But in vain I kept my heart pure and in innocence washed my palms.  For I was afflicted all day long, and my chastisement, each new morning.  Psalm 73:13-14  (translation – Robert Alter)

Afflicted – There are two kinds of purity in Scripture: ritual and moral.  Some prescriptions address ritual impurity without any suggestion of sin.  For example, menstruation requires a process of removing ritual impurity but it is certainly not considered sinful.  Then there is moral impurity.  Since Scripture puts emphasis on the circumcision of the heart, moral purity becomes an essential element in fellowship with God.  Without it, every part of the relationship is strained.  Asaph is not concerned with ritual purity.  The complaint he voices is that he has meticulously maintained moral purity (zaka – to be pure) and kept his hands from evil actions (niqqayon – innocence), yet he suffers affliction and chastisement.  It is assumed that his stance on moral purity includes ritual purity.  So, if he is righteous, why does he suffer?

Perhaps we should pay close attention to the Hebrew words for affliction and chastisement.  The first is naga (to reach, touch, be afflicted).  This isn’t the verb we would expect.  Usually we associate anah with affliction.  Asaph choose a verb that really means “to be touched by someone or something.”  It’s used for God touching  a man (Daniel 8:18), for two things contacting each other (Isaiah 6:7) and for coming into contact with death (Psalm 107:18).  It can also have sexual overtones (Genesis 20:6 and Ruth 2:9).  When Asaph uses the word he may have the idea of contamination in mind.  In spite of his meticulous obedience, the world still “touches” him.  He can’t get free of it.  He is surrounded by defilement.  Whatever the intention, it’s clear that Asaph wishes to avoid these touches but they are present anyway.  As a result, he complains that he is chastised.  That verb is tokeha.  Again, it is a bit strange because this is a verb from the language of the court.  It means “to rebuke, to reprove, to decide or judge” as one would determine a verdict in a lawsuit (cf. Psalm 50:8 and Hosea 4:4).  The most famous use of this word is in Isaiah 1:16-20 where the English translation, “Come, let us reason together” hides the Hebrew idea, “Come let us debate our case in court.”[1]  When Asaph employs this verb, he does not imply that he is being punished.  He implies that he is being called to account for the defilement that has touched him.

Asaph has a legitimate case.  He has done everything possible to stay clear of the seductions of the world and those actions that will inhibit worship of God.  But his efforts are unsuccessful.  It would be one thing to say, “Well, God is sovereign and He has a plan for me that doesn’t include prosperity.  So be it.  Amen.”  But it is quite another to find that you are being hauled into the heavenly court even though you have done all you can to stay clean.  Asaph cries out.  It makes no difference, apparently, that he has a pure heart and washed hands.  He still feels victimized – by God.

I suspect that Asaph’s complaint has escaped from our lips on more than one occasion.  Even the righteous don’t understand the winds of heavenly justice.  The world contaminates no matter how carefully we conduct ourselves.  What are we to do?

Unless you join Asaph in this great dilemma, you will not appreciate his forthcoming answer.  If you think that maintaining a life of obedience is enough, you have missed his point.  No man escapes contamination.  All are guilty (sounds like Paul, doesn’t it?).  All will have to answer in the Great Hall of Justice.  The dilemma of the righteous is not simply the apparent prosperity of the wicked.  It is the continual touch of the world.

Topical Index: touch, contamination, naga, rebuke, judgment, tikeha, Psalm 73:13-14

[1] Compare TWOT, article 865

  • Darlene April 23, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Smudged, tinged or clean, cleaner, cleanest; no matter the condition there’s a battle. Yet, even though there’s a battle we are (to be) salt and a light to the world.

  • Post a comment