This psalm begins somewhat abruptly: Yet God is good to Israel (so the margin reads it); he had been thinking of the prosperity of the wicked; while he was thus musing the fire burned, and at last he spoke by way of check to himself for what he had been thinking of. “However it be, yet God is good.” Though wicked people receive many of the gifts of his providential bounty, yet we must own that he is, in a peculiar manner, good to Israel; they have favours from him which others have not.
The psalmist designs an account of a temptation he was strongly assaulted with—to envy the prosperity of the wicked, a common temptation, which has tried the graces of many of the saints. Now in this account,
I. He lays down, in the first place, that great principle which he is resolved to abide by and not to quit while he was parleying with this temptation, Ps. 73:1. Job, when he was entering into such a temptation, fixed for his principle the omniscience of God: Times are not hidden from the Almighty, Job 24:1. Jeremiah’s principle is the justice of God: Righteous art thou, O God! when I plead with thee, Jer. 12:1. Habakkuk’s principle is the holiness of God: Thou art of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, Hab. 1:13. The psalmist’s, here, is the goodness of God. These are truths which cannot be shaken and which we must resolve to live and die by. Though we may not be able to reconcile all the disposals of Providence with them, we must believe they are reconcilable. Note, Good thoughts of God will fortify us against many of Satan’s temptations. Truly God is good; he had had many thoughts in his mind concerning the providences of God, but this word, at last, settled him: “For all this, God is good, good to Israel, even to those that are of a clean heart.” Note, 1. Those are the Israel of God that are of a clean heart, purified by the blood of Christ, cleansed from the pollutions of sin, and entirely devoted to the glory of God. An upright heart is a clean heart; cleanness is truth in the inward part. 2. God, who is good to all, is in a special manner good to his church and people, as he was to Israel of old. God was good to Israel in redeeming them out of Egypt, taking them into covenant with himself, giving them his laws and ordinances, and in the various providences that related to them; he is, in like manner, good to all those that are of a clean heart, and, whatever happens, we must not think otherwise.
II. He comes now to relate the shock that was given to his faith in God’s distinguishing goodness to Israel by a strong temptation to envy the prosperity of the wicked, and therefore to think that the Israel of God are no happier than other people and that God is no kinder to them than to others.
1. He speaks of it as a very narrow escape that he had not been quite foiled and overthrown by this temptation (Ps. 73:2): “But as for me, though I was so well satisfied in the goodness of God to Israel, yet my feet were almost gone (the tempter had almost tripped up my heels), my steps had well-nigh slipped (I had like to have quitted my religion, and given up all my expectations of benefit by it); for I was envious at the foolish.” Note, 1. The faith even of strong believers may sometimes be sorely shaken and ready to fail them. There are storms that will try the firmest anchors. 2. Those that shall never be quite undone are sometimes very near it, and, in their own apprehension, as good as gone. Many a precious soul, that shall live for ever, had once a very narrow turn for its life; almost and well-nigh ruined, but a step between it and fatal apostasy, and yet snatched as a brand out of the burning, which will for ever magnify the riches of divine grace in the nations of those that are saved. Now,
2. Let us take notice of the process of the psalmist’s temptation, what he was tempted with and tempted to.
(1.) He observed that foolish wicked people have sometimes a very great share of outward prosperity. He saw, with grief, the prosperity of the wicked, Ps. 73:3. Wicked people are really foolish people, and act against reason and their true interest, and yet every stander-by sees their prosperity. [1.] They seem to have the least share of the troubles and calamities of this life (Ps. 73:5): They are not in the troubles of other men, even of wise and good men, neither are they plagued like other men, but seem as if by some special privilege they were exempted from the common lot of sorrows. If they meet with some little trouble, it is nothing to what others endure that are less sinners and yet greater sufferers. [2.] They seem to have the greatest share of the comforts of this life. They live at ease, and bathe themselves in pleasures, so that their eyes stand out with fatness, Ps. 73:7. See what the excess of pleasure is; the moderate use of it enlightens the eyes, but those that indulge themselves inordinately in the delights of sense have their eyes ready to start out of their heads. Epicures are really their own tormentors, by putting a force upon nature, while they pretend to gratify it. And well may those feed themselves to the full who have more than heart could wish, more than they themselves ever thought of or expected to be masters of. They have, at least, more than a humble, quiet, contented heart could wish, yet not so much as they themselves wish for. There are many who have a great deal of this life in their hands, but nothing of the other life in their hearts. They are ungodly, live without the fear and worship of God, and yet they prosper and get on in the world, and not only are rich, but increase in riches, Ps. 73:12. They are looked upon as thriving men; while others have much ado to keep what they have, they are still adding more, more honour, power, pleasure, by increasing in riches. They are the prosperous of the age, so some read it. [3.] Their end seems to be peace. This is mentioned first, as the most strange of all, for peace in death was every thought to be the peculiar privilege of the godly (Ps. 37:37), yet, to outward appearance, it is often the lot of the ungodly (Ps. 73:4): There are no bands in their death. They are not taken off by a violent death; they are foolish, and yet die not as fools die; for their hands are not bound nor their feet put into fetters, 2 Sam. 3:33, 34. They are not taken off by an untimely death, like the fruit forced from the tree before it is ripe, but are left to hang on, till, through old age, they gently drop of themselves. They do not die of sore and painful diseases: There are no pangs, no agonies, in their death, but their strength is firm to the last, so that they scarcely feel themselves die. They are of those who die in their full strength, being wholly at ease and quiet, not of those that die in the bitterness of their souls and never eat with pleasure, Job 21:23, 25. Nay, they are not bound by the terrors of conscience in their dying moments; they are not frightened either with the remembrance of their sins or the prospect of their misery, but die securely. We cannot judge of men’s state on the other side death either by the manner of their death or the frame of their spirits in dying. Men may die like lambs, and yet have their place with the goats.
(2.) He observed that they made a very bad use of their outward prosperity and were hardened by it in their wickedness, which very much strengthened the temptation he was in to fret at it. If it had done them any good, if it had made them less provoking to God or less oppressive to man, it would never have vexed him; but it had quite a contrary effect upon them. [1.] It made them very proud and haughty. Because they live at ease, pride compasses them as a chain, Ps. 73:6. They show themselves (to all that see them) to be puffed up with their prosperity, as men show their ornaments. The pride of Israel testifies to his face, Hos. 5:5; Isa. 3:9. Pride ties on their chain, or necklace; so Dr. Hammond reads it. It is no harm to wear a chain or necklace; but when pride ties it on, when it is worn to gratify a vain mind, it ceases to be an ornament. It is not so much what the dress or apparel is (though we have rules for that, 1 Tim. 2:9) as what principle ties it on and with what spirit it is worn. And, as the pride of sinners appears in their dress, so it does in their talk: They speak loftily (Ps. 73:8); they affect great swelling words of vanity (2 Pet. 2:18), bragging of themselves and disdaining all about them. Out of the abundance of the pride that is in their heart they speak big. [1.] It made them oppressive to their poor neighbours (Ps. 73:6): Violence covers them as a garment. What they have got by fraud and oppression they keep and increase by the same wicked methods, and care not what injury they do to others, nor what violence they use, so they may but enrich and aggrandize themselves. They are corrupt, like the giants, the sinners of the old world, when the earth was filled with violence, Gen. 6:11, 13. They care not what mischief they do, either for mischief-sake or for their own advantage-sake. They speak wickedly concerning oppression; they oppress, and justify themselves in it. Those that speak well of sin speak wickedly of it. They are corrupt, that is, dissolved in pleasures and every thing that is luxurious (so some), and then they deride and speak maliciously; they care not whom they wound with the poisoned darts of calumny; from on high they speak oppression. [3.] It made them very insolent in their demeanour towards both God and man (Ps. 73:9): They set their mouth against the heavens, putting contempt upon God himself and his honour, bidding defiance to him and his power and justice. They cannot reach the heavens with their hands, to shake God’s throne, else they would; but they show their ill-will by setting their mouth against the heavens. Their tongue also walks through the earth, and they take liberty to abuse all that come in their way. No man’s greatness or goodness can secure him from the scourge of the virulent tongue. They take a pride and pleasure in bantering all mankind; they are pests of the country, for they neither fear God nor regard man. [4.] In all this they were very atheistical and profane. They could not have been thus wicked if they had not learned to say (Ps. 73:11), How doth God know? And is there knowledge in the Most High? So far were they from desiring the knowledge of God, who gave them all the good things they had and would have taught them to use them well, that they were not willing to believe God had any knowledge of them, that he took any notice of their wickedness or would ever call them to an account. As if, because he is Most High, he could not or would not see them, Job 22:12, 13. Whereas because he is Most High therefore he can, and will, take cognizance of all the children of men and of all they do, or say, or think. What an affront is it to the God of infinite knowledge, from whom all knowledge is, to ask, Isa. there knowledge in him? Well may he say (Ps. 73:12), Behold, these are the ungodly.
(3.) He observed that while wicked men thus prospered in their impiety, and were made more impious by their prosperity, good people were in great affliction, and he himself in particular, which very much strengthened the temptation he was in to quarrel with Providence. [1.] He looked abroad and saw many of God’s people greatly at a loss (Ps. 73:10): “Because the wicked are so very daring therefore his people return hither; they are at the same pause, the same plunge, that I am at; they know not what to say to it any more than I do, and the rather because waters of a full cup are wrung out to them; they are not only made to drink, and to drink deeply, of the bitter cup of affliction, but to drink all. Care is taken that they lose not a drop of that unpleasant potion; the waters are wrung out unto them, that they may have the dregs of the cup. They pour out abundance of tears when they hear wicked people blaspheme God and speak profanely,” as David did, Ps. 119:136. These are the waters wrung out to them. [2.] He looked at home, and felt himself under the continual frowns of Providence, while the wicked were sunning themselves in its smiles (Ps. 73:14): “For my part,” says he, “all the day long have I been plagued with one affliction or another, and chastened every morning, as duly as the morning comes.” His afflictions were great—he was chastened and plagued; the returns of them were constant, every morning with the morning, and they continued, without intermission, all the day long. This he thought was very hard, that, when those who blasphemed God were in prosperity, he that worshipped God was under such great affliction. He spoke feelingly when he spoke of his own troubles; there is no disputing against sense, except by faith.
(4.) From all this arose a very strong temptation to cast off his religion. [1.] Some that observed the prosperity of the wicked, especially comparing it with the afflictions of the righteous, were tempted to deny a providence and to think that God had forsaken the earth. In this sense some take Ps. 73:11. There are those, even among God’s professing people, that say, “How does God know? Surely all things are left to blind fortune, and not disposed of by an all-seeing God.” Some of the heathen, upon such a remark as this, have asked, Quis putet esse deos?--Who will believe that there are gods? [2.] Though the psalmist’s feet were not so far gone as to question God’s omniscience, yet he was tempted to question the benefit of religion, and to say (Ps. 73:13), Verily, I have cleansed my heart in vain, and have, to no purpose, washed my hands in innocency. See here what it is to be religious; it is to cleanse our hearts, in the first place, by repentance and regeneration, and then to wash our hands in innocency by a universal reformation of our lives. It is not in vain to do this, not in vain to serve God and keep his ordinances; but good men have been sometimes tempted to say, “It is in vain,” and “Religion is a thing that there is nothing to be got by,” because they see wicked people in prosperity. But, however the thing may appear now, when the pure in heart, those blessed ones, shall see God (Matt. 5:8), they will not say that they cleansed their hearts in vain.