “They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.” They are strutting around like peacocks with their tongues in full plumage against heaven—against God. And instead of being silenced, they get standing ovations! Verse 10 says, “Therefore [unbelievers] turn back to them, and find no fault in them.”
Their defiance against God makes them popular. Their sin makes them famous. People find no fault in them; in fact, the world can’t get enough of them.
Asaph is struggling with this. Instead of being silenced by God, he writes in verse 12 that these blasphemers are “always at ease, they increase in riches.”
With that, Asaph moves to the heart of his frustration—and it isn’t just about the unbeliever who seems to get away with everything. Asaph writes here in verse 13, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.”His question is this: Why has my commitment to God not paid off?”
Again, you are not going to ask this question in Sunday school, but here it is in print. Living a godly life all these years does not seem to be worth it to Asaph. He writes in verse 14, “All the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.”
Every day when he got out of bed, it wasn’t long before God convicted him of something. “Look at all the wicked people around me,” Asaph says; “God doesn’t seem to rebuke or convict them for anything.”
Now Asaph admits he has carried all this inside because he writes here in verse 15, “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children.”
In essence, he is saying, “I am Israel’s music director. If I bare my soul and share my doubts and frustrations, I could negatively influence the next generation.” There is truth to that. Those who are older in the faith need to be careful with what they say and how they influence younger believers in the faith.
But aren’t you glad that God had Asaph put these forbidden questions on paper? God knows we have all wondered similar things, whether we are young in the faith or older believers.
It is actually easy for our feet to slip, to get caught up in this valley of confusion and frustration. Perhaps right now, you can’t see very many advantages to living a committed life for the Lord. You are looking around at unbelievers, and just like Asaph, you are wondering why your life has to be so hard. You are having a difficult time counting your blessings.
Well, Asaph isn’t nearly finished writing his testimony in song. This first half of Psalm 73 has been fairly negative; it’s been brutally honest and emotionally raw. But something is going to happen that will change Asaph’s perspective, and it can change ours as well.
I will give you a clue. Asaph began this psalm by admitting that his steps had nearly slipped. But rather than slip away, he is going to slip inside the sanctuary of God and receive some answers from the Lord, as we will see when we continue our study in Psalm 73.