73 A Psalm of Asaph.
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. / 4 For they have no pangs until death; / their bodies are fat and sleek. / 5 They are not in trouble as others are; / they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. / 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; / violence covers them as a garment. / 7 Their eyes swell out through fatness; / their hearts overflow with follies. / 8 They scoff and speak with malice; / loftily they threaten oppression. / 9 They set their mouths against the heavens, / and their tongue struts through the earth. / 10 Therefore his people turn back to them, / and find no fault in them. / 11 And they say, “How can God know? / Is there knowledge in the Most High?” / 12 Behold, these are the wicked; / always at ease, they increase in riches. / 13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean / and washed my hands in innocence. / 14 For all the day long I have been stricken / and rebuked every morning. / 15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,” / I would have betrayed the generation of your children. / 16 But when I thought how to understand this, / it seemed to me a wearisome task, / 17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; / then I discerned their end. / 18 Truly you set them in slippery places; / you make them fall to ruin. / 19 How they are destroyed in a moment, / swept away utterly by terrors! / 20 Like a dream when one awakes, / O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms. / 21 When my soul was embittered, / when I was pricked in heart, / 22 I was brutish and ignorant; / I was like a beast toward you. / 23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; / you hold my right hand. / 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. / 27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; / you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. / 28 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. [i]
One of the greatest things about the Psalms is there is no experience you and I can have that you cannot find sung about in this collection. We have seen the songs of David’s struggle for his kingdom in a world full of enemies. We have read about how he wrestled with his own sin and contemplated both his own sufferings and the sufferings of his greater Son, Messiah Jesus. We have read David’s great song of the resurrected, ascended, and glorified Messiah Jesus and Messiah’s presently-upside-down kingdom.
But now we come to a song not written by David, but Asaph. He was a Levite, one of the chief musicians appointed by King David to write psalms and music for worship in the tent of meeting (1 Chron. 6:39). 2 Chronicles 29:30 refers to him as Asaph the seer. Nehemiah 12:46 mentions both David and Asaph as joint authors of Temple songs. He seems to have become both the chief musician and the father of an entire clan of temple musicians. He wrote 10 of the 17 psalms in Book III, a section of the Psalter focusing on the defeat of God’s people at the hands of foreign enemies.
Psalm 73 is the song of a very important, very famous worship leader – the least likely person you would expect to have a crisis of faith. We would expect (DEMAND, more likely) a church leader like Asaph to “have it all together.” That’s what makes this one of my favorite psalms, not just for the crises but also for the conclusion. It’s an honest struggle with the upside-downess of the world. When I first heard this psalm, I came away with the understanding that worship is not something we do for God but something crucial God does for us.
“God” isn’t just an obligation we “do” on Sunday mornings, he’s desirable. We can find in God satisfactions far above the fraudulent pleasure, treasure, and wealth of this world. Asaph’s heart was lonely for God, but Asaph didn’t know it. He saw bad people winning and good people losing and it nearly drove him from God. And the beautiful thing is that he was honest about his struggle even as God held onto Asaph through it all.
Asaph’s problem is very common. Maybe it’s your problem too – if it isn’t now, it has been and it will be again. “God is not giving me the designer life I want. He’s not making me successful, or hip, or thin, or cool, or sexy, or popular. And if I’m not any of those things, I’m not really alive.” It was even harder for Asaph because he was a Levite; he couldn’t own land and his only real business was church life. Asaph’s income was fixed and entirely donation-based.
There was no hope for him in any multi-level marketing scheme to get healthy and wealthy through soap, or jewelry, or vitamins, or cosmetics, or kitchen products. You and I can at least dream of making it big. All Asaph could have, by birth and by Law, was God as his portion (Deut. 18:1). All Asaph was guaranteed was food – sacrificial meat, grain, and wine.
“The Levitical priests, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel. They shall eat the Lord’s food offerings as their inheritance. 2 They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.”[ii]
The successful, hip, thin, cool, sexy, popular, rich, and powerful were “winning.” Asaph felt he was “losing.” “The Man” was bringing Asaph down; and Asaph the Levite had absolutely no chance of EVER becoming “The Man” because he was born into and stuck in his seemingly upside down, lowly position. What possible good was there in God’s promise to be Asaph’s portion and inheritance?
Four things strike us as we read this psalm. (1) Asaph is honest; he tells us the truth about what he recognizes in his own heart. Honesty about ourselves is a great step toward God. (2) Asaph is practical; he wants God to be real to him, and that is the most profound and practical desire humans can have. (3) God helped this man. Verse 17 has a beautiful word of change in it: until…. There was secret doubt and secret anguish UNTIL God met him and surprised him with divine reality in a fake world. (4) Two key words bracket this psalm: envious (v. 3) and desire (v. 25). He underwent an emotional transformation as he reoriented himself through corporate worship.
1 Truly God is good to Israel, / to those who are pure in heart. The psalmist is singing there really are good believers around who see and experience the goodness of God. The problem is that Asaph is not one of them. He sees the “reality” all around him and he envies all the hip, cool, rich, and pretty people who play golf or go fishing on Sunday mornings. Asaph is not angry at them. He’s not boycotting businesses or Facebook-shaming them. He longs to join them because they’re happy and free and totally guiltless. “The Man” is winning; Asaph is losing. He has begun to fashion his life only according to what he observes – observation over revelation. Only God sees the entirety of things. Asaph can only see through the keyhole of his personal experience.
We were once told eating bread was good and eating meat was bad. Now we’re told differently. We were once told damming rivers was good for the land. Now we know it’s bad for riverine ecology. We were once told smoking cigarettes was healthy. Now we’re told the opposite. When we base our lives entirely on our limited observations we draw the wrong conclusions. Asaph began to live by observation, not revelation from the One who sees all and knows all. It was his first step away from God and into himself. His second step is to become envious of the arrogant (3a). It’s not wrong to be perplexed by an upside-down world. But it is wrong to envy the wicked.
He sees the “winners” and sings, “4 For they have no pangs until death; / their bodies are fat and sleek. / 5 They are not in trouble as others are; / they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. / 6 Therefore pride is their necklace… / 9 They set their mouths against the heavens, / and their tongue struts through the earth.” They have few problems. They eat the best food. They are perfectly happy with their lives and they don’t mind bragging about it. They can wreck their financial institutions with impunity and have the politicians they own to fix it with your tax dollars without the slightest guilt-pang or dip into their personal accounts. And they can laugh about it. God is irrelevant to them. The only absolute for them is that there are no absolutes; everything is relative. And by “relative” they mean what’s best for only them. They are “The Man” and you are not. They are winning; you and Asaph are losing.
Asaph envies the “name it and claim it” philosophy of the pagans. That philosophy is really no different for the atheists and agnostics than it is for the pseudo-Christians who preach it today. It’s all about the idol of self and the avoidance of suffering. But suffering is absolutely essential to our salvation. Money can put food on the table but cannot provide fellowship around the table. It can buy you a house but cannot give you a home. It can buy luxuries but not love. You might hear a famous athlete or wealthy business person tell you that in their Christian testimony. But you will not really believe that unless and until you suffer.
If God rewarded virtue immediately in this life, we would be damned and destroyed. We would confuse pleasure with morality. We would do good only to earn good. We would use God like a cosmic vending machine just like the blasphemers who preach the false prosperity gospel. But God saves us from our inward-facing, self-interested Old Adam, our flesh. God, in his grace, puts a space between our lives of trust and our eternal reward precisely so we can learn to see him as he is and enjoy Jesus for who he is. As we depend upon our union with Christ, we learn more and more dependence upon him and less and less self-dependence.
Paul writes just that in Romans 5:2-5, doesn’t he?
…we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. [iii]
Notice Asaph admits how his envy and greed distorts his observations? He sees only happy, healthy, wealthy, hip, cool, pretty, popular, powerful people enjoying all the benefits of their apparent freedom. He sees one long television commercial that promises to solve all his problems if he will exchange his God-oriented life for a problem-free, self-oriented life. “The Man” has all the right stuff and none of Asaph’s problems. Asaph was very close to changing the stones of God’s will into the bread of self-focus as he sings in verses 13-14, “13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean / and washed my hands in innocence. / 14 For all the day long I have been stricken / and rebuked every morning.” “What do I get out of following God?”
Being a Levite, Asaph’s duty included teaching God’s Word (Torah) to Israel. In verses 15-16, he thinks about the implications of teaching his observations to God’s people: “Being good makes you a chump, not a champ. Take charge of your life. Look out for Number One. Follow your heart. Chase your own dream.” He realizes, “15 If I had said, ‘I will speak like this, / I would have betrayed the generation of your children. / 16 But when I thought how to understand this, / it seemed to me a wearisome task….” The Holy Spirit grabs hold of Asaph and says, “Do you REALLY believe the key to life is to follow your own path? Do you really think God is a liar?” Asaph exhausts himself as he sees the upside-downess of life outside the temple. But, finally, he considers something besides himself: the generation of [God’s] children. Asaph has begun to consider wealth of another kind: the family of God. This is his first step back to treasuring God.
Next, the psalmist drags himself back to the sanctuary (v. 17). He is still questioning. He is still weary. But he comes back to worship. If you’re questioning Christianity, if you’re discouraged, if you’re weary like Asaph was, COME. Asaph didn’t begin to re-orient his life by having regular “quiet times,” or by reading devotional books, or by personal (or group) Bible studies. He came to church because that is the ordinary place God shows up in a special way to give his people what they absolutely require – his word preached, prayed, sung, and portrayed in the sacraments.
Any other devotional or spiritual practice you can have is always and only a supplement, an add-on to regular corporate worship. I would rather see some of you every four to six weeks than not at all. But you shrivel your souls, and the souls of your family, when you view corporate worship as an occasional duty or a rare luxury rather than the absolute necessity God ordained it to be.
Every other place of worship in the world of men has a statue of their gods or goddesses. But Israel’s place of worship had no such image because the One True God is spirit. More than that, God is entirely INDEPENDENT of absolutely everything. Every other creature in the universe is DEPENDENT upon other creatures and things. We need plants and animals and water and light and food and the various skills of different people to live. God needs absolutely nothing for his existence.
God is the ONLY reality. He was. He is. He shall be. Everything we can observe exists only because he wills it to exist. Everything – absolutely everything – is dependent upon God. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). It’s pointless to have any other god but God. That’s why Asaph called the ones who worshiped appearance, wealth, popularity, pleasure, and power “the arrogant” and “the wicked” (v. 3) because ultimately, they worshiped themselves rather than the only being worthy of all worship. Paul writes in Romans 1:
21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. [iv]
When he comes back to church, Asaph begins to understand that God allows the wicked to have their brief time on the earth because we learn by contrast. We cannot know light until darkness comes. We cannot know grace until we see works. We do not know righteousness until we know sin. We cannot grasp Gospel until we feel the weight of God’s Law. He allows wickedness for his own glory so that Asaph, and you, and I can know the only true thing in the entire universe and praise him for his one-way love to us who are always searching for good outside of him.
The psalmist begins to understand again that the wicked have their end (v. 17) and it is ruin (v. 18) and terrors (v. 19). God is the reality and they are the dream (v. 20). People don’t like to hear about hell these days. But Jesus, both holy God and the most compassionate man who ever lived, spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible. And hell is the place where God gives the wicked over to themselves completely, alone with their rebellion and anger and brooding. Their only experience is themselves and their own self-focus and self-pity and self-justification. Hell is not a place nice people are sent for something they don’t want. It’s the place where God-rejecters spend eternity blaming God and others and licking their own wounds because they refused the joy of the Lord.
Before, Asaph looked at the world. But when he came to worship, he began looking through the world and at God. Before, the psalmist was deceived by appearances. But now he begins breaking through to reality. Before his perception was wildly unrealistic – nobody has the paradise he imagined “The Man” to have. Envy warps perception and self-pity distorts reality. Only worship in the house of God can re-orient Asaph. Once he was brutish and ignorant (v. 22) But then he saw hell. And then he saw heaven.
23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; / you hold my right hand. / 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.
Even when Asaph was exhausted and bitter and hurting and brutish, God was holding him and guiding him. God came down, entered into Asaph’s thoughts and feelings and gave Asaph counsel to renew his mind – all because Asaph trudged into church with his honest discouragement. Whatever others may choose, the psalmist knew he wanted God and he had God because God came to him and revealed himself freely and graciously.
Dear hearts, God is here this morning. He is willing and able to come to you. He is, even now, revealing himself to you as he allows me to speak for him. He bids you see through the appearances and into his reality. He offers you the perfectly-lived life of Messiah Jesus as your perfect holiness without which no one will see the Lord. He offers you the sacrificial death of Messiah Jesus as full and complete payment of all your sins past, present, and future. He offers you his guiding hand through the resurrected and glorified Christ and the Holy Spirit working in the preached Word and in the bread and wine.
Jesus knows the temptations of this world. He lived in it. He knows what God-haters are like because he allowed himself to be crucified by them for their sins. He knows every one of your sins more intimately than you because he suffered for them on Calvary. Absolutely NOTHING you think, do, or say can shock Jesus. He knows we all have our moments of doubt and anguish as we envy others and pity ourselves and question God.
But he offers himself to those that drag themselves into the congregation. He had a special word for the discouraged, self-focused church goers who burn out because they worship stuff and themselves far more than they worship God. He said this:
20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. [v]
Our crises cannot overthrow his mercies. His eternal commitment to us does not waver in the face of our intermittent, wavering commitment to him. We can and will love other things more than God. But God’s love is a one-way love. So, the palmist can sing: 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, / but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.