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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
 
Title:A Believer Struggles With Doubts
Text:Psalms 73 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Struggling with doubts
 
Preached:2006
Added:2006-12-26
Updated:2007-05-24
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 100:1-4
Hymn 7:9 (after the law)
Psalm 73:1-4
Psalm 73:5-7
Psalm 73:8-9

Reading: Leviticus 1
Text: Psalm 73
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

Psalm 73 deals with suffering. Many of us, young and old, know something about this subject. Some of us have experienced suffering with respect to our health, both physically and mentally. Some of us have suffered watching close family members struggle with various health issues. Some of us have experienced suffering in having a loved one pass away in difficult circumstances. For many of us, suffering has been an all too real part of our lives. It often leaves us with questions that seem to have no answers.

And it gets complicated when we start comparing our lives with others. Even more complicated when we look at the lives of those who disregard the Lord! We see unbelievers and they seem to have it all together. Those who disregard the Lord the most often seem to have the greatest material prosperity. People in the entertainment industry, for instance, have a high profile and we notice too. We notice that they don’t live in recognition of who God is, but yet they seem to have the best of everything.

When we see this situation – the righteous suffering while the wicked apparently prosper – when we see this, we might be tempted to wonder about who God really is. Is he really good? Does he really care? We might be tempted to doubt what he’s up to in the world. Is he really in control? Are there some things that slip out of his hands? These are the kinds of questions that are at the heart of Psalm 73. That’s why our theme is this:

A believer struggles with doubts about who God is and what he’s doing.


This Psalm is like a journey. As we move through the Psalm, we go through different landscapes. There are hills and valleys. There are different characters along the journey: there is the Psalmist, for instance. The Psalmist is Asaph, a real person who lived during the time of David and Solomon. Other characters include God, the children of believers, and the wicked. Asaph poetically paints a picture of how he travelled through this landscape with these characters, how God led him on his journey to understand what he saw going on around him.

We might think it strange, but the Psalm begins with a conclusion. Of course, it also ends with a conclusion. There’s a close connection between the first and last verse of the Psalm. It’s like a sandwich. Verse 1 and verse 28 are the bread. In both verses, the word “good” figures prominently. Asaph wants it to be abundantly clear that he struggled, but at the end he was assured of God’s goodness. He wrestled with the issues, but his conclusion left no doubt in his mind. God is good to his people. Those who love God and seek to do his will experience his good will towards them. For us as New Testament believers, we know that this goodness is experienced because of who Christ is for us. His purity of heart is ours and it guarantees God’s loving-kindness towards us, no matter what the circumstances we’re facing. So, right at the beginning we’re assured that this is no dark Psalm, like Psalm 88, a Psalm with no happy ending.

In verses 2 and 3, we begin the journey with Asaph. He had spoken of Israel in verse 1, now he wants to get personal and autobiographical. He says that his feet had nearly slipped, he nearly lost his foothold. This is just a poetic way of saying that he almost lost his faith and trust in God. He almost gave up on being a believer. He saw something that really threw him for a loop spiritually. He’d always been taught that blessings come to those who trust God. Curses come to those who rebel against him. Deuteronomy 28 is just one among many passages that teach these basic truths. In verse 3, he tells us that he envied the arrogant. He had observed these people and he wanted what they have. He saw the wicked and their prosperity. Literally, the Hebrew word there for prosperity is “shalom.” That’s the well-known Hebrew greeting, and it indicates peace and wholeness. The wicked have it all together, everything’s going for them. And we see the same thing, don’t we? We can look at those who arrogantly think they can do without God. They live their life however they want. Something in us stirs and begins to think that we’re missing out. Why can’t I go out on a Friday night and just do whatever I want? Why can’t I turn on the TV or computer and just watch or look at whatever I want? Perhaps we don’t want to admit it, but we see the world and sometimes we get jealous too. We so easily forget about our identity in Christ. We forget, either deliberately or in ignorance, about wanting what Christ wants.

Verses 4-12 expand on what the Psalmist saw with the wicked. When he had a look, he saw that they don’t struggle. Believers have to work, believers have to fight an inner battle against sinful desires and thoughts. Believers struggle with existence in a sinful and broken world. But unbelievers just seem to go their merry way. The grass looks greener on the other side of the chasm. Unbelievers don’t seem to struggle with health issues. Well, we know that all of this is not exactly the case. But brother Asaph seems to have had a kind of tunnel vision. He could only see one set of facts. He saw what he wanted to see. He knew that believers were suffering and he knew that there were plenty of unbelievers who didn’t suffer. So, he focussed on that. Forget about the believers who are blessed and don’t suffer. Forget about the unbelievers who struggle and who have sickness in their bodies and minds. Tunnel vision.

Verse 5 exhibits the same problem. According to Asaph, all the unbelievers are free from burdens. Things don’t weigh them down. Unbelievers are not plagued by sicknesses. They don’t get cancer, they don’t get depressed, don’t have addictions, they don’t suffer from disordered eating. Unbelievers never have heart attacks or strokes. Never have family difficulties. This is totally NOT the way it is. But Asaph’s tunnel vision didn’t allow him to look beyond a small group of people who looked like they had it all together.

In the next verse, Asaph gives a couple of word pictures that powerfully portray what he’s seeing. He’s seeing people who are wearing the beautiful jewelry of pride around their neck. They’re proud to be proud. And they have a coat called violence wrapped around their shoulders. All of this is to say that these people see no shame in these things. They’re saying: Boast in your pride, boast in your violence!

They have callous hearts which bring forth more and more sin. They have no limits when it comes to evil. When they talk, it’s with mockery and wickedness. They show their pride to greater and greater degrees and threaten whomever they can oppress. And this not only extends to their immediate surroundings. In their arrogance, they even pretend to have control of heaven and earth. The whole universe is their oyster, so to speak. Verse 10 has some difficult Hebrew and its meaning is uncertain. But it probably means that even though these people are so wicked, people are still going to them, looking up to them, lapping up their words like a thirsty dog on a hot summer day.

And then in verse 11, we find that these unbelievers know that there is a God, but they don’t look at him as being all-knowing. If there is a God who is holy and will judge them, they think that they can sneak around behind his back. He’ll be so busy with other things that he won’t notice what they’ve been up to. When the time comes for judgment, they’ll just have to give an account of themselves and they can say whatever they want. He won’t know that they’re lying.

Then the last verse of this section confirms it. It’s like Asaph is pointing his finger at these people and saying, “Look it, there they are! Have a look and see if it isn’t so! They live carefree lives and rather than suffer, their health and wealth only get stronger!”

Then he becomes a bit introspective. He says, “And then there’s me. I’ve tried to live according to God’s ways. I believed the promises and lived out of faith. But it’s all been in vain. It didn’t give any tangible results for the here and now.” In fact, rather than resulting in blessings, Asaph’s faith and obedience resulted in plagues and what appeared to be God’s discipline. Asaph thought he was being punished for his righteousness!

The implication of this needs to be spelled out. Basically, Asaph is wondering about what kind of a God he believes in. Is this God really good when he punishes people for living out of faith? Does God really care that the wicked are so arrogant and slap him in the face? Is God on a holiday?

All these questions troubled Asaph and they can sometimes trouble us as well. But then notice what happens in verse 15. Asaph had been thinking about these questions – they really bothered him. But he didn’t speak them out loud. And it was a good thing too, because if he had, he could have put a stumbling block out for the next generation. Asaph was not just thinking about himself and his personal struggles, he also gave attention to the children. When we struggle with faith issues, this is something that needs our consideration as well. When we struggle with who God is and what he’s doing in our lives, do we think carefully about who we verbalize those struggles to? There are certain people you can talk to, including your pastors and elders, people who can help. But there are other people, especially children and those less established in the faith, that your doubts and questions could destroy. You may get an answer to your struggles, but it may not be an answer that satisfies the others in whom you’ve planted your doubts and questions. Think of the words of the Lord Jesus about causing little ones to stumble! Remember the millstone around the neck?

Asaph tried to wrap his head around what he was seeing. He just couldn’t make sense of it. He says that it was a serious struggle for him – it was oppressive. But then in the next verse something happens and everything changes. Dawn breaks into Asaph’s darkness.

What is it that brings understanding in verse 17? What brought about the end to Asaph’s frustration and oppression? He says that he went into the sanctuary of God and then he understood the final destiny of unbelievers. How should we understand this? Through the ages, there have been many different understandings. John Calvin, for instance, understands “sanctuary” to refer to what he calls the “celestial doctrine.” In other words, the Psalmist reflected upon the Word of God and by doing that came to understand what happens to the wicked. A more recent commentator suggests that Asaph went to the temple courts and he saw a wicked man have a heart attack and die. That’s on the right track, but it’s still speculative.

This verse is the critical turning point of the Psalm. We need to think about this carefully. The best way to approach it is by asking about that word “sanctuary.” In the Old Testament, that word in Hebrew is used most often to refer to the Temple or Tabernacle. Let’s take our starting point in that. We know that Asaph lived both before and during the existence of the temple in Jerusalem, so it could refer to the tabernacle, but let’s just assume that he was referring to the temple. Either way the end result is not all that different.

In verse 17, Asaph tells us that he went to the temple. The problem is still bothering him as he makes his way there. But when he comes to the temple, suddenly it all becomes clear to him! What brought this sudden burst of light? To answer this question, let’s go back to the temple during the time of Asaph. Let’s imagine that we’re walking to the temple courts and the temple complex, entering into the sanctuary of God.

So, we’re travelling together through the ancient streets of Jerusalem. We hear an intense cacophony of sounds. We hear singing – there’s beautiful singing. It puts shivers down your back and goose bumps on your arms. But there’s also the sound of death. As we draw closer to the temple, we realize that all these sounds are coming from within the sanctuary of God, from within the temple courts. People and animals are all around. The earthy smells of sweat, dirt and manure hang in the air and creep into your nostrils.

Now, finally, we’re at the entrance to the temple courts. We climb up the stairs, go through the outer courts and into the inner courts. The noises have become even louder. Have a look around. The very first thing we see is the altar. Behind it is the huge bronze laver for the ritual cleansing of the priests. These things are all very beautifully decorated. On the altar, there’s a fire, a fire which burns night and day. You can feel the heat that it’s giving off. The priests are there and they’re busy placing sacrifices on that altar. They’re spreading blood on the four horns sticking out of the corners of the altar.

That’s when you realize the smell. There’s a smell of burning meat – said to be a sweet aroma for the LORD, but there’s also the smell of death, a sickly stench. You turn your attention away from the altar to look at what’s happening along the edges of the inner court. There you see the source of the sounds of death: animals being slaughtered. There’s no painless way to kill these beasts – each of them suffers pain in death and you can hear it and see it. There in the corner is an Israelite preparing a sacrifice for a burnt offering. Like the LORD commanded in Leviticus 1, he puts his hand on the animal, takes his knife and slits its throat. You cringe as the animal lets out his cry of death. The blood of the ox floods out bright red. A priest stands by and collects most of the blood in a container. The Israelite then cuts up his beast and cleans it, making it ready so that he can pass it on to the priest for the offering. Meanwhile, the flies begin to gather around. They know death when they smell it.

Of course, there’s more to see. Up ahead, not very far, beyond the huge bronze laver, there’s the temple itself. Of course, we’re not allowed to go in there. But what a luxurious building, all that gold! But our attention is again distracted to the action around us. The priest collects the offerings and places them on the altar where they’re right away consumed in the fire. To witness all this before your senses has been quite an experience!

Now we can come back to the 21st century and our look at verse 17. We now have some idea of what Asaph saw, heard, and even smelt there in the sanctuary of God. As we walked through the temple courts together, we saw and heard some beautiful things. But did you also notice the death that was all around? Did you hear the sounds of animals dying? Did you see that monstrous never-ending fire on the altar? Did you smell that disgusting odour of death? Did you see all the blood, blood in the bronze basins, blood on the altars, blood on the knives, blood in the containers, blood on the hands of the priest, blood, blood, blood. It was everywhere. And death. Fire. Blood, fire and death. It overwhelms the senses there in the temple courts, in the sanctuary of God. If you go there, you can’t escape it, not even if you close your eyes. Once you’ve left, you find it hard to forget. If you’ve ever been in a slaughterhouse or meat-processing plant, you’ll not soon forget the smell. After you’ve finished work for the day, even after you’ve showered, it lingers on your skin, that smell of blood and guts – the smell of death.

The Israelites reading or hearing this Psalm would understand very well what Asaph was talking about. Ah yes, of course, the sanctuary of God – yes, you would understand the end of the wicked if you went there. The whole sacrificial system reminded the Psalmist that the wages of sin is death. In fact, you could say that the whole thing reminded him of hell. Sin requires punishment. Asaph reflects further on this in verses 18 to 20. God casts the unbelievers down to destruction. He brings them to desolation in a moment! Just like the quick slice of the knife on the neck of the ox, so also God puts an end to the wicked. Just like the fire consumes the burnt offering in a moment, so also God has appointed the fires of hell for the rebellious. The ungodly are utterly consumed with terrors – their screams make you think of the parable Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus. The Lord of life will despise them – in due time, they will be confronted with punishment for their sins.

So, Asaph’s trip to the temple solved the riddle for him. Yes, the wicked sometimes do appear to prosper in this life. The most immoral and wicked people are often the wealthiest. And the righteous suffer. We think of Chinese Christians who can’t openly worship God according to Scripture. We think of Christians in Islamic nations who risk their lives to speak of their Saviour. All of this injustice! But we know from Scripture what the end of the wicked is. Even though they may not always suffer much here, in the hereafter sin will be punished. God is righteous and just and his Word is true: the wages of sin is death.

But we would be shortsighted to leave it at that. Because didn’t the sacrificial system point to more than the eternal death which awaits the wicked? Christ, the one great sacrifice, died for the sins of his people. His death and suffering assure us that we will not experience the blood, the fire, the death that lasts forever. Asaph had the promise, but not the reality as we know it. But yet because of the sacrificial system and what it foreshadowed, he knew that he wouldn’t be punished for his sins. He had been senseless and ignorant. He had been like an animal with a one-track mind – the tunnel vision again!

Asaph struggled with understanding what he saw going on around him. And through this struggle, God revealed to him the depth and riches of his covenant mercy and justice. Coming towards the end of the Psalm, you can almost see Asaph hitting himself on the head and saying out loud, “How could I have been so foolish? God is always with me. God is always holding my right hand. God will guide me and then later there will be glory because of his merciful covenant promises!” That leads him to the confession of verse 25, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” Wow. Powerful words. God is his everything. Everything could be stripped away, but God will be his focus forever. And just in case you missed the point, he throws in a reminder in verse 27 that judgment waits for the wicked and unfaithful. But as for Asaph, he knows the one in whom he has a safe place forever and ever. And that’s why he’s going to speak about what God has done – in a positive way, speak to the next generation and anyone else who will listen. Tell them that God knows what he’s doing!

This Psalm tells us of a journey to understanding. There is suffering and it’s easy to develop a kind of tunnel vision where we miss the big picture of what God is up to. This Psalm gives us that big picture by referring back to that old sacrificial system. It’s not around anymore, but the truth that the wages of sin is death – that truth still stands. There’s also the truth that God is good and he does care for his people. We may not always understand how that care and goodness is exercised. Asaph found a solution that he seems to have found very satisfying. Not all of life’s issues are resolved so neatly. Sometimes we face problems and issues in this broken world where the only solution is with God and his sovereign love and care for us. His promises. Only God knows why and that has to satisfy us. We may not like it that way, but we have to learn to accept it. This is so hard. That’s why we need to cry out for more grace to be able to do that.

At the end, we want to be able to say that it is good for us to be near God, to be in a close, meaningful relationship with him. We want to tell of his works. We want to know him as the God who loves and also upholds justice. The only way to reach this destination on our journey is to travel the same road as Asaph and ultimately be found resting in Christ. He is the one in whom the mercy and justice of God are finally resolved. Apart from him, there is only the wages of sin: death. But with him, there is the free gift of God, the life that lasts forever in all its fullness! When we suffer, let’s find our comfort and hope in that fact. AMEN.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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