“What church do you attend?”That was some small-talk from 2002, after I'd been attending the study for about a year. The woman who talked with me is long gone, but I'm still there.
“Is that an Episcopal church?”
Um, no, no, it’s a Catholic church.
“Oh! And they’re OK with you attending a Christian Bible study?”
Yes, yes, they are OK with it.
And, so, this morning I had the, um, assignment of leading an informal discussion on Psalm 73 using questions from Lesson 21 in this collection of all the lessons on the Psalms.
I spent time over the course of the last week preparing. I have many books on the psalms because I took a class from Jim, um, seven years ago now. But all those books are tucked away as we fix up that room. So I really had to rely only on my own reading, which isn't great, and what I read here, which is great, but too much.
The first verse affirms the traditional belief that God is good to Israel. I mentioned the hymn I'd sang at the nearby UMC with my visiting friend, God is so good, because one of the women there this morning attends that church. This is the thesis that must be proved because the psalmist just wasn't seeing that working itself in reality. That bothered him. However he prudently kept it to himself until he had worked it out, for the sake of the faith of those around him. He was in some position of leadership and didn't want to raise his objections until he had found the answer. And he really believed that there would be an answer. His is an attitude of "faith seeking understanding," as St. Anselm would later phrase it.
The psalm stands in the wisdom literature alongside Job and Ecclesiastes - books to which it is often compared - and asks the age-old question why do the wicked prosper. We read the psalm a few verses at a time and then turned to the corresponding questions. I wanted them to see how the psalmist's focus goes from others, to himself, to God. And, frankly, he's envious. If you want to say there's a confession of sin in verse 3, then ok. Unlike Job, this psalmist isn't innocent.
His conclusion in verse 13 is that he has served God for nothing. The psalmist sounds a little like the older brother in the prodigal son story. But, even more, consider that in Job 1:9, Satan asks, "Does Job fear God for nothing? You have blessed the work of his hands.” Are we following the Lord for the reward it brings us? Then I read from Garry Wills's book, What Jesus Meant, as he quotes from Venerable John Henry Newman1 about Jesus:
“All who came near him more or less suffered by approaching him just as if pain and trouble went out of him, as some precious virtue for the good of their souls.”I was careful to point out the two verses (7 & 10, NAB footnote) in which the Hebrew of the MT is uncertain, and English translation was based on the Syriac Pershitta and/or the LXX. I just didn't want them cracking their heads on anything which is ultimately hopelessly obscure.
The psalmist tries to reason his way out of his conundrum but it's only in the presence of God at worship (v. 17) that things begin to make sense. I read this excerpt from Letters to Malcolm:
"for our spiritual life as a whole, the ‘being taken into account’ or ‘considered’ matters more than the being granted. Religious people don’t talk about the ‘results’ of prayer; they talk of its being ‘answered’ or ‘heard.’ We can bear to be refused but not to be ignored. The apparent stone will be bread to us if we believe that a Father’s hand put it into ours, in mercy or in justice or even in rebuke. It is hard and bitter, yet it can be chewed and swallowed.”I was a little distracted during the study because the youth pastor's alcove is situated right off the meeting place, that is, we meet in the youth ministry wing of the church. And his computer's music program was running so I heard softly in the background the same post-grunge music that I usually listen to at home: Second Chance by Shinedown, some songs by Live and Nickelback. It was nice but just a little bothersome especially because I was thinking to myself, Oughtn't a youth pastor listen to only Christian music. You know, me being all judgmental.
cf. "Psalm 73: The Suffering of the Righteous and the Success of Sinners" - Bob Deffinbaugh. If you are interested in this psalm, read Bob Deffinbaugh's entire article as it's really good and I was able to get only a few key insights into my presentation. But the connection to Job 1:9 is his idea and the relationship between the wicked and the psalmist is also from him.