“…it was too painful for me – until I went into the sanctuary of God” (Psalm 73:16b, 17a)
Read Psalm 73 and you can picture Asaph looking around him. He sees the prosperity of the wicked. They’re leading the good life – plenty of food, healthy bodies, carefree lives. They’re not troubled by questions of right and wrong, of truth and justice. Instead, they trouble others. Tell them that what they’re doing is wrong in the sight of God, and they thumb their nose at you and scoff.
Today’s equivalents? We might picture them as the worldly flush-with-money yuppies, the well-to-do business and career hi-fliers with their flash cars, opulent homes, and extravagant lifestyle; people who exploit others and loopholes in the law for their own ends. They’re dedicated to sport, not the Spirit; a cushy life, not Christianity; the entertaining bright lights of night life, not the eternal Light of Life. They’re happy, healthy and content; things are hunky dory. And as for God? If God sees, He evidently approves. Look at how well they’re doing! Isn’t the proof in the pudding?
“Behold, these are the ungodly,
Who are always at ease;
They increase in riches.”
Yes, the ungodly.
But wait a minute. Wasn’t Asaph living in Israel, the nation-church? And as for what happened outside the boundaries of Israel, it’s not as though he would have been confronted with the ungodly heathens across the border daily, would he? After all, in those days one travelled by slow asses , not swift autos; communicated by hand-delivered messages, not digital media; and learnt news through talk, not the telly. So Asaph must be speaking about people nearby in Israel, covenant people.
But how could that be? Covenant people labelled ‘ungodly’?
Evidently Asaph sees around him people whose hearts are no longer true to the Lord. They don’t take the commandments seriously and they engage in lofty talk: “…their tongue struts through the earth.” They oppose and oppress those who seek to serve the Lord faithfully. And it’s as though the Lord blesses them for it. They seem to be doing so well. Little wonder that others follow their example. Healthy and wickedly wealthy, masters at spinning words to justify their wrong behaviour, they have no care in the world.
Where’s the justice in that? How do they get away with it? Here am I, thinks Asaph, striving to walk uprightly before the Lord day after day, but every new day is a punishment for me because of the wicked. Yet these arrogant oppressors are as happy as Larry. I do what’s right but am daily plagued by problems so that life’s a burden to me, whilst they do what’s wrong and live a life of ease and prosperity. So what was the use of me living uprightly? “Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain and washed my hands in innocence.”
Asaph can’t fathom it. It’s not that they’re rich; righteous Abraham and Job were rich. But it’s their riches associated with wickedness and pride that bothers Asaph. He can’t work out how God allows it and it troubles, grieves, vexes him.
Yet, in order to remain true to the generation of God’s children, to the few who remain faithful, he decides to go to God’s house. But he goes with heavy heart, deeply disturbed by the apparent injustice of life. It really gets him down. Is there still a God who dispenses justice? At this stage his confidence in God has well-nigh disappeared and he no longer believes that faithfulness pays, until…
“Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end.”
There, in God’s house, Asaph hears the Truth, discovers the big picture, sees life in the perspective of eternity! Beforehand he’d seen reality through his physical eyes; now he sees it through the eyes of faith. Before he’d simply seen the exultation of the wicked who trusted in themselves – eyes bulging with fatness, no cares, no troubles, life on Easy Street. Not for them the battles of the Lord, the struggle against the wiles of the devil, the faithful keeping of God’s commandments. But now, through the proclamation of God’s Word, Asaph sees just how precarious their position really is. “Surely You set them in slippery places.” God has indeed exalted them, but only in order to cast them down from their lofty position. The higher they are, the more devastating their downfall.
And Asaph then acknowledges how stupid he’s been in failing to understand this: “I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You.” He’d been living by sight, not faith; seeing through physical eyes, not spiritual eyes – until he heard the Word.
It is in the church service where The Word is faithfully proclaimed that his envy, grief and frustrations melt away before the sunshine of God’s Truth. Asaph sees that reality is not restricted to what the physical eye sees. And having confessed his foolish envy, his blind ignorance, his beastly behaviour, he can go his way with the glorious confession:
Nevertheless, I am continually with You;
You hold me by my right hand,
You will guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward receive me to glory.
He was counselled in God’s house! Oh, glorious church services in which the truth is faithfully proclaimed! Here the wise receive God’s blessing, are fed wisdom, learn to live in the light of God’s Word and to see with the eyes of faith. Here they obtain the food of unending life and learn life’s meaning and eternal perspective. Here the highway to heaven opens to all who believe. With such eye-opening, heart-warming, soul-strengthening blessings proclaimed weekly in the church services, who in their right mind would ever want to skip them, “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some” (Heb. 10:25)? For faithful preachers preach the One from whom alone all blessings flow.
“Whom do I have in heaven but Thee?
Who shall on earth my refuge be?”
How precious is membership of Christ’s church! How desperate our need of diligent church attendance and faithful weekly preaching lest, like Asaph at first, our hearts are governed by the eyes of the flesh rather than the eyes of faith; lest we lose touch with the Truth, become falsehearted, stray from the commandments and perish eternally.
But then, having heard the preaching on Sunday, let’s not proceed to drown it, like unwanted kittens, by saturating our minds during the week with the daily entertainment industry’s God-denying, time-killing, lie-promoting diversions. Nor offend heaven by reconstructing the Truth to justify wrong views or behaviour.
Instead, let’s continue to find our delights in honouring and confessing Him according to His Word and, despite the inevitable conflict that brings, shelter in the comfort of His covenant promises in Jesus Christ.
That covenant, we know, involves promises and obligations, conflict and consolation. Psalm 73 shows that those who persist in straying from the ways of the LORD will perish. But those who trust in the LORD, confessing the Truth in faithful obedience, will, despite huge difficulties, receive inner peace and joy, and eternal care.
All who from you have gone astray
Shall perish in their evil way.
You will destroy all who, false-hearted,
From your commandments have departed.
But as for me, in God I trust,
For with his presence I am blest.
My refuge is the LORD alone;
I will proclaim all he has done.