Book 3 of Psalms contains a great deal of lamentation and complaint. Divine judgment—both positive and negative—comes to the fore in many of the psalms here. Contemplating these psalms gives us a mirror in which to explore our own faithfulness—or lack of it—as well as to express our actual feelings to the God who is able to reconcile everything to himself.
Psalm 73 depicts a four-fold journey of temptation and faithfulness, playing it out in the psalmist's work. In the first stage he acknowledges that God’s favorable judgment is a source of strength. “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart” (Psalms 73:1). Yet quickly (stage two) he becomes tempted to forsake God’s ways. “But as for me,” he says, “my feet had almost stumbled and my feet had nearly slipped, for I was envious of the arrogant” (Ps. 73:2). He finds himself preoccupied with the apparent success of the wicked, which he describes in obsessive detail over the next ten verses. He notes in particular those who “speak with malice” and “threaten oppression” (Ps. 73:8). In his envy, he begins to think his own integrity had been pointless, “All in vain I have kept my heart clean” (Ps. 73:13) he says, noting that he has come to the edge of joining the wicked himself (Ps. 73:14-15).
At the last minute, however he goes “into the sanctuary of God,” meaning he begins to “perceive” things from God’s point of view (Ps. 73: 17). He sees that God will make the wicked “fall to ruin” (Ps. 73:18). This begins the third stage, in which he sees that the success of people who lack integrity is only temporary. All of them eventually “are destroyed in a moment,” and become “like a dream when one awakes” (Ps. 73:19-20). He realizes that when he was thinking of joining the wicked he had been “stupid and ignorant” (Ps. 73:22). In the fourth stage, he re-commits himself to God’s ways. “I am continually with you,” he says, and “you guide me with your counsel” (Ps. 73:23, 24).
Do we also follow this four-stage journey to some degree? We also may begin with integrity and faithfulness to God. Then we see that others seem to be getting away with deception and oppression. Sometimes we become impatient with how long God is taking to execute his judgment. While God tarries, the wicked seem to be “always at ease,” and “they increase in riches,” while the upright seem to be “plagued and punished” by the unfairness of life (Ps. 73:12, 14). But the timing of God’s judgment is God’s business, not ours. In fact, because we are not perfect ourselves, let us not be eager for God to judge the wicked.
Paying too much attention to the undeserved success of others, we become tempted to seek unfair advantages for ourselves too. It is especially tempting to succumb to this impulse at work, where it may seem like there is a different set of rules. We see arrogant people (Ps. 73:3) gain recognition and bully others into giving them an undue share of the rewards (Ps. 73:6). We see people commit fraud, yet prosper for years. Those with power over us at work seem foolish (Ps. 73:7), yet they get promoted. Maybe we should do the same ourselves. Perhaps God doesn’t really know or care how we act (Ps 73:11), at least not at work.
Like the Psalmist, our remedy is to remember that working alongside God—that is in accordance to his ways—is a delight in itself. “For me it is good to be near God” (Ps. 73:28). When we do this, we open ourselves again to God’s counsel, and return to his ways. For example, it may be that we can climb the ladder of success faster—at least at first—by taking credit for others’ work, blaming others for our mistakes, or getting others to do our work for us. But will the promotion and the extra income be worth the feeling of hollowness and the fear of being exposed as a fraud? Will success make up for the loss of friendships and the inability to trust anyone around us? If we take care of the people around us, share credit for success, and take our share of blame for failures, it may seem like we get off to a slower start. But won’t our work be more enjoyable? And when we need support, when we need trust in co-workers, and them in us, won’t we be in a better position than the arrogant and abusive? Truly, God is good to the upright.
John E. Hunter, Finding the Living Christ in the Psalms (Zondervan, 1972) develops this idea in the article “The Man Who Looked Four Ways,” although we have not followed his stages exactly.
Despite the attention to personal judgment we have seen in Psalm 73, in most of Book 3, it is the nation of Israel that comes under judgment. The topic of national judgment, per se, is relevant to this article to the extent that it establishes the context for people carrying out their work in that nation. It also suggests an important type of work the Christians can engage in while representing the Kingdom of God, namely national policy making. But we can note that when a national government becomes evil, the country’s economy suffers. Psalm 81 is an example, for it begins with God’s judgment against the nation of Israel. “My people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts” (Ps. 81:11-12). Then it goes on to describe the economic consequences. “O that my people would listen to me….I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (Ps. 81:13, 16). Here, we see how national violations of God’s covenant bring about scarcity and economic hardship. Had the people been faithful to God’s ways, they would have experienced prosperity. Instead they have abandoned God’s ways and find themselves going hungry (Ps. 81:10).
Likewise, Psalm 85 describes the economic benefits that accrue when Israel is faithful to God’s commands. The people experience peace and security, productive work, and increased prosperity (Ps. 85:10-13). Without good government, none of us can hope to prosper for long. In many places Christians are highly visible in opposing government policies we disagree with, but constructive engagement is needed too. What can you do to help establish or preserve good government in your town, region or nation?
Although God’s judgment takes the fore in Book 3 of the Psalms, we also find God’s grace. “Be gracious to me, O Lord,” Psalm 86 implores, “for you, O Lord are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you” (Ps. 86:2, 5). The psalm comes from someone feeling worn down by opposition from those more powerful. “I am poor and needy” (Ps. 86:1). “The insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life” (Ps. 86:14). “Those who hate me” are a constant threat (Ps. 86:17). “Save the child of your serving girl” (Ps. 86:16b).
The psalm does not claim righteousness, but rejoices that God is “slow to anger” (Ps. 86:15). It asks only for God’s grace. “Turn to me and be gracious to me” (Ps. 86:16a). “In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me” (Ps. 86:7).
At times all of us face opposition at work. Sometimes it is very directly personal and dangerous. We may be oppressed by others, or we may be at fault, or a mixture of both. We may feel unworthy in our work, unloved in our relationships, incapable of changing either our circumstances or ourselves. No matter the source of opposition to us—even if we have seen the enemy and it is us—we can ask for God’s grace to save us. God’s grace cuts through the ambiguity that surrounds our life and work and shows us a sign of God’s favor (Ps 86:17) beyond what we deserve.
Of course, God does not save anyone—neither ourselves or our enemies—for the purpose of inflicting further harm. With grace comes reform. “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth” (Ps. 86:11a). The psalmist’s petition is for him- or herself, but accepting God’s grace means turning ourselves to him ahead of ourselves. “Give me an undivided heart to revere your name. I give thanks to you O Lord my God, with my whole heart” (Ps. 86:11-12).
With God’s heart, we also become merciful, even to those who oppose us. The psalm asks that opponents “be put to shame” (Ps. 86:17) for their hatred, but that in doing so they will “come and bow down before you, O Lord” (Ps. 86:9) and so also come into God’s grace. Grace means mercy not only for us, but also for our opponents, to show God’s power to his enemies so that his name is glorified (Ps. 86:9).