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Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Psalm for a Post-Christian Time: Psalm 73

How do you respond when those who laugh and scoff at God seem to be blessed and those who fear and obey God suffer?  Psalm 73 is a psalm by Asaph, one of the chief musicians and author of many of the psalms provides keen insight and is particularly important in this post-Christian time when God has been removed from the moral fiber of law. Today, the majority may rule, but the majority isn’t always right; God has been abandoned for self indulgence. Mass media lifts up the immoral and defames those who would uphold moral values.  A national turning to God does not seem on the horizon. 

God’s Word does provide an honest and transparent answer for how we can respond:

1 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. 4 They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. 5 They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. 7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits. 8 They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. 9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. 10 Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. 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

Asaph begins with the truth that he had been taught, but it seemed the reality around him was something other than this truth.  The author had taken his eyes off the truth and fixed them on those around him and began to observe the apparent prosperity of the wicked.  They didn’t seem to suffer or have needs [v. 4-5], they were violent, arrogant, and calloused to the needs of others [v. 6-7].  They boasted about their rebellion, and seemed to say, “Even if there is a God, He doesn’t care or matter” [8-11].  In spite of all their evil, they just seemed to get richer and richer [v. 12].  How did the psalmist respond to all of this?                   

It takes courage to admit feelings and doubts. Here the psalmist even writes them down. His courage to admit [confess] serves to help encourage us when we are similarity tempted.  In his commentary, Dr. David Garland summarizes the psalmist response in verses 3-20: Asaph confesses [1] his own doubts about trying to live a good life– is it worth it all? [2]  his own troubled emotions in dealing with the situation, [3] concern for his people, had he continued to respond in doubt and  [4] the transformation of  being in the presence of God.  The change began when he “ entered the sanctuary of God” [v. 17].  His return to worship God and meditate on who God is and what He has done was the turning point in his attitude and response.  Notice that this does not change the actions of the wicked, but the focus of the psalmist heart.

In the first part of the psalm, the psalmist’ eyes are on the wicked, even envying their wealth and easy life of luxury, culminating with thoughts that being obedient to God has only been a mistake, a lie, that he has only gotten the “raw end of the deal,” while those that could care less about God only prosper.  In the second half of the psalm, the psalmist has refocused his attention on the reality of God, who has given him a new, eternal perspective: the consequences of lives lived in self gratification and lives lived in obedience to God’s laws. The destiny of the wicked is destruction; the destiny of the godly is being in the presence of God.

Not only does worship help the psalmist get his focus back on track, but it also helps him see what he was like while his focus was on the wicked: “my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you” [v. 21-22].  When we begin to focus on the wicked and envy them, we will become bitter. Wrong focus can lead to bitterness and bitterness can lead to depression. It makes us numb to God and what He is doing. We cease to function as God intended; we become like a “brute beast.” But meditating on God and spending time with Him changes us, it transforms us.

It is too easy to see only the present and not think of the future consequences of present actions, especially when we are suffering.  Worshiping and spending time with God helps us bring things back into focus and helps us see the bigger picture.  God is in control. God is just and righteous. He will bring a righteous judgement. We can trust Him, even when it seems that those who flaunt their rebellion against God are prospering. We must remember that they are on “slippery ground.” In the light of eternity, all their wealth and “accomplishments,” and their boasting, will prove false, hollow, and disappear like a vapor.

How are we to respond in this post-Christian world that we live in?
We need to keep our focus on God, regularly spending time in worship, meditating on the greatness and goodness of God and all that He has done. We need to realize the temporal nature of this existence and that there is a reality of greater value that can only be seen by those who have put their trust in Christ as Lord and Savior.  Let’s look at some summary statements:

1. Even when things are going relatively well, we can get off track when we begin to shift our focus away from God and His goodness.
2. Evil people do evil things, and many times it will seem like they never suffer the consequences. Many times God seems to remain silent, not in approval, or because He doesn’t care, but in grace and mercy to allow for repentance.
3. We need to be honest how we feel when we see the wicked prosper, but careful about changing our focus.
4. As we begin to re-center our thoughts God, that He is good, that He is in control, and that He will bring a righteous judgement, we will begin to see the situation in better light.
5. We need to spend time each day refocusing and God’s greatness, love, and mercy.
6. Wrong focus can lead to confusion and bitterness. Bitterness can lead to a loss of hope and depression. Eventually we can become numb to the voice of God in our lives.
7. Even when we refocus our attention on God, the actual situation may not change. What does change is our response to the situation.
8. Responding correctly in difficult or unjust situations can serve as an encouragement to others who are going through difficult situation.