There is a noticeable lack of poetic justice in the world.
It seems more often than not, bad things happen to good people, and even worse things happen to very good people. It mystifies me that the very best people I know have been through some of the most terrible tragedies. While on the other hand, very bad people, those who seem completely bankrupt of any sort of responsibility, love, or human decency, often are rewarded with financial success and good health.
Rarely it seems, do people get what they deserve.
I was reading an article in a Malawian newspaper today and the story was describing how foreign investors here are taking advantage of local workers by underpaying them and overworking them. The Labor Minister was interviewed in the article, and he mentioned that some workers are made to work in cold conditions (presumably food storage freezers). He said with apparent concern, “They can get a disease known as cold frost.”
Ok, so maybe his terminologies leave something to be desired. But, nonetheless, it was refreshing to see the government standing up for the downtrodden. That so seldom happens in Africa.
What is far more common in Africa, and elsewhere, is what the article was describing: unscrupulous and unsavory people becoming wealthy by exploiting hard working and honest people.
Some would say this type of thing points to the absence of God. If there was a God, they argue, then the tables would be turned and people would get what they deserve.
But, perhaps, people really do get what they deserve.
Psalm 73 describes a journey – a journey in which the Psalmist goes from anguish over the apparent prosperity of the wicked, to rejoicing over the reality of his own less tangible, but far more genuine and lasting prosperity. Psalm 73 is a poem that addresses an issue which most people who try to serve God probably struggle with at some point: that the righteous seem to suffer, while the unrighteous seem to prosper in everything. In the opening lines, the Psalmist says:
Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
And later, he writes:
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.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me.
We feel the heart anguish of the writer as he honestly struggles with his emotions, while simultaneously being uncomfortable with what he feels. He faces a conundrum. He feels what he feels, and yet what he feels does not feel quite right. Most of us can relate. He sees the evil perpetrated by the wicked, and yet the wicked seem to get everything, except what they deserve.
At some point in his wrestling, the writer finds his way into God’s presence, His sanctuary. In verse seventeen the writer says:
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
It is here, in God’s presence, that clarity comes. The writer begins to realize that what we see is not always the greatest measure of reality, that there are other truths which we don’t so readily see – at least not on our own. That’s why Paul admonishes “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
There is just something about the presence of God. And the point of Psalm 73 is that only there, in God’s presence, can we attain a proper perspective on the world we live in, and a proper understanding of our own reality. When we are near to God, when we focus our attention and affection on Him, His divine Presence has a way of scattering the illusions that often plague our thoughts, and illuminating the truth about our existence. And we realize that the prosperity of the wicked is instead a prison; those things which seem to be sources of delight for those who reject God, are ultimately the source of their own destruction.
In God’s presence we discover the infinite value of an intimate God. We discover our own immeasurable prosperity in Emmanuel – God with us. And then, we begin to appreciate the fact that maybe the wicked really do get what they deserve, and that we have gotten far more than we deserve.
The wicked want a life free from God, and to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God gives it to them. But for the righteous, our infinite and ultimate reward is God Himself.
And in wrestling with his frustrations over the wicked, perhaps, the writer of the Psalm is reminded that
Truth is best found, with our faces to the ground.
The words of this Psalm then are for all of us who struggle with the reality of an unjust world. It reminds us to focus not on the seeming pleasures and ease of life for those who do not know God, but rather on the genuine joy that we have, because we do.