<A Psalm of Asaph.>
1 Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
7 Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
10 Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.
11 And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.
18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms.
21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27 Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you.
28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, to tell of all your works.
Several church communities I am familiar with have adopted the popular, “God is good all the time and all the time God is good” saying. While I do not disagree with the assertion that God is good, an honest reflection on the life of faith may question the experience of God’s goodness. One of the gifts of the psalter is that it includes prayers that wrestle with the experience of God’s goodness in a world where the wicked seem to prosper and the righteous suffer. The righteous ones in the psalms ask questions of God, speak openly of the things that make them question their way of life as they, “keep looking for truth in the midst of an imperfect world.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 593)
What does it mean for God to be good to the upright and the pure of heart in a world where the wicked are at peace and the righteous suffer. The observation of a world where the immediate experience seems to contradict the promise of prosperity for those keep God’s covenant. In Hebrew the psalmist sees the shalom of the wicked (translated prosperity in the NRSV). Shalom indicates peace and prosperity. It is what is promised to the righteous but is now viewed by the psalmist as being received by the wicked. Their physical and emotional health is secure, they are well fed, they bear no consequences for their violent words and actions, their pride is viewed by others as a virtue. Their way of life seems to contradict the will of God and yet they seem to be rewarded in society for their self-centered actions. On a societal level this seems to have been the struggle of Israel, staying faithful to God when their neighbors seemed to prosper, and on an individual level the psalmist confesses that it nearly caused him to stray from the path and adopt the practices of these apparently successful wicked ones.
In contrast the ones who has kept their hearts clean and washed their hands in innocence have encountered suffering. Whether their pain is physical or social, it causes them to question the efficacy of the way of life they have attempted to walk. They live in tension between their faithfulness to the circle of the faithful and their view of the peace and prosperity of the wicked. In the moment the world appears to be upside down with the wicked prospering and being commended while the righteous suffer and are excluded or taken advantage of. It is only by bringing this question to the community of faith and the place of worship that the psalmist is able to see beyond their perception of the moment.
The resolution of this psalm reminds me of the difference between climate and weather. Weather is the observation of the atmospheric conditions and their impact in a short window of time while climate looks at the compilation of individual weather observations to study the changes over time. The psalmist initially is observing the wicked within a short window of time but once they enter the sanctuary of God they see that this window of time is transitory. In the moment the wicked may experience shalom, but it is an evanescent experience that will vanish like a dream disappears upon waking. Indeed, the psalmist views the current prosperity of the wicked as an slippery slope that ultimately leads to their ruin. The psalmist confesses their own shortsightedness which caused them to question God’s goodness in the world and to consider the attractiveness of the ways of the wicked ones who lived well-fed and well-loved in their community.
The psalmist ends in a space of faith. The experience of the moment is transitory, but God is their rock that they can lean upon. God’s justice may not be experienced immediately, but the wicked will not find shalom forever, they will find that God can know and that their actions are seen. Yet, in pondering the prosperity of the wicked, the righteous one has found their treasure in being close to God. The process of questioning one’s experience has brought the poet closer to God. The prosperity of the wicked no longer seems as appealing since the psalmist desires nothing more than the presence of God. For the upright they come to know that God is good not in their experience of material prosperity but instead in God’s physical proximity.