Speaking of the characteristics of his true disciples, our Lord Jesus Christ said: “Blessed are the pure in heart: they shall see God” (Mat. 5:8). Psalm 73, the second portion of our readings for the day similarly commences with the benefits of having a purified heart: “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart” (Psa. 73:1). But there are times when it might seem that the blessing and goodness of our Father have forsaken us. It is part of our preparation for the coming Kingdom, that as sons and daughters through faith in Christ Jesus, we undergo periods of chastisement: “for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the Father chasteneth not?” (Heb. 12:6-7).
It is further written that: “no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous …” (Heb. 12:11), and it is during those grievous times that it is sometimes difficult for us to remember that Yahweh is still with us, and that our Father is continuing to watch over us. This was the situation with Asaph in the Psalm before us. Men and women of the world seemed to be prospering, whilst he endured difficulties and distress. The shortsighted view is to say: “Verily, I have cleansed my heart in vain … for all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning” (Psa. 73:14). The same can be true of our own day: whilst we seek to maintain personal integrity in a day of evil, when all around us men and women are bowing down before the altar of Mammon, the situation can seem most unfair. What profit is there in serving Yahweh, when whilst the wicked prospers on all side, we undergo difficulties and distresses?
We need to take a long-term view of these things. The ultimate end is that the wicked shall pass away with the world that they love so much, and that we shall live in joyous unity with our Master throughout the ages to come. So the Preacher spake:
“Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him: but it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God” (Eccl. 8:12-13).
When we take account of our position in the unfolding plan of Yahweh, we are able look beyond the day of present distress to the future time, when the former things shall be no longer remembered, when there shall be no more sorrow nor crying, or any such thing. In that day, there shall be only joy, and rejoicing in the presence of the One who redeemed us with his own blood.
But generally speaking, men and women are too short sighted to see their place in the greater picture. Instant gratification marks the expectation of our age, when because of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, folk seek only their present good. Like Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of pottage, the men and women of our age esteem present comforts more than the promises that take us beyond the temporal present, to the eternal future. Being driven by their own lust, men seek to “succeed” in this present life, with “success” being measured in monetary means, large houses, and expensive cars. But our Lord Jesus cut to the heart of the issue in saying: “take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Lu. 12:15). And again, the Apostle wrote:
“godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us therewith be content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (1 Tim. 6:6-9).
Contentment with our lot in life is truly great gain. Rather than to become stressed and burnt out in a quest to multiply earthly goods, the contented man only looks to the future kingdom, with scant regard to the riches of this life. Like Paul, we must be content with whatsoever circumstance we find ourselves in, counting the riches of this life to be but dung, when compared with the glory to come (Phil. 3:8). The Preacher spoke of this:
“Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 4:6).
Rather than be envious of the apparent prosperity of the wicked, we look away from the pleasures of sin, towards the greater glory to be granted to those who have patiently continued in well doing.
Turning back to Psalm 73, we find Asaph beginning to lose his footing in spiritual things, confessing: “I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psa. 73:3). But he only entertained such thoughts until he went into the house of God:
“when I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end” (Psa. 73:17).
There is something about the House of God that sets things in their proper perspective. Being the centre of holiness, and part of a schoolmaster teaching redemption through Jesus Christ, the Sanctuary was a place where men and women went to offer sacrifice, and learn the principles of righteousness. In our day, the ecclesia of Christ should fulfil such a function, being the “pillar and ground of the Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). It is a place where brethren and sisters can assemble to memorialise the crucifixion of our Master, and learn the meaning of a true sacrifice. There is no other place upon earth where such things can be learnt, for the world at large remains in a darkness that may be felt. Let us therefore not neglect the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is. We must join together with those of like precious faith, to think upon eternal things, and exhort one another whilst the day of opportunity remains.
In the case of Asaph, however, these words would appear to be a specific reference to an incident recorded in Numbers chapter 16. Just as Asaph considered the prosperity of the wicked, so Numbers 16 speaks of certain men who were “two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown” (Num. 16:2). This men assembled with Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On, to oppose the position of Moses as a leader over all the people of Israel. These men were of a short-sighted view, considering the present difficulties as evidence of Moses Aaron’s poor leadership:
“… thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men?” (Num. 16:14).
Here was their argument: men could see with their own eyes that the promised blessings had not materialised – yet they could not see the reason why this was so. Because of the presumptuous rebellion of the people, the inheritance would not come before a 40 year trial in the wilderness, yet Korah and his company wanted instant gratification, and present blessedness.
There is a danger that we can become like this in the way we direct our own lives. The promise is that should we patiently continue in faith, we will be given the Kingdom at the appropriate time. But today is the day of trial and chastisement, which we must pass through in order to reach the blessings. But no chastisement is joyous, but grievous (Heb. 12:11), and the natural way is to regard this as evidence that God is no longer with us – when in actual fact, the chastisement serves to confirm God’s love for us, that we might be developed in our faith to become suitable for that kingdom to come.
The record in Numbers 16 proceeds to recount the process by which it was to be demonstrated that Yahweh was indeed with Moses and Aaron, having chosen them to lead His people. Korah and his company were to offer incense in their brazen censers, and Aaron would offer incense in his golden censer. Yahweh would choose which offering would be acceptable. So the offerings were made, and the brazen censers were rejected. After the people were first warned to separate themselves from the apostasy of Korah’s company, “the ground clave asunder that was under them: And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation” (Num. 16:31-33).
This graphically signified the rejection of their offering: not being based upon faith, their incense could not be accepted. Even so, in Psalm 73, we read of the faith of the wicked: “surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castest them down into destruction. How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors” (Psa. 73:19).
But Numbers chapter 16 continues to describe what happened to the brazen censers that the “men of renown” had offered before Yahweh:
“the censers of these sinners against their own souls, let them make broad plates for a covering of the Altar: for they offered them before Yahweh, therefore they are hallowed: and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel” (Num. 16:38).
Here, then, was a sign to Israel: the censers of the sinners beaten out and used to cover the altar of sacrifice. As men went into the sanctuary to offer their sacrifice, they would be confronted with this sign that brought to mind the destruction of the rebellious, cast down before the presence of Yahweh. So the Psalmist describes his own experience, being frustrated at the apparent prosperity of the wicked: “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end” (Psa. 73:17). Here is the end of those who do not trust in the Almighty, who view current difficulties as evidence that God was not with the princely leader of the people. Let us learn from this sign, and the example of unbelief, lest we fall likewise.
There is another passage that alludes back to these events of Numbers 16. The book of Jude refers to false brethren, who had crept into the ecclesia unnoticed, as having “perished in the gainsaying of Core” (Jude 11). Of these, it is written that they “despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities,” just like Korah, Dathan and Abiram spoke evil of Moses and Aaron, despising their dominion. But Jude ends by describing how the power of God is directed towards those who trust in Him: “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy. To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25). With a marked contrast to those who were cast down in slippery places, our Father will hold us by the hand, and keep us from falling, if we but trust in Him, and his power to save.
Returning to Psalm 73, after seeing the end of the ungodly as portrayed in the brazen plates upon the altar, Asaph continues to describe how he was being held up by the grace of God: “Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand …” (Psa. 73:23). This is the promise to those who endure the trials that come from the Almighty by way of chastisement: He will hold us by the hand, and guide us through them. This was the promise to Israel:
“Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness … for I Yahweh thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee” (Isa. 41:10, 13).
Divine help and guidance comes both from the written word, and the angelic ministrations. The Angels are “all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1:14). They will be with us in our trials, and will keep us from falling, if we but trust in them, and the power of our Father who sends them to us.
The Psalm ends by describing the situation of two groups of people: those who are far from Yahweh, and those who draw near to Him. Of the first group it is said:
“Lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee” (Psa. 73:27).
Notice the language used here: those who are “far from” Yahweh are those who go a whoring from him. This same language is picked up in the book of James, who describes the temptation common to all men, in terms of a woman leading us astray:
“Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished bringeth forth death” (Jas. 1:14-15).
Here, the lust of a man is likened to a woman – a whore, leading him astray. Leading him on, the woman conceives a child – sin – which is brought forth out of her, and sin brings forth death. This is the process of temptation which befalls all men and women, with our Lord Jesus Christ being the only exception. In his experience of temptation, although being tempted in all points like as we are, he was not “drawn away”. He experienced the desires of the flesh, but never allowed them to draw him away from union with his Father. According to Psalm 73, those who are drawn far from Yahweh “shall perish” without hope, despite their apparent prosperity in the sight of men in this life.
The second class of men described in the closing verse of this Psalm comprise those who draw near to God:
“But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord Yahweh, that I may declare all thy works” (Psa. 73:28).
This again alludes to the account of Korah’s rebellion. Numbers 16 recounts the words of Moses to Korah:
“he spake unto Korah and unto all his company, saying, Even tomorrow Yahweh will shew who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him” (Num. 16:5).
Yahweh’s choice was graphically demonstrated as we have considered above, but Asaph now recognized the end of the wicked, and the advantage to having a clean heart in the sight of God. Now taking the long-term view, Asaph acknowledged the privilege of being able to draw nigh to the throne of grace, and the blessings that will come to those who desire reconciliation with Yahweh. A similar exhortation is given in Hebrews chapter 10:
“having an high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22).
Here is the chosen High Priest, even Messiah himself. Through his mediation, we can “draw near” to Yahweh, having been cleansed by his offering. This is indeed a great privilege, but it is also the reality of the situation. When we consider the apparent prosperity of those around us, we ought not envy their opulence: rather we choose to endure chastening, as a token of God’s love towards us. This is the end of the matter: “truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart” (Psa. 73:1).