Psalm 73

Grieving at the Wicked

This is the book of Job in miniature: it seems to condense the extremes of doubt and faith. It contrasts the outraged moral sense which can (it seems) exist independently of belief in God, and which is appalled by the unchecked progress of evil in the world, with hunger for God and humility before Him.

It offers no easy solutions. In the Coverdale translation the statement with which it begins, ‘Truly God is loving unto Israel’, though it seems to sum up what is to follow (the conclusion to be drawn from experience, as recounted in the Psalm) can be read as being tinged with uncertainty. This is suggested by the need to reassure oneself. For whoever reads, sings, or meditates on the psalm, faith and doubt will have to fight it out all over again (as every translator has fought to realise the meaning in his or her own terms).

Mary Sidney (for example), the sister of the famous Sir Philip, writes in her version like the noble woman she was, to whom the accoutrements of worldly power were all too familiar:

They seem as privileged from other’s pain:
The scourging plagues, which on their neighbours fall,
Torment not them, nay touch them not at all.
Therefore with pride, as with a gorgeous chain,
Their swelling necks encompassed they bear;
All clothed in wrong, as if a robe it were.

This is, incidentally, a marvellous introduction to religious poetry for anybody who has to teach it in this famously secular age. It sums it all up (almost), showing that what people like to think of as specially twentieth century problems of belief go right back; if not quite to the very beginning of the journey of faith. Here is the bedrock. It proves what T.S. Eliot says about the effort of art: to recover ‘what has been lost and found and found and lost again and again’.

There is an unforgettable loathing in Coverdale’s picture of the wicked:

For they are in no peril of death: but are lusty and strong.
They come in no misfortune like other folk: neither are they plagued like other men.
And this is the cause that they are so holden with pride: and overwhelmed with cruelty.
Their eyes swell with fatness: and they do even what they lust.

Disgust at the loss of humanity, inwardly and outwardly, goes hand in hand with understanding of how this happens: of how good fortune tempts us to hardness of heart. The wicked are actually passive, taken over by pride and cruelty.

But the temptation spreads. The psalmist finds himself saying (verse 12) ‘Then have I cleansed my heart in vain’. Why not just give up, and go with the tide? The power of the psalm is seen in the way it draws us in, both to what we have experienced (like the sense of being overawed, outnumbered) and to what we can imagine – into the moods and moments of black depression and sudden relief. Thus we can live through the turning point: it seems worse to let go of the faith that should be handed on to others, than to abandon it for oneself (verse 14):

Yea, and I had almost said even as they: but lo,
then I should have condemned the generation of thy children.

Having been pulled unbearably in two contrary directions, the psalmist finally acknowledges that the matter must be surrendered to God. Spiritual obedience begins not before the effort to understand, but when the effort is exhausted.

The answer which comes, within ‘the sanctuary of God’, seems obvious on one level: all power is unstable, pride comes before a fall, arrogance will finally overreach itself (verse 19):

Yea, even like a dream when one awaketh: so shalt thou make
their image to vanish out of the city.

But the real problem was the attraction of that image of power, horrible and fascinating: its corrupting and intimidating hints of a ride on the gravy train, its plausible account of everything. Returning to God turns out the temptation like a light. Though Coverdale seems alone in his overt reference to ‘the city’ it is the greatness of this psalm to link the public realm to the private wrestling of the individual soul, just as it links ‘the wicked’, in their humanity, to the penitent who break away from them.

The greatest ‘grieving’, for those who have tried to act rightly, is the memory of their blindness, and their loss of the human image (verse 21):

So foolish was I, and ignorant: even as it were a beast before thee.

The psalm ends with a renewed sense of total dependence on God, and a renewed resolution to share the experience.

Robert Cockcroft
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997