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Posts Tagged ‘relationship with God’

Psalm 73 literary structure

Psalm 73 is packed with good teaching, and that on several topics, including the question – “How can God allows the wicked to prosper?”

This psalm is ascribed to Asaph. It’s the first of 11 such psalms in a row by him, that begin the third section of the book of Psalms. Let’s jump right in.

Psalm 73

He begins with a statement of faith about God’s goodness.

1Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.

God blesses his people, that is, the faithful ones among them, whom he calls the “pure in heart.” But our writer immediately goes on to recount for us his near loss of faith in God and his temptation to give up on walking in God’s ways.

And that, all because of his envy of the wicked.

2But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. 3For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

This last phrase in v. 3, “the prosperity of the wicked,” is literally the shalom or peace of the wicked, referring to their easy, peaceful lives.

The stumbling block for him, and for many though-out the ages is why God allows this injustice to go on. It should be true that the righteous are blessed and the wicked are judged. But often the exact opposite is the case, the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer lack.

And so he was envious of the wicked and their good life. He desired what they have. As we will see, a key point of this psalm is about overcoming wrong desires and finding right desires toward God.

Next he gives a poetic description of the prosperity of the wicked.

4For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. 5They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. 6Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. 7Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. 8They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. 9They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.

Just a note, to be “fat and sleek” speaks to their prosperity in that they are wealthy enough to have food; they don’t go without.

Now, everyone suffers to some degree. But how is that the wicked live such good lives? Those who have cheated, stolen, lied, and oppressed others to get their wealth and power – why do they so often live lives that are easy, comfortable, luxurious and full of peace?And how is it that they can go on and even be arrogant and brag about this?

This then leads to his faith struggle.

10Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them.

That is, others among Israel see this and think, “they must not be so bad!”

11And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”

Maybe God doesn’t know what’s going on down here on earth; or keep track of unrighteousness and injustice.

12Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.

They are doing just fine.

Perhaps you’ve seen this reality in business, work, politics,school or life relationships, where those who cheat, lie, steal and put others down not only don’t get caught, they succeed more than you, when you took the hard path of doing what’s right!

Asaph goes on –

13All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. 14For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.

He’s saying, “maybe it doesn’t matter how you live!” Here he has kept himself clean; he has walked in God’s ways, and unlike the wicked, he has been stricken and rebuked; he has suffered hard times. Is it all in vain? This is his struggle.

Notice how v. 13 directly contradicts his statement of faith in v. 1 – “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” His heart is pure, but the wicked seem to get all the good things, while he suffers.

This brings us to his solution.

15If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of your children.

If he had accused God of injustice, he would have spoken what was wrong and led others to stumble.

16But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, 17until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.

This is the turning point. Trying to think this through wore him out. But then, while worshiping, he “discerned their end.”

I see in this an example for us. When you have doubt, bring it to God. We all have doubts and questions at times. Don’t let this drive you away from God. Come before God’s presence with it. Seek God for insight and help with your questions of faith. I encourage you to do this.

What is the end of the wicked that Asaph discerned?

18Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. 19How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! 20Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.

Their end is “ruin” and “destruction” under God’s judgment. This reckoning may be delayed, but it will come. There is justice with God.

And Asaph also experiences a change in his heart, from wrong desire, envy toward the wicked to right desire toward God.

21When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, 22I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.

When he envied the wicked and almost said to others that serving God is vain, he was not seeing things correctly. He was ignorant.

23Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. 25Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

It’s not often that life after death in God’s presence is stated so clearly in the Old Testament. But this is just the background here.

The real point is that God is near. “You hold my right hand” speaks to guidance. Like a parent guiding a small child by the hand. “You guide me with your counsel.” In this life God is near and guides him.

And “afterward,” after this life, “you will receive me to glory.” God’s nearness will continue beyond this life after his flesh and heart fail; after the wicked are put to an end; this closeness will continue “forever.”

Now let’s step back and notice the movement in this psalm. It begins with him desiring the prosperity of the wicked. But it ends with him rightly desiring God above all else. He not only realizes that the wicked will be judged and he will continue with God in the future in a blessed state. He realizes that he is blessed now, even without the prosperity he envied. Because he desires something more now – God’s closeness; his relationship with God.

He is saying, “God’s nearness is better than the prosperity of the wicked.” He came to the place where he could say, “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” (It’s important to note that the solution to his problem was not just an intellectual one – there is an afterlife where justice will be served. It’s a fundamental change of heart and desires within him. He now desires something different, even though his circumstances haven’t changed.)

Asaph ends with a statement of faith on God’s goodness, which summarizes his insight.

27For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.

The wicked will be judged. They will be put to an “end.” This is the fate of those who are not pure in heart, who are far from God.

28But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.

His testimony of faith, having come through a great struggle of doubt, is that God is indeed good to the pure in heart, to those near him. And he will testify of the good works of God for others to hear and know.

Let me end by asking –

What is your desire?

Can you say with Asaph in v. 25 – “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”

Can you say that you desire God above all else? That you want to be near God? That you want to know God more? That you want to grow in your relationship with God above all else?

Is that burning in your heart? Is that your motivation in life? It’s not hard to tell what’s in your heart. Just look at how you spend your time. Do you pursue deepening your relationship with God in prayer, reading scripture, listening to and worshiping God?

May God work a work in each of out hearts, so that we desire him above all else.

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We are back in Psalm 139 today. I want us to cover the last two verses, vs. 23-24. We looked at the prayer request in v. 19 last week and drew some conclusions about it. Well, here we have a very different kind of prayer request – one that, I think, requires courage to pray.

But before we get to this, I want to think more generally for a moment on David’s relationship with God. The depth of his relationship with God is evident in this Psalm. He certainly was a person after God’s own heart, as Scripture says (2 Samuel 13:14).

The Psalm itself is one long prayer; one long and detailed conversation with God. You can see how he is aware that God is an intimate part of every aspect of his life, and he invites this.

This depth of relationship with God comes out in many of the Psalms. Here are some examples of this in prayers to God:

  • “Be not far from me (God), for trouble is near, and there is none to help.” – Psalm 22:11.
  • “(God) You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” – Psalm 56:8 (NLT).
  • “(God) You have turned for me my mourning into dancing . . . and clothed me with gladness” – Psalm 30:11
  • “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for (God) you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4
  • “When the cares of my heart are many, (God) your consolations cheer my soul.” – Psalm 94:19

You can see in these, and so many more, that when there is a problem the psalmist asks for help, seeks closeness and finds strength in God. And when there is joy, the psalmist shares it with God through praise. This is really a picture of God as companion, or God as best friend. There is a relationship of intimacy and caring between God and the writers of the Psalms.

This, then, leads me to ask, ‘What about us?’ Or more specifically, ‘How good is your relationship with God?’ Are you aware of God being involved in every part of your life? Do you have a sense of closeness with God? Is God a close companion?

Certainly the prayer we are looking at today is a part of this, so let’s move on to –

The meaning of Psalm 139:23-24

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Remember with me, the flow of the Psalm as a whole. David has been accused of not being loyal to God. This is the background. And so he responds.

  • In vs. 1-18 he appeals to God, ‘God, you know everything about me; you know my commitment to you.’
  • Then in vs. 19-22 he makes his loyalty to God clear. ‘God, I hate evildoers.’ He shows himself to be on God’s side.
  • And this lead us to our verses where he gives an open-ended invitation, ‘God, continue to search and know me’ – just in case there is anything to the accusation.

Now, let’s break the prayer down, so we can understand it. First of all, it continues the theme of the Psalm as a whole of God searching and knowing David. In v. 1 David notes that God has searched and known him, but here he invites God to continue to search and know him. And the focus here is squarely on what is within him.

The two phrases, “search me . . . and know my heart” and “try me and know my thoughts” are slightly different ways of saying the same thing. They are parallel to each other.

He wants God to look inside of him, his inner person, so that God knows what is in his heart.

I do have a question about this prayer. If we pray this prayer are we praying, lead us into testing?? (David does pray for this elsewhere – e.g. Psalm 26:2). The word in v. 23, “try,” can mean examine, prove, tempt, or test. The word usually does mean testing in the sense of trials and temptations (again, Psalm 26:2).

If it does mean this, then we would have to modify this prayer to bring it in line with what Jesus has taught us about prayer. He taught us that we are to pray for God not to lead us into testing, since we might fail and dishonor God’s name. It comes from a sense of humility and an awareness of our weakness.

I take the word “try” here as a further expansion of the word “search” in the first line (basically parallels). So I don’t think it is asking God to test us, or to allow Satan to test us. (But if it does mean this, then we would need to modify it as suggested here.)

Maybe the translation “examine me and know my thoughts” would be good. The idea, again, is that God is looking into the depths of his soul to see what is in him.

The word in v. 23, “thoughts,” can be translated as “disquieting thoughts” or “anxious thoughts” and perhaps these phrases are in your Bible translations. (This is a different word for thought than the word used in v. 2 and v. 17)

But it is probably best to see it in parallel with the word “heart” as I said before, and simply translate it, as it is here – “thoughts.” David seems to be saying in different ways, know my ‘inner person.’ He doesn’t seem to be focusing on a particular category of thoughts, but on all that is in his heart and thoughts.

The problem that David is concerned with; what he wants God to look for is “any grievous way.” The phrase means literally a “way of pain in me.” It can be translated as a hurtful, vexing, or sorrowful way.

David is praying, “God look for anything in me that causes pain.”

  • Are there sinful thoughts, intentions, brokenness or failings that cause you pain God?
  • Are there sinful thoughts, intentions, brokenness or failings that will cause me to hurt others?

Now there is good reason to pray this. Jeremiah 17:9-10, a passage that shares the same theme and some of the same vocabulary (search, test) as Psalm 139, says, among other things, “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” There is much for God to find and know in each one of us.

“Lead me.” David wants God to know and then to show him any grievous way, so that it can be dealt with. This is how God leads him.

The phrase, “in the way everlasting” can also be translated, “the ancient way.” In either case, I believe the meaning is the same. We are talking here about ‘the way of God,’ or ‘the way of righteousness.’

So the request is that God help him not to walk in a grievous way, but in the way of God.

Summary: This prayer is asking for three things:

1. “God, look in my inner person”

2. “Find anything that would cause you or others pain” and show me these things.

3. “Lead me in your path of righteousness.”

The title today is –

I dare you to pray this

I say this, because if you understand this prayer, it takes courage to pray it. It takes courage because you are inviting God to show you your sins, your weaknesses, your defects. And that is not an easy thing to have to see.

Usually, we want to hide all this stuff. We don’t like to have to see our sins and weaknesses, think about them or dwell on them. We don’t want God to see them (although he does). And we certainly don’t want others to see them.

Often we respond by living in denial, to keep us from having to look at these things. And then, if God or someone brings something up – we get defensive. You know how it works, ‘Well, I’m better than so and so,’ or ‘It’s not that bad,’ or ‘It’s justified.’

But not only this, it takes courage to pray this prayer because you are inviting God to correct your issues, so that you can walk in his paths. And it can be hard work to have to do this.

I’m sharing this with you because, as hard as this might be, this is the way to grow in your Christian life. It is only when we fully open ourselves up to God that he can show us our problems, things we are often blind to. And it is only when we become aware of these things that we can begin to receive help to overcome them.

And remember, God already knows all your “grievous ways,” and probably a lot of other people do as well. So instead of living in denial and being defensive, ask God for help. Don’t run away from God with your struggles, run to God.

I encourage you to pray this, and to continue to pray this, and to listen to what God has to say, and to have the faith to allow God to lead you in the way everlasting.

Let’s take a moment in quiet right now. If you are willing, pray this prayer. I believe that God will speak to you even now.

William Higgins

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