On January 17, 2004, a 66-ton whale died and was beached on the southwestern coast of Taiwan, near the city of Tainan. Two weeks later, on January 29, authorities decided to truck the dead whale to a laboratory where they could do an autopsy. It took 50 laborers and three lifting cranes 13 hours to hoist the 56-foot behemoth onto a flatbed trailer truck. Pedestrians and shop owners poured into the streets to watch the spectacle of a whale carcass driven through the streets of downtown Tainan.
And then it happened. As the truck crawled through that downtown region, with crowds looking on, the whale exploded. That's right, it blew up. The inner conditions of the dead mammal, combined with the bumps in the road caused an eruption that the townspeople will not soon forget. Cars, people, and local shops were splattered with whale entrails. Traffic was brought to a halt for hours. The smell was almost unbearable.
(Lee Eclov, Vernon Hills, Illinois; source: "Thar She Blows!" AOL News (1-29-04); see also BBC News http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3437455.stm)
Betcha no one got up that morning thinking they would have whale guts on them by noon!
Isn't that just like life sometimes? You're going about your business, and a whale explodes. You didn't see that coming. You didn't plan for it. You certainly don't welcome it. Life has a way of suddenly altering its course down hard paths, leaving us hurt, confused, and weak, with lots of unanswered questions.
What do you do when with your theology clashes with reality? How do you hold to the conviction that God is good when life stinks? I want to talk with you for the next several weeks about the hardest, the most painful, the worst days of your life. We're going to say the things that sometimes go unsaid about our struggles, our depressions, when we feel so alone and have no ready answers.
To help us, we will turn to the Psalms, where the raw emotions of real people who just hit the wall are expressed, and where deep reservoirs of truth are found that can help you through. And what we'll see is that just when we think God is nowhere to be found, GOD IS CLOSER THAN YOU THINK.
We're kicking this study off on a bruising, but all-too-common experience that can leave your teeth on edge and bitterness in your heart. Psalm 73 is our passage and the title is "When You Get a Raw Deal." Anybody here know what I'm talking about? When you did the right thing, but got the back of the hand anyway. Have you ever been betrayed? Ever been gossiped about? Who did you in financially? Who put the screws to you? Who did something unfair to you at work? Maybe it happened at home with a parent or grandparent, your husband or wife or best friend.
If you've ever had something happen to you that was out of human control but seemed so unfair that you don't understand how a good God could let it happen, then you need to sit awhile with a choir director named Asaph. Asaph was one of three directors who worked under King David. He was one of the great worship leaders in the OT. And he's about to get as real as it gets.
Asaph's raw deal
Take a look at v. 1: "God is indeed good to Israel, to the pure in heart." Asaph is acknowledging what Hebrews 11:6 names as the very essence of faith. "Now without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him." Asaph believes God exists, that He is good and sovereign over all. I like Asaph already.
But Asaph is in trouble. In v. 2, he says, "But as for me, my feet almost slipped; my steps nearly went astray." "I nearly lost my grip on what I believe. I tripping over something that just doesn't make sense! It's not fair."
This God-inspired worship leader is ready to walk away. He's on the edge of throwing in the towel. And he doesn't keep the cause of his troubles a secret. Look at v. 3: "For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked." Asaph had been checking out the people playing for the other team. He was watching how the ungodly were getting along. He probably didn't do this purposefully at the beginning. Maybe he was sitting at the doctor's office one day and started thumbing through a magazine that featured celebrity homes. Or maybe he does business with an ungodly person in town who seems to have the Midas touch. I don't know how it started. I just know that suddenly, Asaph started paying attention, and his confusion deepened.
To get insight into Asaph's struggle here, notice four key words in v. 3. Two of the words refer to the people he had been tracking. They are arrogant and wicked, he said. Arrogant refers to people who make sure people notice them and what they have. They make sure the cameras are clicking and the interviewers are there to fawn over them. Wicked emphasizes the guilt of those who are actively choosing that which is offensive to God. Asaph has his eye on the celebrities of his day, the Donald Trumps and Lindsey Lohans who openly disdain God.
Now get ready for the stinger. The third word we need to see became a private obsession for this worship leader: it was the prosperity these God-rejecters enjoyed. The Hebrew word for prosperity is shalom. Recognize it? It literally means peace with God such that your life is fulfilled, tranquil, and complete.
Asaph looked at the lifestyles, the cars, the clothing, the houses they lived in, the company they kept, and thought to himself: "They're getting everything God promised to His covenant people! I don't go to the clubs, I maintain all this discipline and for what? They are the blessed, not me. I thought you reap what you sow! God, I'm getting a raw deal!"
Asaph had fallen into the trap of loving the world and the things that are in the world. He ceased being concerned about the sin of the successful and starting focusing instead on the success of the sinful. And that lead him to the fourth word we need to see in v. 3: envy. "I was envious of these openly wicked, loud-living sinners when I saw their God-blessed lives."
Envy is the tendency to compare yourself with someone else in a way that leaves you feeling deprived. Envy means "I want what you have." Asaph was eaten up with it. It's not difficult for that to happen, by the way. Our culture in America is uniquely designed to create inevitable comparison and inevitable dissatisfaction. Whether it's standardized tests, beauty contests, and your neighbor's new dress, we are all encouraged to envy. Envy is so common that God made it the subject of one of His 10 commandments: "Do not covet your neighbor's house. Do not covet your neighbor's wife, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (Exodus 20:17)
Asaph had let envy in the door, and now it colored everything he saw. In v. 4-12, he breaks down what he had observed. If you'll allow me to paraphrase it, it goes like this: "So this is how life really works! These godless people, they live on easy street! They don't face the hardships I face. They live longer, play more, and get away with everything. They wear a power-hungry, cutthroat, cynical attitude like a coat. They are self-promoting, anti-God, and worldly, and they are the ones that are getting a slice of the pie, not me.
"You try to honor God and stay humble and do good, you'll have a tough, mediocre life. You live by lust, power, greed, and deceit, and you become a celebrity. "God is good to … the pure in heart'? Hah." He tells it all in v. 13: Did I purify my heart and wash my hands in innocence for nothing?"
Can you connect with any of these feelings? Do you ever think to yourself, "Does it pay to serve God? I try to be faithful and do right, and I have to fight for every inch. It's all backwards." Why do dictators, child molesters, and corporate raiders get off easy? Why do violence-endorsing rap singers, arrogant executives, and God-mocking people get their own TV shows? Why is God blessing them instead of judging them?"
Maybe you're still struggling with the injustice you've been dealt and you've felt your commitment to God wane because of it. Before you bail out on God, Asaph wants you to sit with him and learn from his experiences. Consider this godly guidance when you get a raw deal.
I. Pour your heart out to God
This psalm is a brutally honest confessional, from the heart of Asaph to the God he felt had given him a rip off. He took his doubts and confusion to God in prayer. He didn't pretend everything was okay. He did what Job did. Job was a righteous man who lost all his children, his possessions, and his health. In Job 29-31, this broken man struggles with the raw deal he received. He wrestles with the tension of holding onto God's goodness and sovereignty while dealing the tragedies he was experiencing. And through it all, he stayed real with God. "God I'm so angry! I don't understand what is happening or why! I want answers, God." There is no record that God ever rebuffs Job for being honest.
In fact, God offers this invitation in Isaiah 43:26: "Take Me to court; let us argue our case together. State your [case], so that you may be vindicated." Psalm 145:18 adds that "the Lord is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth." (ESV)
God is big enough to take your anger, your pain, and your questions. So go ahead, tell Him about it. Don't keep those emotions cooped up inside you, building layers of resentment and hardship between you and God. Stored up anger vents itself in headaches, ulcers, bitterness, resentment, private rehearsals of the injustice you've experienced, and outbursts of anger that are disconnected from the real problem. Unload that acid. God is waiting to talk with you.
II. Weigh your choices carefully
In v. 12-14, Asaph's envy had so taken his heart that he was fed up with living a godly life. He was angry and disillusioned. Still, in v. 15, he stops to consider the impact his next steps will have: "If I had said, 'I will speak thus,' I would have betrayed your children." Asaph realized that if he went public with his inner struggles, letting his cynicism and anger out in words, he would become a tool of Satan's for the ruin of God's people.
How many rash words and unsifted actions have we wished to take back because of the negative consequences they brought about? We do things that brought regret and heartache because we didn't stop to consider the consequences of our words and choices. Asaph paused to realize that his decisions will have ripple effects on others. I would urge you to follow his example, tracing the results your words and actions have on your family, friends, lost acquaintances, and church.
III. Get the big picture
Here is where Asaph's perspective is expanded. Listen to his words in v. 16-17: "When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny." Asaph went to "church." He brought his confusion under the truth of God. As long as Asaph tried to reason his way out of his troubled perception apart from God, he would hit his head against the wall. "It was oppressive to me," he said. The envy he had of the wicked was like blinders to his eyes. All he could only see their immediate pleasure.
But in worship we see from God's infinite perspective. You can sense this music director's relief when he comes to worship. Everything changed. In the sanctuary God was his focus, not his problems. There he was reminded of God's attributes, character and power. He could see both God's judgment of sin as well as God's solution offered to sinners. Eternity broke into his temporal perspective.
Verses 17b-19 show us that Asaph was now seeing things differently. "Then I understood their final destiny. Surely You place them on slippery ground; You cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! Their prosperity is only temporary. They enjoy their sin for a time, perhaps from a human perspective for a lifetime. But from the perspective of eternity, from the point of view in worship, there is a quick ride to the bottom. Asaph realized that "the world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." (1 John 2:17) God completely controls their destiny, not them. And their end will be terrible.
IV. Renew your relationship with God
Armed with a new perspective about God and this world, Asaph also sees himself clearly. Envy had poisoned him and had powerful effects on him. Listen to his confession in v. 21ff.: "When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you." God, I was like an animal. What does he mean by this? Well have you ever watched your dog? Rover is only concerned with the immediate. He's not thinking about tomorrow. His big concern is immediate gratification. Asaph confessed his self-pitying, self-centered bent. And then, in worship, he renews his relationship in praise:
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. Those who are far from You will perish; You destroy all who are unfaithful to You. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
Asaph takes his raw deal to the right place and finds out that he didn't have it bad after all. With an eternal perspective, everything looks different. God wants to do that for you.