But in vain I kept my heart pure and in innocence washed my palms. Psalm 73:13 (translation – Robert Alter)
In vain – “I’d like to believe what you believe,” he said. “You seem to have a kind of stability in life. But if I decided to live like you, I’d miss out on a lot of things. I’m just not ready for that. I want to get all I can now. When things change, then maybe I’ll give up some stuff.”
“In vain,” says Asaph. If you thought this word is connected to the famous phrase in Ecclesiastes, you’d be wrong. The word here is riq, not hebel. Riq means empty. Most of the occurrences in the Tanakh are about the worthlessness of human plans and efforts when they are compared to the purposes of God. But Asaph twists the use of this word, as he is wont to do in his poetry. Instead of implying that the plans of men are futile, Asaph complains that following the direction of the Lord seems worthless. What’s the point of denying myself life’s gain and the world’s pleasures if it only turns out to bring me affliction and rejection? Riq consists of the Hebrew consonants resh-yod-qof. The picture is “person-work-least (last).” In other words, all my work turns out to be worth nothing. I am last in line. I am counted least among men. My efforts to follow God become a yoke around my neck and shackles on my feet. Why bother? Why not do as Qohelet suggests: eat, drink and enjoy the woman of your youth if you can, for tomorrow you die.
The economics of a man who does not fear God are quite simple. Get what you can! The problem with that view of economics is also simple. Mick Jagger gave us the correct evaluation. But that isn’t much consolation in the midst of affliction. Frankly, it’s no fun being poor, sick or otherwise abused (and the people who claim that the poor are happy have never been really poor). The message of Scripture faces a nearly impossible uphill battle because it looks like the wicked win. It looks like God’s people get the short end of the stick. It looks like being a believer is no fun. And if life is about taking the bull by the horns, then something is wrong with the good news.
What’s wrong, of course, is the timeline. A man who doesn’t fear God is a man without a clock. Kierkegaard recognized that everything in life fades. Everything evaporates. Loves come and go. Money doesn’t last forever. Power wanes. Health disappears. The grave is the certain reminder that the rich and powerful are finally no different than the rest of us. When the end game is the same for all, the only real question is what was the ride like? And the answer to that question is not a matter of evidence. It is a matter of perspective. The man of the moment, the man without fear of God, has a perspective born out of a black hole world. Nothing escapes a black hole. The force of gravity is so strong that even light can’t get out. The man Asaph envies is a black hole man. Everything in his life falls in on itself. Nothing gets out. And in the end, it’s just dark. This man can spend his life gathering it all, or as much as he can, and he will end up right where Ecclesiastes leaves him. “I’ve tried it all and it didn’t matter. Nothing gave me a purpose that lasts.”
When Asaph uses the word riq, he startles us. That’s a word that should be applied to the black-hole man, but here it describes the life of the righteous. What Asaph does is turn us upside-down again. He makes us think, “Do I have the right perspective? Am I applying riq in the right way?” It’s easy to let the other worldview tell me that righteousness is a dumb game. It’s easy to be convinced that what matters is getting it now. But what a mistake! I don’t have to wait until I die to experience black-hole economics. I just have to wait until tomorrow. Unless I find meaning outside the black hole, there will be a pit at the center of my universe that will drag all I do into the dark. Just ask someone who’s lived longer than twenty years. The dark in the center grows.
Asaph uses riq in the wrong way. Do you?
Topical Index: riq, vain, hebel, black hole, Ecclesiastes, Psalm 73:13