“It’s not fair!” The toddler wailed as mommy and daddy told him he couldn’t have the same toy his friend had. “Sometimes life isn’t fair, buddy.”
We tell our kids that life isn’t fair because we know that’s true. But even though we understand it, and despite the fact that we accept (admittedly with a sigh and a bit of disappointment) life’s little inequities, do we really believe that unfairness is okay? What about the drunk driver who walks away with only minor scratches while the man whose bedroom his car crashed into lives in a coma for a few days before he dies? Or when a mother and father weep outside the courtroom as their child’s murderer is released—an oversight in the investigation led to a legal technicality and the man walked free. A man finds his widowed mother’s bank account is empty—she has been duped by a “charity” and now has no money left to live on.
Tragedies raise angry questions: Why do people who do such bad things seem to succeed and even prosper? Where is God? How and where can we find answers?
One place to look for answers is in the book of Psalms. They capture the depth of human emotions and captivate us because they put words to the anger, fear, and frustration we all experience.
One of the psalm writers was a man named Asaph. He penned Psalm 73 after life had forced him to ask deep and painful questions. Although the details that led to his crisis are unknown, Asaph did capture his reaction to what he witnessed and what he learned.
Feeling betrayed by life and even by God, Asaph expresses a depth of disillusionment that many experience but few admit. Why is this happening to me? I’ve trusted God. I’ve tried to remain faithful and to make good choices. Yet I’m overwhelmed with trouble while evil people prosper. IT’S NOT FAIR!
Why Doesn’t God Enforce His Own Rules?
In ancient Israel, people believed and lived by the law of fair returns. They expected justice and balance. Those who did good would be rewarded proportionately, while the unjust and immoral would be punished. This wasn’t simply a clever philosophy or wishful thinking; it was based on the law given by God.
The New Testament has a counterpart to this Old Testament principle—the “law of sowing and reaping”: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (galatians 6:7–8).
These words offer truth and hope to the disheartened and suffering (as in Psalms 34 and 37). Wherever we find it, this principle was part of the framework through which an Israelite viewed life.
The belief that good is rewarded and bad punished exposes the problem that forms the backdrop of Psalm 73: Why do bad people seem to benefit while good people seem to struggle and encounter difficulty?
This psalm is not a detached theological analysis of a theoretical problem. Asaph was wrestling with a personal crisis, one that threatened his faith in God. His words revealed the intensity of the emotions stirred by the questions deep in his heart.
In his struggle, Asaph can speak for us. Our lives may mirror his. He believed in God’s goodness and the principle of justice, but his experience didn’t match what he thought he knew.
Answers. If he was to continue believing in God, Asaph had to find answers.
The Rearview Mirror
One of my favorite quotes is, “Life must be lived forward—unfortunately it can only be understood backward.” In other words, our clearest understanding of life’s events comes only when we see those events through the rearview mirror. There is something about the “rearview” perspective that gives a more meaningful and accurate context to what we have experienced. Reflection, examination, and evaluation often clarify what at the time was difficult to understand. It was the backward look that helped Asaph understand his circumstances. Eventually he arrived at a time when he could look back on the doubts, pain, and despair, the times when he had wondered about the goodness and fairness of God. Finally, in retrospect the picture become clearer and more understandable.
Notice the opening words of Psalm 73: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart!” (v. 1). Asaph described his experience as he saw it in the rearview mirror—a vantage point that allowed him to see his emotions and responses more clearly.
Asaph’s heart had been a battleground. War over the trustworthiness of God raged in his heart. As he recounted his experience, he revealing his despair: “But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped” (v. 2).
In the crucible of suffering his complaints had seemed appropriate, even justified. But now he could see them for what they really were—a dangerous temptation to reject God. He honestly recounted the thoughts assaulting his mind: “For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (v. 3).
Asaph confessed emotions we might feel but rarely acknowledge; his blunt words capture all too familiar thoughts. His self-disclosure encourages us to be honest with ourselves and with God. We too envy and resent prosperity, especially when it seems to come to those who do evil.
Describing those who seemed to have the upper hand for all the wrong reasons, he wrote:
For there are no pains in their death,
And their body is fat.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
The garment of violence covers them.
Their eye bulges from fatness;
The imaginations of their heart run riot.
They mock and wickedly speak of oppression;
They speak from on high.
They have set their mouth against the heavens,
And their tongue parades through the earth.
They say, “How does God know?
And is there knowledge with the Most High?” (vv. 4–9, 11).
Phrase by phrase, frustration by frustration, Asaph reflects on the luxury that seems to characterize the lives of those around him.
They seem to live such painless lives (v. 4). They die full and satisfied, enjoying life to the hilt every step of the way. “Their body is fat,” indicates great prosperity in an age when most people struggled just to survive. Indulgence in every delicacy was theirs on a daily basis, and their lifestyles reflected the means and opportunity to relax and enjoy the finer things.
They aren’t plagued like others (v. 5). They seem free from the difficulties, struggles, and toils of life. They seem immune to sickness and disease. Money and safety are the least of their concerns. Trouble doesn’t seem to touch those who prosper despite their wrongdoing.
Their pride and violence seem rewarded (v. 6). Asaph’s faith had taught him to believe that people who reject God will suffer. But as he observed life, it looked to him as if those who dared to be proud and oppressive were honored and rewarded. They seemed to have all the things that those who spent their lives in devotion to God wanted, wished for, and thought they were due.
Their abundance is unimaginable (v. 7). Asaph saw the outward display of their wealth. “Their eye bulges from fatness.” All the luxuries of life seemed to be theirs: comfort, safety, convenience, people and things to meet their every wish.
Their speech is filled with mockery, pride, and arrogance (vv. 8–9). The targets of their mocking were those who valued character. But what troubled Asaph the most about these prosperous people was their attitude toward God. They mocked Him in all they did.
Their prosperity led them to mockingly ask: “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?” (v. 11). Bible commentator Allen Ross notes, “They seem carefree and unconcerned about tomorrow. For them life is now, and now seems to be forever.” They felt protected from the normal pains of life (vv. 4–6), so they assumed they were also invulnerable to any divine response.
As Asaph looked at the wealth and happiness of ungodly, self-centered people, he came to a discouraging conclusion: In spite of all their wrongdoing, those who live only for themselves still prosper.
No wonder Asaph was frustrated! Bad people thrived, apparently immune to the problems of life. They mocked God and seemed to get away with it.
Inequity and injustice motivated Asaph’s confession in verse 3: “I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Faced with similar circumstances, we too want to scream, “It just isn’t fair!”
But that was only the beginning. Though venting his frustration seemed natural and helpful, doing so led him down a dark and troubling path.
1 Diodore of Tarsus. Commentary on Psalms 1-51. Translated by Robert C. Hill (WGRW 9. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005).