Psalm 73: Green with Envy

“Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.” (1) Thus begins Psalm 73. The psalm ends with words of confident trust, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.” (26) But the path to reach this faith is not always straight. In the case of this writer, it led through a confrontation with envy.

We say people are green with envy when they covet something another person has. The term, green eyed monster, appears in Shakespeare’s Othello, when Iago warns Othello about the danger of jealousy, thereby planting suspicion in Othello’s mind, (3.3). It is said to refer to cats, often green-eyed, who tease their prey. Shakespeare also refers to envy as the “green sickness,” in Anthony and Cleopatra, (3:2). (The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary)

There are numerous examples of envy in the Bible. There are situations of sibling rivalry, Cain and Able (Gen. 4:3-7), Jacob and Esau (Gen. 27:41), Rachel and Leah (Gen. 30:1), Joseph and his brothers (Gen. 37:1) and the brothers in the prodigal son (Lk. 15:29). In Genesis 4:7, God tells Cain, “If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon crouching at the door,” much like the cat teasing its prey. He goes on to say, “Yet you can be his master.” It is possible to control it.

Other mentions of envy include Saul’s envy of David (1 Sam. 18:7-8) Ahab’s desire of Naboth’s garden (1 Kings 21:2) the priests and scribes envy of Jesus (Mt. 21:15). God is referred to as a jealous God who will have no other gods before him (Ex. 20:5, 34:14). He also instructs against coveting in the Ten Commandments (Ex.20:17).

At the time of the writing of this psalm, the psalmist was at peace with the world, but that wasn’t always the case. At one time he envied the wicked, “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had well nigh slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (2-3)

When he looked around it appeared that they had it all, health – “For they have no pangs; their bodies are sound and sleek.” (4); wealth – “Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.” (12); and praise from others – “Therefore the people turn and praise them; and find no fault in them.” (10)

Their sins were seven-fold: pride, violence, gluttony, wanton folly, malice, boastfulness and arrogant impiety. “Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness, their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice, loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.” (6-9)

Meanwhile, the author who has maintained a clean heart and innocent hands, has received punishment rather than prosperity. “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken, and chastened every morning.” (13-14) He is tempted to speak against God because of this, but fears leading others astray. “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have been untrue to the generation of your children.” (15)

How did he arrive at the faith expressed in the first verse? By experiencing God in God’s temple, “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.” (16-17) There he realized the fleeting nature of human success, “Truly you have set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!” (18-19)

When he looked with envy upon the wicked for their riches, reputation and health, he was bitter, “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant. I was like a beast toward you.” (21-22) He was in danger of losing his way, but God saved him, “Nevertheless, I am continually with you, you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel and afterward you will receive me to glory.” (23-24)

There is a reason why envy is one of the deadly sins. In the grasp of envy, he stumbled and was ready to turn away from God, like many before him. But, thanks to the grace of God, he did not follow this path.

Why is it that sometimes in life, evil prospers while virtue is punished? This psalm asks this question but provides no answer. It reminds us that life on this earth is transitory. Perhaps the wicked prosper precisely in order that we might recognize that virtue is its own reward; that we might turn to our God rather than the ways of the world. That we might love God not for rewards on this earth but even in the face of adversity.

In the face of injustice, what are we to do? Seek God in God’s sanctuary, as the psalmist does, and experience God’s peace. Envy would lead us astray, away from God. It leads to discontent and unhappiness. But it can be mastered.

Have you mastered envy? How have you grown through overcoming envy?

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