A psalm of Asaph.
1 Chronicles 16:37 (NIV)
David left Asaph and his associates before the ark of the covenant of the LORD to minister there regularly, according to each day’s requirements.
The question asked in the first 15 verses of this psalm — “How can a good God allow the righteous to suffer?” — reveals several fallacies in our thinking. The first is the assumption that suffering is always evil and therefore irreconcilable with God’s goodness. The second is a failure to understand righteousness, so far as it relates to the saint, the true child of God. In answer to the problem of pain, this psalm forces us to take another look at our definition of good, lest we accuse God of being the author of evil by allowing us to suffer. Let those who suffer look to this psalm for a word of instruction.
–Bob Deffinbaugh (and following comments)
1 Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
Here, Asaph declares the truth on which his faith is founded as well as the truth which troubles his faith. The faith of the saints has always been rooted in the firm conviction of God’s existence and the assurance that He rewards those who diligently seek Him. “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
In one sense, verse 1 is the conclusion of the matter. Asaph believed that God existed, that He was good, and that He was sovereign. In another sense, however, this verse was the basis of the psalmist’s problem. If God exists, and He is good so as to reward the righteous, and He is all-powerful, totally in control of His creation, then why is it that in God’s world the wicked seem to be doing better than the righteous? Aren’t the facts inconsistent with Asaph’s faith? How can God be good to the pure in heart if observation convinces us that sinners succeed and saints suffer?
This is a serious spiritual issue and one that has precipitated widely diverging explanations. The atheist answers by explaining that there is no God. The cynic says that there is a God, but denies that He is good; life is just one of God’s cruel jokes. The liberal believes that there is a God who is loving, good, and kind; he explains suffering by denying the sovereignty of God. God is all-good, but not all-powerful.
A biblical faith does not require nor permit us to deny any of the attributes of God. We maintain not only that God exists, but also that He is good and great, a rewarder of the righteous and a judge of the wicked. How, then, do we explain the problem of the suffering of the saints and the success of sinners? The psalmist takes us through the steps of his personal struggle in verses 2-28, from the low point of his doubts and protest to the pinnacle of his renewed devotion and praise.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
5 They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
their evil imaginations have no limits.
8 They scoff, and speak with malice;
with arrogance they threaten oppression.
9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10 Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, “How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?”
12 This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.
15 If I had spoken out like that,
I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
In verse 16 we come to a dramatic change of heart and mind where we move from the testing of Asaph’s faith to its triumph. The inner debate and doubting of the psalmist, as portrayed in verses 2-15 were the result of his efforts to resolve the problem by mere reason. Human reason could only lead Asaph to the conclusion that personal piety was profitless and painful. But suddenly in verse 16 there is a new perspective and a complete change in Asaph’s attitude. Instead of protest there is praise. What changed his outlook? The answer, I believe, can be summed up in one word—worship: “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” (vv. 16-17).
It was not a change of place that transformed Asaph’s outlook, but rather a change in his perspective and in his vocation. Asaph is now a man of worship. While God’s name was hardly mentioned in the first 14 verses (except in v. 1) other than on the lips of the wicked (v. 11), now Asaph is communing with God in worship. There is a dramatic change in the pronouns employed. In the first half of the psalm the wicked (“they” and “them”) are the object of Asaph’s attention, but in verses 15-28 God (“you”) is central. The exact nature of worship and its effect on Asaph’s heart is described in this second half of the psalm.
18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes;
when you arise, Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
21 When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
23 Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
from Whispers of His Power,
by Amy Carmichael
Psalm 73:25 — Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee.
We all know the hymn “Jesus, Lover of my soul.” The line “Thou, O Christ, art all I want,” comes to us with searching power. It is strangely easy to want Him and a great many other things too. We want to do what we want to do, and to be where we want to be. This is not desiring Christ our Lord and His will only. It is not, “Thou, O Christ, art ALL I want.”
Our Lord want us to come to the place where we can truly say with the psalmist that there is no one and nothing on earth that we desire beside Him. The writer goes on in the next verse, My flesh and my heart faileth, and that is often our experience too. But we do not stop there. The psalm continues with a triumphant But God. Verse 26: But God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.
“Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
More than all in Thee I find.”
27 Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
Hebrews 10:22 (NIV)
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.
I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.
After worshiping the Lord, Asaph sees God’s promised blessings and His cursings in an entirely different light, and therefore Asaph concludes the psalm by summarizing the peril of the wicked and the blessings of the righteous. The wicked, those who are not near to God (v. 27), will ultimately perish. No matter how comfortable they now seem to be, destruction is their final destiny. The God who is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart (v. 1), is also the God who will destroy those who are unfaithful to Him (vv. 18-20, 27). Their momentary ease of life is no longer the object of Asaph’s envy, but their final destiny is a sobering reality.
If the blessing of God had previously been measured only in terms of material prosperity and ease of life, it is now viewed as being, in the words of one hymn, “near to the heart of God” (v. 28). This was the case with Asaph (vv. 23-26) and so he can conclude the psalm with the confident statement that he has made God his refuge and that he will publicly praise God for His wondrous deeds, which may include sending adversity into the life of His loved ones (v. 28).
Worship is not so much the leaving behind of life and coming into the presence of God as it is bringing life before God and coming to view it as He does. Worship is seeing things as they are. God is good and faithful. Life on earth is fleeting. Thus we should praise God for all that He is and for all that He does, even when He brings suffering into our lives.
Worship is not just important because it delights the heart of God. Worship is vital because it renews the perspective of the saints and enables them to live in a world of suffering, praising God, obeying His word, and looking ahead to the fulfillment of all His promises.
“Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” by Charles Wesley, has been called the greatest hymn ever written. The arrangement HERE, by Ken Medema, is my favorite. The verse of this hymn that Amy refers to above is not sung in this performance, but I have included it below.
Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
More than all in Thee I find:
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
Heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is Thy name;
I am all unrighteousness:
False and full of sin I am;
Thou art full of truth and grace.