Psalm 73: Medicine for Madness
by Dr. Richard Winter
Read Psalm 73 online (ESV)
For many generations, all of my family members in England have been Christians. Through hard work and business integrity they have enjoyed material prosperity and good relationships, and we always interpreted it as God’s blessing. Little difficulty seemed to come my way until some years ago when a time of severe trouble and testing began.
I wish it could be said of me by family and friends, “That was Richard’s finest hour!” but I fear the judgment may be closer to “That was his weakest and most foolish hour.” Many difficult and dark things happened: My sister died in childbirth; my father-in-law died suddenly of heart disease; my wife was diagnosed with cancer; and my brother-in-law took his own life on the anniversary of my sister’s death. In addition we had someone living with us who had suffered ritual satanic abuse; there were difficulties in the leadership of our church and in relationships at work; and there were major life decisions to be made. I was run down, burned out, and exhausted, but life had to go on. Where was God? Why did He not seem to help much but instead just piled on the pressure?
It was Augustine who said that the Psalms are medicine for madness (see The Confessions of St. Augustine). I hear the Psalms as divine psychoanalysis. I imagine Asaph lying on his couch in his therapeutic hour every day, pouring out his heart before God. (Some say that if you have Freudian therapy, you begin to think and act like Freud; Jungian analysis makes you think like Jung. If true, Asaph was being changed to think and feel like his therapist—God.)
Look at verses 21–22 of Psalm 73: When my heart was grieved and my spirit was embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. It was certainly not Asaph’s finest hour—or mine! I look back at my difficulties and echo his words.
As we consider the heart of the psalmist, we see some of the fundamental forces of human nature exposed; we see the psychological structure of fallen human beings laid bare. The “heart” in Hebrew is the center of one’s being—which encompasses one’s intellect, feelings, and personality. Conflict and crisis expose us as we try to hide behind the front that we put on to impress the world each day.
When we see someone struggling, we often say, “I’d love to know what he or she is really thinking; I’d love to get inside his or her mind.” This psalm enables us to do that with Asaph.
Into the Psalmist’s Heart
Asaph starts with the basic assumption of Jewish life: Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart (v. 1). The emphasis on “surely” communicates a doubt, a question, a sneaking suspicion beginning to take dangerous shape in his mind: “Maybe God is not as good as I thought. Perhaps—God forbid that I should think it—God Himself has betrayed me.”
Asaph experiences a conflict between a treasured and trusted conviction and the reality of the world around him. This leads him into a state of crisis. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold (v. 2). It was almost a disaster. I wonder if he has the image of walking on a narrow, precarious mountain path and coming close to falling into a ravine. Whatever happened almost caused him to lose his trust and belief in God.
What was the conflict? It was this: “Unbelievers seem to be doing better in life than me. I always believed that God blessed and prospered believers, but I see all these unbelievers doing much better.”
There were seeds of doubt and discontent stirring in Asaph’s soul which inevitably led to coveting. In verse 3, the psalmist describes his struggle: For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (He means arrogant/foolish/wicked in the sense of “The fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God’ ” [Ps. 14:1; 53:1].) He coveted what these godless people had.
Jealousy powerfully focuses but horribly distorts one’s thinking. The psalmist describes things in all-or-nothing terms. In verses 4 and 5 he says, They have no struggles [the Hebrew can also be understood as “struggles at their death”]; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. Asaph is saying that those who have no interest in God seem to die quick and easy deaths without long and painful illnesses, or they are fit and healthy, free from all the usual problems of life. The grass is always greener on the other side.
Then, in verses 6–11, he seems to come to his senses a little. He knows there are two sides to this. He is able to see the pride of those who disregard God. These people may be loaded with wealth and success, but they lack integrity and are prone to violence and all the external manifestations of hard hearts. They are evil and arrogant. Asaph says to himself, “I want what they have, but deep down I know there are problems. Their lives are not as good as they appear.”
Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth (v. 9). Let’s break down what this means. Consider the Humanist Manifesto II (published in a 1973 issue of The Humanist magazine): “We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural . . . no deity will save us; we must save ourselves.” Basically those who declared this are saying, “We can build our own tower to heaven. Science will save us.” (Their tongues take possession of the earth.) If it’s not humanism and faith in science saving us, then it’s the other popular alternative of New Age mysticism and Eastern philosophy, which—in its most refined form—says, “This world is already heaven if you could only see it!” People who operate this way believe we are already God and that our problems arise because we cannot perceive our innate perfection and unity with all things. (Their mouths lay claim to heaven.)
Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance (v. 10). People love the idea of godless salvation. They would much rather hear this seemingly optimistic message about the nature of reality than news of sin and judgment. Drink up waters in abundance could mean “drink their fill of sorrow” from these false views of reality.
And often such worldviews work—or seem to. Here Asaph loses perspective on reality again and returns to coveting what others have, seeing only the good things on the other side of the fence (v. 12). Asaph’s bitterness and cynicism overflow. Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure, in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning (vv. 13–14). Modern expressions of this idea are: “What a waste of time to believe. I have spent all these years restraining my passions for nothing. Doing so only seems to bring more trouble and suffering. It seems like God is out to get me! Surely they should suffer, not me. This is not fair. Where is the justice in this? God, are you going to do anything about this?”
In the next verse, it’s as if Asaph clasps his hand over his mouth and thinks, “Stop! What am I saying? I’m going too far.” Notice how until now the focus has been on Asaph himself and what he is or is not getting out of his faith. At this point perspective seems to return, and he reins himself in from his wild gallop of negativity, self-pity, and cynicism. If I had, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children (v. 15).
Asaph recognizes his responsibility to others and then expresses his confusion. When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me (v. 16). Till . . . (v. 17). This is the turning point of the psalm, the fulcrum on which everything hinges. Till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Conflict, crisis, and confusion take Asaph to communion with God. What happened? A verse? A voice? A vision? A glimpse of the holiness and greatness of God?
Sanctuary speaks of the presence of God, the place where the book of the law was kept. The sanctuary today is the place where the people of God meet to worship and to hear God’s Word, to share struggles, help each other understand things that perplex and confuse, and challenge each other to faith and trust in the dark moments of life. It is among the people of God that God dwells, not in a tabernacle, temple, or church building but in a living house—a community of believers.
Then I understood their final destiny (v. 17b). By the end of the psalm we find that in the sanctuary Asaph comes to understand three things. First, he discovers the final destiny of unbelievers. Their future will unmake or undo everything they have ever lived for (vv. 18–20). Second, he sees his self-centeredness and stupidity (vv. 21–22). And third, he recognizes God’s purposes for him (vv. 23–24).
Notice that communion with God leads to Asaph’s amazingly honest and heartfelt confession. When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you (vv. 21–22). It certainly was not his finest hour. In my case, a time of painful self-reflection and repentance arose when I saw that my perception of reality was twisted.
And now, having confessed and known grace and forgiveness, Asaph is able to accept correction. He increasingly sees things from God’s perspective. He is able to dismiss the alluring alternative of giving up all he believes and lives for to pursue prosperity. Surely [note the word again] you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies (vv. 18–20).
Now look at verse 23: Yet I am always with you . . . Asaph says this to God. He realizes that, thankfully, we cannot get away from God. He wrestles us to the ground and then lifts us up again. You hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory (vv. 23b–24). After the correction comes this great statement of confidence. Commentator Derek Kidner summarizes the themes well: “We are grasped, guided and glorified.”
Grasped (v. 23). We are held by God’s right hand and in His presence forever. Here is the wonder of God’s love and grace even when we question and doubt Him. He kept me from further folly. It’s as if God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and the schemer Jacob; of doubters Asaph and Richard, Debbie and Phil, Joanna and John. . . .”
Guided (v. 24). We can have confidence that God is shaping our lives toward His purposes. We can trust His sovereignty even in the very hard and painful things.
Glorified (v. 24). Our light and momentary troubles, says Paul, are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Cor. 4:17). We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). One day the sanctifying work of the Spirit will be complete. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18). We groan, and we wait eagerly and patiently for that day (Rom. 8:19–27).
In verses 25 and 26 Asaph states the ultimate reality: Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. Compared with his love for God, all other loves—even legitimate ones—fade into insignificance. Asaph’s focus is on God.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (v. 26). Not even death will separate us from Him or His love. Even in times of illness and struggle I know that He is renewing my heart. Paul writes of us outwardly fading away but inwardly being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38–39).
In this new confidence the psalmist renews his commitment to the Lord. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the sovereign LORD my refuge (v. 28a). In a troubled and broken world, Asaph puts his faith in Yahweh, his savior and protector. He also makes a new commitment to speak out now to influence present and future generations for good. I will tell of all your deeds (v.28b). In verse 15 he imagined expressing his doubt and cynicism about God but thankfully realized how damaging that would be. Here he makes a new commitment to affect the next generation by telling of the goodness of God.
As you consider Asaph’s words, I hope that in times of difficulty you will speak not with corrosive cynicism and doubt but instead with renewed confidence in the goodness and faithfulness of God.
Dr. Richard Winter heads Covenant Seminary’s counseling program. He is a qualified clinical physician with a specialty in psychiatry who served as senior resident in psychiatry at Bristol General Hospital in England. As a church elder, he has served in a variety of ministry and leadership roles in the church. Dr. Winter not only teaches counseling, but also models the knowledge, respect, and compassion of a Christian counselor. He is the author of numerous books, including Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism (IVP, 2005) and, most recently, When Life Goes Dark: Finding Hope in the Midst of Depression (IVP, 2012). This article originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Covenant magazine.