A Bible Lesson on Psalm 73

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a Bible lesson on a passage outside the current ISSL schedule, Psalm 73.  This is a Psalm of Asaph, David’s chief musician.  It describes his coming to terms with the fact that not all goes as we’d like it to in this present life, and that the point isn’t a pleasant trip through, but rather the presence of and fellowship with God.

Psalm 73  Book Three A Psalm of Asaph.

1 Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.

This Psalm begins with a correct, but general statement, a statement that is sound, but could be made by rote, a statement that a kid could make as part of a formal catechism recitation without really owning for him or herself.  But then the psalmist turns to tell us his story.

2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.

His feet had almost slipped.  He was in a precarious position.  We need to hear this as a desperate circumstance.  This is not just that he was a little down and off his game.  He was in mortal danger.  His eternal soul was in peril.  He nearly slipped to destruction.  How?

3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

He looked around, saw how it was with everyone else, and broke the 10th commandment.  He coveted the situation of others.  In fact, he coveted the situation of the prosperous wicked.  Kidner points out how honest Asaph is being here.  He could have claimed an “altruistic”/”pious” concern for justice and the downtrodden.  He doesn’t.  He admits flat out here that his real problem is that he covets easy situation of the prosperous unrighteous.

4 For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.

They have no pangs until death.  The New King James Version says:  For there are no pangs in their death.  The Hebrew is literally “their dying has no pangs.”  Even in death they appear to have an easy way.  This is an honest look at the fact that life doesn’t always look “just” to us.

5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.

This sounds good to the covetous heart, to the heart that doesn’t trust that God knows and orders what is best for His children.  I want no trouble and plenty of ease, even to the point that implicitly I say “better to be wicked and have a pleasant life than to be righteous and have a hard one.”  Surely Asaph had indeed nearly lost it.  He goes on to more fully describe those he envied.  He describes the fruit of this abundance he finds himself desiring.

6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment.

7 Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.

8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.

9 They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.

In the unrighteous, prosperity produces pride and self-sufficiency.  The prosperous unrighteous have hearts that are hard toward others.  Prosperity in the life of an unrighteous person makes him or her think that he or she is God, in charge of everything; in charge of both the here and now and the life to come, both heaven and earth.  This is not a good set of delusions/fantasies.  Looked at in any kind of measured way, this is, of course, absolute foolishness.  The swagger of the young, strong, rich and powerful mover-and-shaker must eventually give way to the frailty of old age, the emptiness of a life wasted in self-absorption, and the horror of facing a holy God and gracious Savior one has despised and rejected.

10 Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them.

The thought here is that the arrogance of the prosperous unrighteous is contagious.  It doesn’t stay on Wall Street or in DC, it reaches out to even God’s people.  And even God’s people can be attracted to evil, believing that the evil produces the prosperity, which people are suckered into believing is the ultimate good.  Even God’s people can find themselves saying

11 And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”

12 Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.

13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.

14 For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.

Woe is me and happy is the unrighteous.  Maybe I’d be better off if I pitched this whole worship of God/morality thing and lived like the rest of the world lives.  What has righteousness profited me?  Asaph is being brutally frank with us here.  This is the way he’s been thinking in his heart of hearts.  But to his credit, he’s had sense enough to keep a lid on it. Kidner sees in these verses a man shocking himself when he hears himself speaking and recoiling from his own foolishness/corruption.

15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of your children.

Asaph knows that even though the temptation to whine is strong, doing so is harmful to others (and for that matter doesn’t help the whiner).  He’s a wise enough man that he’s kept his wrong thoughts to himself and not infected others with his discontent and covetousness.

16 But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,

The whole issue of how it is that life is hard for God’s people and in many cases is easy for His enemies has Asaph baffled.  It wore him out thinking about it.  It corroded his head.  It made him think in wrong ways when he looked at it from his own perspective.  But by the grace of God he was brought to his senses.

17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.

Until I went into the sanctuary of God … until He turned his heart from his selfish interests to the matter of God’s glory … until he listened again to the Word of God … until he gathered again with the people of God to worship.  If we want to be sane, we ought to flee to the presence of God, flee to the company of His people, flee to the reproof of His Word.  Here we are reminded of our foolishness and the truth.  Far from people to be envied, the prosperous unrighteous are to be greatly pitied.  What foolishness it is to envy those who are careening through life headed for damnation.

18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.

19 How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!

20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.

The prosperous unrighteous are on slippery ground and death will come and they will slip and be ruined.  Their end will be terrible.  Presently their prosperity creates for them a transient sense of well-being, but it’s a dream, and their terrible end is the reality.  Their fantasy of control of their lives and destiny will be completely shattered in death.

Kidner says, “Judgment is not simply the logical end or ‘afterward’ of evil, though it has this quality …; it is ultimately God’s personal rejection, His dismissal of someone as of no further account or interest (20) which is the ‘shame and everlasting contempt’ of Daniel 12 :2, and the ‘I never knew you’ of Matthew 7:23.”

C.S. Lewis (quoted by Kidner) said “We can be left utterly and absolutely outside­ repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored.  On the other hand, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged.”

21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,

22 I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.

Asaph confesses his utter foolishness.  He admits that his covetousness turned him into a beast.  He was no more a human being than is a dog, when he was thinking in the terms he was thinking.  He wasn’t thinking like a creature made in the image of God for fellowship with God, he was thinking like an animal.  He was worrying only about what would be pleasant for the moment, and he sees clearly at this point that his foolishness and whining was not just dangerous for himself and others, it was a personal attack on the gracious God of the universe.

23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.

Now here’s a wonder.  Asaph admits that he’s been thinking like a barbarian or animal, and in effect spitting in the face of his Creator.  Yet through it, God has not forsaken him.  He has continued to sustain Asaph.  He’s patiently held onto his hand and preserved him.

24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.

God’s Spirit has led Asaph, and wooed him back from the precipice.  And when life on earth, hard as it may be, is over, there will be eternity with God.  Asaph is led to sanity by God and comes to grips with the fact that the point of the whole exercise is not a pleasant ride through, but eternal fellowship with the I AM.

25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.

Really, in the end, what matters?  What matters on earth?  What matters in heaven?  Is it that I have it easy in the here and now, or that I know the one true and living God?   Asaph started with a true but detached statement of the way things are in general.  Now there is passion in his pen as he tells us how it has become for him personally.  His one true passion in heaven and earth is not riches or an easy way through, but God Himself, the only One truly worthy of such affection.

26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

My flesh and my heart may fail.  The “fail” is not “to be inadequate” but rather “to come to an end.”  Asaph looks ahead and knows that life on earth is short, and its circumstances are not the whole story, not the ultimate concern.  In the final analysis, what is to be gained, what is of real value, is relationship with Him, relationship with Him now and relationship with Him through eternity.  That’s the ultimate prosperity, not something temporal like wealth, power, health, popularity or anything else of this world.

27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.

Here’s the end of the whole matter.  The real dividing line is not between those whose ways are easy and those whose ways are hard.  It’s not between those who have lots of stuff in this life and those who don’t.  It’s between those who are close to God and those who are not.  Those who are separated from Him are terribly undone while those who know Him testify that to do so is what really matters.

28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.

In verse 1, in an intellectual way Asaph, says that God is good to Israel.  Here at the end, in a personal way, Asaph testifies that it is good to be near the I AM.  God is not a means to the “end” of a pleasant existence.  God is the beginning and end of all.  Indeed it is good in the truest sense to be His and to have relationship with Him.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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