Psalm 73 is sometimes called the “doubter’s psalm.” It contains the honest thoughts of a man who struggled with his faith. He was at a point of almost giving up on God, but came to accept His will.
He is a man named Asaph, who was one of the lead musicians in the King David’s court. He was one of the holiest people in Israel at the time. Even so, he almost lost his faith, because he was looking at other people.
Out of all the people we know, there are only a few who can wreck our faith. They are the ones we think about through the day and dream about at night. When we go somewhere, we ask ourselves. “Are they going to be there?” When we watch a crowd, they are the first ones we notice. When we see them coming, we cross the street to meet them or cross the street to avoid them. They are the ones who matter most to us.
These people fall into three categories--those we idolize, those we love and those we hate.
Those we idolize we watch so we can copy their behavior. I once knew a boy who idolized Abraham Lincoln. He read everything he could get his hands on about Lincoln. He tried to model his life after Lincoln, and it improved his study habits and his behavior. Lincoln was a good obsession for him.
But where would this boy be if he discovered that Lincoln was a fraud? All the progress he made watching Lincoln would be over. This happens to many church people who idolize preachers, singers, or evangelists who later are shown to be sinners. If we idolize others, they can let us down.
Those we love are our families, friends and children. When one of them succumbs to temptation, sickness, weakness or persecution after we have prayed for them, we can often become mad at God. We ask why God didn’t protect them.
Good people suffer every day. Children get sick. People die before their time. Even so, we hardly notice until it happens to someone we love, and then we ask, “God, why?” Why don’t we ask that same question every time we read about any murder, accident, or sickness? Everyone is someone’s child. Yet it’s only when it happens to those few people we love that we start to question God.
But Asaph’s problem wasn’t about people he loved or idolized. His problem was with the people he didn’t like. What got him doubting was the prosperity of people he hated---people he called the “arrogant.” They prospered when he didn’t think they deserved it.
Most Christians won’t admit that they hate anyone. They certainly wouldn’t cause any deliberate harm to anyone. But hatred is about avoiding, not harming. The Biblical root of the word “hate” doesn’t mean doing violence, but avoiding it. If we find ourselves avoiding a person or group, we are feeling hatred, whether we admit it or not.
If we recognize hatred in ourselves, then we should give it to God. Ask God for help to overcome our hatred. God doesn’t condemn us for feeling hatred, but we should recognize it and learn to overcome it.
Asaph made a common error. He felt that whoever he hated, God must hate, too. If God hated them why didn’t he punish them? When God didn’t, he doubted God’s justice.
Asaph had an erroneous understanding of God’s justice that many Christians share. It doesn’t come from the Bible, although there are places in the Bible that are misconstrued to support it. It’s probably best expressed in the Hindu term Karma. It’s the idea that the universe punishes people who do bad things and rewards people who do good things. What we reap, we sow. But Jesus tell us that God lets the sun shine on the good and the evil and the rain fall on the just and unjust. Jesus didn’t believe in karma.
People would ask Jesus karma-like questions and Jesus wouldn’t answer. For example, they once asked him who had sinned—the boy or his parents—that the boy was born blind. Jesus said neither sinned--it was so God could be glorified. There is no sin associated with being blind. On another occasion, Jesus referred to a group of people who were crushed by a falling tower. Jesus said it wasn’t their fault. He told a parable about a rich man and a poor man in the afterlife. Neither of their deaths had anything to do with their behavior. Only in heaven did God bring reward and punishment—there was no karma here. From Jesus’ perspective, karma doesn’t work.
When Asaph saw the wicked prospering, it upset his nature of karma/justice. But by the end of the psalm Asaph has learned to accept what God does. But how did he learn? How did he come out of his spiritual funk?
The first twelve verses of the psalm describe Asaph’s problem. The arrogant are fat and prosperous. They are loudmouthed braggarts. They are even blasphemous. Why doesn’t God fry them with a lightning bolt?
Asaph starts by looking at the arrogant. But then in verse 13-14, he starts to look at himself.
“All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.”
Often the key to having a Godly perspective is to learn how to focus attention in the right place. Asaph turned from paying attention to the arrogant to paying attention to God. If we try to understand God by the way He treats others, then we’ll all become doubters. How do we know if the bad man is a victim of poor upbringing or the good man is really a phony inside? We can’t. We see the surface.
But we can see ourselves much more clearly. Before we start praying for the destruction of others, we should pay attention to ourselves for a while. At first, Asaph sees no fault in himself. He is innocent. He has been unjustly rebuked. This is because he is looking at himself through eyes that have not yet seen God. He sounds like a little boy sulking in a corner, bemoaning the world all by himself.
Asaph is on the verge of becoming a first-class hypocrite. Look at verse 15.
“If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of your children.”
“I’ll keep my mouth shut, so I don’t bother the kids,” Asaph says. It may be his own children he’s worried about. His job is choir director. If he loses his faith, he loses his job, and his children will suffer. So he just keeps his mouth shut about his doubts.
But Asaph isn’t a hypocrite. He really wants a relationship with God, so he does something very wise--He talks to God, not just about him. He shifts his attention away from himself and onto God in verses 16-17.
“When I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”
Notice the shifts in attention. He focuses away from the wicked, away from himself, and onto God. He tries to see them from God’s perspective.
Verses 17-20, describes the end of arrogant people. But this isn’t the main point. Look instead at what Asaph does. He goes to God. Prayer makes the difference for Asaph, not the promise of karma. At first, his attention is entirely upon the people he hates, but he shifts that attention to God instead.
God calls to forgive our enemies so we can stop thinking about them. As long as we think about them, we’ll never be free of them. They live as ghosts in our hearts. Forgiveness is taking our attention off of them and putting it on someone else. This change of focus gets us to look somewhere else.
Arrogant people are just scapegoats for Asaph’s disappointment over his own treatment. It’s easier to blame God for not punishing them, than to blame God for not rewarding us. Before we can find peace, we must see our own hearts.
Asaph pays attention to God. People have this idea that when we pray things will immediately get better. This almost never happens. Instead, we must be willing to sit for a while in God’s presence. It takes time to focus on God and turn from thoughts of the world and of ourselves.
Prayer isn’t really entering into God’s presence. It is becoming aware that He is present all around us. Prayer is learning to attend to the presence of God. When Asaph settles down and listens, God begins to speak.
In the presence of God, he sees other people differently. Those arrogant people are in trouble. Their feet shall slide in time. You don’t know what God has in store for them, so don’t presume to guess what God will do. Don’t judge them--they are none of your business!
In the presence of God, he sees himself differently. Asaph talks about himself again, but this time he changes his tune about how innocent he is. In verses 21-22, He doesn’t sound innocent at all.
“When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.”
Asaph realized he was being a bitter jerk. It wasn’t being righteous—he was just mad that God wasn’t as judgmental as he was!
When we come to God, our sins get exposed. That’s why most people avoid prayer as much as possible. But if our sins aren’t exposed, we won’t get better.
I once had a sore on my arm. The doctor treated it, but told me not to put a bandage over it. Some wounds heal better when exposed. Bitterness is such a wound--it requires exposure to heal. Covering it up makes it worse. When you’ve been a jerk, admit it. Come clean, and God will forgive. 1 John 1:9 says,
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’
Exposure is required for cleansing. It is not required for forgiveness, since the blood of Jesus covers all our sins, past, present and future. But confession is necessary for getting over sin.
The last part of the psalm 23-28 is a hymn of praise. What a change from the first part. Asaph becomes a contrite, joyful man. He is changed by honestly, humbly, and sincerely coming clean about his feelings before God.
What are you feeling about God right now? Are you hurting? Learn what Asaph learned—come to the sanctuary of God. God may show you reasons, or He may not. But He will show you Himself, and that’s all that matters in the end.