Psalm 73 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. 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.
There are so many problems with this psalm that I honestly don’t know where to start. There’s the fact that Asaph, the leading professional musician of that time, has people singing in church, “There was a time in my life when I wasn’t so sure about this God stuff.” Then there’s the fact that Asaph says that if he would’ve muttered out loud his devilish doubts that they were so toxic that the next generation, the kids, would have been betrayed. Except that he had already gone ahead and done just that in this psalm. But probably the biggest problem of all is that he writes and sings for the church, a place that’s supposed to be the house of truth. And what he writes contains blatant and clear un-truths. And that’s putting it charitably. Which – you’d think – would leave us with a psalm that is full of spiritual holes and troubling. Except that it’s not. It’s gorgeous. And by the end of its journey has made our own journey with God perfectly understandable.
Because sometimes the way we experience the world really does leave us with some pretty significant insecurities and with some downright devilish doubts. You know what I’m talking about? You try to convince yourself, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart,” (v. 1) – like Asaph did – but at the end of the day you’re not sure you totally buy it. You want to believe that God is the good to his people. But then you notice that one of them is a maid in that multi-million-dollar house. Not the owner of it. And her employer? Well – let’s just say he’s a less than savory kind of guy who treats his employees like garbage. You want to trust that God is doing his thing for his people and then you notice that one of his own is pounding out that long shift on the factory floor. He’s not the owner of the business. And the owner? He’s so cutthroat you wonder if he’s really even human. And then you spot one of God’s kids driving that limo. She’s not the one in a nice dress sipping Chardonnay in the back. And then. And then? You notice that it’s not just God’s people in general to whom this is happening. No, that would be too clinical. Too cold. Too empirical and scientific to move your heart.
You notice it’s you. You notice you’re the one minding your p’s and q’s as you try to climb the corporate ladder while Kanye gets into vicious Twitter wars and lives it up in the Hamptons. You notice you’re the one with that grind that is your job while you see the Gronk starting his splashy NFL post-season yacht party early. So you say, “Surely God is good to Israel,” and you wish that that belief was deeper in your heart than it actually is. That’s how it was for Asaph. And he admitted it. He wanted to believe. He really did, but devilish doubt was plaguing him. It was all just too much for him. He read his era’s People magazine. He saw the healthy bodies and the glitterati lifestyles of the arrogant. He saw how the wicked swindled and hurt their way to the top. He saw how they talked so big that it was like they, “lay claim to heaven,” (v. 9) and they could, “take possession of the earth.” (v. 9). And as far as he could tell? They were getting away with it. He said, “This is what the wicked are like — always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.” (v. 12) While little ol’ Asaph was meandering through life paycheck to paycheck and hand to mouth. And that huge difference was bugging him.
It felt like the foothold in his faith life was giving out from under him. And he knew why. He said, “I envied,” (v. 3) them. His eyes glommed onto those Mediterranean yachts. His heart was jealous of their beach bodies. And his mind could only think of their skyrocketing careers built on the exploitation of others. And that’s how envy works. It has eyes for what it wants to see. It’s important to think about that. Our observations are never neutral. Never. We humans like to imagine ourselves as impartial observers. We like to think that we’re actually pretty scientific. And empirical and clear thinking. It’s just that we never really are. We bring our biases and we bring our assumptions. And they always color our observations about the world, the lives of others, and our own lives too. In fact, there’s a whole newish field called cognitive behavioral therapy that’s been developed for this exact reason. Asaph is a great example of greatly distorted thinking. He saw what he wanted to see and believed what he wanted to believe. We so often do. Asaph is showing us that was one of Adam and Eve’s kids we live with fallen minds. And in this case, Asaph’s fallen mind allowed him to see only the short term – to see how the wicked seemed to thrive.
And that – that right there! – is why this Psalm comes up right here and right now in worship where it does. You have to understand something. I didn’t pick this Psalm. In a way, this Psalm picked me. Psalm 73 has been preached on at this time of year for a long, long time. Make no mistake. There’s no “cross” talk in the psalm, or prophecies of betrayal, or incredible quotes that Jesus later hauls out in the Garden of Gethsemane. But what we do have in this psalm is a psalm that showcases a problem that runs way deeper than failing to understand our supposed lack of success in this life. Finally, this psalm showcases a problem we have in getting Jesus. Holy Week’s got no yacht. It’s got nails. Holy Week includes no sun tanning or limo rides. It includes suffering. Holy Week’s got no champagne corks popping. It’s got tears and confusion and death. And that’s the key issue. If we approach life sad and ticked off that God hasn’t delivered to us everything we think we should have on a silver platter, then what can we do with a Holy Week Jesus? We say, “God, show me you love me with a vacation like that guy’s going on.” And God says, “I’ve got something even better: a cross.” We say, “God, show me you care about me with amazing health and a huge job promotion.” And God says, “I’ve got a better idea. Here’s a guy with a crown of thorns around his head.”
Do you see the point? Jesus and his suffering gets right to the heart of whether or not we think God is being good to us. Think it through. If you think it’s hard to get why God gives an arrogant guy a sweet yacht while you’re puttering around town in a rusty Honda, then you have to understand that Jesus is the exact same problem on steroids. In fact, that was one of Jesus’ big teaching points just before he died. It’s not just a fun fact that both Asaph and Jesus about human feet having problems with rocks. It’s just that Jesus is much stronger on the point. Asaph’s foot slips on rock foothold while Jesus said he’s the rock itself that some folks will “fall on.” (Luke 20:18) In other words, if you think it’s hard to see God’s love in a rusty Honda or a totally average job, think of how hard it will be to see God’s love in capital punishment Roman style. If you think it near impossible to sense God’s hand in a hospitalization, think of how impossible it will be to sense God’s hand in death by asphyxiation. If you think as God’s child that it’s completely irrational that you don’t own half of South Carolina by now, then you’re going to think it completely haywire to watch God take everything from his Son – even his own life. Here’s the point: according to the dark thinking we got from our father, Adam, Jesus’ cross looks foolish.
But, then again, Asaph knew he was one of Adam’s kids. He knew that his thinking was suspect and clouded. He came to see that even more clearly when he despaired of ever straightening his thoughts out by himself saying, “When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply.” (v. 16) His thinking never changed. His thoughts never straightened out. Not ever. “Till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood.” (v. 17) That was the hinge that swung him back to faith. That was the place where he regained his foothold. That was the way in which he got his thinking straightened out. He entered the sanctuary of God. You know why that worked? There the Word gave Asaph perspective. There the Word gave him a bigger, divine, and eternal view. There Asaph saw that life wasn’t about the good of getting a yacht. Life was about the good of being, “near God.” (v. 28). There the Word taught that there’s no job or success or vacation or anything in all of heaven or earth that could hold a candle to God’s great presence. There he came to understand that if only – if only – he could have God be, “my portion forever,” (v. 26) that no suffering and no pain and no deprivation for the time being was too much to undergo. Seeing this life from God’s point of view gave Asaph a way to think clearly about what God was up to in his life.
But even better? There in the sanctuary of God Asaph heard the promises about God’s highest and best and most coherent thought: Jesus. There he came to understand that life wasn’t about him coming to God. As he heard those promises he came to see that his life was all about God coming to him with Jesus. And through Jesus and his promises Asaph learned just how badly God wanted to be with him; how all the way from eternity God had set a plan in motion; how even now Asaph could confidently say to God “you hold me by my right hand,” and, “you guide me with your counsel.” (v. 24) Asaph, in fact, became so confident in the sanctuary of God the he even came out and said to God, “afterward you will take me into glory.” (v. 24) Asaph learned the plan at church. And that plan was executed. There was whipping. There was a crown of thorns. There was a mob. There was a cross – the kind of thing that made Jesus look like the perfect outcast and the ultimate reject. But it was that plan that was his holiest and most central one. God’s greatest thought was that through Jesus he would make Adam’s children his children and then take them to glory – the ones with darkened minds, and distorted thinking. There was just no other way other than through whipping, a cross, and a crown. And so it was. And all for your eternal glory.
That’s what we need to understand. So much of this life is aimed at the next one. So much. That’s what makes sense in the big picture. It’s totally rational to think that God might inoculate us with a needle or two in life if it means we’ll be disease free in eternity. It makes perfect sense for God to deprive us of a thing or two for now if it means we’ll have everything - Him! - forever. I actually think that’s one of the reasons why we love the hymn Amazing Grace so much. Because it reminds us of that. “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” And whatever discipline or deprivation it takes to get there? Totally worth it. It must be. I think I can prove it too. God’s the only perfectly clear thinking being I know of. And you know what he thought? God, the Enlightened One, thought an eternity with him was worth the cost of his Son. And if God, the most rational being of all, reasons that way, then that prize must be worth every lesser pain too. Every mansion we clean instead of live in; every limo we chauffeur instead of enjoy; every factory line we work instead of own; every bit of humdrum or hardship that God sends our way in this life must be worth it. Hardship must be worth the heavenly stretch limo, the celestial mansion, and the 10,000 years with God that never grows a day shorter.
You know what God would call that kind of thinking? Enlightened. Reasonable. And clear. And, ironically, that’s exactly why this psalm had to have so many problems. It had to have a professional Christian just name his devilish doubt. It had to showcase thinking so toxic that it would ruin the next generation. It had to speak aloud blatant un-truths. To get us to think straight. To push us back to the sanctuary of God. To his heart. To his core. To his Word. And to his Son. So we could think straight about our lives and what God is up to in them. So we could finally be coherent and with every shred of distorted thinking gone realize that there is one thing and one thing alone that matters. And say right along with Asaph, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (v. 26) A God who would be whipped for me? A God who would bleed for me? A God who would die just for me? Let me tell you that a God like that is a God whom I want to be my salvation, my light, and my portion forever and ever and ever. 10,000 years won’t be too much. I’m pretty sure all of us will just be getting warmed up. Whatever it takes to get there? Jesus is in. At end of the day, nothing could clearer, more enlightened, or more reasonable than that. Amen.