“Focus on Forever”
Please turn in your Bibles to Psalm 73. We are continuing our “Summer in the Psalms.” And I trust that you are being nourished as we peruse a sampling of some of these poetic chapters of God’s Word. Psalm 73 has quickly become one of my favourites. And here’s why. I found that this is a very honest passage of Scripture. And it’s also a “Wednesday” type of psalm. Some passages in the Bible contain lofty concepts. As an example, we are familiar with the way Paul opens up his letter to the Ephesians by stating that Christians are blessed with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places, chosen by God before the foundation of the world. He goes on to say that God has made us alive in Christ and seated us with him in heavenly places. These are the kinds of things that make your mind stutter. These are lofty thoughts that have great and ultimate significance for the Christian.
Psalm 73, on the other hand, has a down-to-earth feel to it. The author has “lived” this one and the reader “feels” it and can identify with it. We get the dirt under our fingernails in this one. Because of its honesty, there are few (if any) who can dismiss it because of irrelevance. Let’s read the text as we get under way. READ.
At the outset, you will notice that this is a “Psalm of Asaph.” There are a number of psalms that are attributed to his writing. Asaph was a Levite musician appointed by David to serve in the tabernacle. 1 Chronicles 6:31–32 “31 These are the men whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord after the ark rested there. 32 They ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting until Solomon built the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they performed their service according to their order.” Before Solomon had the temple built, the nation of Israel would meet, worship and sacrifice to God. And Asaph was a leader within this tabernacle.
The first point is Where are you looking? We will notice that in verses 1-3, the object of Asaph’s focus subtly shifts from God in verse 1, to himself in verse 2, to others in verse 3. Watch it. Psalm 73:1–3 1 Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. 2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. God is good to his people. I became envious when I looked at them. This pattern also plays out in the rest of the chapter. Asaph will begin with this truth concerning God, elaborate on his struggle when he looks around at others and will yet conclude by returning to his focus on God.
Back to verse 1. Asaph begins with a truth statement. He says that God is good to his people, to those who are pure in heart. As a leader in the tabernacle of God, Asaph would be well acquainted with the Law of God. He would have been immersed in its teachings. Asaph would even lead the people in singing these great truths. He didn't pick this statement out of the air. It was his declaration. It was embedded within him.
You take a quick peek at verse 2 and look at the first words and realize that there will be more to the story. He is going to wrestle with this very statement. First, I would like for us to comprehend the importance of having an anchor such as the one Asaph demonstrates here. In the next several verses his experience and perception will challenge the statement. But if he did not have a foundation with which to work with, the results might be quite different than they were. What Asaph does here is what Martin Lloyd-Jones refers to as talking to yourself. When emotions and experiences and the Enemy begin to challenge some of the truths that you have learned, you are in peril if you listen to such talk rather than speaking the truth to yourself. Asaph begins with an understanding that God is good to his people in an attempt to remind himself of that very fact. If he was trying to understand the character of God based solely on his circumstances and not what he was taught, he might conclude wrongly.
“But as for me,” he says, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. There are two very key words in that. Did you catch them? “My feet had almost stumbled and my steps nearly slipped. We’ll follow up on this ultimate significance at the end of the passage. But why did this happen? As for Asaph, what went wrong? Verse 3 tells us that he was overcome with envy… when he saw the prosperity of the wicked. He saw the prosperity of the wicked. He took his eyes off the God who is good to his people and began to look around at others.
I’m sure that none of us have this problem though. Right? We consistently look to God and trust that he is good. We don’t look around to see how we measure up. We do not care if others are doing better than us. We are simply content to live on what God has blessed us with. There is never any envy or coveting houses or boats or bikes or cars or other stuff. But we are faithful and always trust that God is out for our good. So none of this really pertains to us. Or does it…?
What went wrong with Asaph? What goes wrong for us? We look around. We look around and compare ourselves with our neighbors and coworkers. How much trouble would be avoided if we stopped looking around and looked to our God.
So Asaph has begun with this truth statement that God is good to his people. And then he begins to let us in on his struggle. In his doubt, he looks around at everyone else and asks the question, “God, is this really true?” “Is this really true? Because, I don’t know, I had a little look around and I’m having a bit of a tough time with this one.”
The second point is Distorted Experience. It seems to me as though Asaph is having a rough go at life. Perhaps he’s had a really bad day. What happens here is that he launches into a bit of a pity party it seems. Anybody here throw one of these for yourself? I’m pretty good at them. I never thought of myself as a party planner. But I can pull off a fairly good pity party. You know how they go… We start saying things like “I’m always sick on holiday weekends.” “Why doesn’t anything ever go my way? Why does my boss always…” You get the idea.
As we recount Asaph’s experience here, I think we will see that when we get caught up in such thinking, our accounts become distorted. With some of the issues he introduces, there will be elements of truth, and yet some distortions right alongside. Let’s take a brief look at Asaph’s distorted experience. It begins in verse 4.
According to verse 4, the wicked experience no pain in their lifetime. Their bodies resemble their wealth and gluttonous eating. In other words, they do not suffer needlessly because of a lack of food or other resources. In verse 5, they do not experience trouble.
As a result, verse 6 tells us, the wicked are proud of their self-sufficiency. In fact they wear their pride as a necklace. Because of their wealth and power, they can exploit the weak in any manner they choose. They are able to gorge themselves to the point where their eyes swell out with fatness. (Now that’s a pleasant image, isn’t it?) This causes their hearts to overflow with follies. They have no cares. They are not dependent on anyone. They live as they please. They exploit others. And this leads them to live non-moral lives. In verse 8, they act and speak as if the world revolves around them and for them.
It gets more interesting in verse 9. Asaph says they go so far as to direct their voice against the God of heaven and continue to set themselves above others. You can almost feel the tension and outrage going on in Asaph’s mind. How dare they! God! God! Can’t you see? Why do you stand by and do nothing??
And yet it gets worse. In verse 11, the wicked subscribe to a theology of an irrelevant God. “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” The wicked seem to get away with their wickedness and boast about it. Spurgeon adds that “they flatter themselves in their oppressions and persecutions are unobserved of heaven. If there be a God, is he not too much occupied with other matters to know what is going on upon this world?” As an example of this, “Dionysus the Younger, an ancient tyrant of Sicily, plundered the temple of Syracuse, sailed home safely with his loot, and then remarked, “Do you not see how the gods favor those who commit sacrilege?” That’s sort of what is going on here. This must be the tension within Asaph. “Not only are the wicked prospering, but they mock you God!! They say that either you don’t care, are unable to intervene, and possibly that their prosperity comes from their wickedness. I don’t get it!” In verse 12, he summarizes his observations saying, “These are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.”
Now we can acknowledge that it seems as though there are a great many of “the wicked” (those that do not honor or serve God) that seem to flourish financially and live lives of comfort and ease. We can easily call to mind the most immoral of music artists, comedians, Hollywood actors and actresses. You’ve probably got someone in your mind right now. Can you begin to identify with Asaph’s struggle? But we would also admit that not all those who deny God are living the “good life.” Many of the wicked struggle as well. So we begin to see Asaph’s over generalizing.
Asaph is not done yet. He sinks even lower. Look at verse 13. “All in van I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” He’s come to the point where he questions if it is all even worth it. But let’s not be too hard on Asaph yet. Haven’t we all (if we’re honest) taken a look around at the world and been like “Man, they’re having lots of fun! They don’t have to worry over living a moral life. They can party hard and not worry about their testimony of Christ. Or, there’s this great biking group that does these fantastic rides… on Sunday mornings. My neighbor is sleeping around and cheating on his wife. He doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. He’s doing quite well in business. He doesn’t worry about loving his wife as Christ loved the church. So he works all the time. Did I mention he just got this killer new boat??
Obviously, I overstate the case here. But there may be times when we ask the question. While everyone around me is doing so well, and I am having a really tough go at it, is it all worth it?? Is this all in vain? Spurgeon writes regarding Asaph, “Poor Asaph! he questions the value of holiness when its wages are paid in the coin of affliction. With no effect has he been sincere; no advantage has come to him through his purity, for the filthy-hearted are exalted and fed on the fat of the land. Thus foolishly will the wisest of men argue, when faith is napping.”
I love the insight of Asaph in verse 15. Though it is quite fine to wrestle through these significant questions, he realizes that to broadcast his doubts would be disastrous! Think of it this way. Imagine one of the folks on leadership, let’s say David Devlin. Well… Asaph was leader of the music. Anyway, perhaps David is leading his family in devotions or, better yet, he mentors a couple of young guys. They sit down for their weekly meeting and pray and then David says something to the effect of “The Bible says that God is good to his people. But that’s not what I’m seeing. I’ve taken a long look around and things aren’t as they should be. You see it too. I know you do. Your ungodly neighbors and co-workers… They’re doing pretty good, aren’t they? You know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking that all in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hand in innocence. I can’t harmonize what I’ve been taught to believe with what I’m seeing.”
What would be the result of this outburst? The people you’re mentoring need to know that you believe what you’re saying. It’s like when I come up to preach. If I’m not believing what I’m preaching, I’m a hypocrite. So week after week I am forced to wrestle with the text until I’m comfortable with what its saying and I’m willing to apply it. This isn’t always easy. But it’s where I land every week!
Asaph refused to infect the people of God with his doubt and despair. By writing this psalm, Asaph will ultimately share his despair with future generations… but only after he too had wrestled with it and landed on belief. For us as we continue to pursue God through his Word, we will find that our first conclusions regarding our problems are seldom our best. It is perilous to spread such initial conclusions to those that we influence.
Asaph here is a good example of honesty in his times of doubt. It is not wrong to question a truth from God’s Word initially. But you must not be content to stay there. You must be willing to seek wisdom from God through prayer and his Word. You must exercise faith. And this is precisely what Asaph did.
Our third point is Realignment. Look at verses 16 and 17. Asaph did not give up. “When I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task.” He was going to pursue this. How did he go about it? He says he went into the sanctuary of God! What does he mean by this? Because commentators are not unanimous. John Calvin thought that entering the sanctuary meant studying the law of God that was kept there—that is, entering into the Bible’s doctrines. Another teacher has suggested that Asaph saw the altar upon which a fire was always burning and where the offerings for sin were consumed. The death of the sacrificial animals symbolized death as the end result of sin, and the fire could have reminded Asaph of this judgment. Another suggested that he encountered the worship of God’s people and was encouraged through the singing of the people, the teaching of the law of God and the fellowship of God’s people. I’m not sure which one is the most plausible, but I like the last suggestion. Asaph was a leader among God’s people. And the gathering for worship would be a priority for him. When God’s people gather for worship, they sing of their great salvation from their sin, the glories of Calvary. We consider our state apart from God and we erupt with praise for his salvation. I believe it was then that Asaph was reminded that in eternity, it is only those who are God’s people, those who have kept themselves pure, that would ultimately prosper.
Working this out, he says in verse 18 that the wicked are NOT well off. They are in slippery places; God will make them fall to ruin. They are destroyed in a moment and swept away utterly by terrors. Their prosperity is fleeting. James 1:9–11 “9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.” In the sanctuary Asaph came to see everything from God’s perspective rather than from his own limited and sinful observations. He began to see things in light of eternity. All the prosperity of the wicked that he was envious of would disappear as if a dream. They would be held accountable for their rejection of their Maker and punished for eternity. One commentator noted, “Asaph’s experience should lead us to understand that the righteous on his worst day is far better off than the unrighteous on his best day.”
Asaph reels a bit and does some soul searching in verses 21 and 22. I believe he falls under God’s conviction and is humbled. When we are consumed with envy and covetousness, we do not glorify God. We are made in the image of God and created to give him honor and praise. When we do not, we are brutish and ignorant. We are merely animals who strive to satisfy our own appetites.
At this moment comes the crawling out of this pit of despair. I love the first word of verse 23. “Nevertheless…” “God, I know. I took my eyes off of you and began to look around. I began to question your goodness to your people. I thought my pursuit of holiness was in vain. My feet almost stumbled, my steps nearly slipped…” Nevertheless. Praise God for “nevertheless.” Asaph say I am continually with you. What’s the next word? “You” You is the subject of the next phrase. “You hold my right hand.” I almost stumbled and slipped but you hold my right hand. You kept me from falling away. And you continue to guide me with counsel and, in the future, you will receive me to glory!” Our salvation and perseverance are not ours to claim. God is the one who reaches down and saves us. And God is the one who secures us until the very end.
The realization must have brought Asaph to his knees and to worship his God. In light of all these great and wonderful truths, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” In the final analysis, the only thing that really matters for us is God. He is all we have, but he is also all we need. He sustains us here, and afterward he will receive us into glory.
Verse 26 has become special to me. I was meditating on this verse on July 23. And on that night I was pondering recent difficulties I was experiencing with my health. It was at this time that I was enduring excessive fatigue and body aches. We had recently returned from our family vacation where I spent much of the time lying down and sleeping. I had begun to resume my responsibilities in the office. Day after day I awoke with eager anticipation that my strength would be restored. I had pleaded with God for healing. And I was wrestling – knowing that God teaches us things in adversity. I prayed that he would show me what he wanted to teach me. I have felt like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. But I felt as though God wanted to press in on this one.
God wants to bring me to the place where I can say that He alone is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. He has a way of stripping peripheral things away so that we can gaze on Him and trust him completely.
But that night, God impressed upon me this thought: What if you never regain your energy and strength? For me, that is a very heavy question! “Will you only trust me in your health? When you have these other things that bring you joy? What if it’s only me that’s left when I’m done? Will you despair or rejoice?”
Kris and I talked that night for a bit about the Apostle Paul. You couldn’t put him down. Reprimand him, beat him, imprison him… Didn’t matter. He had joy and preached the gospel. We talked about “what if’s.” Paul suffered. What if I was called to suffer for Christ. As Christians, we can read the Bible and nod our heads when it says that we are called to carry a cross and suffer for him. But we think it’s mostly for other people. What if it’s me? What if I can’t play tennis or cycle anymore? It is easy to respond and say that “I’m not Paul.” But we can’t get out of it that easy. Paul would be the first to tell you that he was not a super spiritual person but merely a weak vessel that God had used.
After Kris went to bed that night, I took it to another level. I began to contemplate Asaph’s words – ‘my flesh and my heart may fail.’ I kid you not. I began to breathe intentionally and think that each breath was because of God’s grace. I began to listen to my heartbeat and realized that at any moment God could decide that it was time to stop working. Hmmm…
Little did I know what the rest of my night and morning would be like. My heart actually did fail. And suddenly I was forced to come head to head with Asaph’s struggle. Is God truly the strength of my heart and my portion forever? Would I testify to him in my dying? Would I trust and praise him if I was forced to live a very different life?
So, really, none of this is about me. It’s about Him. And I’ve merely found out what many of you have gone through and concluded. I’ve watched your suffering and heard your heart if not your words. And it’s the same place that Asaph lands. “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” “Whom have I in heaven but you? There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”
These are powerful statements that we all need to wrestle with. Can you honestly declare the same things as Asaph here? Is God the strength of your heart and your portion forever? Is there anything on earth that rivals your desire for God? Think hard on this! If God is gracious to you, he will strip away the competition. And if not, he might just let you walk the road of the wicked.
Asaph reiterates and summarizes in verses 27 and 28. “Those prospering wicked… they will perish. (And then he makes it personal again). But for me… it is good to be near God.” I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. Is it good for you to be near God? Have you made the Lord your refuge?
The good news is that we can be near to God. Sin does not have to separate us. A provision was made in the person of Jesus Christ who died for sinners so that we can be reconciled (or made right) with God. When Jesus died, the curtain of the Holy of Holies was ripped in half and signified that we have permanent access to our great God. Repent of your sin and trust this Jesus and you too can enjoy this tremendous privilege – for all eternity! Let’s pray.