June 13, 2010

Two Perspectives: Psalm 73

A Psalm of Asaph

1 Truly God is good to Israel,
To such as 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 boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4 For
there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength
is firm.
5 They
are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like
other men.
6 Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them
like a garment.
7 Their eyes bulge with abundance;
They have more than heart could wish.
8 They scoff and speak wickedly
concerning oppression;
They speak loftily.
9 They set their mouth against the heavens,
And their tongue walks through the earth.

10 Therefore his people return here,
And waters of a full
cup are drained by them.
11 And they say, “How does God know?
And is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Behold, these
are the ungodly,
Who are always at ease;
They increase
in riches.
13 Surely I have cleansed my heart
in vain,
And washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all day long I have been plagued,
And chastened every morning.

15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children.
16 When I thought
how to understand this,
was too painful for me—
17 Until I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I understood their end.

18 Surely You set them in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction.
19 Oh, how they are
brought to desolation, as in a moment!
They are utterly consumed with terrors.
20 As a dream when
one awakes,
So, Lord, when You awake,
You shall despise their image.

21 Thus my heart was grieved,
And I was vexed in my mind.
22 I
was so foolish and ignorant;
I was
like a beast before You.
23 Nevertheless I
am continually with You;
You hold
me by my right hand.
24 You will guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward receive me
to glory.

25 Whom have I in heaven
but You?
there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
26 My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

27 For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish;
You have destroyed all those who desert You for harlotry.
28 But
it is good for me to draw near to God;
I have put my trust in the Lord GOD,
That I may declare all Your works.

Let’s begin by talking about perception, because how we view something becomes reality for us.

In the advertising world there is a proverbial staying: “Perception is reality.” People act on their perceptions. If we perceive a product positively, then we are more likely to buy it. One tactic in political campaign advertising not only is to develop a positive perception of the candidate, but also to subtly portray the opponent as negative using photography, finding the best images available for the candidate, and the least flattering images of the opponent.

In the investment world, people act on their perceptions every day. I remember several years ago reviewing the annual report and other information about a company that appeared to be solid, with increasing profitability. I invested a small amount in the company, and a few months later it was revealed that the information in its financial records was false. I had perceived it as a good investment based on what I knew. For me, that was the reality, and I acted it. But the actual reality was that the financial records were false, and the stock was worthless a few months. There is nothing like an experience like that to teach one that perception and reality may be different.

Our perceptions always affect our responses, and when our perceptions are wrong, we can think and say and do some pretty inappropriate things—we may lash out, grumble, feel defeated and worthless, harbor a feeling of revenge or resentment . . . and judge a situation or another person unfairly because our perception is different from reality.

One area we Christians are especially prone to losing our perspective is when we get to perceiving life as simply not fair. That comes usually when we, like Asaph in the Psalm, start judging our lives compared to the lives of others around us. It’s easy to fall into the mindset that nonbelievers often just seem to experience more blessings than we do and that we deserve more out of life from our Lord than we are presently getting.

Psalm 73 provides an often-needed reality check for us—what to do when we get our perceptions mixed up. The writer of Psalm 73 is Asaph, recognized in his time as a mature, godly man who served as a worship leader. Twelve of his poems or songs are included in our book of Psalms. Yet even Asaph, a spiritual leader, could get confused, and he reveals his perceptions of the world around him in this Psalm. He reveals to us in the Psalm that he considered giving up everything, hanging his head in his defeat, and walking away from God. He envies the lives of the wicked culture around him, and he wants the same benefits as those people enjoy. And his attitude is all because his perception of reality was mixed up.

This psalm is very personal. It is filled with complete honesty. Asaph asks the question that many of us have asked at one time or another: If God is supposed to bless believers, why do we struggle with health, finances, relationships, and self-esteem, while unbelievers around us seem to enjoy wonderful, happy, prosperous, and worry-free lives?

Asaph begins with an introduction, a summary statement, and a theological conclusion all wrapped up in verse 1: “Truly God is good to Israel, to such as are pure in heart.” In verse 1 he is stating the universal premise for the believer: God is good to His people. The word “truly" ("surely" in some English translations)” literally means “yet.” It conveys the idea of exclusivity, and the thought of the verse therefore could be expressed something like “No matter what happens, God and God alone is good to His people.”

While we can count on this certainty, it also is the crux of the problem, because as we look around u and begin comparing ourselves with others, we see a lot of people who appear to be better off financially, in better health, and who appear to be very happy and content. For example, look at Psalm 84:11, and you will see what I mean, because reinforces our dilemma. In that psalm, God promises that “…no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (some English translations, “from those whose walk is blameless”). So that might contribute to some our attitude, how we regard our Lord, as well as raising questions in us about God's relationship with us and His care for us. We may ask, “If God is good, shouldn’t we receive more “good” things in our life?” or “Shouldn’t we at least have more blessings than those who don’t even care about God, who resist Him, who are His enemies?”

That comes from the human perspective, which is the perspective or perception of reality that Asaph explores in the first part of Psalm 73.

The Human Perspective

After stating what he knows is ultimately true in verse 1, Asaph nonetheless looks at life from a human perspective and writes his thoughts down starting with verse 2. Scripture, he is telling us, and life seem to be at odds with each other. Verse 2 is a real contrast to v. 1. He says that while he knows God is good to His people (in verse 1), when he looks around him he is not satisfied. Loosely translated, the thought in verse 2 is something like: “God, you might be good, but I almost bailed on you because of what I see around me.” The following verses, then, show us four conditions to which Asaph objected from the human perspective.

The wicked prosper, and I'm jealous (3)

Verse 3 tells us why he almost went spiritually AWOL, or walked away from God: “For I was envious of the boastful when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” The word “boastful” (arrogant) in this verse comes from a root word that means a loud noise. The proud, prosperous, but wicked person boasts loudly, for everyone to hear, that he is wealthy, influential, and powerful. (Ironically, the word also is used to refer to the braying of a donkey!)

Consider what Asaph is telling us about himself (and perhaps ourselves, too). This is a crucial point: he was not upset with the wicked because of their wickedness. That does not seem to matter to him in these early verses. Instead, he is jealous of them, because he wants what they have. The English rendering of the term “prosperity” in verse 3 doesn’t do justice to the original Hebrew term. The fact is, this word is our old Hebrew friend “shalom,” prosperity, wholeness, contentment, physical well being (wealth, food, shelter, sustenance), and peace. The wicked not only prosper, Asaph writes, but they appear to be content and at peace with all their material wealth.

Obviously in these early verses of the Psalm, Asaph just doesn’t get it. Asaphy was thinking . . . Why would the wicked seem to have everything that was promised to God’s covenant people? It doesn’t seem fair. Asaph is thinking the way many of us think when we make judgments based only on what we see around us. His perspective here is human, not heavenly, and he is seeing the present and forgetting the future.

The wicked have an easy life (4-5)

In verses 4 and 5, Asaph wonders why life seems so good for those who have nothing to do with God. Their lives seem to Asaph to be painless and easy, and in these verses Asaph mentions some particulars: Verses 4 and 5 are an expansion on what he is envious of:

Wicked people seem to have long, easy lives. They experience relatively no pain, even in death (that is, they live to old age and die a natural death; they don’t die of starvation or diseases or violence like the poor do.)

The wicked seem to be strong (a term referencing both power and wealth; they are the ones in power and with all the money).

The wicked don't seem to have as rough time in life as other people (a better translation of the thought of this phrase would be: “they don’t have to toil or work hard”).

The wicked are not plagued like other men (plagued means stricken; it can refer to disease, calamity, or a great loss. Asaph is pointing out that the wicked simply do not seem to experience troubles of any kind, compared to the child of God, who experiences troubles in life).

The wicked are arrogant (6-12)

Asaph complains that the unbeliever has no need of God in verses 6-12. The most prosperous and most content are also the most arrogant. In verse 7 he states that they have no limits; they have more than enough power, money, and influence. To make matters worse, he says, they are spiteful of people who do not enjoy power, wealth, and influence (verse 8). They speak against God (verse 9) and arrogantly boast that He does not even know about the evil they do (verse 11), conveying the idea that they can do what they want. And, Asaph adds, people listen to what the wealthy and powerful people (the wicked) say (“waters of a full cup are drained”; that is, people “drink” or take in what they say or advise).

Verse 12 is Asaph’s summary of what the wicked are like: “Always at ease; increase in riches,” and this verse also seems to convey his feeling envy again, rather than being discontented with the unrighteousness of the wicked.

Don’t we all sometimes feel this way? It is unavoidable when we look around us in this Godless western culture and judge ourselves using the values of the people around us; and that discontent leads to the next point . . .

The righteous feel sorry for themselves (13-14)

Asaph expresses his perception in verse 13 that there must be no advantage to holy living. Sometimes, it seems there is not much reward for righteous living. He is saying that from the human perspective, being a child of God appears to be a waste. Then in verse 14 he sees himself as a victim of unfair treatment from God. In this verse we find Asaph's self-pity: that is, he sees himself as living a life of constant chastisement and constant correction even though he is one of God's people. Every morning, he seems to say, there is a host of new problems to deal with. Asaph is troubled, confused; even despondent, the result of the process of judging ourselves using the values of the Godless culture around us. That leads to envy, which leads to self-doubt, insecurity, and feeling like an unfair and even persecuted victim who deserves more care from God than he or she is receiving.

Asaph battles with these feelings in verses 15 and 16, and then he begins to turn the corner of his feelings toward and judgments about how God has provided for him. His says if he expressed these doubts (“If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’”), he would be betraying God’s people (or possibly, lead them away from God). In these verses, he is beginning to realize that he jealous of the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Remember that looking at life from the human perspective always results in envy and self-pity. Wisely, in verse 17, Asaph turns to God for understanding and clear thinking, and as a result we notice a big shift in his attitude and perspective as he turns to God for a reality check.

Asaph is reminded of God’s holiness, character, power, His judgment and His grace. That changed his perspective from the human perspective to . . .

The Heavenly Perspective

The wicked will experience judgment (18-20)

We noted in verse 2 that Asaph felt he would stumble and slip away from God, but in verses 18 and 19 he sees from the heavenly perspective and realizes that it is the wicked who are on slippery ground. The child of God is not the one that is disadvantaged. It is the wicked (the unbeliever) who will be brought eventually to desolation (literally, brought to "ruin"). In other words, when God’s judgment comes, the wicked will no longer enjoy wealth and comfort, but will suffer.

Multiple judgments may be in view in verse 19. We know from Israel’s history that centuries after Asaph wrote this Psalm God allowed foreign powers—the Assyrians and the Babylonians—to conquer Israel and Judah because the Israelites had turned away from God so drastically and for so long, with death an destruction impacting both the righteous and the wicked in Israel. As we’ll see in a moment, Asaph realizes this heavenly perspective should spur the people of God to tell others about what He offers to those who believe.

The human perspective is foolish and ignorant (21-22)

Asaph admits his foolishness and it grieved him (literally, “my whole being was sharp with pain”). In verse 22 he refers to his human perspective as “like a beast.” This is a word picture showing us that the human perspective dwells on the "here and now," just like grazing cattle or other beasts, which have no concept of anything beyond the present. Asaph is calling the human perspective foolish and ignorant.

The righteous will be rewarded (23-27)

After confessing his foolishness, Asaph acknowledges immediately that God has not cast him away. Verses 23-27 comprise a great summary of the heavenly perspective: we are with Him; He will receive us in heaven; He guides us and upholds us; there is nothing on earth more important than Him; though we fail, He will not; God is “the strength of my heart and my portion (lit., my inheritance) forever.” What is important is not the advantages or disadvantages we experience on earth, but what is important is our inheritance, our eternal existence in communion with Him and in our Savior's presence.

So now we see that Asaph has come full circle, from the human perspective that will always lead to envy and depression, to the heavenly or eternal perspective that acknowledges God and His pre-eminence. Asaph testifies that there is nothing that is worth more than what He already has, his heavenly Father.

Then in verse 28 he show us that every believer has a role in life as a result of seeing life from the heavenly perspective . . .

The believer's role (28)

Verse 28 tells us the believer's role is pretty simple:

Draw near to God—His presence or nearness is “good” (lit., sweet or pleasant).

Put my trust in God, and not in satisfying my human and inevitably self-centered wants.

And finally, tell others about Him and what He has done—tell them with our words as well as our lives of peace and contentment with God.

Asaph’s conflict has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? I read someplace that when we covet what the world has, we’re really just demonstrating that we want to have what they have more than we want them to have what we have. That's a neat (and entirely accurate) way to look at it. Asaph resolved his inner conflict by doing what James tells us (James 4:8)—“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” When we focus on our Savior . . . really focus on Him . . . our perspective changes.

I can’t help but contrast the envy of Asaph, who felt chastened every morning, with the heavenly perspective of Jeremiah centuries later as he endured the most terrible circumstances we could imagine. He was right there in Jerusalem observing as the Babylonians invaded and destroyed Judah. As the entire population was either murdered or uprooted from their homes, as he saw the Babylonians seize every Israelite's possessions, and as he watched Jerusalem (and the cities of Judah) burned to the ground and utterly destroyed, Jeremiah saw God for who He is, and not according to the circumstances at hand. In the midst of all this carnage, Jeremiah wrote: “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion (my inheritance) says my soul, therefore I hope in Him” (Lamentations 3:22-24).

As we focus on our Savior, our heavenly perspective about life and how He loves us and cares for us cannot be changed by our circumstances or the circumstances of the culture around us.