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by Dr. Tony Ash

    This psalm tells a story. After a preliminary statement of the psalmist’s conclusion (vs. 1) the poet describes a devastating personal problem. It had several facets. First, was the prosperity of the wicked, apparently ever-increasing and untrammelled (vs. 2-9). Second, was their impact on God’s people, who had come to believe that God was either unknowing or uncaring about this evil (vs. 10-12). Third, was the immense frustration of the author, whose determined attempts at right living had brought only pain and sorrow (vs. 13f.).

    The writer allows the reader into his meditations and personal debate beginning with verse 15. He was unwilling to spread his skepticism, but was unable to puzzle out this life situation which seemed so contradictory to the way things should be.

...two great truths broke powerfully into his heart.
His resolution finally came in the sanctuary of God (vs. 17). In that context, two great truths broke powerfully into his heart. First, despite immediate appearances, the wicked would certainly face judgment and punishment (vs. 18-20). After a self rebuke (21f.), the second truth was his conviction that he would enjoy a rich and multi-faceted fellowship with God which was denied the wicked (vs. 23-26). A closing couplet (vs. 27, 28) restates the two destinies — one of the wicked, and the other of those who are “near God”.

    [Note: This psalm has a number of textual problems, but still the story is clear. It is a remarkable poem because its progress is easy to follow and because it lays bare a problem with which many readers can identify.]


Verse 1 - NLT - RSV
The psalm opens with “Truly,” which translates a Hebrew word also found in verses 13 and 18. In each case it indicates a circumstance contrary to what might have been expected from the words of the immediate context. Here the affirmation of God’s goodness seems contrary to the problem to be delineated in verses 2-16. But here the author “plants his flag” so readers know that the dark days will be followed by brighter ones. However things may look for a time, evil will not win the day.

There are two ways to translate this verse. One is in the RSV text, and the other in the footnote. We have chosen the RSV, which involves an emendation of the Hebrew. To some it seems reference to the pure in heart in Israel contradicts the following verses, for not all Israelites were pure in heart. Retention of “Israel,” however, is linguistically permissible, and has led some to see the author as representing a problem faced by the people, not just by an individual. This the psalm calls the nation to faith in a time when evil seemed to be in the transcendant.

Verses 2-9 - NLT - RSV
The author suffered the near loss of faith (vs. 2) because of his envy and distress when he observed the wicked (vs. 3). There follows a colorful description of their evil, in which “pride,” “violence,” “follies,” scoffing, “malice,” ‘threats of “oppression,” and “arrogance” detail their wickedness. Besides these horrors, the poet is alarmed at their freedom from trouble, indeed, at their remarkable health (vs. 4f.). This seeming prosperity had led them to an ever increasing wickedness. They were the worst sort of gangsters, imposing their evil designs on others (vs. 8).

In verse 9 “against” could be rendered “in.” The idea then would be that they assumed god like prerogatives. God was not above them, for they were the sovereigns. “Struts through the earth” is a remarkable picture, though the Hebrew is not quite as colorful as this imaginative translation. The verb rendered “struts” is usually “walks,” and the versions reveal variant translations.

Verses 10-12 - NLT - RSV
These malefactors had influenced society, to the great distress of the poet. Some were apparently questioning God’s awareness of the situation. If he knows, why doesn’t he act? But no judgment came, and the wicked “increase in riches.”

Verse 10, as the footnote indicates, is one of those places where literal translation of the Hebrew seems to make no sense. “His people return hither, and abundant waters are drained by them” is a sentence which challenges translators to produce a meaningful rendering. The possibilities can be seen by comparing the various English translations.

Verse 12 completes the present description of the wicked, though they will be described again in verses 18-20, where they are found in quite a different situation.

Verses 13,14 - NLT - RSV
As if the poet’s anguish were not already overwhelming, now a new element is added. Contrary to the reaction of the people, here is one of the “pure in heart” (vs. 1) whose life was dedicated to righteous living. In the theology of Israel (cf. Deut. 28:15-19) that was supposed to produce blessing. But the common conception seems to be denied in the case of the wicked, as well as in the author’s case. Instead of blessing he suffers incessant strikes and chastisings (NIV says “plagued” and “punished”). Why have things gone awry? His problem was both spiritual and physical, or so it seems.

Verse 15 - NLT - RSV
The poet, to his credit, did not wish to harm God’s children by speaking of his distress. They had been harmed enough by the influence of the wicked. He would not be an evangelist of skepticism. At length he did make his problem public (in this psalm), but only when resolution had come.

Verses 16,17 - NLT - RSV
He cannot untie this knot, though he had worn himself out trying to reach a solution. His intellectual efforts were ineffectual, but there are times when worship can do what intellect cannot. He went into the sanctuary of God. There he found “hearts-ease,” and a solution to his problem. So far as we know, when he emerged external circumstances were (for the time) unchanged. But his internal circumstances were profoundly altered. What did he find in the sanctuary? We do not know, but that would be a place redolent of the history of God’s dealings with the people; a place where worshipers were present; a place then of special divine presence and special faith. He may not have learned anything he had not heard before, but may have had truths impact him so that became part of what he was, and were not just words. It was one of those times which many have experienced when something often heard comes to be truly believed.

Verses 18-20 - NLT - RSV
Whatever the present situation, God’s governance and judgment are true. The “when” is unknown, but the “what” is sure. The wicked will be defeated. This is described by a vivid series of images. The Hebrew of verse 20 is problematic, and some would render the text with God despising the “fantasies” of the wicked (cf. NIV).

Verses 21,22 - NLT - RSV
The poet now reflects on his previous state. He has been so overwhelmed by the discoveries in the sanctuary that he describes his former state as stupid, ignorant, and beast like. Now his life is controlled by a new perception which reveals the shameful shortcomings of his previous mental distress. Yet it was at that time a powerfully troubling impression. We are grateful that he has described it for times when we are similarly distressed.

Verses 23-26 - NLT - RSV
Now he makes a statement of personal faith, and in so doing affords us one of the high points of the Psalter. He piles image upon image as he expounds his new situation. God is a never failing helper who “holds his right hand” (vs. 24). He is a counselor who will lead the poet to glory. Whereas the author had been envious of the arrogant (vs. 3), he has now found the true object of absolute desire—it is God. What else could begin to compare with this fellowship? Verse 25 is surely one of the great devotional statements of the Bible. How fortunate are those who can truly make these words their own. Whatever may come, God will be his strength forever (vs. 26).

The last line of verse 24 has been the focus of much discussion. Christians, reading Christian ideas back into the Old Testament, see here a reference to the hereafter — eternal heavenly glory. However, “glory” is not used in this sense in the Old Testament, and the concept of heaven was not a part of Israelite theology. The affirmation seems to mean that when his life ended, it would do so with a glory that would testify to its worth and fulfillment. But we also admit the possibility that this thinker, knowing God as he did, wondered if the care of God might not extend even beyond death.

Verses 27,28 - NLT - RSV
These verses restate what has been said previously, as a final affirmation of the ideas expounded in the psalm. “Far” and “near” catch the contrast between the two kinds of people the psalm has described — those false to God, and those for whom God is a refuge.

The author closes with an evangelistic word, which has been realized in the writing of this psalm.

Practical Applications

  1. Worship is not just about remembering great things God has done and praising him for great things he will do. Part of worship, as this Psalm illustrates, is going to God honestly with the difficult ironies of life and sharing our frustrations with him. He not only listens, our Father in heaven has provided quite a few Psalms like this one to help us verbalize our quandaries, frustrations, and difficulties. Rather than retreating from the problems of life in worship, sometimes we need to bring them into the presence of God to receive his healing presence and grace.

  2. Sometimes life is baffling and we simply cannot figure out the reasons why somethings happen. Never-the-less, God is still God. He loves us. He welcomes us into his presence. Even though outward appearances may suggest that we are not prospered like the wicked, the wicked cannot come confidently into the presence of the Holy God of Israel and know he or she is welcomed, loved, heard, and met.

  3. Part of coming to know the real God who meets us in all of life’s difficulties and whose ways are often unfathomable (cf. Romans 11:33-36) is sharing our knowlege and experience of God with others who do not know him as well.

    Let’s thank God for providing such an honest and searching attempt to work out one of life’s troubling mysteries by going to God, especially when all the answers can’t be discovered in our own heads or experience.

      Title: ""
      Author: Dr. Tony Ash
      Publication Date: December 2, 2001

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