Who are “the wicked” in the psalms?

From Psalm 73 (2-8):

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes bulge with abundance;
They have more than heart could wish.
They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression;
They speak loftily.

In some psalms, the enemies in question are actual mortal wartime adversaries (like the people chasing David and trying to literally kill him), but in many situations (like that above), the opponents are not so clear. Who were “the wicked” the psalmist is speaking of in cases like this?

Foreigners? Kings and rich nobles is far off Egypt of Babylon? Doubtful. His knowledge of them would have been only a rumor. And even if he did know something of them, they are too distant, both physically and psychologically, to envy potently. He would have never met any of these actual folks. Their rich lives in far off lands might as well have been on another planet. He was in no danger of despairing over the lack of something he didn’t know first-hand or likely even second-hand. So no, not rich foreigners. The wicked he was fretting about must have been much closer to home. (Girard’s insights about proximity are helpful here.)

So were there wicked men in Israel? You bet. Who were they, rogue aliens who didn’t care about God’s law? No – the few aliens that were living in Israel at the time were either literal slaves or at least of the servant class. They couldn’t have been anything like the reckless high-rollers the psalmist is angered over.

So who were these “wicked” men whose eyes “bulged with abundance” and who were “not in trouble as other men”? They must have been the guy’s own proper Jewish neighbors – men with families close by to him – people he actually ran into on the street all the time. And what were these wicked men doing? Well, probably not anything particularly illegal. This psalm was written during the reign of King David. The government was strong and largely just. Local law enforcement would have been functional. The priests in the temple were in full operation. This wasn’t the lawless wild west or some place like modern Somalia or central Iraq where local thug warlords controlled each town. No, the “wicked” things these people were doing was stuff unlikely to get them thrown in jail. Maybe some of what they did was shielded by bribes and hush money, but for the most part these evil men were seemingly law-abiding citizens minding their own business.

So what were the doing that was so bad? All I can figure is that they were oppressing their subordinates: treating their servants like slaves, cheating their tenants, dealing dishonestly in their business, keeping mistresses under the table, paying off the cops when their kids got into trouble, indulging in luxury and drinking $1000 wine from Phonecia while they foreclosed on the poor people renting their land. They were raking in the bucks at the expense of their fellow humans. After long years of this, they had amassed wealth to flaunt in various ways as they meandered around the city tending to their daily affairs. People feared and respected them because of their wealth and would listen attentively whenever they would run their mouth about whatever topic was on their mind.

Everything seemed peachy for them – they had tons of food and a nice place to live. Had all their oppression caused them to have “bad karma” and experience personal disaster? It didn’t seem like it. It seemed like they were living the high life, permanently. What’s somewhat ironic is that most of these folks would probably be considered important people or “pillars” of the community, rather than shady creepers. They weren’t like a criminal drug-dealer today, but more likely a “respected” businessman, university president, or elder. Why wouldn’t they be? But the people that interacted with them closely on a daily basis would realize they were deeply corrupted. Their position they maintained, causing the more honest among their subjects much consternation.

“And look at me”, the just man says. “I’ve obeyed all the rules and what do I have? Just a bunch of debt. Also, some goats I sold to a guy last week got sick and died on him and he wants his money back. I gave it back to him, but now I’m really hurting. I could have been like the rich and screwed that guy over and kept the cash. Heck, if I had done that, then I could have fixed that leaky roof and got my wife to stop complaining for a while. Why didn’t I do that? What do I get for being honest? Nothin’ but trouble.”

Today though, who do we often think of as “the wicked” in this psalm? Evil foreign dictators. Corrupt politicians, especially perhaps the current President or Prime Minister and his entourage. The CEO of some big oil company maybe. The thing they have in common is they are all highly-visible people in the public square. They are also people you’ve never met and who probably live thousands of miles away from you. The only reason you know anything about them is from consuming modern journalism.

The information age allows our envy and anger (just or otherwise) to cast a much wider net than it did in the time of the psalmist. Our personal accompanying images are different, giving the scripture a different flavor when we read it. The truth remains the same though. Dwelling on this seeming inequality is disheartening and poisonous. The antidote is the same – “the sanctuary of God” –  communion with one’s creator, and via that some good eschatology – replacing present outrage with trust.