When Asaph speaks of discerning the "end" ('achărı̂yth
) of the wicked, he may simply mean their future in this world, not necessarily their post-mortem existence in the next. In Psalm 37:35-38, David writes,
I have seen a wicked, ruthless man,
spreading himself like a green laurel tree.
But he passed away, and behold, he was no more;
though I sought him, he could not be found.
Mark the blameless and behold the upright,
for there is a future for the man of peace.
But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
the future ('achărı̂yth) of the wicked shall be cut off.
The same word rendered "end" in Ps. 73:17 is rendered "future" in the above verses, and means the future of people in this
world. The future of the wicked is "cut off" when they "pass away," are "destroyed," and are "no more." Apparently, David saw the death of transgressors as a judgment from God.
Previously in this chapter David wrote:
"But the wicked will perish;
the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away."
In Psalm 9:5-8, 15-17 we read:
You have rebuked the nations;
you have made the wicked perish;
you have blotted out their name forever and ever.
The enemy came to an end in everlasting ruins;
their cities you rooted out;
the very memory of them has perished.
But the LORD sits enthroned forever;
he has established his throne for justice,
and he judges the world with righteousness;
he judges the peoples with uprightness.
The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
in the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught.
The LORD has made himself known; he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.
The wicked shall return to Sheol,
all the nations that forget God.
In Ps. 31:17-18 we read,
O LORD, let me not be put to shame,
for I call upon you;
let the wicked be put to shame;
let them go silently to Sheol.
Let the lying lips be mute,
which speak insolently against the righteous
in pride and contempt.
Speaking of "mighty men" who "boast of evil," David writes in Ps. 52:5:
But God will break you down forever;
he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living.
That the judgment described above (i.e., "perishing" and being "uprooted from the land of the living") is what Asaph had in mind in Psalm 73 is, I believe, even more evident from what he says in v. 27: "For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you." Both Asaph's words in vv. 18-20 as well as these can easily apply to death (especially a premature, sudden or ignomious death, or a death that leads to the memory or name of the wicked being "blotted out"). Like David above, it is unlikely that Asaph had in view a post-mortem punishment. For David it would seem that, in some sense, death itself - i.e., having one's future "cut off" - was considered a judgment from God upon the wicked. Thus it could be understood that the wicked "fall to ruin," are "destroyed in a moment" and are "swept away utterly by terrors" when
they die, not after
It may be objected that because everyone dies, death cannot be the judgment of which David and Asaph speak. But aside from the evidence in the Psalms that death was considered to be in some sense a judgment from God upon the wicked, death is frequently spoken of as the doom of the wicked and foolish in the book of Proverbs as well:
"Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors" (1:19).
"For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them" (1:32).
"For the upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it, but the wicked will but cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it" (2:21-22).
"My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you" (3:1-2).
"The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray" (5:22-23).
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life" (9:10-11).
"The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short" (10:27).
"Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live, but he who pursues evil will die" (11:19).
"The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand" (12:7).
"Whoever keeps the commandments keeps his life; he who despises his ways will die" (19:16).
"One who wanders from the way of good sense will rest in the assembly of the dead" (21:16).
"Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with a rod, you will save his soul from Sheol" (23:13-14).
I just don't see any good reason to understand Asaph to have had a different understanding of justice and retribution in mind than what we read about in Proverbs (in which Solomon declares, "If the righteous is repaid on earth, how much more the wicked and the sinner!" - 11:31). Even if one were to argue that not every
wicked person in Asaph's day was, at death, "destroyed in a moment" and "swept away utterly by terrors" (although this could be understood as exaggeration for emphasis), one could respond that it was no less true in his day that this happened to every wicked person than it was that "the years of the wicked will be short," or that a properly disciplined child would avoid a premature death.
But what about Asaph's words, "...and afterward you will receive me to glory"? Well first, according to N.T. Wright, the words "receive me to glory" could be translated as "take me with honor." Understood in this way, Asaph would mean that his death would be honorable, unlike the death of the wicked. But even if we understand it to be an expression of hope in some kind of life after death (i.e., a resurrection - cf. Ps. 17:15), Asaph need not be understood as saying that other people won't
afterwards be "received to glory," or that only the righteous will afterwards be received to glory. He's simply expressing his own personal hope of what is to happen to him afterwards, not contrasting the post-mortem destiny of the righteous and the wicked. Even if it were the case that all people - whether they be just or unjust in this life - will "afterward" be received by God into "glory" (as I believe is revealed in the NT), only the righteous can enjoy and express such a hope (for it's by virtue of the fact that they are trusting in God and his promises that persons can even be righteous). Having this personal hope would be just one more advantage of being righteous, and one more reason not to be envious of the wicked. As Asaph came to realize, it's not true that the righteous keep their hearts clean and wash their hands in innocence in vain. But this isn't necessarily so because they will be rewarded after death in another state of existence. Rather, it's because it is true now
, in this present life, that "God is good to those who are pure in heart" (v. 1), and that "it is good to be near God" (v. 28). God is the "refuge" of the righteous now
, not merely after death. It is a blessing to us now
to walk hand in hand with God (v. 23) and to be guided with God's counsel (v. 24). The way of those who fear God (and have thus "found wisdom") is one of "pleasantness" and "peace" (Prov 3:17). "Blessed is he who trusts in the LORD" (16:20). "Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble" (Ps. 119:165). "You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you" (Isa 26:3). "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls" (Jer 6:16). I think Asaph came to more fully appreciate all of the this-life advantages of being a believer, and thus expressed a hope that he knew only the righteous could enjoy in this world.
"Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" Abraham Kuyper