Envy of the Wicked
I learned to golf by doing it. Because no one taught me, I learned some bad habits and although I had some good games, I also had a lot of problems. Then a fellow came into our life who was a golf pro. I went golfing with him and he began to teach me to golf properly. His first comment was, "You're going to be a long term project." However, as I learned from him, I began to change some things. Unfortunately my game got even worse because I wasn't used to doing what he was trying to teach me. Eventually, however, I began to improve and although I still don't golf well, there are some problems I used to have that don't show up nearly as often any more.
This kind of thing can happen in many areas of life. I know several women who grew up in the city. Then met and married farmers and they had to learn a whole new way of living and it wasn't easy at first. Whenever a computer program is updated, it is so frustrating to try to learn the new system and until you learn the new system you are inefficient.
One writer has written about this as moving from orientation – the way we are used to; to disorientation – a place where our normal is destroyed; to re-orientation where we learn to live with the new realities.
Psalm 73 presents this process in one of the most profound areas of life – our faith in God in light of the prosperity of the wicked. As we examine these ideas, we will be challenged to grow deeper in our faith life. The process of such growth can be uncomfortable and potentially even destructive, but when we arrive at re-orientation, we will discover that we have gotten to a deeper place and we have grown closer to God.
I. Can You Believe It?
A. Good People Are Blessed!
A common way of understanding life is that good people are blessed by God. Our life is oriented to this perspective which is expressed in verse 1. "Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart."
We believe this statement because it seems just. It seems right that those who are good should have good things happen to them. We even encourage one another to righteous living because we believe this statement. It is the motivation to doing what is good and to living upright lives.
The Bible supports this orientation in Psalm 1 where there is a very clear and direct statement that the righteous are like a tree of life and will live well and prosper. In that Psalm we also learn that the wicked are like the chaff which the wind drives away.
There are many examples of how this works in life. The person who lives a life of violence is most likely to die violently. The person who is kind to others will likely be treated kindly. The person who eats healthy foods and exercises, will likely live longer. According to cigarette packages, the person who smokes has a higher chance of dying of cancer.
That is the formula to which we understanding of God is oriented and by which we live our life.
B. But So Are Bad People??!!
But there is a problem. The wicked aren't always blown away like chaff. That reality creates a significant disorientation as the Psalmist expresses in verse 2 where he says, "I had nearly slipped." It seems, he is really thrown for a loop by this observation.
This wasn't just an intellectual disorientation for him either. He was envious of the wicked. He saw wicked people prosper and he wanted in. It caused him to almost give up his orientation to the Biblical truth he had understood. In verses 2-12 he describes the wicked and their life and how he is upset by this disorientation.
In verses 6-9 he describes wicked people. There are many different degrees of wickedness. Some are decidedly evil and others are moderately evil. The words in these verses show the varied nature of their evil. We read that "pride is their necklace." They wear self sufficiency and arrogance as a prominent feature of their personality. Verse 6 also describes them as violent which we certainly see in the world of drug dealers but sadly also sometimes in the church, for all kinds of abuse can be found even among people who attend church. But not all of their evil is violent. Some of it is expressed in folly. It isn't difficult to recall the inanities of things we see on TV or the foolish decisions made by politicians and even judges. Mockery, opposition and threats against what is good and what is godly is not uncommon. All over the world Christians are being persecuted and belief in God is not the foundation of most people's lives. These are a few comments on the description of the wicked. They reject God and godly living and live in all kinds of evil ways.
What is most disturbing to the Psalmist and often to us is that evil as they are, they seem to be getting along just fine. Their life is not blown away like chaff, instead, they prosper, according to verse 3. They go through their whole life and aren't even sick. They don't experience pain. We expect that evil people will have all kinds of trouble, but they don't always. They are at ease, they are wealthy and they have it good.
When we think about that, it troubles us. It doesn't seem fair. Bad people should suffer but life isn't always like that. People who do very bad things get along just great and we can think of all kinds of examples.
Does it ever disturb you? Does it ever bring you to a place of disorientation? Does it make you wonder where God's Word is fulfilled and where God's justice is exercised?
What is worse is that this disorientation causes us to be drawn to give up on the foundations. Look at verse 10. This verse indicates that people are attracted to these kind of people. We are tempted to come to the conclusion that if God is blessing evil people, what is the point of being good? Living in disobedience becomes attractive because it doesn't seem to matter. It seems that there is no clear and obvious connection between a persons actions and God's judgment on them. The conclusion we sometimes come to is to live as we please because obviously it doesn't matter.
Verse 11 asks these questions, "How can God know?" Does God not see these things? Where is God's action against the wicked? The wicked come to the conclusion that their lifestyle can be lived with impunity and it seems that God is unaware! If that is so, it becomes even more attractive to live as we please because it takes God out of the picture. Elmer Martens says, "…such evil persons should have a hard lot in life. But no! They do not experience hurt; they are exempt from trouble such as comes to people generally. And this carefree life only increases their arrogance as if to say, 'We can’t be all bad.'”
C. And…Good People Are Plagued??!!
What increases the distress of this is that the opposite is also true. Not only do evil people have it good, but good people sometimes have a hard time.
Verses 13, 14 describe the hardships of the holy life. One of the challenges of following God is that it involves us in a discipline of holiness. We strive to live in obedience to God. We try to do what is right all the time. This involves concentration. We need to be on guard all the time. Sometimes it involves giving up things we would enjoy in order to be faithful. That is no problem and it is worth doing if there is a reward for such discipline, but the disorientation which has just been described suggests that perhaps there is no reward. If evil people get along just fine, then what is the point of living in holiness?
What makes things even worse is that good people are not exempt from trouble. If we are good, we expect that God will bless us all the time, but it doesn't seem to turn out that way. Sometimes it is one difficulty after another. What is the point of being good if it doesn't prevent us from having difficulties?
On top of that, the correction of God is always with us. Instead of blessing us, sometimes it seems that God is correcting us and that correction is not always pleasant. So all things considered, Psalm 1 just doesn't seem to fit with our experience of life. What is the point? Why follow God? Why be good? Why strive so hard to be good?
II. It's Tough To Change!
This is a hard place to be. It is a place of significant disorientation. The ancient truths seem inadequate, in fact, they seem untrue.
If we have given ourselves to following God, this disorientation is especially difficult. We have always believed that God rewards goodness, but when it becomes clear that he doesn't always, we are tempted to give up on all that we have set as the foundation of our life. However, it is hard to give up that which is and has been the foundation of your life.
On top of that, we read in verse Psalm 73:15, "If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” I would have been untrue to the circle of your children." Not only do we have to give up on what has been the foundation of our life, but by giving up we could also become a stumbling block to others.
It is hard to give in to the disorientation, but intellectual honesty will not let us stay in the place of our former orientation.
Have you ever been in this difficult place? Perhaps you are there now. The foundations that were a part of your life are no longer answering the questions you have. Yet you don't want to give up on all that your former way of thinking meant. Perhaps you hate the disorientation, but can't give in to it. Or perhaps you have given in to the disorientation but are uncertain about how to proceed.
III. Getting It Together
The Psalmist acknowledges the disorientation and how difficult it is, but in verse 17, he begins to moves towards re-orientation. How do we get to re-orientation?
Reorientation happens not so much by a brilliant insight or logical sequences of thought, but rather in a place. The place of re-orientation is in the presence of God. You know how sometimes we try to solve a problem by talking to everyone except the person with whom we have a problem? We do the same thing when we doubt God, but we won't come to peace about this problem by going through all the logical arguments we can think of. We won't figure this problem out by ignoring it, nor will we figure it out by our own logical efforts. The way we will be able to figure it out is through worship.
When Job wrestled with God about this very problem, the resolution came when God invited Job to consider all that God had done. In Job 38 and following there is a powerful and clear indication of God's creative power and wonder at all that He has done. When Job listened to all of these descriptions of God's greatness, he was humbled and realized that he had not seen things as they really were.
The purpose of worship is to see God. When we see God, our thinking is brought back into line, not with the original orientation, but with a deeper vision of God and a greater understanding of who He is and how He works.
One of the things that happens in this place is that we see things from a much broader perspective. If we only see the formula that the righteous prosper and the wicked are punished, we don't see the whole picture. When we understand, through worship, that God is the righteous, awesome, great and loving creator of the universe we return to a place of trust in God. We understand that God sees things from above, from a much different perspective. We also understand that God sees things from the perspective of eternity, and not just the perspective of what is happening today.
One of those perspectives given in the verses that follow is that the wicked are not fairing nearly as well as they appear to be. Even if blessing lasts their whole life, the wicked are still in a dangerous place. From the perspective of God, we realize that "they will fall to ruin" and God is the one who will judge them. The problem with looking at things today is that we only see part of the picture. Worship allows us to see things from the perspective of eternity and in eternity, the wicked do not prosper.
Today, as we look at the world, we see that the wicked are the leaders of the world. It is mostly people who do not believe in God who rule the nations. The values of those who reject God are the values understood by most people in the world. These values provide the understanding about life for most people in the world. But in the end, they are in actual fact a ghost. They have no real existence to them. They have no lasting substance. As we come into God's presence and bow before Him and understand His holiness and justice, we know that this world and all that is in it will be destroyed.
So it is in worship that we are brought to re-orientation.
IV.Staying Near To God
When we are re-oriented, we realize how foolish the temptations which occur in disorientation were. As the Psalmist enters God's presence and experiences a new understanding of things and learns to live in the new reality, he looks back at these thought processes and is filled with shame that he was so foolish. He is honest with God and says, "I was like a dumb animal before you. I didn't get it and I was stupid."
With re-orientation comes a new way of living in relationship with God.
A. God's Nearness
When we live through the time of disorientation, the temptation is to believe that God is absent and doesn't see what is actually going on in the world. Re-orientation allows us to live near to God.
What a beautiful phrase in verse 23, "I am continually with you; you hold my right hand." God's presence allows us to have the assurance of a heart that has learned to live with all the conflicting realities of life. The intimacy of this verse is an encouragement that allows us to recognize that God is much nearer than we thought and the joy of living is to know His nearness.
B. God's Guidance
In disorientation the overwhelming thought is that God is blessing the wicked. But in the new way of thinking, the believer recognizes that God is the one who guides. With that understanding, we know that even if the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, God is always present guiding us not only through life, but towards an eternity with Him that will be much better than anything we have ever experienced in life.
Disorientation causes us to focus on the riches of this world and we are tempted by them. How many of us have dreamt about how we would spend lottery winnings. Re-orientation brings us to the place where we can rejoice in the eternal honor of God's blessings to us. As we approach God with thankfulness and see Him and His goodness, we recognize that we have received so much more than we could ever imagine. God is good and His goodness gives us hope even in the midst of the greatest challenges of life.
Disorientation give us a desire for earth's pleasures. When our heart is changed towards God once again in worship, we know that as Psalm 73:25 says, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you." When we come to that place we place God as first in our life. Then heaven is our hope and on earth, God is our joy!
Disorientation results in discouragement and loss of hope. But God never leaves and is always present to encourage. Verse 26 says, "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." From Him we receive peace.
Martin Buber gives a very helpful perspective on justice when he says, "The state of the heart determines whether a man (or woman) 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 (or her) is confused with the illusion that God is not good to him (or her)."
The key component of disorientation was the feeling that things are not fair at all if the wicked prosper and the righteous have a hard time. When we go into God's presence in worship, we are reminded that God's justice is not absent. We are assured that those who reject God will be judged by Him. We once again have confidence that He is fair in all His dealings.
When we are not understanding the way things are we are tempted to wander away and live as if the truth and reality of this earth is all the reality we need to concern ourselves with. When we once again see God, our thinking changes and we become impressed by what God does and commit ourselves to Him. Psalm 73:28, "But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, to tell of all your works."
Just as we avoid the dentist so we are often afraid to go to the place of disorientation. It is an uncomfortable place and we don't know what will happen there. This Psalm teaches us that we should not be afraid of disorientation because it is necessary in order for us to grow deeper. It is almost impossible to live in the orientation of life which is simplistic and shallow for it does not account for all the realities of life nor for all the realities of God. We need to allow for doubts about shallow truth in order to come to a deeper place. God will not abandon us if we go through this place.
At the same time, when we are in the place of disorientation, God invites us into His presence in worship. It seems counterintuitive to go to God when we are doubting Him, but we must go there, not to have our original orientation affirmed, but to see more of God. That is why worship is so important. The more we understand God and see who He is, the more we will be able to see that the place of disorientation does not contain all truth. God will reveal Himself and His truth to those who come to Him in humility. He will lead us to a new place. Re-orientation does not come by thinking things through, but by being in God's presence.
And so my encouragement is to rejoice in God and in His presence. He has done great things! He is amazing! Let us worship Him! Let us be encouraged and pursue nearness to God, for He wants to be near to us.