Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — Red Rover

Try to visualize with me — two lines of young kids, facing opposite each other, each side linked at the arms. The teams stare down at each other, nearly growling with anticipation of the ensuing battle.

The hum of expectancy rises to a fevered pitch as the first side hollers out loud, “Red rover, red rover, send Bobby right over.” Big ‘ol Bobby proudly leaves his ranks to run with all his might to the other side, ready to crash his way through their line. Successful at busting through their linked arms, he chooses one of those “weak links” to join his side.

Unlike Bobby, I did not enjoy “Red Rover.” I was a tiny thing in elementary — not strong or especially athletic. I hated hearing my name called because I knew I’d let my team down, unable to break through the other team’s linked arms. Misery doused all joy and remained with me till the game finally ended.

Red Rover

Though a simple schoolyard game, “Red Rover” can be played with great strategy and skill. Find the weak links. Play to your team’s strengths. Choose your plays wisely.

For the Bobbies of the world, this particular pursuit fulfills their competitive bents and stretches their strategic tendencies. And, if Bobby has the right heart, he learns the basics of leading a team well — how to protect the weak and capitalize on momentum. If he doesn’t, he can become the bully so many dread.

For the Shelleys of the world, it’s way too easy to succumb to the feelings of inadequacy and unfairness. Our thoughts can keep us out of the game, not realizing that we can be part of the strategy. Our assumptions can even take us to the places of resentment, fear, or jealousy. 

All the sudden, I see “Red Rover” as an incredible metaphor for life.

Psalm 73 

Our focus this week, Psalm 73, is considered a Psalm of Lament. Much like Psalm 25 from last week, this Psalm cries out to God, asks Him for help, and responds in praise or trust. But, unlike Psalm 25, which had a back-and-forth rhythm that reflected the inner wrestling of the psalmist, Psalm 73 reads more like a play with a significant moment of climax after which everything shifts.

While Psalm 25 set out to confirm God’s goodness as His help was sought, today’s Psalm seeks an answer about an observation — why the evil prosper. And the righteous suffer.  

Let’s read the entire Psalm, paying attention to the mental grappling of the author’s lament of the injustice he sees and feels. Watch for that climactic moment when his thinking shifts then observe how his attitude follows suit. (A hint, the small conjunctions at the beginning of sentences can be big clues).

1 Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.

2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4 They have no struggles;
    their bodies are healthy and strong.
5 They are free from common human burdens;
    they are not plagued by human ills.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
    they clothe themselves with violence.
7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
    their evil imaginations have no limits.
8 They scoff, and speak with malice;
    with arrogance they threaten oppression.
9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
    and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10 Therefore their people turn to them
    and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, “How would God know?
    Does the Most High know anything?”

12 This is what the wicked are like—
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

15 If I had spoken out like that,
    I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply

17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.
18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
    you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
    completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes;
    when you arise, Lord,
    you will despise them as fantasies.

21 When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

23 Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

27 Those who are far from you will perish;
    you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds.

Psalm 73 (NIV)

A Starting Place

Photo by Gia Oris on Unsplash

“Surely, God is good…” Surely. 

Despite all we see, we can follow the psalmist’s lead here and remember that God is always good. Especially to those who are pure of heart. Even when it doesn’t look like that’s the case.

The next verses, 2-3, foreshadow the wisdom to come — 

2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

The psalmist hints that he nearly lost his foothold for envying the arrogant. In other words, he came close to giving into assumptions he’d made based on what he saw. These two verses also become an opening frame to a larger text that sets off all the wrong our author notices. All his perceptions lead to some really strong feelings.

The Repeated Assumptions

Our psalmist builds quite the case for the injustice he sees in the world. In verses 4-12, he gives a litany of the “arrogant’s” obvious prosperity and pride. He sees the “wicked” as free from all burdens, full of health, and facing none of the usual problems. From the righteous man’s perspective, this is totally unfair. Not right. His arms are crossed as he watches on, fuming over the wrongness of it all. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Have you ever fallen in this trap? Have you ever found yourself in the game of life, looking at the big ‘ol Bobbies and wondering how they got it so good? It’s easy to put ourselves in the place of our author because we’ve felt that injustice.

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

We can quickly make assumptions and feel, as the psalmist does (verses 13-14), that we’re wasting our time following Jesus, living right, and trusting God.

The closing frame of this section builds toward the climax, giving us a glimpse into the author’s struggles yet allowing us access to his coming clarity: 

15 If I had spoken out like that,
   I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply

The case has been made. The evidence laid bare. Our psalmist is deeply troubled… TILL.

The Reversal (aka: The Climax)

17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

That little word, “till,” takes us on a hairpin turn of understanding and emotion. All those thoughts and struggles and feelings pivot.

Photo by Tom Mussak on Unsplash

Where did the psalmist go with all his troubled thoughts and wrecked wonderings?

He went to God.
He sought God’s presence.
And then he understood. 

Where do you go when you’re struggling with injustices and inequality? 

Social media? News outlets? People who will feed your feelings? Deep inside yourself, withdrawn and hidden?

Or, do you seek out God?

Verse 17 is key for believers of any generation, but perhaps never more so than now because we’re constantly bombarded by images and words filled with ideas, opinions, and suggestive undertones. It’s more than easy to compare, assume, and pick sides. It’s. So. Easy.

The harder, better path is to pause and seek God. Seek to see things from His perspective. Seek to let go of assumptions and grab hold of His constant truths. And when we do, we’ll make the shift, just as our psalmist did.

A Rehearsal of Truths

Asaph, the author credited on this Psalm, went to the place of God’s presence in His day — the sanctuary of God. It was there he got his answers. There he received God’s truths.

Verses 18-20 and 27 state those truths: those who don’t follow God will meet their end. No matter how it looks now, God is just. God will make things right.

Centered on these certainties, we sense the author’s attitude shift. First, confession. 

21 When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

Do you hear the repentance? The realization of who God is and what He is always about elicits a transformation in the psalmist’s heart — and he confesses. His words drip with humility and genuine appall at his own behaviors. A brute beast, indeed. This self-effacing description makes me think of a more contemporary phrase Hollyn uses in her song, “Alone:” 

“I can be a little punk sometimes.”

Yes, Lord, I sure can. Forgive me.

Asaph then goes on to make a different kind of list — one that demonstrates truth about who he is in God:

23 Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

Whether we’re the Bobbies or the Shelleys in the great game of life, we are all God’s children. When we give our lives and hearts to Jesus, our identities change. The game plan shifts. Our attitudes do an about-face — because we are His. We realize we are playing on the winning team, the fairest team, the most holy team. Even when it doesn’t feel that way in the moment, these are truths to cling to and rehearse.

28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds.

Like the psalmist, we get to choose what to believe and how to respond. And the very best place to go to figure out what those beliefs and responses might look like is directly into the presence of God.

Through prayer.
Through meditating on Scripture.
Through journaling and active listening for His holy voice.
Through worship.

When we enter His presence, we get much needed perspective. Armed with His truths, peace, and power, full of humility and hope, we can then go into the world ready. Refreshed. Refocused. Released to share Him with others.

Come on Over!

The game “Red Rover” draws a pretty good parallel for our lives. We can enter into this journey with God filled with dread, paralyzed by fear, unable to see our role in the big picture — and quit playing altogether. 

Or, we can stand ready, trusting that when our names are called, we’re being sent by a good, benevolent Father who not only gives us what we need but goes with us. 

So, let’s take a page out of Asaph’s book. Before we get bogged down by what we see in the world around us and entangled by the jealousy and anger that too easily rise to the surface, let’s go to God. Everyday. With sincere hearts, open and ready for the truths He has for us. Truths that anchor us to Him and allow us to go into the world fully armed — not for battle against flesh and blood but for the spiritual wars that require us to be covered by all His armor (see Ephesians 6).  

Photo by panitan punpuang on Unsplash

Hear your name, friend — God is calling you to come on over. Let go of the assumptions that hold you captive. Replace lies with the truth so you can trust God’s goodness and provision. It’s time to get in the game!

Ready to take my place on the field, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. If you’d like to read ahead, check out Psalm 143 — another lament. See if you can spot the crying out, asking for help, and affirming of faith in this Psalm.
  2. Invite friends to come play with us!
  3. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  4. Music is a great way to play with the Psalms, so I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. There are four songs based on Psalm 73 in the list. I hope you’ll hear phrases of truth that will anchor you in God’s truth and help you enter His presence.

Published by Shelley Johnson

Follower of Christ, wife, mother of three, daughter, sister, friend. Seeker of ways to share the love I've found in Jesus with others.

2 thoughts on “Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — Red Rover

  1. Shelley, what timing this is for me!! So much evil, injustice, hate and destruction in this country and in peoples lives right now! So many thinking these paths will bring them the happiness they seek. They may feel a moment of victory/happiness with their divisions and name calling by breaking apart peoples chains like you illustrated with Bobby in “Red Rover”but without God that happiness is fleeting and empty and they’re left without any sustaining joy!! I think I need to read this blog again!! So rich!! ❤️

    1. Yes. All so true. And so personal. Something really happened in me the first time I read this Psalm and got to the verse, “till I entered the sanctuary of God…” I realized how much I needed to do that. I needed to be in His presence. For clarity and healing and peace…… So glad it spoke to you as well. 💜

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