In Psalm 73, Asaph observed at least five features of the ungodly which we could easily see in our own society:
What a picture of “men of the world” (Ps 17.14). How easy it is in our lives to make similar observations, and to be upset with the affluence and lifestyles of oppressive leaders, militant atheists, cheating businessmen, drug dealers and benefit frauds – why would we not be disturbed with such inequity? To identify these evils is not wrong in itself, but Asaph nearly slipped because it led him to question the benefit of living a godly life.
Verses 13-16: A Challenge to Fidelity
Asaph found these things a challenge, not to how the ungodly were living, but to how he was living. So, he questioned the purpose of living an upright life when the effort was so great and the results were so small. In effect, he asked “why should I bother?” In verse 13, Asaph indicated that he had endeavoured to have pure motives (“I have cleansed my heart”), and a pure way of life (“washed my hands”). However, his experience was that he had suffered for it: “have I been plagued, and chastened” (v 14).
Why was that so? Why did things work out so badly for him when he had tried to live uprightly? If trouble is what results when doing the right thing, why be scrupulous, honest and true? It is a question that we might ask ourselves in the trials of life. There are times when we may have asked the question “if everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?”
There was another issue in his mind. He realised that if he had actually articulated his thoughts he would have offended his friends: “If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend” (v 15). He felt that he could not talk this dilemma through with those who were close to him because he was sure that they would condemn him for such heresy. He felt alone, and was both perplexed and pained – “it was too painful for me” (v 16). How could he resolve his dilemma?
Verses 17-22: A Change of Focus
Have you ever been looking at a knotty problem and changed position so that you could see it from a different angle? This is exactly what Asaph did. He changed his viewpoint and perspective. To this point he had looked at things at a purely human level. He had been out and about and seen things through the eyes of a man. But, in verse 17, he enters into “the sanctuary of God”. As he repositions himself, he looks at these things through the eyes of the Lord – from the divine viewpoint. And that changes everything. He moves his focus from the ‘here and now’ to the ‘hereafter’ – from the temporal to the eternal. Abraham looked for a city; Moses endured as seeing the invisible; Paul counted all things loss – each of these men were living their lives in the light of eternity. It affected the way that they looked at things – their perspective. When David referred to “men of the world”, he went on to write of them as those “which have their portion in this life” (Ps 17.14). He reminds us that their portion here is all they have! They have nothing for the future - nothing for eternity: “how are they brought into desolation, as in a moment” (73.19). Asaph could now see that their “end is destruction” (Phil 3.19) whereas, for the godly, “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4.17). Our hope is fixed in another world. Like Job, we may not have answers to all the difficulties (although we like to pretend we do), but we are eternally linked with the One who has the answers. The Lord would have us realise that it is not answers we need – it is Him.
From this different perspective, Asaph realised that, although he had felt he was slipping, it was actually the wicked and ungodly who were “in slippery places” (v 18). It is like the discovery of a man sitting in a train at a railway station who thinks that he is moving, only to realise it is the other train that is in motion. When the other train is out of sight he regains his sense of stability. Asaph described it “as a dream when one awaketh” (v 20). In the light of God’s sanctuary, Asaph was brought to his senses and awakened to eternal reality. He makes this confession in verse 22: “foolish was I, and ignorant”, or “I lacked insight” (NET).
Verses 23-28: His Confidence of Fulfilment
The secular earthbound society that we live in is unable to lift its gaze to higher things. As a consequence, its passing and transient pursuits are unable to provide lasting satisfaction. But this world is not all that there is, and Asaph was brought again to appreciate the joy that comes with a link to the God of Heaven: “I am continually with thee” (v 23). He had the satisfaction of regular and constant communion with his God, like the “continual burnt offering” in Exodus 29.42. Instead of a challenge to his fidelity (“why should I live godly?”), Asaph asks why he should be envious of the ungodly and their present prosperity. He presents us with at least four reasons why we should not be:
Our Future is in Glory (v 24): “thou shalt ... receive me to glory.” The believer has no real prospect in this world or in its wealth and comforts – ours are in the world to come. Glory lies before us – an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4.17).
Our Interests are in Heaven (v 25): “whom have I in heaven but thee?” Paul reminds us that our true interests are “those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Col 3.1), and “there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee” – there is nothing on earth that a believer can really set their affection on.
Our Portion is in God (v 26): “God is ... my portion for ever” – the portion that we have in Christ is lasting and satisfying – one in which we have strength, protection and stability in a changing world.
The Future, Interests and Portion of the Ungodly are to Perish (v 27): “they that are far from thee shall perish” – everything that the ungodly have on earth is all they have, and it will all perish. No matter what it is, it is time limited, transient and doomed.
So, how can the believer be preserved in the midst of life’s trials, temptations and testing? The answer is to do what Asaph did – go “into the sanctuary of God”. He learned the value of that: “it is good for me to draw near to God” (v 28). No longer would Asaph trust his own assessment of things, but would rather “put [his] trust in the Lord God”. This perspective on life’s challenges gives every believer the confidence, strength and fortitude to live in this perplexing world. Asaph understood the wise words of king Solomon (who himself fell away from their truth): “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Prov 3.5).
¹ J N Darby, The Holy Scriptures - A New Translation from the Original Languages.
² New English Translation.