Song of a Slipping Saint

Psalm 73

February 20, 2011 | Ray Pritchard

Have you ever stopped believing?

It can happen to any of us at any time because life is hard and sometimes very strange.

If you live long enough, your faith is bound to be challenged many times. Psalm 73 tells the story of a godly man who felt his faith slipping away. Even though these words were written 3000 years ago, they might as well have been written today. We may read these words and say, “I was just like Asaph except for this. He kept his faith, but I lost mine. He found God again. I don’t know what I believe anymore.”

If you have ever struggled with the perplexities of life, this is a psalm for you. If you ever felt your faith beginning to slip away, read on and we’ll learn about a godly man who faced what you are facing now.

The superscription tells us that this is a psalm by Asaph. We know from elsewhere in the Old Testament that he was a worship leader at the temple in Jerusalem during the days of King David. As I considered that fact, I realized that many of the musicians I have known have had a unique sensitivity of spirit that comes from thinking and feeling deeply. You might call Psalm 73 “the view from the choir loft.” In this psalm Asaph invites us to go with him on his journey from doubt to faith.

This psalm has two parts: a question and an answer. In the first fourteen verses Asaph wonders why the wicked seem to do so well in the world. Then in the last fourteen verses we see faith leading him from despair and anger to peace and acceptance.

I. Doubt Raises a Question (vv. 1-14).

Asaph begins by confessing his near-fatal crisis of faith.

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked (vv. 1-3).

The key to the whole psalm comes in verse 3. “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Look hard enough and you can find someone, somewhere, who seems to be happier, more content, or better off, with a bigger salary, better health, fewer problems, a better life, a nicer home, a more successful career, with more friends, better connections, with more prestige, more money in the bank, and in general they just seem to be higher up the proverbial ladder than you are.

We live in a world that likes to keep score.
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We live in a world that likes to keep score. We all have a niche where we fit, a place where we belong, our own little spot in the vast pecking order of life. I’ve traveled around the world and seen many different cultures, and it seems to be the same in Thailand or Nigeria or Switzerland as it is in America. Human nature is the same everywhere.

If that’s not bad enough, here’s something that will aggravate you all night if you think about it too long. Some of those people who seem to be “above” you somehow aren’t very nice people. Some of them are jerks, some are cheats, some are outright scoundrels and even scumbags, and yet they seem to be doing just fine. It’s galling enough to have to share space on the planet with disreputable people, but sometimes we work with them, go to school with them, socialize with them, take orders from them, serve on committees with them, and sometimes we live next door to them. All in all, it can be frustrating to feel that you’ve been passed by unworthy people in the great race of life.

That’s not just Asaph’s problem. That’s our problem too.

But there is something deeper bothering Asaph as he works his way through this problem. It’s not just the prosperity of the wicked, which is bad enough. It’s that all too often the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. From a strictly analytical point of view, that stinks.

If we really are God’s people who try however vainly and clumsily to do his will, if he really does love us like he says he does, why oh why does he let the bad guys get away with murder while the good guys take it on the chin?

That’s a troubling question. What possible good could be served by allowing this apparent inversion of justice in this world? Sheldon Vanauken frames the issue this way:

If only villains got broken backs or cancers, if only cheaters and crooks got Parkinson’s disease, we should see a sort of celestial justice in the universe. But as it is a sweet-tempered child lies dying of a brain tumor, a happy young wife sees her husband and child killed before her eyes by a drunken driver and we soundlessly scream at the stars. ’Why? Why?’ (Cited by Lee Strobel in The Case for Faith, p. 28).

*Why are evildoers raised to power while the righteous are imprisoned?
*Why did God let Chinese tyrants live to a ripe old age while godly pastors languished for years in slave labor camps?
*Why does a gifted missionary contract brain cancer in the midst of an effective ministry?

Why? Why? Why?

Psalm 73 paints a vivid picture of the prosperity of the wicked:

1. Their health (v.4).  “Their bodies are healthy and strong.”
2. Their “good” life (v. 5). “They are not plagued by human ills.”
3. Their pride (v. 6). “Pride is their necklace.”
4. Their iniquity (v. 7). “From their callous hearts comes iniquity.”
5. Their malicious words (v. 8). “They scoff, and speak with malice.”
6. Their boastful words (v. 9). “Their mouths lay claim to heaven.”
7. Their popularity (v. 10). “Their people turn to them.”
8. Their blasphemy (v. 11). “They say, ‘How can God know?’”
9. Their carefree life (v. 12a). “Always carefree.”
10. Their wealth (v. 12a). “They increase in wealth.”

Health and wealth. The bad guys get all the good stuff. We must admit that this portrait is often very true. It describes in stunning detail what life without God looks like. Verse 7 speaks of their “callous” hearts. What an indictment that is! They are the way they are, they like the way they are, and they seem to live without any guilt whatsoever.

In thinking about all this, we don’t need to “answer” it because it is true enough as it stands. While it’s not a perfect description of every ungodly person, it will do just fine as a portrait of a certain class of sinners. We’ve all known a few people who fit this pattern.

Three Fundamental Mistakes

Asaph, as good a man as he was, made three fundamental mistakes. We can learn from these mistakes because we make the same mistakes ourselves many times.

1. Judging only by what he sees. There is more to life than meets the eye. It’s quite true that some of the wicked prosper some of the time. But simple experience tells you that not all the wicked get away with it or else all the prisons would be empty. It is still true today that the way of transgressors is hard.

2. Leaving God out of the equation. The Bible never denies that the wicked do on occasion prosper. Hebrews 11 speaks of the “pleasures of sin for a season” (Hebrews 11:25 KJV). People sin because they like it. But that is not the end of the story. The first bite of forbidden fruit may taste sweet, but the end is nothing but bitterness.

For the wicked this earth is the only heaven they will ever know.
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3. Forgetting about the life to come. This is the insight that brought Asaph back to his senses. God has ordained a day of judgment for the entire human race, and no one will escape. Even in this life the wicked often are punished, but those that aren’t go out into eternity to meet the God of justice who sees all things. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 KJV).

Asaph seems to hit bottom in verses 13-14. “Did I keep my heart pure for nothing?  Did I keep myself innocent for no reason? I get nothing but trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain” (NLT).  We’ve all felt that way at one time or another. “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, I might as well be your enemy. In fact, they seem to have it better than I do.” He’s not being objective, but he is being totally honest with God.

When I taught this passage many years ago, I listed all the folks who had recently died in our congregation. A beloved prayer warrior, a faithful Awana leader, a father who died too soon, a mother who died, another father who passed away at a young age. Looking at my notes, I see that I wrote at the bottom of the page (and highlighted it): “What’s going on up there?” We all feel that way occasionally.

II. Faith Finds an Answer (vv. 15-28).

Asaph comes to the right answer in stages. First, he sees that some things should not be carelessly shared with others. “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed your children” (v. 15). Not every doubt needs to be shared with everyone. Sometimes we need to talk things out, but when we do, we ought to find those with wisdom to understand and, if necessary, to overlook some of the things we say. I’m all for being honest with others, but there is a fine line between honesty and “loose talk.” Indiscriminate sharing may hurt some of God’s children who don’t need to hear about our doubts when they have enough troubles of their own.

Some things should not be carelessly shared with others.
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Most of the time we won’t understand why things happen the way they do. Why does one man die and another man live? Why does a reprobate get rich while some of the godly sink in abject poverty? Why did the tornado destroy this home and not the one next to it? How did that man never get caught cheating while another man plays by the rules and loses his job? These questions (and a million others like them) can never be fully answered this side of heaven.

Second, he went to the right place to find an answer. We see the great turning point in verse 17. “Then I went into your sanctuary, O God, and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked”(NLT). In God’s presence we see things differently. The other day I was reading an article about worship when the author made a point I had never considered before. Nothing seems more truly countercultural than people gathering to sing praise to God. If worship doesn’t seem radical to us, it’s because we’ve become anesthetized to its power. In the Roman Empire the early Christians were sometimes accused of atheism because they worshiped a God they could not see. They had no idols, they offered no sacrifices. When they met together, they sang and prayed, listened to the Word being read, and shared the Lord’s Supper. It was so utterly unlike what others did that it seemed heretical, dangerous, and atheistic. Rumors spread about these “Christ-followers” who worshiped a man who had been crucified and then had risen from the dead.

Who could believe such a thing?

If worship doesn’t seem radical to us, it’s because we’ve become anesthetized to its power.
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So what happens when we worship? When Archbishop William Temple tried to define worship, he wrote a statement that is both beautiful and profound:

To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God,
To feed the mind with the truth of God,
To purge the imagination by the beauty of God,
To open the heart to the love of God,
To devote the will to the purpose of God.

All of that is utterly countercultural. You don’t get that by watching Fox News or ESPN or by following American Idol. Come to think of it, you won’t get that in the great universities of the world. Cambridge and Harvard can teach you how to think at a high level, but if you want to worship, you’ll need to go into the presence of God.

The writer of the article said that we ought to use our worship services to prepare our people to be countercultural agents for the Kingdom of God. He’s exactly right. By our prayers and by our music and by the grand tradition handed down to us, by the ministry of the Word, by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, through fellowship and affirmation, by the creeds and by the choir, regardless of the setting and irrespective of style, every worship service ought to be a great object lesson to teach our people, “We are not like the world. This is who we are. This is why we exist. This is what we believe. This is how we live.” And because the pressure of the world is so constantly with us, we must use every opportunity in worship to do for them what worship did for Asaph.

It brought him back to his senses.
It helped him see what he had missed.

On Slippery Ground

Third, he saw the end of the wicked and it was not a pretty sight (vv. 18-20).

They are on slippery ground.
They will be cast down and suddenly destroyed.
They will be swept away by terror.
They will vanish from the earth.

God’s message is, “Why would you envy the wicked? They’re going down!”

They don’t know it.
They don’t see it.
They don’t believe it.

But God has spoken and his Word cannot be broken.
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But God has spoken and his Word cannot be broken. The wicked will come to a bad end. They won’t be laughing and cheering and mocking and enjoying their cocktails and the high life, and they won’t be getting rich off their fraud in that terrible day. For the moment, they seem to have it good. But soon enough judgment day will come.

We can say three things about their ultimate destiny:

Their judgment is sudden and unexpected.
Their destruction is complete and irreversible.
God’s wrath is personal and inescapable.

Would you like to trade places with them? In 1719 Isaac Watts published a metrical version of Psalm 73. When he came to this part of the psalm, he wrote these lyrics:

There, as in some prophetic glass,
I saw the sinner’s feet
High mounted on a slipp’ry place,
Beside a fiery pit.

I heard the wretch profanely boast,
Till at thy frown he fell;
His honors in a dream were lost,
And he awakes in hell.

(If you want to hear this idea in a more modern way, check out this video of the Johnny Cash song God’s Gonna Cut You Down. Asaph and Isaac Watts and Johnny Cash are saying the same thing.)

These striking images force us to a solemn conclusion. God personally rejects the wicked. Because they had no time for him, he sends them to hell forever. Right now they stand on slippery ground, but soon the trapdoor will open and down they go. It reminds me of the words of Jesus to the religious hypocrites. One day he will say to them, “I never knew you. Depart from me” (Matthew 7:23 NKJV).

God personally rejects the wicked.
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Fourth, he sees how foolish he had been. “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you” (vv. 21-22). True repentance looks like this. It recognizes the sin, calls it by name, goes to the root of the matter, and admits the truth. One version says, “I was totally ignorant, a dumb ox in your very presence.” That’s telling it like it is.

How quickly envy and bitterness corrupt the heart! They render us senseless and ignorant, no better than brute beasts.

God is Our Portion Forever

Fifth, he gains a new view of God. In one of the high moments of the Old Testament, Asaph looks forward to a day when he will be with the Lord forever:

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (vv. 23-26).

Here is the believer’s personal protection:

In the past, you took my hand.
In the present, you guide me with your counsel.
In the future, you will take me into glory.

What do the wicked have that can possibly match this? What can equal the personal presence of God himself? How much is it worth to know that someday you will be with the Lord in glory?

In his sermon on Psalm 73, Robert Rayburn put it this way:

The wealth of the wicked means nothing.
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The wealth of the wicked means nothing. They have nothing. Without God, without forgiveness, without heaven, they have nothing. With God we have everything and always have everything, no matter the outward circumstances of our lives.

It’s a grand thing to be a Christian when you die.
If you know Jesus, the best is yet to come.

Do you envy the wicked? How foolish, how shortsighted. They are like chaff blown by the wind. Let them have their trinkets and baubles. Let them have their short moment in the sun. For the wicked this earth is the only heaven they will ever know. For the righteous this earth is the only hell we will ever endure.

In the end we will discover that nothing on earth or in heaven is more desirable than God. We may die but even death itself cannot sever our relationship with God because it is as secure as God himself. As long as God is in his heaven, we will be with him in glory. No wicked man can take that from us.

It’s a grand thing to be a Christian when you die.
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When we put our coming glory on the scales of eternity, the passing prosperity of the wicked amounts to nothing at all. To borrow a phrase from Jonathan Edwards, “The godly have a better portion even though all they have is God.”

Sixth, he sees the essential difference between the righteous and the wicked (vv. 27-28). We are going in different directions. The wicked will one day perish in hell, but the righteous know God now and will be with him forever.

Let me draw some simple conclusions and we are done:

1. In this life the wicked sometimes prosper while the righteous seem to take it on the chin.
2. As long as we play the comparison game, our lives will be filled with envy, anger and frustration.
3. Those who forget God in this life will one day discover that all they lived for will be suddenly and utterly destroyed.
4. Those who cling to God in times of confusion will find that he is more than enough for this life and the life to come.
5. Since God is more than enough, when we are tempted to despair, let us instead proclaim God’s sufficiency to anyone who will listen.
6. God gives prosperity to the wicked because that’s all they are going to get.
7. He gives us his guiding hand through difficulties because things are only going to get better for those who love the Lord.

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Psalm 73 reminds us that sometimes we may feel our faith slipping away. I began the sermon with one simple sentence: “Have you ever stopped believing?” Many would answer yes to that question. I don’t think it’s wrong to be confused or angry or perplexed at the things you see around you. Sometimes life seems so messed up that you look to heaven and say, “What’s going on up there?” Against all that, we have Asaph’s first sentence to consider. “Surely God is good to Israel” (v. 1). If we can say that, even through our tears, our questions, and our doubts, then we will end up in the right place.

Clovis Chappell says that on the west coast of England there is the grave of a man who was much loved by all who knew him. When he died, these words were inscribed on his headstone: “Here lies a man who was satisfied with Jesus.” Could that be said of you? Could it be said of me?

Faith chooses to believe that Jesus is Lord over every part of life, even the parts that make so sense at the moment. Make him your rock, your firm foundation, and you will never be swept away.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?