Surely you set them in slippery places; you cast them down into ruin. How they are brought into desolation in a moment, utterly consumed with terrors! Psalm 73:18-19 Hebrew World translation
Slippery places – How many promises have been made to you that were broken? In an election year like this one, we will probably be inundated with a litany of the other candidate’s broken promises. But put those aside for a moment. How many cultural promises have guided your life; promises that were never true or that were later withdrawn? How about promises like these: If you go to college, you’ll make more money. If you make more money, you’ll be happier. You need to date in order to find someone to marry. Image matters. Don’t be too religious or you’ll turn people off. Why bother to maintain some old-fashioned standard when no one else does? The only real crime is getting caught. Success is the most important thing in life. Or my favorite – If you drink this kind of beer, amazingly attractive women will fall all over you.
Maybe you can add a few more.
Asaph comments on these implied promises with the Hebrew word halaqot. The translation “slippery places” misses an important alternative meaning. Halaqot comes from the stem halaq, a combination of consonants that apparently is derived from two separate roots (designated I and II). The meanings of both roots are of interest in this psalm. Halaq I means, “share, divide, allot, apportion, assign.” It has a legal sense for something that is granted or given as a share. In important theological settings, it describes God’s allotment of the land. Halaq I expresses divinely-given possession.
Halaq II means, “to be smooth, slippery and (figuratively) to flatter.” One of the nuances of this second root is the idea of promises made to curry favor or pander to someone. Sort of like the promises we find in our cultural view of the world. Smooth speech is a use of halaq; speech that creates the impression of favor but really has another agenda. Politicians take college courses in this kind of rhetoric.
Since Asaph is a master of double meaning and twisted words, let’s apply these two different roots from the same set of consonants and see if we can’t gain some insight into Asaph’s poem. From root I we could infer that the wicked misuse God’s allotment. They are on slippery ground not because God didn’t give but because they used what He gave for the wrong purposes. Allotment is still in effect. God is still in charge. But misusing what God gives means sliding away from true purpose. They slip not because they have possessions but because they don’t have gratitude. Did you notice that God puts them in this place? They didn’t get there by effort or accident. Understanding halaq as allotment is essential for proper behavior in life.
But notice that Asaph also employs the second root meaning. The wicked are subject to smooth promises. They flatter themselves in their success, but the promises are empty. God is still in charge. Paul reiterates Asaph’s point in Romans 1:18-20. Those who do not acknowledge God’s sovereignty and who are not grateful are doomed to slip into fallacious flattery. They can’t see the truth because halaq darkens their minds. And even here, they did not arrive by accident. As we learned from Asaph, ‘ak is the watchword of the day. Surely you put them there, O Lord. Even here they serve His purposes.
What does this little venture into two roots tell us? Maybe the application is simple. There is no escaping the sovereignty of God. The only question is whether you are aware of it and cooperating with it. Perhaps we should be weeping over the successful ones; weeping because it is so easy to forget halaq when you listen to another voice.
Topical Index: halaq, smooth, allotment, Psalm 73:18-19