Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.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.
The opening line of the Psalm is theological bedrock: ‘God is good’, both towards us and in his very nature. ‘God is good to Israel’ is not favouritism as Israel was chosen not for her sake alone but for the nations, to embody and display God’s goodness. Just to cover the bases the poet adds, ‘God is good to the pure in heart’, presumably to those who respond to God’s faithful love with a faithful love of their own expressed in their lives and by their lips.
It sounds great in theory but theory crashes against the rock of his experience. Broken relationships, frustrated desires, shattered dreams, illness, aging, ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ cause the faithful to question God’s goodness. The Bible isn’t a fairy tale, it doesn’t shrink away from the difficult questions about why God’s goodness sometimes seems flat out contradicted by our experience of the world.
The cause of the Psalmist’s questioning is evident in verse 3. Envy might be a transgression of the commandments (Exodus 20:17) but he owns up to it. We don’t need to put on our Sunday best for prayer, God just calls to be honest. Specifically, the Psalmist envies those whose life is not pure, who do not live in the light of God’s love. Troublingly those who reject the good God seem to enjoy the good life. It is they who prosper (the Hebrew word is shalom), it is the wicked who seemingly enjoy peace and prosperity (vv. 4, 5).
They are self-absorbed, self-promoting, abusive and treat others like dirt because they feel that they can do whatever they want and get away with it (vv. 6–9). The wages of sin appear to be quite pleasant. As a result, the Psalmist feels that he has nearly lost his foothold (v. 2).
The Psalm turns in verse 17. He is troubled in thought until he enters the sanctuary of God. When we are confronted with the injustice and unfairness of the world it is easy to despair, what the writer needed and what we need is to take the divine perspective. That perspective comes as we begin to see things through God’s eyes.
Even if the wicked avoid their comeuppance in this life, they cannot avoid the judgment of God (Hebrews 9:27). Precisely because God is good he will deal with evil, it will disappear like a bad dream (v. 20) and those who cling to those evils will be swept away with them (v. 19). Earlier the Psalmist feared his foot was slipping, but it is really the wicked who are on slippery ground (v. 18).
Beginning to see things through God’s eyes leads the Psalmist to a fresh perspective, not just to confess his sin (vv. 21, 22) but to value afresh his relationship with God (vv. 23–26). The arrogant have acted inhumanely, falling short of God’s intention for them to live lives of love and justice. The Psalmist had nearly joined them, at least in his mind, but in spending time with God and with God’s people (entering the sanctuary was not an experience that you did on your own!) he had returned to his senses (‘repented’) and realised that true riches are to be found in knowing God is always with him (v. 23) and will take him into glory.
In verse 15 he wrote that if he had spoken publicly of his doubts he would have betrayed future generations, but by the end of the psalm he has opened his mouth wide open to tell others of where the good life is truly to be found (v. 28).