Asaphs Complaint (vv.13-16)
Godliness is pointless (v.13)
"I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency." Writes Spurgeon, "Asaph questions the value of holiness when its wages are paid in the coin of affliction". We learn from Asaph how to pursue holiness. He paid attention to his heart and his hands; both his desires and his deeds were subjected to a cleaning process. We therefore learn that it is a demanding thing to live for God. Further, the theme of the Psalm is that there will be discouragements along the way. But the Psalm does not end before showing us the secret of overcoming the discouragements, for Scripture accomplishes much in a little space! Now consider two further complaints Asaph had.
Godliness is peace-less (v.14)
"For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning." Asaph felt that his sole experience was the discipline of God. He certainly saw no benefit in it; instead it felt like something he could not escape.
Godliness is painful (vv.15-16)
"When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me." Worst of all, Asaph felt he could not voice his concerns. He thought about talking about them, but decided he could not risk offending Gods family. This made the intensity of his experience unbearable. There are powerful lessons for us here. It reveals that Asaph was indeed a mature, godly saint because he could bridle his tongue (James 3.2). He showed another godly characteristic in bending over backwards not to damage any of Gods people (1 Cor 8.13). And there is guidance from Asaph on what thoughts to give voice to: if in doubt, its best not let out.
Asaphs turning point (v.17)
"Until I went into the sanctuary of God." The sanctuary is the place where God dwells (Ex 25.8) and we enter it when we approach God in prayer (Heb 4.16). For Asaph, the difference the sanctuary made was like night and day. Beforehand he was envious, depressed, and confused. Afterwards, he was content with his lot, joyful in the Lord, and clear over what had previously been confusing.
There are several lessons for us. First, the delay prior to entering the sanctuary allowed his troubles to escalate. We too are prone to try everything but prayer. The lines from the familiar hymn find Scriptural backing in the Psalm: "Oh what peace we often forfeit, Oh what needless pain we bear! All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer". Second, the effect of the sanctuary is remarkable. It completely removed the problem, but not in the way we might have imagined. The people he had envied were still there; the difference was that his heart had been returned to heavens beat, thus taking away any reason for envy. Third, if Asaph had not gone into the sanctuary there was just one place to go: off the rails! Did he not start the Psalm by telling us his feet had "almost gone"? Now, if Asaphs problem could be overcome in the sanctuary, ours can too. So lets determine to make prayer our first recourse when the next difficulty comes our way.
Lessons from the sanctuary (vv.18-28)
It can be seen from the repeated appearance in this section of the pronouns "thee" and "thou" that Asaph is addressing God: we are now inside the sanctuary. He learned (or at least remembered) some important lessons while he was there.
The fate of the ungodly (vv.18-20)
Their place is slippery, and their destruction will be swift. Asaphs solemn preview of what the future holds for the ungodly is ironic - he had almost slipped by envying those who themselves were in "slippery places". The dream imagery is powerful. Their life is the dream, but reality kicks in when God wakes them in judgment. At that point their carefree life and enjoyed indulgences will vanish like the memory of a dream when one awakes. The phrase "living the dream" is chillingly accurate. Asaphs impression of them was short-sighted they may have a pain free death, but afterwards "they are utterly consumed with terrors". This is a rich passage to ponder if we feel we need more compassion for the perishing.
The foolishness of his heart (vv.21-22)
Asaph had envied those he should have pitied! Upon realising this, his heart sunk and his mind (AV, reins see Strong 3629) was pierced. He castigates himself as foolish and ignorant. Asaphs harshness in self judgment is surely a good model to follow.
The faithfulness of God (vv.23-24)
"Nevertheless I am continually with thee." This phrase is striking: it is not that he realised God had been with him all the way through; its that Asaph had persevered with God through the difficulty. The faithfulness of God is the basis for the perseverance of His saints because He will never leave us - even in our moments of folly (Heb 13.5).
In the present he could count on God to stay with him and guide him (v.24). We can too. The Word of God lights up our path (Ps 119.105), and prayer establishes our thoughts as we commit our works to the Lord (Prov 16.3). Looking to the future, he knew that God would receive him to glory. Nothing strengthens us more in the present than a certain hope for the future, and in Christ we have that certain, strong anchor that we need for our souls (Heb 6.18,19). Past, present, or future, God is faithful.
First place is for God (v.25)
"Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee." Asaph has gone from petty envy of those who were in a better position in life, to single-minded satisfaction with God. Spurgeon remarks beautifully, "Thus, then, he turns away from the glitter which has fascinated him to the true gold which was his real treasure". This was the priority in affections that Christ laid out as a criterion of discipleship (Mt 10.37), and is lived out in Pauls experience (Phil 1.21). We, too, should put Christ first.
The frailty of man (v.26)
"My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever." Asaph gives himself a vote of no confidence, but not one of despondency. Rather, it was one of reliance on God. In recognising our inherent weakness we can be strong, for in this condition we are ready to lean on the Lord (2 Cor 12.10).
The fierceness of God (v.27)
"They that are far from thee shall perish." There is no middle ground of compromise: those who harden themselves and run from God, refusing His offers of mercy, are heaping to themselves awful, inescapable judgment (Rom 2.5).
The final analysis (v.28)
"But it is good for me to draw near to God." Good, in contrast to those who will meet God as judge. Good, for it cured Asaph of his envy. Good, despite the difficulties godliness brought him. We too can expect a hard time if we live godly (2 Tim 3.12), but seen in the perspective of eternity it is a "light affliction, which is but for a moment" and it "worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor 4.17).
Thus the Psalm moves in a circle. It started by stating that God is good and ends by stating that it is good to draw near to Him. It is in the sanctuary that we do this. Asaphs experience tells us we must, if ever we are to appreciate the Lords goodness. Therefore, let us seek to be people who spend time in that transforming place.