The Psalmist’s plight is dire in chapter seventy-three. Even though “God is good to Israel” (v. 1, ESV), the writer’s “feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped” (v. 2). Spiritual catastrophe has come too close for comfort. How? The Psalmist has begun to envy the wicked (v. 3-12), who are “always at ease” and “increase in riches.” His thinking grows so skewed he begins to ponder that “in vain have I kept my heart clean” (v. 13). Surveying the scene of prospering sinners is leading him toward the conclusion that serving God is not worth the effort.
Trying to figure out why the wicked are blessed “seemed to me a wearisome task” (v. 16), that is, “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end” (v. 17). Thankfully, a more accurate perspective sets in. The writer realizes that the apparent success of evil is fleeting, and that God will “set them in slippery places” and “make them fall to ruin” (v. 18). The unrighteous will be “destroyed in a moment” disappearing swiftly as “a dream when one awakes” (v. 20).
Then the Psalmist gets brutally honest about his own bad behavior. He humbly confesses to God that “my soul was embittered” (v. 21), and that “I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you” (v. 22). But, in spite of the author’s shortcomings, God is still holding onto his hand (v. 23). His salvation will be God’s doing, in spite of the writer’s painful flaws.
At this point the Psalmist pens a striking passage (v. 24-26):
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Compared to the New Testament (which is rife with discussions of the afterlife), Old Testament passages teaching the soul’s immortality seem few and far between (there are several scattered verses, but they will not be considered here). What does the Psalmist mean by asserting, “and afterward you will receive me to glory”? Since God is “in heaven,” and the Psalmist desires “nothing on earth” (v. 25), to be received “to glory” is an apparent reference to heaven. This is reinforced by the writer’s statement that “My flesh and my heart may fail” (v. 26)—evidently referring to the eventual death of his physical body. Nevertheless, after he has been guided with divine counsel (v. 24), and after his flesh fails (v. 26), he will be received “to glory” (v. 24) because God is “in heaven” and nothing remains “on earth” to be desired (v. 25). This hopeful outlook is possible only because, with flesh failing, “God is the strength of my heart…forever” (v. 26).
Could Psalm 73:24 be a bold Old Testament claim on the soul’s immortality and eternal destiny? On this Scripture Keil and Delitzsch comment that, even though the “heavenly triumph of the church” had not yet been foretold, faith in God “had already a transparent depth which penetrated beyond Hades into an eternal life…It is just this that is also the nerve of the proof of the resurrection of the dead which Jesus advances in opposition to the Sadducees (Matt. 22:32)” (Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5, pp. 493-494). Craig C. Broyles notes, “If verse 24 does point to some kind of resurrection, it is interesting to note how the writer arrived at this conclusion. He did so not by virtue of a supposed immortality of the soul but by virtue of God himself and the kind of relationship he establishes. Because ‘God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (v. 26), I shall therefore live on with God’” (New International Biblical Commentary on Psalms, pp. 304-305). It is worth observing that the Hebrew verb for “you will receive” in v. 24 is “identical to that found in Psalm 49:15 (‘But God will redeem my soul from the grave; he will surely take me to himself’) and Genesis 5:24 (‘Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away’), both of which seem to point to a divine act that transcends death” (ibid., p. 304). The Pulpit Commentary weighs in by quoting a professor who remarked about Psalm 73:24 that “the poet has that religious intuition which forms the kernel of the hope of immortality” (vol. VIII, p. 72).
The New Testament leaves Christians in no doubt about the afterlife, judgment, heaven and hell. But we need not think that people in Old Testament times had no clue about the soul. They had far less information than we, but God made sure they still had access to certain spiritual truths, including Psalm 73:24 and “the kernel of the hope of immortality.”