When you first became a Christian were you troubled by a feeling which many have that to become a child of God ought to make life easier for you because you were the object of a heavenly Father's love and care, but instead you found things became worse? You finally found yourself frustrated and depressed, especially when, by contrast, you saw that the ungodly around you were often enjoying life to the full. There are many Christians who struggle with such a problem. It is this very problem that is brought before us in Psalm 73.
This is the introductory psalm to the third book of the Psalms. It corresponds to the book of Leviticus in the Pentateuch. You remember Leviticus? That is where you ground to a halt after you had determined to read the Bible through! Usually that happens because we fail to understand the symbolism of the book of Leviticus. We get tied up with the detail of the book, which tells us of the building of the tabernacle, and of Israel's sacrifices to God. It consists, by and large, of rules and regulations, and thus is difficult for us to read unless we understand that these are all pictures. They are pictures of God's provision to dwell among his people, the means by which he could become available to them personally.
The key to the book of Leviticus is the tabernacle, the sanctuary, which is a detailed picture of the person of Jesus Christ and his work. As such, it is also a picture of man, as God intended man to be. I have long thought that the most revealing book on human psychology is the book of Leviticus. It corresponds quite closely to the book of Hebrews in fact, the two should be read together. This third book of psalms also corresponds to the book of Leviticus. In this section of the Psalms you will find the sanctuary mentioned many times and the help available there. Thus it is fittingly introduced by this seventy-third Psalm which is the story of a problem experienced by an Old Testament believer which had almost wrecked his faith but he found a solution to it when he went into the sanctuary.
The problem is stated for us in the opening three verses.
Truly God is good to the upright,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had well nigh slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant,
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psalms 73:1-3 RSV)
What was bothering this man was the apparent contradiction between what he had been taught in the Scripture -- that God was good to the upright and to those who were pure in heart -- and his experience in life. He was envious, he said, of the arrogant, and disturbed by the prosperity of the wicked. That prosperity seemed to him to be a direct contradiction to what he had been taught about God. He had been told that if you are "upright and pure in heart," that is, you had learned to lay hold of the righteousness which God provides and were cleansed by his grace, then God would be good to you, take care of you, and watch over you. But instead this man was finding his own situation to be difficult and very discouraging, but the wicked around him, the ungodly (and that is always the meaning of "wicked" in the psalms), were seeming to prosper and everything was going well with them. This bothered him greatly. He could not reconcile this. It troubled him so terribly that it created a deep resentment and envy in his heart. This in turn became such a threat to his faith that ultimately he found himself threatened with a complete loss of faith. His feet had almost slipped, he had almost stumbled, he had come to the place where he was almost ready to renounce his faith.
Here is one of the great values of the psalms to us. As we have seen before, these wonderful folksongs of faith reflect our own experience. They are an enactment of what most of us are going through, have gone through, or will go through, in the walk of faith. There have been many Christians troubled like this. They have felt the seeming logic of the argument of the infidel or atheist. They say, "How can your God be both a God of love and power? If he's a God of love then presumably he cares for what happens to people in their troubles and their difficulties. But if he cares, why doesn't he do something about it? He must not be a God of power, though he may be a God of love. Or, they say, "If he's a God of power as you Christians say he is, and can do all things, then he cannot be a God of love or he would do something to correct injustices." New Christians are oftentimes tremendously affected by this argument and become discouraged and frightened as they face the seeming logic of it. How can God be both a God of love and of power, and yet allow his own to suffer so terribly at times while the unrighteous seem to prosper and everything goes well with them? That was the problem this man was facing.
He gives us more detail on this in the next verses. In Verses 4-9 he beautifully describes the impression that the ungodly make in their seemingly untroubled lives:
For they have no pangs;
their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as other men are;
they are not stricken like other men.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness,
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth. (Psalms 73:4-9 RSV)
What a marvelous description that is. That perfectly describes what we call "a man of the world" the man who never seems to have any troubles. He is well fed, well clothed, even expensively dressed; pride is like an ornament to his life. His carriage, his bearing, is one of self-assurance and authority. He appears never to have any difficulty. If he is crossed he is very quick to retaliate. He is given to self-indulgence in food and pleasure. As the writer says, "Their eyes swell out with fatness, their hearts overflow with follies." They boast in their abilities and throw their weight around by threats and ostentatious displays of influence and connections in the "right" places.
Then he goes on to list the results that follow this kind of life:
Therefore the people turn and praise them;
and find no fault in them.
And they [the ungodly] say, "How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?"
Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken,
and chastened every morning. (Psalms 73:10-14 RSV)
This is his problem. He has noticed the fact that before these ungodly men and women, who may even be gangsters, hoodlums, or murderers, people bow and scrape and treat them with utmost respect. Because they are so well treated the wicked say, "How can God know?" i.e., there is no divine judgment. They say, look at how good life is to us, how all the breaks come our way. If there is a God, he doesn't care about the way we live. They become so used to living without reference to God that they actually forget that he is there. They treat him as though he were nonexistent.
When I was in Portland this last week, a Christian man told me about his experience on the golf course just the day before. He was with some non-Christian business men and one of them said to him, "You know, something strange happened to me the other day. A man came up to me and said, 'Are you a Jehovah's Witness?' Why would he ask me a thing like that; why, I hadn't even seen the accident!" He was utterly unaware of who Jehovah was, and was completely puzzled by the question. That is what bothers this man in the psalm.
He says, how can people live like this? How can they be so unconcerned about God and give him no place whatsoever in their lives, and yet everything goes so well with them. They have no problems, no troubles; everything goes so well, and yet here am I, "washing my hands in innocence," keeping my heart clean, but all the day long I have been stricken and chastened every morning. God puts me through trials, discouragements, and depressions every day, and I don't understand why.
Have you ever felt that way? Which of us has not? But the comparison hurts him. He is almost ready to give up, "My feet had almost stumbled, my steps had well nigh slipped." There is a record in the New Testament of a young man who accompanied the Apostle Paul, whose name was Demas. He surely must have felt this way and eventually the logic of it got to him and he did give up. His feet did stumble, he slipped back. Paul has to record of him, "Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world," (2 Timothy 4:10 KJV). There are many who feel this way. They say, "What's the use of being a Christian? There's no advantage to it. You read the Bible, go to church, and try to obey the Lord and seek fellowship with him, but what happens? Everything goes wrong. Nothing good happens at all." It is all made worse by the fact that those who have no concern for God at all seem to have few difficulties.
That is the problem. This psalm was given to us to tell us how this man solved his problem, so that when we get into similar difficulties we can solve it the same way. That is the purpose of the psalm. We must now trace briefly how he solved his problem in seven steps. Each step is important.
The first step is in Verses 15-16.
If I had said, "I will speak thus,"
I would have been untrue to the generation of thy children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task. (Psalms 73:15-16 RSV)
Here he is, filled with doubts and despair and almost ready to give up, but something stops him. What stopped him was the feeling, "If I utter my doubts, i.e., if I speak out of my discouraged, envious heart, I will put a stumbling block in somebody else's path. If I did that I would be untrue to the generation of God's children. So, rather than discourage them with my doubts, I'd rather not say anything at all." Surely this is quite a low motivation, but it is something, at least. It stopped this man for a moment, at least. He was unwilling to overthrow or even threaten the faith of others by expressing doubts that he was not at all sure of himself. Rather than spread his unbelief, he decided to keep his mouth shut and not to threaten someone else.
Now that may be all that will hold you in times of doubt and unbelief, but be grateful for anything that will stop you in your downward-sliding path. This man said that at least he didn't want to share his doubts with others, "lest I offend them." He felt, "After all, I may be wrong in this. My faith may be right, but until I get this thing settled I'm not going to say anything about it to anyone else." That is a wise decision but he admits it did not help him much. "It seemed a wearisome thing," he says. When he tried to reason it all out it was painful to him. He had much difficulty with it. But, at least, it temporarily stopped his downward slide.
The second step followed immediately, Verse 17:
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end. (Psalms 73:17 RSV)
By going into the sanctuary he means he came before the presence of God. He actually went into the temple where God had made provision to meet with his people. When he did that, he began to see things from God's point of view. Now this is the most vital part of this psalm, in many ways. This is where he began to change. He began to shift from natural thinking to spiritual thinking. The problem was that he had been thinking like a natural man, i.e., within the limits of this life only, considering only the visible things of earth. Thus he had gotten himself worked up into a terrible state of frenzy. Now, in the sanctuary, he begins to think from God's point of view. The wonderful thing about it is that there he began to understand. The word "perceived" is really "understood." That is the great thing about the Scriptures. It means that when you come to church, or read the Scriptures, you are not coming merely to find something to soothe you a bit; you are coming that you might have your eyes opened, that you might see things as they really are, and thus begin to understand life. There are many people who are content to use the Bible only to soothe their feelings when they get upset. They like the beauty of it, the language of it. But it is not provided for that. It is provided that we might understand what is happening to us, in every aspect of life. That is what happened to this man. He came into the sanctuary and there he began to think from God's point of view; spiritual thinking rather than natural thinking.
The trouble with so-called "natural" thinking is that it is always centered on us. Self is always the center of the natural man and he is forever reacting according to his feelings. Natural thinking is to be always governed by your feelings, your moods, the way you emotionally react to your circumstances. When that happens to you, your range of vision is narrowed down to only those factors that are troubling you. You cannot think beyond them. When our feelings govern us they always limit us, make us prejudiced. That is what prejudice is, a narrow limited range of vision that has only one fact in view. That is what was troubling this man.
He begins to see it when he comes into the sanctuary, into the presence of God, because there he begins thinking spiritually. Spiritual thinking is centered on God and the mind is in control and not the feelings. Then you are not being governed by emotions, but by thoughts relating to facts. Thus your vision is broadened and you can see other things besides the one thing that is disturbing your emotions. You see the whole range and scope of your problem. It is made possible only when you "enter the sanctuary."
How do we enter the sanctuary today? According to the New Testament, we ourselves are the sanctuary. God lives in us. To draw near to him is to enter the sanctuary. As we expose ourselves to his truth in the Scripture, or by fellowship with other Christians are caused to face truth we have forgotten, or by prayer directly to God, we enter the sanctuary, and, thus, change our thinking from natural to spiritual thinking.
The third step follows, in Verses 18-20. What did he learn in the sanctuary? He says, "I perceived their end."
Truly thou dost set them in slippery places;
thou dost make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes,
on awaking you despise their phantoms. (Psalms 73:18-20 RSV)
Here he begins to see the additional facts that he could not see before. He had forgotten the end of the ungodly. This obviously refers to the end of their life, but it is not limited entirely to that. It includes also the end of the processes by which they are living. We come to many ends in our experience of life. What this man had failed to take into consideration was what was happening within these people of whom he was so envious, in their inner life, where all things ultimately end. When he became aware of those it changed his whole way of thinking.
He discovered, first of all, that without God men cannot have inner strength. God has set them, he says, "in slippery places," and makes them "fall to ruin." This is always true of the ungodly. They seem to be getting along fine, outwardly, but inwardly it is quite a different story. This explains why we so frequently read of some prominent person, whom everyone is acclaiming, who suddenly and unexpectedly commits suicide. Movie stars have done this frequently. Why is this? It is because inside they had been set in slippery places. There was nothing to hold onto. Though outwardly they maintained a facade of happiness, inwardly they began to fall apart and at last they come to an end. They can no longer stand life; they can no longer stand themselves. We see this happening so frequently today; those who have maintained an outward facade of prosperity and carefree living are inwardly torn up, despairing, and suddenly come to an end.
Then this man learned that without God the ungodly are plagued by fears and terrors, "how they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!" I have had people who were non-Christians tell me that though outwardly they seemed to be composed and at ease, inwardly they were often gripped by terrible fears. They have learned to hide these, learned how to keep them from showing on their faces, but to a private counselor they freely admit how terribly frightened they are, especially afraid to face the fact of death.
Many of you know that William Randolph Hearst, who built the great Hearst castle near Morro Bay, and searched the world for beautiful objets d'art to fill it with, had a standing rule that no guest in his home could ever mention the word death. Each night he was afraid to go to sleep because he was tormented by the fear of death. Let us remember this about the ungodly rich.
This psalmist had not faced all the facts about the ones who troubled him, as many people do not face the same facts as they look at the apparent prosperity of the ungodly today.
Then he learned that the ultimate end of these people was to be forgotten. "They are like a dream when one awakes, and on awaking you despise their phantoms." We all know how this is. We have a bad dream, frightening and terrible. Perhaps you are being pursued by a monster, or you are running down the street naked. It is a terrible dream and seems so real; you are upset by it, your emotions are so stirred that it actually wakes you up. You lie there palpitating, sweating, but in a few moments it is all gone. As soon as you awake you forget the dream; it is only a vague memory. That, says the Psalmist, is like the ungodly, those men and women who persist in rejecting God's love and grace. What happens to them? They make a splash for the moment of their life, but after they are gone they are soon forgotten.
Many of us in our forties or fifties remember how the world stood in awe of that terrible man, Hitler. He had the whole world frightened and hanging on his every word. But already he is almost forgotten. Young people hardly know whom you mean when you mention him. He is but a name out of the past, and the fearsomeness of his character and his threat to the world is forgotten, gone like a dream in the night.
Thus this man began to take note of certain other facts. He had now come to the place where he had cleared up his thinking about the ungodly, and about God. He sees that God is ruling over the affairs of men and that the ungodly are not in such an envious spot as he thought, after all. In fact, who would want to change places with them in view of their end?
I remember once reading the story of our Lord's parable of the rich man and Lazarus to some young people. I read them how Lazarus lay at the gate, the dogs licking his sores, while the rich man ate in splendor in his house. I said to them, "Which would you rather be, the rich man or Lazarus?" They said, "Oh, we would rather be the rich man." Then I read on to where they both died and the rich man was in torment but Lazarus was carried to the bosom of Abraham. I said to them, "Now which would you rather be?" They said, "Oh, we'd much rather be Lazarus; we don't want to be the rich man." That is what this man saw.
But he did not stop there. Notice what he did next. This fourth step is very important.
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant,
I was like a beast toward thee. (Psalms 73:21-22 RSV)
He did not stop with correcting his thinking; he went on to re-evaluate himself and his problem and to see just how he got into this mess, any how. He honestly faced himself. Now this is a difficult thing to do. We do not like to do this. We do not mind working our way through our problem, but the minute we get relief we want to stop right there. We do not go on to face up to what led us to this, what made us act like this. That is why we keep going through the same problems over and over again. This man probably never went through this experience again because he worked it through so thoroughly here that he never had to face it again.
I often think of the story of the woman who had been teaching school for twenty-five years. A job opened that she wanted, and she applied for it. But another person got the position who had only been a teacher for one year. The older teacher was incensed and went to the principal. "I don't understand," she said, "why you would give this job to an inexperienced person when I've had twenty-five years' experience!" But the principal said to her, "No, I'm sorry. You haven't had twenty-five years of experience; you've had one year's experience twenty-five times." That is so often what happens to us. We go through the same problems, the same difficulties, year after year after year. It is because we never stop to ask, "What made me act this way?"; to confess before God the condition that led us into this position of unbelief. But that is what this man does.
He saw three things that led him to doubt. He saw that he was stupid, i.e., it is now apparent to him that he had worked this all up himself. There was not any real problem, but he had simply allowed his feelings to get hold of him to the point that he had worked himself up into a frenzy. The minute his feelings were corrected by the facts, the problem disappeared. There was no real problem at all; it was all within him. His distress was not caused by the outside circumstances; it was something he had produced himself. This is so often what happens to us. We work ourselves all up into a self-induced frenzy.
Not long ago I was in this very state myself. I suddenly realized that I had allowed my feelings to grasp me to the point that they had worked me up into a frantic state of mind. I had to realize, like this man, how stupid it was to build mountains out of mole hills, to make big issues out of trivial things.
The second thing he learned was that he was ignorant. There were things that he obviously did not know but he could have known. He was ignorant of his own need, and that God was doing something very helpful to him by these pressures and trials he was putting him through. He was ignorant of the fact that God loved him, and he was beginning to distrust God, because he did not realize that behind the trials that believers go through is a Father's loving heart. As Hebrewstells us, if God did not love us he would not chasten us. It is because he loves us that he chastens us. He was ignorant of the record of the Scriptures that tells us these things.
Finally, he realized that he was like an animal, reacting instinctively, concerned only with himself and resenting any kind of discipline; loving to be petted and taken care of but not liking any kind of discipline at all, as an animal does. So he repents, thinks again, and as he bows before God he says, "How stupid I was, how ignorant I've been, how like an animal I've been before thee."
When he reaches that place, look what happens next, the fifth step.
Nevertheless I am continually with thee;
thou dost hold my right hand.
Thou dost guide me with thy counsel,
and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory. (Psalms 73:24-25 RSV)
The minute he came to this low place before God there comes an instant reassurance. He realizes that God still loves him, God has not cast him aside. All the marvel of the grace of God is poured into that one word, "Nevertheless." Suddenly there comes to his understanding the fact that though he is confessing his stupidity and his ignorance before God, God has not cast him away; he is still with him, he still loves him, he still holds him and supports him. The wonder of that breaks afresh upon the Psalmist's heart, and he cries out in astonishment, "Nevertheless, I am continually wit h thee."
Yesterday at Multnomah School of the Bible I had an interview with a certain young lady. She had come to me after I had spoken on the subject, "How To Live in a Sexually Inflamed Society." She told me how disturbed she was by the fact that not long before she had come to school she had been guilty of sexual immorality. She described how terrible it made her feel, especially in this school where she felt that the other young people there had clean lives, in that respect. She said, "I feel so dirty, I feel so guilty, and I can't get rid of this feeling. I know God has forgiven me, but I can't forgive myself." As we talked she said, "You know, there is one thing though that really strikes me. Since I've been here, God has been so good to me. There are so many wonderful things that he's given me and shown me while I've been here." I said to her, "Doesn't that tell you something? Doesn't that tell you that God loves you yet, and that he has forgiven you? Do you think a Holy God would let you stand in his presence unclean, as you feel yourself to be, and not cast you out? The very fact that he loves you, and takes care of you, and does wonderful things for you is his way of telling you you've been cleansed, forgiven." Then I reminded her of the Lord's words to Peter when he refused to eat unclean animals, "What I have cleansed, don't you dare call unclean," (Acts 10:15). When I said that her face brightened, and she said, "Oh, that's right, that's right. God has cleansed me. It's an insult to him to say I'm unclean."
That is what this Psalmist found. He finds four things: first, forgiveness; and then, God's restraining hand. He says, "Thou dost hold me by my right hand." What is it, after all, that drew him back, that stopped him from going over the brink? It is the hand of God, he sees now. It was God himself who put into his mind to go into the sanctuary, and thus stopped him and turned him around. God has been holding him with his right hand. Third, he saw that God would guide him for the rest of his life. "Thou dost guide me all the way." The word of God is there to unfold reality, dispel illusion, and guide him safely through the snares and the problems. Finally he cries, "Afterward thou wilt receive me to glory." That is the end of the Christian. He had seen the end of the ungodly; now he sees the end of the Christian. It is glory.
That leads inevitably to the sixth step,
Whom have I in heaven but thee?
And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever. (Psalms 73:25-26 RSV)
Sometimes we say that New Testament Christians, having the Holy Spirit indwelling us, are much better off than Old Testament saints. But let me ask you this: Can you say what this Psalmist said? Have you come to the place where you can say, "God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee." Here is a man who has seen the utter adequacy of God. God can meet your need in loneliness, in despair, in frustration, in disappointment, in sorrow, in life and in death. In every situation or condition of life God is able to meet you and to supply all that you need. No one else can do this, the Psalmist says. So he cries out, "What I want is God himself."
Now that had been his problem. He had been thinking that he needed other things than God, that he needed things the ungodly had. But now he comes to realize that all he needs is God himself. If he has God, and the fellowship of God, then nothing else is needed. So he concludes with this resolution, which is a most wonderful thing:
For lo, those who are far from thee shall perish;
thou dost put an end to those who are false to thee.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all thy works. (Psalms 73:27-28 RSV)
His conclusion is, God does keep his word. "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine." God does exactly what he says he will do. He is good to those who are upright and to those who have found purity of heart in him. He keeps them. Those who are far from him shall perish; but those who draw nigh to God are established and kept. So his resolve is, "But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all thy works."
Remember how James puts that same truth, "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you," (James 4:8 RSV). When you begin to search for God, to seek his mind in the Scriptures or in the fellowship of others; to expose yourself to the teaching of the word of God, or to pray before God, then you are drawing near to God. God promises that if you take one step toward him, he will take a dozen toward you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. That is what will keep you through any difficulty of life. The Psalmist concludes with that. God, he says, is my rock -- that is the meaning of the word, strength. I can take anything life can throw at me, resting on this rock.
Father, teach us this same truth. These are turbulent days in which we live, days in which there are many pressures, many problems. Keep us from being envious of the ungodly, but help us to hunger, Father, to reach them and to see them delivered as we have been delivered. Make us to trust, Lord, in thy greatness and thy power. In Christ's name, Amen.