The Meaning of "God is Good to Israel, to the Pure in Heart", from Buber and Martens

These are notes from Martin Buber, Right and Wrong (1952), chapter 4, The Heart Determines: Psalm 73

God is indeed good to Israel, to the pure in heart.
-Psalm 73:1

“For the most part we understand only gradually the decisive experiences which we have in our relation with the world.”

Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a religious existentialism centered on the distinction between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship.

Famous quote: “All real living is meeting.”
-I and Thou, 1923

Buber:

“The man who speaks in this Psalm tells us how he penetrated to the heart of a weighty group of experiences: Those experiences which show that the wicked prosper. “Apparently, then, the question is not what was the real question for Job: why the good do not prosper, but rather its obverse, as we find it most precisely, and probably for the first time, expressed in Jeremiah 12:1; Why does the way of the wicked prosper? “Nevertheless, the Psalm begins with a prefatory sentence in which, rightly considered, Job’s question may be found hidden.

This sentence, the foreword to the Psalm, is Surely God is good to Israel: To the pure in heart. “It is true that the Psalmist is here concerned not with the happiness or unhappiness of the person, but with the happiness or unhappiness of Israel. “But the experience behind the speeches of  Job, as is evident in many of them, is itself not merely personal, but is the experience of Israel’s suffering both in the catastrophe which led to the Babylonian exile and in the beginning of the exile itself. “Certainly only one who had plumbed the depths of personal suffering could speak in this way. “But the speaker is a man of Israel in Israel’s bitter hour of need, and in his personal suffering the suffering of Israel has been concentrated, so that what he now has to suffer he suffers as Israel. “In the destiny of an authentic person the destiny of his people is gathered up, and only now becomes truly manifest.

Thus the Psalmist, whose theme is the fate of the person, also begins with the fate of Israel. “Behind his opening sentence lies the question: ‘Why do things go badly with Israel?’ And first he answers, ‘Surely, God is good to Israel’, and then he adds, by way of explanation, ‘to the pure in heart’. “On first glance this seems to mean that it is only to the impure in Israel that God is not good, He is good to the pure in Israel, they are the ‘holy remnant’, the true Israel, to whom He is good. “But that would lead to the assertion that things go well with this remnant, and the questioner had taken as his starting-point the experience that things went ill with Israel, not excepting indeed this part of it. The answer, understood in this way, would be no answer. “We must go deeper in this sentence. The questioner had drawn from the fact that things go ill with Israel the conclusion that therefore God is not good to Israel. But only one who is not pure in heart draws such a conclusion. “One who is pure in heart, one who becomes pure in heart, cannot draw any such conclusion. 

For he experiences that God is good to him. But this does not mean that God rewards him with his goodness. It means, rather, that God’s goodness is revealed to him who is pure in heart. “He experiences this goodness. In so far as Israel is pure in heart, becomes pure in heart, it experiences God’s goodness. “Thus the essential dividing line is not between men who sin and men who do not sin, but between those who are pure in heart and those who are impure in heart. Even the sinner, whose heart becomes pure, experiences God’s goodness as it is revealed to him. “As Israel purifies its heart, it experiences that God is good to it.

It is from this standpoint that everything that is said in the Psalm about ‘the wicked’ is to be understood. The ‘wicked’ are those who deliberately persist in impurity of heart. “The state of the heart determines whether a man lives in the truth, in which God’s goodness is experienced, or in the semblance of truth, where the fact that it ‘goes ill’ with him is confused with the illusion that God is not good to him. “The state of the heart determines. That is why ‘heart’ is the dominant key-word in this Psalm, which rectors six times.

More notes: Psalm 73: A Corrective to a Modern Misunderstanding, Elmer A. Martens
(Paradox of doctrine and experience)

“First, it does not follow that because God is good to Israel and to those who are pure in heart that his goodness will be expressed in health and wealth. “Quite the opposite. It was the evil segment of society which enjoyed health (“sound and sleek in body”, v. 4) and wealth (v. 12). The Psalmist in turn complained of envy. He may have himself lacked both health and wealth. “He describes his torment, his chastenings, his trouble. No, one cannot make the equation: God’s goodness leads in every case to provision of health and wealth. “While it is true that God is good, that goodness does not give the believers a categorical right to claim health and wealth from him.

“It is improper to seize upon one set of biblical texts, such as those that promise prosperity, and then to ignore those examples and those texts that make clear that a believer is not exempt from trouble. “In the Old Testament, the story of Job should set aside for all time the erroneous notion that God unfailingly brings material prosperity upon those who are upright. “In the New Testament Paul’s life of suffering hardly warrants the conclusion that the material abundance is guaranteed the believer (Romans 8:18; 1 Cor. 4:11-13). The book of 1 Peter is written to devout people but who suffer. “They are encouraged to endure by God’s grace; not to lay claim to “health and wealth.” We cannot in honesty with the text so systemize the scripture as to isolate glowing promises and set aside those statements less to our liking.

“A more biblical approach is to recognize that both the promise for “good” and those statements about a believer’s suffering are part of the total picture. “One of the solutions is to find with the Psalmist what in deed is the definition of “good” in that faith statement which holds that “God is good to Israel.” The “good” is not necessarily that of material prosperity though it may at times include it.

“Second, the values of health and wealth must be measured against other values for the believer. This Psalm is no broadside slam against wealth or the importance of health, but it clearly points to values more prized than either: “the counsel of an ever-present God; the strength of God when flesh and heart fail, and the intimacy possible with God for a believer. By setting such a high premium on health and wealth, modern “evangelists” of this gospel err. “These evangelists advocate material substance as a believer’s rightful portion. The Psalmist turns away from such superficiality and holds, “And having you (God) I desire nothing on earth” (v. 25).

“The health and wealth advocates are correct in wanting to make faith relevant to the present day circumstances. “However, since a basic problem of American culture is already a materialism that minimizes if not neutralizes the spiritual dimension of life, the gospel of health and wealth rather than curbing materialism, fuels it. “The Christian must call people first to God and not first to His gifts. To do otherwise is to court the temptation of idolatry, namely to make God’s gifts gods. “In a materialistically oriented culture, the virtues of the spiritual values, especially God’s presence, power and purpose need to be highlighted. It was to this spiritual set of values that Asaph’s choir song of Psalm 73 points.

“Third, to equate God’s goodness with good health and lavish wealth is precisely the view that well-nigh led the Psalmist’s feet to slip. “One might imagine that someone had preached to him the notion that since God was good to Israel, he as “believer” was entitled to material abundance. Persons embracing such a gospel are likely to meet with experiences that will contradict the teaching. “Then they will be led on slippery paths. Their doubt could destroy their own stability as well as that of future generations. “Unless they hurry into the sacred place and discern a better theology, they might well be a casualty, and in their own collapse of faith, implicate future generations.

“The writer of Psalm 73 reports his own experience and turns it about in his soul so as to anchor down the insights to which God led him. “In doing so, he helps virtually every believer who has pondered the wellbeing of carefree and godless neighbors in contrast to personal piety. “The Psalmist also sheds light on a modern overstatement that interprets God’s goodness as issuing without fail in health and wealth. Such a misunderstanding of the meaning of God’s goodness must be firmly rejected.

-Elmer Martens, President, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary

Martens held a doctorate in Old Testament from the Claremont Graduate School, where he completed a thesis on “Motivations for the Promise of Israel’s Restoration to the Land in Jeremiah and Ezekiel.” He passed away in September 2016.

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