Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The motive of this psalm shows itself clearly in Psalm 73:3—perplexity at the sight of the prosperity of the wicked. Two psalms have already dealt with the question at some length, viz., Psalms 37, 49 (See Introduction to those psalms.) The problem is stated here more fully, the poet trying to account not only for one, but for both sides of the paradox, the troubles that beset the righteous as well as the good fortune that befalls the ungodly. The solution, however, on the first side falls short of that reached in Psalms 49. The author contents himself with the thought that the wicked stand in slippery places, and may at any moment come to ruin. On the other hand, he is beginning to feel the way towards a higher truth than was discerned before, the truth that while the success of evil is apparent and momentary, that of good is real and final; he even catches a glimpse of the still higher truth revealed in the pages of Job, that communion with God is itself a bliss above happiness, and that the consciousness of possessing this gives a joy with which the pleasures of mere temporary prosperity are not to be compared. The versification is almost regular.
Title.—See Title to Psalms 1.
A Psalm of Asaph. Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart.(1) Truly.—See Note, Psalm 62:2. This particle often, like the Latin at, introduces a rejoinder to some supposed statement.
Dryden’s lines express the feeling of this opening—
“Yet sure the gods are good! I would fain think so,
If they would give me leave!
But virtue in distress, and vice in triumph,
Make atheists of mankind.”
The question arises whether the second clause of the verse limits, or only repeats, the first. No doubt in theory God was understood to be good to Israel generally, but the very subject of the psalm seems to require a limitation here. The poet sees that a moral correspondence with their profession is necessary, even in the chosen people—the truth which St. Paul stated with such insistance, “For they are not all Israel which are of Israel.”
But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped.(2) Slipped.—Literally, were poured out. This metaphor for weakness and instability is obvious. Comp.
“Dissolvuntur enim turn demum membra fluuntque.”
LUCRETIUS, iv. 920.
For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.(3) Foolish.—Better, arrogant.
When I saw.—Perhaps the conjunction is wrongly supplied, and the word “saw” here is synonymous with “envied” in the first clause. (Comp. Latin invideo.)
For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm.(4) For there are no bands in their death.—This is quite unintelligible, and does not fairly render the Hebrew, which gives, For there are no bands to their death. And by analogy of the derivation of tormenta from tor queo, we might give the Hebrew word bands the sense of pangs, rendering, “they have a painless death,” if such a statement about the wicked were not quite out of keeping with the psalm. The ancient versions give us no help. Some emendation of the text is absolutely necessary. In the only other place it occurs (Isaiah 58:6) the word means specially the bands of a yoke; hence a most ingenious conjecture, which, by only a change of one letter, gives there are no bands to their yoke, i.e., they are “chartered libertines,” men of libido effrenata et indomita, a description admirably in keeping with that of the animal grossness in the next clause, “fat is their belly.” (Comp. the image of an animal restive from over-feeding, Deuteronomy 32:15; Burgess, Notes on the Hebrew Psalms.)
Strength.—The word is curious, but explained by Arabic cognates to mean belly, possibly from its roundness (“a fair round belly with good capon lined”); from root meaning roll.
Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment.(6) Therefore.—Better,
“Therefore pride is their necklace,
And violence their mantle.”
The first metaphor might have been suggested either by the fact that the rich lavished large sums on jewellery, especially necklaces (see Note, Song of Solomon 1:10), or possibly from the usual description of the proud as “stiffnecked.”
Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish.(7) Stand out with fatness.—Literally, go out from fat. Which, if referring to the appearance, is exactly the opposite to what we should expect. Sunken in fat would express the idea of gross sensuality. The eyes and heart are evidently used as in Jeremiah 22:17, the eyes as giving the outward index of what the heart wishes; and if we take the eyes here to mean not the organs of sight, but, by metonymy, the looks (comp. Song of Solomon 4:9), “they look out of fatness,” the expression is intelligible enough. Or we might perhaps take the eyes to stand for the countenance. (See Gesenius, sub voc.), their countenance stands out because of fatness. Or, by taking this clause in direct parallelism with the following, we might understand that restless looking about for fresh excitement which comes of satiety. The following lines illustrate the whole verse:
“Triumphant plenty, with a cheerful grace,
Basks in their eyes, and sparkles in their face;
How sleek they look, how goodly is their mien,
When big they strut behind a double chin.”
They have more.—See margin. Or the verb may be intransitive: the imaginations of their hearts overflow.
They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily.(8) They are corrupt . . .—This, which is the Rabbinical rendering, is now universally abandoned in favour of another derivation of the verb. The Masoretic arrangement of the clauses may be also improved on:
“They scoff and speak of wickedness,
Of violence from their eminence they speak,”
where the first clause means, they speak mockingly of wickedness, or make a jest of sin.
They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth.(9) They set.—The last clause is repeated here under a figure more defined:
“They have set their mouth in [not against] the heavens,
While their tongue walketh through the earth.”
an image very expressive of a towering pride, vaunting itself to the skies, and trumpeting its own praises through the world.
Therefore his people return hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them.(10) Therefore.—The Prayer Book version has undoubtedly caught the meaning here. It plainly describes the popularity gained (the surest way) by the self-applause described in the preceding verse. This version depends on the Hebrew margin, Therefore do the people turn hither (i.e., to them), and full waters (i.e., a cup full of adulation and flattery) are sucked out by them.
And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High?(11-14) The mutual relation of these verses has been the subject of many conflicting opinions. The following is the arrangement that seems preferable—
“And people say, How shall God know?
And does the Most High take notice of it?
Lo! there are wicked men, And yet, always at ease, they amass riches.
It is in vain then that I have kept my heart pure.
And washed my hands in innocence;
For I have been plagued every day,
And my punishments (come) every morning.”
—this reflection being put into the mouth of the public who are onlookers at the career of these timeservers. But the poet immediately goes on to disclaim it for himself.
If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children.(15) If I say . . .—Or, If, thought I, I should reason thus, I should be faithless to the generation of thy sons. Or, perhaps, if it ever occurred to my mind to speak thus, the Hebrew often using two finite verbs to express one thought. (See, e.g., Psalm 73:8; Psalm 73:19.)
When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me;(16) When I thought . . .—i.e., when I reflected in order to know this—when I tried to think the matter out, get at the bottom of it. (For the sense of the verb, comp. Psalm 78:5; Proverbs 16:9.)
It was too painful.—See margin.
Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end.(17) Then understood I . . .—Rather, I considered their end. The Temple service, with its blessings on righteousness, and stern warnings against wickedness, as they were read from the Book of the Law or from one of the prophets, or were chanted from some ancient song, gave the needed turn to the psalmist’s speculations. He began to think not of the present, but the future; not of the advantages of sin, but its consequences—but still consequences in this world, the thought of a hereafter not having established itself sufficiently to have an ethical force.
How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors.(19) In a moment.—Literally, in a wink. (Comp. “In the twinkling of an eye.”)
As a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord, when thou awakest, thou shalt despise their image.(20) As a dream.—Better,
“As a man on waking (despises) his dream,
So, O Lord, on rousing thyself, thou wilt
Despise their shadow.”
an image of the result of the Divine judgment on the vain and boastful tyrants, which may be illustrated by Henry V.’s rising with his royalty to self-respect:—
“I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But, being awake, I do despise my dream.”
Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins.(21) Grieved.—Literally, grew sour; or, as we say, “was soured.”
So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee.(22) Foolish.—Better, brutish.
Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.(24) To glory.—Better, With honour, as LXX. and Vulg.; or achar may be taken as a preposition: Lead me after honour, i.e., in the way to get it.
The thought is not of a reward after death, but of that true honour which would have been lost by adopting the views of the worldly, and is only to be gained by loyalty to God.
Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.(25) And there . . .—Or, Besides thee I have no delight on earth.
But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, that I may declare all thy works.(28) Works.—Not God’s doings, but works prescribed to the psalmist, messages entrusted to him; no doubt here the conclusions he had come to, or the truths that had been revealed to him, in contrast with the false opinions from which he had been freed.