Psalm 73 and the Problem of Theodicy

Psalm 73 deals with the issue of theodicy, not as an abstract concept, but as an existential condition of an individual who is seeking to understand the way God deals with good and evil. Psalm 73 addresses the experience of an individual who has faith and enjoys a personal relationship with God. In their article on Psalm 73, Brueggemann and Miller (1996: 48) believe that the speaker in the psalm “is intended to be the king, the model and embodiment of genuine faith.” Although they present several arguments to show that the psalmist is the king, I believe their argument is not very convincing. The problem the psalmist is facing is God’s apparent injustice in the ways he deals with individuals in his society.

The Problem of Theodicy

In our study of the problem of theodicy in Psalm 73, it is important to begin with a definition of theodicy. The word theodicy comes from two Greek words: theos, a word which means “God” and dike, a word which means “justice.” The problem of theodicy was put succinctly by David Hume. Hume wrote: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but is not able? Then God is impotent. Is God able to prevent evil, but not willing? Then God is malevolent. Is God both able and willing to prevent evil? Whence then is evil?”

Theodicy then is an attempt at understanding the problem of evil and suffering. Theodicy is also the determination to justify the goodness and righteousness of God in the face of the problem of suffering and evil in the world. The problem of theodicy hinges on the nature and character of God. If there is a just and good God, then why are there suffering and evil in the world? In addition, how does this just and good God deal the problem of evil and suffering? Another way of defining the problem of evil is also based on the character of God. The Bible affirms that God is righteous and good. If God is righteous and good then there should not to be any evil in the world, since God is both able and willing to prevent it. But there is evil in the world, so either there is no God or God is not just or good.

In his article on theodicy, James Crenshaw (1992: 444) defined theodicy as follows: “Life’s harsh enigmas render belief in a benevolent deity difficult. Theodicy is the attempt to defend divine justice in the face of aberrant phenomena that appear to indicate the deity’s indifference or hostility toward virtuous people. Ancient Israel’s conviction that God shaped historical events to benefit a covenant nation exacerbated the issue.”

Although the psalmist does not say that the situation he is experiencing is deserved, he, however, questions the extent of his condition and the justice of the God who permits a wicked person to prosper even when that person is indifferent to God. From a perspective of faith, the psalmist complains to God about his situation, expecting an answer to his doubts about the goodness of God, doubts that arose out of the evil and suffering he was suffering at the hands of his oppressors.

If there is a God that is good and just then why are there suffering, evil and disasters in the world? Why are there people who are prosperous and people who are poor? Why is not everyone prosperous or everyone poor? Why is there sickness and death in the world? The question the psalmist asks in Psalm 73 is the same question Jeremiah asked God in his quest to understand the problem of God’s justice in the world. Jeremiah asked God: “ Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jeremiah 12:1). The prophet Habakkuk asked a similar question of God. He said: “You cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves” (Habakkuk 1:13 NIV).

The question Jeremiah asked is very hard to answer. The problems of suffering, evil, and natural disasters are very hard to understand. Many people just do not know how to deal with these issues so they keep trying to understand the work of God in the world. Meanwhile, the problem of evil and suffering remains unanswered. In his discussion of theodicy in the Old Testament, Brueggemann (385) wrote: “The phrase [“the problem of theodicy”] is unfortunate, because it suggests an issue that is speculative and that admits of rational resolve.”

The Complaint of the Psalmist

Thus, if we are to understand the complaint of the psalmist, then we must understand what the psalmist refers to when he mentions the righteous and the wicked. In some texts in the book of Psalms, the righteous and the wicked may refer to two different individuals or they may represent two ways of life, those who have faith in God and those whose life and behavior stand in opposition to God’s way of life, that is, those who “stand in the way of sinners” and those whose “delight is in the law of the LORD” (Psalm 1:1-2).

So, the psalmist’s lament deals with the issue of divine justice. He is concerned with the apparent problem of divine injustice. Psalm 73 addresses the attitude of a righteous Israelite in the face of what he perceives to be a case of divine injustice. The psalmist is concerned with the apparent lack of divine justice on account of the prosperity, arrogance, oppression, and impiety of the wicked.

The psalmist does not question the existence of God nor whether God is able to act. Rather, his main concern has to do with God’s willingness to act on behalf of the people who believe in God. To the psalmist, God’s justice in dealing with the wicked appears to be slow or even inactive. God seems to be unjust because he is delaying his judgment of the wicked. To him, justice delayed is justice denied. As Crenshaw wrote (1984: 93), “In a proper universe, good deeds recive their just rewards while wicked conduct is promptly punished. Such is the unreal world that persons of deep religious convictions have painted for millennia.”

Psalm 73 is addressing the problems of theodicy. The complaint of the psalmist deals with his attitude in trying to understand his suffering. He questions the lack of action by God in allowing the wicked to prosper when “they set their mouths against heaven” (Psalm 73:9). For the psalmist to question the goodness of God and to ask how long the wicked will be allowed to prosper implies that he believes that God is good and that God is able to act to end the injustice and the suffering he is facing. The psalmist’s prayer to God implies that the psalmist knows that God is well aware of his situation and that he expects God to act in order to redress this injustice which torments him.

Dealing with Theodicy

In the end, it is possible that no one will be able to give a satisfactory answer to why there is evil and suffering in this world. Evil, suffering, and injustice are realities in the world in which we live. Like the writer of Psalm 73, we must learn how to deal with the problem of evil, suffering, and injustice. The crisis faced by the psalmist was the result of an actual disturbing experience that dashed a traditional way of thinking about God. Fortunately, for the readers of Psalm 73, the psalmist provides the answer to his problem even before he tells his readers what the problem was. Facing what he perceived to be a divine injustice and confronted with divine silence, the psalmist affirmed the goodness of God: “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart” (Psalm 73:1).

The psalmist discovered that the true reward of the believer is not wealth or fame; God himself is his reward. As Crenshaw wrote (1984: 96), “the psalmist contends that the good of this world are wholly irrelevant to the matter of God’s justice. Proof of God’s goodness rests in divine presence, not in material prosperity.” This view goes against the traditional teaching of the wise men of Israel which said that evidence of God’s goodness is found in long life, wealth, and a good reputation in society. The author of Psalm 73 rejected this traditional view because, as Crenshaw said, it is difficult proving God’s goodness when corruption rules the day (1984: 97).

Conclusion

The psalmist experienced a crisis of faith when he compared his life with the life and prosperity of the wicked. This situation posed a serious threat to his faith and to his belief in the character of God as a good God. In his Theology of the Old Testament, Eichrodt describes the psalmist’s “desperate struggle with the Jewish doctrine of retribution.” He wrote:

It would have struck him as a betrayal of the great community of God, if he had, on the basis of the limited sphere of his own life, been willing to dare to call God’s faithfulness in question. Nevertheless, he faces the bankruptcy of all clever theories about God’s providence; they are bound to come to grief on the fact that the way of God with his community is completely hidden. What finally brings rest to his deeply agitated heart is no new edition of the old retribution doctrine, but a more profound vision of that in which human life is truly grounded, and from which it derives its value.

In all trials and tribulations he knows what it is to be with God, to be held by his hand, and to be guided by his counsel, and thus his life has a content which cannot be endangered by any outward event. God himself has become his portion (Eichrodt, 1967: 520-21).

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Other Studies on Psalm 73:

The Embittered Soul

The Goodness of God

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Brueggemann, Walter and Patrick D. Miller. “Psalm 73 as a Canonical Marker.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 72 (1996): 45-56.

Crenshaw, James L., “Standing Near the Flame: Psalm 73.” Pages 93-109. In A Whirlpool of Torment: Israelite Traditions of God as on Oppressive Presence. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Crenshaw, James L., “Theodicy.” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman.
New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Eichrodt, Walther. Theology of the Old Testament. Volume 2. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967.

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