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Seeing Clearly in the Sanctuary - Psalm 73

A service plan for Lent from Psalm 73 which acknowledges the seeming inequities of life and the doubts that arise yet declares strength, hope and protection in God our Sovereign Lord. Part of a Lenten series on the Psalms.

Worship Service
Also in this Series

Psalms for a Lenten Journey

This series of worship services for Lent is built around a sampling of the Psalms.

Theme of the Service

Psalm 73, a Psalm of Asaph, is one of those psalms which speaks very candidly about the seeming inequities of life and expresses honest doubts and questions to God. Yet when the psalmist comes into the presence of God in his sanctuary (v.17), he finds a new orientation to life. He learns that only by trusting in God can he know that the Sovereign Lord is his refuge (v.28). This service, therefore, acknowledges the seeming inequities of life and the doubts that arise yet declares strength, hope and protection in God our Sovereign Lord.

We are grateful for the collaborative efforts of Professor Carl Bosma, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary, who is providing helpful information on each of the Psalms during this season. You will find the information he has provided at the end of the worship service.

* * * * *


Prelude: "How Firm a Foundation” [see music notes]

The Call to Worship: Psalm 24 [see liturgy notes]

Anthem: "How Firm a Foundation," Rutter [see music notes]

*Our Declaration of Trust and God's Greeting:
Brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, who do you trust?
Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.
Grace, mercy and peace to you
in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

*Our Song of Trust: "Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer" PH 281:1-2, PsH: 543:1-2, RL 50:1-2, TH 598:1-2, TWC 634:1-2, UMH 127:1-2 [see music notes]

The Children's Moment


The Call to Confession:

Because we trust in God's covenant faithfulness, we are free to make our confession to God and call for his compassion. Let us, therefore, confess our sins that we may be renewed in his grace.

The Prayer of Confession:

O Master, great and awesome God.
You never waver in your covenant commitment,
never give up on those who love you and do what you say.
Yet we have sinned in every way imaginable.
We've done evil things, rebelled, dodged
and taken detours around your clearly marked paths.

Compassion is our only hope,
the compassion of you, the Master, our God,
since in our rebellion we've forfeited our rights.
Master, you are our God,
for you delivered your people from the land of Egypt
in such a show of power that people are still talking about it!
We confess that we have sinned,
that we have lived bad lives.

Turn your ears our way, God, and listen.
Open your eyes and take a long look at us,
your people named after you.
We know that we don't deserve a hearing from you.
Our appeal is to your compassion.
This prayer is our last and only hope:
Master, listen to us!
Master, forgive us!
Through Christ, your Lamb, our Lord. Amen.
(adapted from Daniel 9 in The Message)

The Assurance of Pardon

The Gospel of Christ speaks to us of the pardon we may have through the finished work of Jesus Christ. Please rise for the reading of the Gospel.

(The worshipers rise.)

The reading of John 14:6-14
This is the Gospel of Christ.
Thanks be to God.

On the basis of the Gospel of Christ, we may be assured that our sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ.

Passing the Peace
The Peace of Christ be with you all.
And also with you.
(The worshipers greet each other saying, "The peace of Christ be with you.”)

Our Grateful Affirmation:

I believe that every thing God reveals in his Word is true.
I also believe that true faith is not only a knowledge and conviction.
It is also a deep-rooted assurance,
created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel,
that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ,
not only others, but I too,
have had my sins forgiven,
have been made forever right with God,
and have been granted salvation.
(from the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 21)

Song of Testimony: "When Peace Like a River" PsH 489:1, 3; TH 691:1, 3; TWC 519:1, 3; UMH 377:1, 3

God's Will for Grateful Living


The Prayer for Illumination

A Reading of Psalm 73 [see liturgy notes]

All: Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
or All: Sung Refrain: “Surely It Is God Who Saves Me” RL 122, SNC 74

Reader 1: 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. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence.

Reader 2: From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits. They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. They say, "How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?"

All: Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
or All: Sung Refrain: “Surely It Is God Who Saves Me” RL 122, SNC 74

Reader 1: This is what the wicked are like—always carefree, they increase in wealth. 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.

Reader 2: When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.

All: Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
or All: Sung Refrain: “Surely It Is God Who Saves Me” RL 122, SNC 74

Reader 1: Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.

Reader 2: When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from you will perish; you will destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!

Sermon: Seeing Clearly in the Sanctuary
[Psalms for a Lenten Journey 5]

The Prayer of Application

[see liturgy notes]

*Responsorial on Psalm 25 SNC 199

The Prayers of the People

Song of Faith: "Lead Me, Guide Me" PsH 544, RN 176

The Offertory:
Our Offering of Music: "He Leadeth Me" [see music notes]
Our Offering of Gifts for…..


*A Reading of Romans 8:28-39
The Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

*Our Responsive Affirmation of Faith: [see liturgy notes]

Fear not for I have redeemed you:
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy one of Israel, your Savior.
(Isaiah 43:1-5)

*The Benediction with Congregational Amen!

*Song of Faith: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God", PH 259/260, PsH 469, RL 179, TH 92, TWC 43, UMH 110 [see music notes]

Postlude: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" [see music notes]

* You are invited to stand

* * * * *

Sermon Notes
Introduction to Psalm 73: “Seeing Clearly in the Sanctuary”
by Carl Bosma

Psalm 73 is a favorite for many Jewish and Christian believers because the words of this precious psalm ring true to their experience. In the midst of suffering believers often feel cheated and begin to question and doubt God’s goodness. Under these circumstances, Psalm 73 helps believers to be honest with God. Moreover, it helps them transition from radical doubt to a robust reaffirmation of faith. As such, it has proved to be an enduring source of comfort amidst suffering. For example, my father recited the beautiful words of verses 24-25 of this psalm to my mother on August 27, 1945, just before she died.


Psalm 73 is the first psalm of Book III of the Psalter. As Psalms 1-2 introduces Book I of the Psalter, so Psalm 73 functions as the thematic introduction of Book III (Ps 73-89),1 a collection of psalms that is dominated by communal lament psalms.2 In this position Psalm 73 intentionally echoes important themes from Psalms 1-2. For example, Psalm 73 shares the prominence of the wicked with Psalm 1.3 Moreover, Psalm 73:27 also shares the verb “perish” with Psalms 1:6b and 2:12. Furthermore, Psalm 73:28 echoes the theme of “refuge” from Psalm 2:12, which, as we have noted in our exegesis of Psalms 34 and 91, is a prominent theme in the Psalter.

In addition to the important connections between Psalm 73 and Psalms 1 and 2, Psalm 73 also shares important themes with Psalm 34. The opening statement that God is good to Israel, for example, recalls Psalm 34:8. Moreover, Psalm 73:28 also repeats the important theme of God’s nearness (Ps 34:18) and the key refuge metaphor (Ps 34:8, 22).

From a canonical perspective Walter Brueggemann4 and J. Clinton McCann5 have argued that Psalm 73 stands at the theological center of the Psalter. In this strategic location the poem examines one of the most complex and perplexing problems for believers: the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous.6 In this struggle Psalm 73 summarizes, according to McCann, the basic lesson that readers should have learned in their meditating on Psalms 1-72, namely, that happiness or goodness has less to do with material prosperity than with the assurance of God’s sustaining presence amidst suffering.7


Scholars disagree concerning the compositional structure of Psalm 73.8 Nevertheless, rhetorical and stylistic analysis shows that the poem has been skillfully constructed. To begin with, the inverse repetition of the adjective “good” with God in the opening and closing verses (vv. 1, 28) form an inclusio and frame within which the painful experience of the poet is unfolded. Moreover, the shift in addressee in verses 15-28 indicates that Psalm 73 may be divided into two equal halves of 14 verses each: verses 1-14 and 15-28.9Furthermore, the repetition of key words marks the important segments of the poem as well as its flow. For example, the Hebrew word ’ak, translated as “surely” in the NIV, begins the poem in verse 1 and is repeated at significant turning points, namely, verses 13 and 18.10 Similarly, the fourfold repetition of the emphatic Hebrew phrase we’ani (“And [or: but] I”) in verses 2, 22, 23 and 28 marks important phases in the resolution of the poet’s haunting problem. In addition, the Hebrew word lebab, “heart,” occurs six times in the poem.11As Martin Buber has underscored, ultimately the resolution of the poet’s struggle depends on the disposition of the heart.12 Finally, two Hebrew terms, ‘ml (“burden”) and ng‘ (“plague”) are repeated in reverse order in verses 5, 14 and 16 to contrast the comfort of the wicked and the poet’s experience of constant affliction.

On the basis of these and other repetitions the compositional structure of Psalm 73 may be subdivided as follows: vs. 1; vv. 2-3; vv. 4-12; vv. 13-14; vv. 15-16; 17-20; 21-22; 23-26; and 27-28. These subdivisions will be used in our exposition.


Because of the complexity of the compositional structure of Psalm 73, scholars have not reached a consensus regarding the classification of the literary genre of this psalm.13 Some classify Psalm 73 as a lament. Others, however, claim that it is a song of thanksgiving by an individual. Still others assert that it is a wisdom psalm, similar to Psalm 49.

More recently, Craig C. Broyles has called attention to the fact that Psalm 73 contains important echoes of the psalms of entry (Ps 15 and 24) and related psalms.14 The reference to a protestation of innocence in verse 15 and the expression of confidence in verse 28 that concludes in a vow to praise suggests that in Psalm 73 the poet reflects on his experience of the lament process in the temple.


A. Opening Thematic Statement (vs. 1)

Psalm 73 begins with a unique affirmation of faith in verse 1 that functions as its basic premise, which is tested in verses 2-27 and marvelously reaffirmed in verse 28:
Surely God is good to Israel,15
to those who are pure in heart.

The opening statement “God is good” echoes Psalm 25:8 and 34:8 and the phrase “pure in heart” recalls Psalm 24:4. The connection with Psalm 24:4 suggests that functionally verse 1 is not a proverbial statement,16 nor exactly “a brief reiteration of the torah piety of Psalm 1,”17 but, instead, an asseveration of God’s justice that is formally similar to Psalms 25:8 and 92:15 (cf. Dt 32:4). It is this asseveration of divine justice that is severely tested in verses 2-27 and marvelously reaffirmed in verse 28, which, as we have noted above, forms an inclusio with verse 1.

B. Radical Doubt (vv. 2-14)

1. A Surprising Confession (vv. 2-3)

The brief asseveration of divine justice, however, is followed immediately by the poet’s candid confession that he almost abandoned the faith (vs. 2). The poet introduces his honest confession with the emphatic contrastive phrase “But, as for me.” This phrase introduces the “yes, but” factor. It suggests that the affirmation of faith in verse 1 posed a serious problem for the speaker. The admission that his feet almost slipped suggests that perhaps the law of God was not in his heart (Ps 37:30). That may also have been the reason that occasioned his doubt. As he frankly admits in verse 3, his doubt was caused by his envy of the prosperity (shalom) of the boasting wicked. Apparently he ignored the sound advice from Proverbs 23:17 (“Do not let your heart envy sinners but always continue in the fear of the Lord”).

According to Isaiah 48:22, there is no peace for the wicked. However, the experience of the psalmist proved the opposite. But before he relates his personal experience (vv. 13-14), the poet first embarks on an extensive and vivid description of the actions and words of the wicked in verses 4-12.18

2. A Seductive Alternative (vv. 4-12)

The speaker’s extensive description of the wicked in verses 4-12 suggests that he was “a careful observer” and that he has been intensely occupied with the problem.19 His detailed description consists of two parts, verses 4-6 and 7-11. Each of these sections is dominated by “they” and concludes with a very important “therefore” (vv. 6, 10). The section as a whole concludes with a summary statement in verse 12, a verse in which the term “wicked” is repeated from verse 3 and the phrase “at ease” (NRSV; cf. Ps 30:7) recalls the word shalom in verse 3.

Although the text of verses 4, 7 and 10 is uncertain,20 the general picture is clear. Verses 4-5 of the first part detail why the wicked enjoy shalom. They are healthy (vs. 4) and experience no trouble (‘amal), nor are they plagued (vs. 5). Because they live at ease, therefore, according to verse 6, they are proud21 and violent. Using the imagery of clothing in this verse, the psalmist boldly engages in shrewd moral and economic criticism.22 According to this verse, the affluent are well-off because of pride and violence.

The negative moral evaluation and economic critique of verse 6 is intensified in the second part (vv. 7-11). According to verse 7, their hearts overflow with conceit. As a result, their speech is arrogant and they threaten oppression (vs. 8). In fact, in their boldness they lay claim to heaven and earth (vs. 9). Therefore, the speaker claims in verse 10 (the Hebrew text is difficult) that the wicked enjoy popularity and attract a crowd of people. What is worse, according to verse 11, the wicked are very cavalier about God. They do not deny God’s existence. They simply assert that God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth (Gen 14:19), is totally oblivious to what happens on earth. For this reason they do not fear divine retribution.

In short, the wicked are totally self-reliant and autonomous people. They do not need God. They can take care of themselves. What troubled the psalmist is that their lifestyle works.23

At least that seems to be the meaning of the emphatic summary conclusion of the lengthy description of the wicked in verse 12, which echoes verse 3 and, together with it, frames verses 4-11:
Look (hinneh) at the wicked—
always at ease, they increase their wealth.

As Brueggemann rightly notes, this summary is not a condemnation of the wicked. According to Psalm 1:6b, the way of the wicked self-destructs. However, such is clearly not the case. Consequently, the way of the wicked looks like “a viable alternative way to live….”24

3. A Spirited Protest (vv. 13-14)

The reader of Psalm 73 may wonder why the detailed profile of the wicked in verses 4-12 was inserted between verses 3-4 and 13-14. The answer is that these verses serve as a rhetorical foil for the passionate protest that follows in verses 13-14. In light of the prosperity of the wicked, the poet concludes that his attempt to lead a moral life has been absolutely in vain:
Surely, in vain I have kept my heart pure
and washed my hands in innocence.

The fact that this vigorous protest is introduced by the same adverb “surely” as verse 1 and the fact that the phrase “pure in heart” is a repetition from the asseveration of divine justice in verse 1 suggest that verses 13-14 function as a counter claim to verse 1. In language that recalls Psalm 24:4 (“pure heart”) and Psalm 26:6 (“washed my hands in innocence”), the poet asserts that his protestation of innocence in the lament ritual was completely in vain. Why? Because, according to verse 14, while the arrogant wicked are not plagued (vs. 5), the speaker is plagued constantly. Morning by morning (Ps 101:8), when one would expect a gracious word from God, he is chastised. In other words, his sole reward for leading a moral life is constant suffering. So what good is it to be a believer?

C. A Significant Turning Point (vv. 15-16)

After this passionate protest the speaker switches audience and addresses God for the first time. This switch marks a major turning point in the poem. This turning point consists of two important observations.25

First, according to verse 15, one important consideration that kept his feet from slipping from the faith was once and for all the generation of God’s children. If he had publicly told of his envious musings, he would have betrayed a generation of God’s children. It should be noted that the psalmist’s sobering moment begins, not in isolation, but as a member of a larger community to which he is accountable.26

Second, the psalmist’s solidarity with the community did not solve his perplexing problem. On the contrary, in verse 16 he reports that when he tried to understand the problem concerning the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous, when he tried to develop a theodicy, it became a burden (vs. 5) in his eyes. He became depressed. He just couldn’t figure it out.

D. A Dramatic Revisioning (vv. 17-26)

Verse 17 marks a pivotal transition to a new understanding. The NIV and the NRSV translate this verse in the past tense and read it with the preceding verse. However, the Hebrew verbs of verse 17 are not in the past tense. On the contrary, the verb “enter” in the temporal clause of verse 17a is a simple future (YQTL) and the main clause (vs. 17b) is a cohortative.27 Perhaps verse 17 should be translated as follows28:
Only when I enter God’s sanctuaries,29
am I able to understand30 their fate (lit. “end”).

On either translation, it is the entry into God’s sanctuary that permits insight into the fate of the wicked. Consequently, the “solution” of the psalmist’s heart-rending problem transcends human wisdom. It can only be understood from an eschatological perspective.31

Surprisingly, the psalmist does not report how entry into the sanctuary would provide the necessary insight. The reference to the phrase “pure of heart” and the act of washing one’s hands in innocence in verse 13 suggests a connection between Psalm 73 and the psalms of temple entry.32 In any case, following the suggestion of Marvin E. Tate, entry into the temple provides a dramatic threefold correction of the poet’s envy blurred vision.33

1. Reorientation with Respect to the Wicked (vv. 18-20)

The first correction concerns the fate of the wicked in verses 18-20, which is introduced with the emphatic particle “surely.” In somber language he describes at length what was already introduced in summary fashion in Psalm 1:6b.34 Unlike Psalm 1:6b, however, God is directly involved in their destruction. According to verse 18, God will place the wicked on the slippery slope that the psalmist almost experienced (vs. 2). This slippery slope leads to utter ruin. In fact, their existence is as insubstantial as a dream—“here today, gone tomorrow (cf. 37:9-10).”35 In other words, the poet’s initial perception of the carefree lifestyle of the wicked is wrong.

2. Reorientation with Respect to Self (vv. 21-22)

The second correction in verses 21-22 concerns the poet himself. Verses 21-22 are a “flashback” on his traumatic experience reported in verses 2-16.36 In these verses he admits that when his heart and kidneys were poignantly disturbed (vs. 21) about the shalom of the wicked, he was stupid and lacked understanding (vs. 21ab).37 For all practical purposes, he confesses that his envy of the arrogant (vs. 3) was completely wrong. Envy blinded his vision. In fact, in rather strong language, he acknowledges that he behaved as a “brute beast”38 with God.

3. Reorientation with Respect to God’s Presence (vv. 23-26)

The basis for the speaker’s short admission is the realization of God’s presence, the third reorientation, which is introduced by we’ani. Because he was blinded by envy, he admits emphatically that he did not recognize that, in spite of his brutish behavior, he was always with God (vs. 23a), an admission that represents the flipside of God’s promise to the patriarchs, “I will be with you always.” And, more importantly, in the temple he discovers that God’s right hand has a tight grip on him (vs. 23b). He discovers that “faith depends not on his fragile, often vulnerable grasp of God, but on God’s grasp of him….”39 That hand has not and will not let him go.40 In addition, in sharp contrast to the wicked, who claim that the Most High knows nothing, the psalmist admits that, not the counsel of the wicked (Ps 1:1), but God’s counsel personally guides41 him in the way that he should go (vs. 24a).42 Indeed, in the end God will receive him into glory (vs. 24b; NIV).

The affirmation of verse 24a as it has been translated by the NIV has been of great comfort to believers in their suffering. But the NRSV translation of this clause shows that the clause could also mean that the psalmist is restored to his honor. This raises a crucial question for the preacher: does the psalmist expect to live with God after death in verse 24b? In light of verse 25 and Psalm 49:15 we are of the opinion that it does.43

The psalmist’s realization of God’s presence in verses 22-24 leads to “a reflective spin-off” in verses 25-26,44 in which he articulates a supreme confession of trust.45 In verse 25 he confesses that the antidote to his previous envy (vs. 3) is his hold-guide-receive experience of God’s persistent presence (vv. 22-24). Based on this certainty the psalmist then proclaims that even though his health should fail, God is his Rock46 and portion.47 With respect to this confession of trust, Artur Weiser writes:

Nowhere else in the Old Testament is the power of faith in God to master life so profoundly grasped in such purity and strength, nowhere so forcefully formulated, as in the ‘nevertheless’, uttered by faith, by which the poet of Psalm 73 commits himself to God.48

E. Reaffirmation of Faith (vv. 27-28)

The closing verses (vv. 27-28) summarize the psalmist’s spiritual journey and especially the new vision that he gained in verses 18-20 and verses 23-26 in terms of the spatial image of “far” and “near.” This summary functions as the psalmist’s great reaffirmation of faith.

Verse 27 summarizes his new reorientation concerning the wicked. It begins with an emphatic causal statement (ki-hinneh) (vs. 26a): “because, look, those who are far away from you will perish.”49 The fact that this emphatic statement begins with the conjunction “because” () suggests that verse 27 stands in sharp contrast to verses 23-26. Moreover, the opening “behold” (hinneh) at the beginning of verse 27a matches the “behold” in the summary description of the wicked in verse 12.50 This obvious cross-reference to verse 12 shows that through his transforming temple experience the psalmist made the startling discovery that his earlier perception about the wicked was false.51 The prosperity (shalom) of the wicked is not forever! Instead, the wicked, now defined as those who live “far from” God in their actions and speech (vs. 11), will perish.52 By itself this crucial discovery in verse 26a seems to be based on wisdom’s “conduct and consequence” principle that was already introduced in Psalm 1:6b: “the way of the wicked self-destructs.” Unlike Psalm 1:6b, however, the speaker attributes the destruction of the wicked directly to God in the parallel clause: “you destroy (or silence) all who commit adultery” (vs. 27b).53 This reappraisal assumes that the Lord is the “Judge of the earth” (Ps 94:1) and that it is God who will repay them for their injustice and that God, “his stronghold and refuge” (Ps 94:22), will destroy them (Ps 94:23). Therefore, although the speaker does not deny wisdom’s “conduct and consequence” principle, ultimately he invokes divine agency in the process of just retribution. In short, verse 27 declares that “autonomy is a harlotry that does not work.”54

The concluding verse, verse 28, summarizes the new vision the speaker obtained in verses 23-25 and, what is more important, it serves as a clearer definition of what it means that God is good to the pure in heart (vs. 1). In the opening verse (vs. 1), the meaning of the predicate adjective “good” is ambiguous. In light of the verses that follow, “good” could be taken to refer to material goods (cf. Ps 103:5; 104:28). However, in verse 28a, which is introduced with the final emphatic phrase “but, as for me” (we’ani), “good” is defined, not in terms of property or prosperity, but God’s presence: “But, as for me, the nearness of God (is) good to me!”55 What a sharp contrast this new perception forms with the emphatic “I” in verse 2!

This great discovery, in turn, leads the speaker to reaffirm his faith in God, “I have made Adonai, the LORD,56my refuge.” In so doing, he picks up the important theme from Psalm 2:12, “Oh the happiness of those who take refuge in him.”

However, he not only declares that he has made the Lord his refuge. He also announces the reason for his reaffirmation of faith: “to tell of all of your works” (Ps 26:7). The repetition of the verb “to tell” (sfr) from verse 15 in verse 28c shows that the psalmist’s speech has now changed dramatically from self-pity (vv. 13-14) to praise of God’s handiwork (Gen 2:2).57 Now he speaks no longer as an ignorant beast; instead, through God’s guiding counsel he has now become a spiritually “enlightened witness.”58


A sermon on Psalm 73 should also underscore the role that doubts and questioning plays in this psalm.59Questions and doubts are part and parcel of human experience, especially during painful suffering. Sometimes questioning and doubt is due to sin. The speaker of Psalm 73 admits that he was envious. Sometimes, however, questions and doubt are not directly the result of sin. Job’s questioning and doubt is a case in point. God allowed Satan to test Job. In either case, questioning and doubts are not virtues, as some have suggested.60 Ultimately, the truth is that continuous questioning and doubt destroys human relationships.

Psalm 73 moves from radical doubt to a robust reaffirmation of faith. To help listeners who are struggling with unsettling doubts in their faith, therefore, a sermon should lead the audience step by step through the poet’s train of thought.

An important step in this process is the recognition of the psalmist’s strident critique of the economic underpinnings of society in verses 4-11. For the psalmist worship and economics were not separated. On the contrary, the oppressive economic practices of the wicked were at the heart of his problem. The challenge for the liturgist and preacher is to incorporate a critical reassessment of our culture in a pastorally sensitive manner.

A key step in this process, of course, is to make the audience aware of the presence of God’s hand in their lives. Moreover, it is important to remind them that the essence of faith “is not our grasp of God but God’s sure grasp of us”61 through the nailed hands of his crucified Son. In the end, it is these nailed hands that will receive us into glory, according to his promise: “Oh the happiness of the pure in heart; they will see God” (Mt 5:8).

A sermon on Psalm 73 should also highlight that there is something very unique about going to church that defies the limits of human wisdom. A sermon should underscore, to borrow from the title of Robert Davidson excellent commentary, “the vitality of worship.” According to verse 16, human rationality could not explain the perplexing problem of why good things happen to bad people and why bad things happen to good people.62 Only the communal experience (vs. 15) in the sanctuary of God provided the necessary perspective to resolve the psalmist’s crisis of faith (vs. 17).

The centrality of the worship experience (cf. Ps 26:7-8) in dramatic transformation of the psalmist’s despairing doubt (vv. 13-14) into exuberant trust also underscores the need for careful liturgical planning. In view of the cross-references to Psalm 24 in Psalm 73, it is suggested that the entry psalm be used in the liturgy. Furthermore, to highlight the uniqueness of worship, the beatitude in Psalm 65:4 should also be used because it claims that true happiness consists of God bringing us to his courts where we may be satisfied with his goodness. This is important because, according to George Barna, people, even church people, are searching to be near to God, but frequently they are not finding it in the organized church.63Yet, after a sermon on Psalm 73, no one should leave church without being able to affirm that it is good to be near God, particularly in this season of Lent.

Music Notes:
Glossary of Hymnal Abbreviations:
PH The Presbyterian Hymnal (Presbyterian Church USA; Westminster/John Knox Press)
PsH The Psalter Hymnal (Christian Reformed Church; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
RL Rejoice in the Lord (Reformed Church in America; W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
RN Renew! (Hope Publishing Company)
SFL Songs for LiFE (children's songbook; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
SNC Sing! A New Creation (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Christian Reformed Church,
Reformed Church in America; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
TH Trinity Hymnal (Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America; Great
Commission Publications)
TWC The Worshiping Church (Hope Publishing Company)
UMH The United Methodist Hymnal (United Methodist Publishing House)
WOV With One Voice (Augsburg Fortress)

The suggestions for prelude and opening anthem, all of which are based on the folk tune FOUNDATION can be found in the following resources:

FOUNDATION [“How Firm a Foundation”]
Bish, Diane. The Diane Bish Organ Book, vol. 4. Fred Bock B-G0776 [1985] (M-D)
Cherwien, David. Interpretations, bk. 9. AMSI SP-106 [1992] (E-M)
Haan, Raymond H. Four Hymns of Rejoicing. Morningstar MSM-10-518 [1998] (E-M)
Held, Wilbur. Seven Settings of American Folk Hymns. Concordia 97-5829 [1984] (E)
Kosche, Kenneth. Easy Hymn Preludes for Organ, vol. 2. Concordia 97-7015 [2003] (E)
Linker, Janet. Variations on “How Firm A Foundation”. Concordia 97-6586 [1996] (M)
Murphree, Claude. Toccata on How Firm a Foundation. H. W. Grey GSTC 813 [1955] (M)
David, Anne Marie. Here I Am, Lord. Augsburg ISBN 0-8006-7566-5 [2002] (M)
Medema, Ken. Sanctuary. Genevox 4181-16 [1989] (M)
Choral Anthem Resource:
Rutter, John. How Firm A Foundation. Hinshaw HMC-667 [1983] (SATB with organ; E-M)

An alternative harmonization for piano on the opening hymn can be found in:

CWM RHONDDA [“Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer”]
Cherwien, David. Let It Rip! At the Piano. Augsburg 11-11045 [2000]

This setting could be adapted for use on the organ as well.

The suggestions for offertory are as follows:


Cherwien, David. Interpretations, bk. 9. AMSI SP-106 [1992] (E-M)
Goode, Jack. Seven Communion Meditations. Flammer HF-5084 [1976] (E-M)
Spong, Jon. Partita on “He Leadeth Me.” Egan [1991] (E-M )
Dobrinski, Cynthia. He Leadeth Me. Agape 1461 [1991] (3-5 octaves, M)

Alternative harmonizations for the closing hymn can be found in:

EIN’ FESTE BURG [“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”]

Alternative Harmonization for Organ:
Busarow, Donald. Thirty More Accompaniments for Hymns in Canon.
Augsburg 11-10163 [1992]
Eggert, John. Creative Hymn Accompaniments for Organ, vol. 2. CPH97-6851 [2000]
Ferguson, John. Hymn Harmonizations for Organ, bk. 2. Ludwig O-07 [1983]
Wood, Dale. New Settings of Twenty Well-Known Hymn Tunes. Augsburg
11-9292 [1968]
Alternative Harmonization for Piano:
Organ, Anne Krentz. Let It Rip! At the Piano. Augsburg 11-11045 [2000]

Suggestions for postlude, based on the closing hymn, can be found in these resources:

EIN’ FESTE BURG [“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”]

Bach, Johann Christoph. Music for a Celebration, set 4. Morningstar
MSM-10-579 [2005] (E-M)
Bender, Jan. Festival Preludes on Six Chorales. Concordia 97-4608 [1963] (M)
Bish, Diane. The Diane Bish Organ Book, vol. 1. Fred Bock B-G0548 [1980] (E-M)
Cherwien, David. Interpretations, bk. 1. AMSI OR1 [1980] (E-M)
Held, Wilbur. Hymn Preludes for the Autumn Festivals. Concordia 97-5360 [1976] (E-M)
Helman, Michael. Five for Autumn. Augsburg Fortress ISBN 0-8006-7671-8 [2004] (E-M)
Hobby, Robert A. For All the Saints. Augsburg ISBN 0-8006-7537-1 [2002] (E-M)
Johnson, David N. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Augsburg 11-822 [1965] (M-D)
Krapf, Gerhard. Sing and Rejoice, vol. 2. SMP KK235 [1982] (E-M, adaptable to piano)
Manz, Paul. God of Grace. Morningstar MSM-10-599 [2004] (M)
Marpurg, Friedrich Wilhelm. Music for a Celebration, set 4. Morningstar
MSM-10-579 [2005] (E-M)
Marpurg, Friedrich Wilhelm. Twenty-one Chorale Preludes. Augsburg 11-9506 [1967] (E-M)
Peeters, Flor. 30 Chorale Preludes, set 2. Peters 6024 [1950] (M)
The Church Organist’s Golden Treasury (ed. Pfarreicher and Davison)
vol. 1. Ditson [1949] (E-M)
Walcha, H. Chorale Preludes, bk. 1. Peters 4850 (M)
Gerig, Reginald. Piano Preludes on Hymns and Chorales. Hope 251 [1959] (M)
Wilhelmi, Teresa. Hymns…Light Jazz Style. Word 301 0136 315 [1997] (M)
Tucker, Margaret. Variations on "A Mighty Fortress". Morningstar MSM-30-800
[1987] (3-5 octaves, M-D)
Wagner, Douglas E. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Agape 1256 [1986] (3-4 octaves, E-M)

Liturgy Notes:

1. We encourage the use of Psalm 24 as the Call to Worship. Its message is a companion to Psalm 73, and its nature as an Entrance Psalm calls us into the Lord's presence. You may desire to have a leader read it or to read it responsively. It may be used in whole or in part.

2. Again, the Children's Moment is placed early in the service. On this Sunday, we encourage you to share some thoughts with them about "trust." Later in the service, Psalm 73 will speak about the need for trust when circumstances seem unfair. These thoughts can be planted in the hearts of children by helping them to understand that they often must trust parents, teachers, and others even though they don't understand everything.

3. The reading of Psalm 73 can be very effective if read this way by two readers and the congregation. A worship leader will need to introduce it by explaining that the affirmations that will be read in unison (bold faced) are the statements of a firm faith. The two readers will want to read the passages in a way that will portray the pain and anguish of the psalmist who is crying out with these complaints and questions. Perhaps coaching and a rehearsal would be helpful. The one who introduces it will need to help the congregation know when to begin since their voices are heard first.

4. The section of the service "We Draw Near to God" should be very pastoral in tone. Imagine troubled hearts with unanswered questions drawing close to God/Jesus so they can touch his robe and gain a greater sense of peace. The songs, readings, and prayers for this part of worship should communicate warmth and welcome.

5. The closing time of worship should be led with strength and confidence. From the words of Romans 8 through Isaiah 43 and the Benediction to singing "A Mighty Fortress," let the service be filled with the strength and courage that comes from God’s peace.

6. The responsive reading from Isaiah 43 can be done in any of a variety of ways: the leader and congregation, two halves of the congregation, two readers, etc. Whoever reads should do so with firmness and confidence. It might be helpful for a reader or worship leader to introduce it with "Let us profess God’s promises to us."

1 For the canonical arrangement of these psalms see the suggestion of John H. Stek, The NIV Study Bible, Fully Revised (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 866.
2 J. Clinton McCann, Jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of the Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 142. Cf. Pss 74; 79; 80; 83; 85; and 89.
3 McCann, A Theological Introduction, 143. Cf. Pss 1:1, 5-6; Ps 73:3, 12.
4 Walter Brueggemann, “Bounded by Obedience and Praise: The Psalms as Canon,” in The Psalms & The Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 204.
5 McCann, A Theological Introduction, 143.
6 For this problem see also Job 21 and Jer 12:1-4.
7 McCann, A Theological Introduction, 143.
8 For a survey of the options see: Leslie C. Allan, “Psalm 73,” Tyndale Bulletin 33 (1981): 93-107.
9 Stek, The NIV Study Bible, 866. The repetition of the verb “to tell” in vs. 15 and vs. 28 form an inclusio in the second section. The shift in addressee also explains why the majority of explicit references to God occur in verses 15-28.
10 This repetition leads J. Clinton McCann, Jr. to divide Psalm 73 into three main parts. Cf. “The Book of Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 4: 968.
11 Cf. vv. 1, 7, 13, 21, and 26 (2x).
12 Martin Buber, “The Heart Determines—Psalm 73,” in Right and Wrong: An Interpretation of Some Psalms, tr. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: SCM Press, 1952), 37.
13 For a brief summary of the options see: Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC 20 (Dallas: Word Book Publisher, 1990), 231.
14 Craig C. Broyles, Psalms, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody: Hendrikson Publishers, Inc., 1999), 301; idem, “Psalms Concerning the Liturgy of Temple Entry,” in The Book of Psalms: Composition and Reception, eds. Peter W. Flint and Patrick D. Miller, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum XCIX (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 281-283.
15 The NRSV emends “ Israel” to “upright.” Although this translation improves the synonymous parallelism of the poetic line, there is no textual evidence for this emendation. Moreover, it destroys the communal aspect of the psalm.
16 Tate, Psalms 51-100, 232.
17 Walter Brueggemann and Patrick Miller, “Psalm 73 as a Canonical Marker,” JSOT 72 (1996): 46. Against this interesting suggestion, however, it should be noted that not one of the words of vs. 1 are found in Psalm 1.
18 For similar descriptions of the wicked see: Ps 10:2-11 and Job 21.
19 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishers, 1984), 117.
20 Eep Talstra, “Zou er ook wetenschap zijn bij de Allerhoogste?” (Psalm 73:11) ( Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit, 2003), 12-15.
21 For pride see: Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 81-87 and 167-168.
22 J. David Pleins (The Psalms: Songs of Tragedy, Hope and Justice [Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993], 164-167) claims that Ps 73:4-12 contains one of the most strident biblical critiques of wealth.
23 Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 117.
24 Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 118.
25 If one reads vs. 17 with vv. 15-16, as the NIV and NRSV, then it would be three observations.
26 Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 118.
27 Talstra, “Zou er wetenschap,” 15-18. For the problem see: GKC § 108h and Joüon & Muraoka § 114c N.
28 Cf. Talstra, “Zou er wetenschap,” 15.
29 Literally, the phrase is plural: “sanctuaries of El.” According to Mitchell Dahood (Psalms II: A New Translation, Introduction and Commentary, AB 17 [Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1973], 192), the plural may denote a single sanctuary. Cf. Ez 28:18.
30 Note the contrast between what the psalmist “sees” (Hebrew, r’h) according to vs. 3 and what he “understands” (Hebrew, byn) in vs. 17.
31 For “end” (’acharit) as an eschatological term see: Dahood, Psalms II, 192.
32 Broyles, Psalms, 300-301.
33 Tate, Psalms 51-100, 238.
34 Brueggemann, “Bounded by Obedience,” 208.
35 Robert Davidson, Vitality in Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 234.
36 Tate, Psalms 51-100, 239.
37 Like vs. 2, vs. 22 also begins with the emphatic phrase “but I” (we’ani).
38 For this self-debasing use of animal imagery see: William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 148-149.
39 Davidson, Vitality in Worship, 235.
40 Stek, NIV Study Bible, 868.
41 For the verb “guide” (Hebrew, nachah) see: Ps 5:8; 23:3; 27:11; 31:3; 32:8; 43:3; 61:2; and 139:24.
42 Cf. Pss 16:7; 32:8.
43 Talstra, “Zou er wetenschap,” 20. For a recent discussion of this passage see: Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, tr. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 233-235.
44 Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 120.
45 Note the third occurrence of “with you” in verse 25. The first two occur in vv. 22 and 23 respectively.
46 For this image in a confession of faith and its relationship to the refuge metaphor (vs. 28) see: Jerome F. D. Creach, Yahweh as Refuge and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, JSOT Supplement Series 217 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 28, 42 and 44.
47 Brueggemann (The Message of the Psalms, 120) calls attention to the play on words between “portion” (cheleq) in verse 26 and “slippery place” (chalaq) in verse 18. For “portion” see Gerhard von Rad, “Righteousness and ‘Life’ in the Cultic Language of the Psalms,” in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 259-266.
48 Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, OTL, tr. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 515.
49 Cf. Ps 34:21; 37:20.
50 Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 120.
51 Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 120.
52 Cf. Ps 1:16b; 37:20.
53 As Stek (NIV Study Bible, 868) observes, “here [adultery] refers to the reliance of the wicked on their predatory economic and political practices, the ‘violence’ with which they accumulated their wealth at the expense of others (vv. 6-11).”
54 Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 120.
55 The construct phrase “nearness of God” (cf. Is 58:2) can mean either that God approaches (subjective genitive) or that one must approach God (objective genitive). The context, Dt 4:8, Pss 34:18, 69:19 and 145:18, Is 50:8, Lam 3:57 favor the subjective genitive.
56 Significantly, this is the first occurrence of the compound divine name AdonayYahweh. Brueggemann (The Message of the Psalms, 121) suggests that it has been withheld until the right moment.
57 McCann, “The Psalms,” 4: 970.
58 For the term see: Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 148.
59 Davidson, Vitality of Worship, 236.
60 Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005); Val Webb, In Defense of Doubt--An Invitation to Adventure (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995).
61 Davidson, Vitality of Worship, 236.
62 For these words I am indebted to the title of Rabbi Harold S. Kusnher’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schoken Books, 1981).
63 George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2005).