The book of Psalms begins with the word “Blessed” (Ps 1.1), and concludes with the word “Hallelujah” (“Praise ye the Lord”) (150.6). Those two ‘bookends’ give a concise summary of why the psalms were written: they reveal the blessing of God to the righteous, and record the praise of the righteous to Jehovah. The psalms provide us with a proper perspective on the many circumstances of life, so that we can appreciate both the blessing of the Lord and exalt His name in praise. There are actually five books of psalms: the ending of one and the beginning of another can be identified by the word “Amen”, which occurs seven times in four locations (41.13; 72.19; 89.52; 106.48). Each of the five books has its own distinct characteristics. For example, most of the 17 psalms in the third book (73–83) were written by Asaph, which gives that book a particular character or perspective.
Who was Asaph?
Asaph lived during the reigns of both king David and king Solomon. The first of around 20 references to him is found in 1 Chronicles 6.39, where he is identified as “Asaph the son of Berachiah”. From the Scripture record we learn that:
He was a Levite – one of the Gershonites.
He was one of three men “whom David set over the service of song in the house of the Lord” (1 Chr 6.31) – these were Heman (v 33), Asaph – to Heman’s right (v 39) and Ethan – to Heman’s left (v 44).
They served in this capacity in the days of David, and “until Solomon had built the house of the Lord in Jerusalem” (v 32).
Heman, Asaph and Ethan are also mentioned together in 1 Chronicles 15.17 and 19, where they are identified as “the singers” involved in bringing the ark up out of the house of Obed-edom.
Asaph had specific responsibility “to minister before the ark continually” (16.37) – in other words, he was to lead Israel’s praise concerning the holiest things.
He continued to do this into the reign of Solomon, and he served at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chr 5.12).
His name means ‘gatherer’ or ‘collector’, and this might reflect a responsibility to bring together the various psalms of praise. For example, in 1 Chronicles 16.7, “David delivered first this psalm to thank the Lord into the hand of Asaph and his brethren” – perhaps it was to be added to ‘the collection’ which ultimately became the book of Psalms.
Asaph may have lived to be a very old man, and into Rehoboam’s reign. Although he is not specifically mentioned then, in Psalm 79 Asaph writes these words: “the heathen are come into thine inheritance” (v 1); “thy holy temple have they defiled” (v 1); “blood have they shed like water round about Jerusalem” (v 3). This may be a reference to the events in the fifth year of king Rehoboam (2 Chr 12.1-9), when Shishak, king of Egypt, invaded and plundered the Temple, carrying away the 300 “shields of gold which Solomon had made” (v 9).
So, throughout his life, Asaph experienced very high points:
But, against that, he would also have experienced some very low points:
And it is this high and low, ebb and flow, of life’s changing circumstances that is reflected in the psalms that Asaph wrote. The challenge that this brought to him is particularly seen in Psalm 73.
We all pass through circumstances and experiences when we are perplexed with the way things are. If we are honest, we would admit that it gives us questions – and perhaps even doubts – about the path of faith. This is not unusual. Even great servants of God like Abraham and Moses had such experiences, and it was the experience of Asaph too. Despite having scaled the heights in his experience with God, and having led the praise of God’s people, he began to wonder when things around him appeared to unravel. Likewise, things come into our lives that are a challenge to our faith. When that happens, it is easy to think that we are alone, and that other people are immune from doubts.
Psalm 73 is the frank confession of a saint who had a crisis of faith: it is the record of how he came through, and it is recorded for our help and for our strengthening. The psalm assures us that there is a way through if we keep our focus and perspective on the Lord. Like the experience of Job, through the trials that he endured, it might be the case that we are unable to explain the reason why things seem to be going badly wrong for us or around us. But it is the case that we can trust in God: Job learned that. He did not have the answer to any of the questions posed to him by the Lord but, better than that, he knew the Lord, and knew that God had not lost control.
Verses 1-3: A Crisis of Faith
The psalm commences with the realisation that Asaph came to as a result of his experience: “truly God is good.” The experience was not pleasant, but it did have a benefit because Asaph had been “exercised thereby” (Heb 12.11). He had learned how to respond to a “trial of [his] faith” (1 Pet 1.7). This introduction to the psalm underlines the fact that it was God alone who had brought him through, and not his own strength of character.
It was a serious crisis for Asaph: he indicates that he had “almost gone” - he had almost gone down under it. His feet had “well nigh slipped”: the picture is of a man slipping on ice when carrying a load, and just on the verge of spilling it all. How did it happen? Asaph had been inattentive. He had been looking at the wrong things: he had been occupied with “the foolish” or the “arrogant” (margin). He wrote “I saw” – this was not a casual glance, but an ongoing action. He was taken up with things that distracted him from his occupation with the praise of the Lord. Like Martha who was “cumbered about much serving” (Lk 10.40), and Peter who wanted to know “what shall this man do?” (Jn 21.21), his attention was misplaced. And it is easy for us to be similarly distracted with “the care of this world” (Mt 13.22) if our eyes and our minds are on the wrong things.
Verses 4-12: The Carefreeness of Fools
Asaph looked around at conditions in the world of his day – he might have been watching the deterioration that was occurring during the second half of Solomon’s reign. He saw people who, notwithstanding their evil dealings, were doing well and getting on in life. It is a scenario that we can readily identify in modern society. No doubt the conditions that he describes were not universal – it would not have been the case that every single wicked person was healthy and well fed – but rather he gives a general picture. Asaph was judging by appearances. What he saw, perhaps in a few particularly notable cases that he knew of, loomed large in his thoughts, and that caused him to lose perspective. It is something that we all can do, too easily – magnifying issues in our minds until they cause us to stumble.
Asaph observed at least five features of the ungodly which we can easily see in our own society, and we will look at those characteristics in the continuation of this article next month, God willing.
(To be continued …)