“My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart,
my portion forever” (Ps 73:26).
This is what I like to call a “Psalmist classic.” It’s the kind of verse you find written on a coffee mug or t-shirt, maybe even tattooed on someone’s arm. It’s a verse that, apart from any context, can easily turn into a “feel-good” platitude, a bright ray of biblical sunshine for the cloudy days of our lives.
Don’t get me wrong. God’s Word – whether written on the pages of our Bibles or the sides of our coffee mugs – is for us a daily necessity, especially in the midst of our distracted age. Nevertheless, we must always seek to interpret Scripture within context. In fact, understanding the context of a given passage often brings Scripture to bear upon our lives in ways we never before imagined. Such is the case with Psalm 73.
When Heart and Flesh Fail
When we read this Psalm, we must not imagine the Psalmist sitting quietly at the edge of a pond, writing down his warm and fuzzy thoughts about the benevolent nature of the universe. To the contrary, Psalm 73 was written from the pen of a man filled with confusion, frustration, and an overall sense that life was nothing but a contradiction.
The Psalmist begins with a truthful statement about God’s goodness toward “the pure in heart” (v. 1). So far, so good. But then, quite suddenly, the Psalmist shifts his focus: “But as for me, my feet almost slipped; my steps nearly went astray. For I envied the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (v. 2-3). What has happened? With humble honesty, the Psalmist has laid bare his sinful heart before his Maker, revealing the contrast between the “pure in heart” and his own, envious heart.
The sin of envy manifests itself in several ways for the Psalmist. For example, he doubts God’s justice and despairs over the seemingly meaningless nature of suffering (v. 4-14). It’s as if the Psalmist has pointed a finger at the world and screamed, “This is one, big contradiction!”
Despite their pride, violence, and mockery of God, the wicked “are always at ease, and they increase in their wealth” (v. 12). The bewilderment doesn’t stop there! With an eye toward his own suffering, the Psalmist begins to call his own pursuit of godliness into question: “Did I purify my heart and wash my hands in innocence for nothing?” (v. 13). Herein lies the lament of a person who tries and tries, but continually falls short of his or her vision of success.
Can you resonate with the Psalmist’s frustration? I sure can.
I’ve often wondered why God seems to let the wicked get off the hook so easily; meanwhile, the righteous among us can never seem to catch a break. We all know of women and men in our churches who, despite their faithful giving and serving and praying, appear to catch the brunt end of every kind of suffering. As has often been asked, “Why must the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?” and “Why must the righteous suffer?”
To be sure, there are holes all-throughout this kind of logic. For starters, the distinction between “righteous” and “wicked” is not as clear as we’d like it to be, especially in a world in which “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23). As Jesus himself taught, “there is only One who is good” (Mt 19:17). Moreover, who’s to say that the wicked are not presently suffering from the effects of their wickedness? While the grass might seem greener on the other side, it may feel like broken glass underneath their feet.
Regardless of the assumptions we bring, these very questions remain. They are the questions we ask in frailest moments. And even when we don’t, the Bible itself asks them for us, which brings us back to Psalm 73. How does the Psalmist – and how do we – find peace in the midst of such perplexing thoughts?
The Only Safe Place
For those in Christ, the safest place to run to (the only place to run to, really) is none other than God’s presence. The Psalmist continues, “When I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God” (v. 16). This dependent clause should bring great comfort to the confused and to the skeptical, to those wearied and burdened by the apparent contradictions of the world.
To know that God’s sanctuary – God’s holy presence – is the safest place to go in the midst of doubt and despair can bring living water to our parched souls! The book of Hebrews speaks of the same reality: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need.”
Christian, in prayer, you are not entering the presence of a god who is temperamental or easily disturbed by your confusion and doubt. No. You are entering the presence of a “high priest who is [able] to sympathize with [your] weaknesses” (Heb 4:15) – the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thus, the Psalmist prays, “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory… My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (v. 23-26).
May we find refuge in our ever-present, gracious God.