Many of us lightheartedly talk of the list of questions we’ll present to God when we finally meet Him face to face. These are those things that we know we can never fully understand on this side of heaven, but the fact that we know these questions can’t be answered here on earth does not always stop us from doubting that God is in control or stop the weight of our questions from continually burdening us.
Asaph was a worship leader who authored about a dozen of the Psalms. It is said that he was an accomplished poet and singer and even known to some as a prophet (See 1 Chronicles for more about Asaph).
Asaph had his own big question for God and he needed it answered because he knew that there was something off about what he was experiencing here on earth and not only did he have a problem with what he was seeing, but the way it made him feel was literally destroying him.
But as for me, I almost lost my footing.
My feet were slipping, and I was almost gone.
For I envied the proud
when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness. (Psalm 73:2-3)
The interesting thing is that Asaph envied the proud because he believed they had something that he did not:
They seem to live such painless lives;
their bodies are so healthy and strong.
They don’t have troubles like other people;
they’re not plagued with problems like everyone else. (vs. 4-5)
He believed that the proud and wicked have it all together; that they have no problems and are “enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply” (vs. 12). His envy here is based on an assumption and most likely an incorrect one at that. He even starts verse four by saying “They seem to…”, which is really a way of saying, “The way I see it…” but oftentimes, we do not see the whole picture. There is little to no evidence in this passage that Asaph has tried to connect with the proud/wicked people in any significant way. Despite all of the incriminating evidence that he spouts off from verses 4-12, he likely knows very little about the individuals that he has lumped together as his envied target.
Asaph does himself a disservice by comparing himself to others. We are also guilty of this far too often and the envy, the pressure, and the loneliness that these unfair comparisons pour out into our soul can and often do tear us apart inside.
Writer Anne Lamott has said, “…try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” It’s a hard suggestion to abide by if we don’t make the effort to connect and listen to people. When we do, we tend to realize that we all have struggles, but people are struggling with different things and in different ways.
Despite Asaph’s errors here, he still tries to figure out, on his own, why the wicked prosper, but he could not get to the bottom of it by himself: “But what a difficult task it is” (vs. 16b).
Asaph’s transformation, the crux of the whole story and the true testimony behind this particular Psalm, begins in verse 17, “Then I went into your sanctuary, O God…” In the Message paraphrase, verse 17 continues, “then I saw the whole picture.” It was when Asaph took the focus off of other people and stopped trying to figure things out on his own and pursued and entered into the presence of God that God began an excellent change in our story’s main character.
Asaph got the answer to his question, which was that in the end, the wicked really do not prosper at all. Indeed, in verse 18, we learn that it was revealed to Asaph that, “you put them on a slippery path and send them sliding over the cliff of destruction.” When I read that verse, I picture a very long slip and slide that has an end that cannot be seen.
It is important to note here that there are times when we can be dwelling in God’s presence on this side of heaven but still do not receive the answer(s) we are looking for. Only God knows why, but my best guess is that not having those answers is God saying that we need to keep trusting Him.
So Asaph gets his answer during this encounter; this…rendezvous with God. But he also gets so much more…
Then I realized that my heart was bitter,
and I was all torn up inside. (verse 21)
Asaph’s envy had really done a number on him and even though he found the answer to his question, the weight had not been lifted by that answer alone. It was a hard realization.
I was so foolish and ignorant—
I must have seemed like a senseless animal to you. (verse 22)
It can often be difficult to reflect on how we screw up and how it must make God feel.
Yet I still belong to you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
leading me to a glorious destiny.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
I desire you more than anything on earth. (verses 23-25)
But through His faithfulness and grace, he takes us to a place of refinement, where he straightens out and corrects our thinking, and in Asaph’s story, the outpouring of that refinement says, “I don’t want what THEY have, I want YOU…” and an important note here is to realize he does NOT say, “I don’t want what THEY have, I want what YOU have for me or what YOU can give me…” In the second part of verse 25, Asaph says, “I desire YOU more than anything on earth,” not what God could do for him or give him, but he desires God Himself.
My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak,
but God remains the strength of my heart;
he is mine forever. (vs. 26)
Another byproduct of Asaph’s rendezvous comes in verse 26 as he is reassured that no matter what, “God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever.”
Those who desert him will perish,
for you destroy those who abandon you.
But as for me, how good it is to be near God!
I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter,
and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do. (verses 27-28)
He reminds us that he gets his answer (“…you destroy those who abandon you.”), a dose of reality, from the question he entered into God’s presence to have answered. His response, “But as for me…” an honest and informed declaration, is that he wants to continue to pursue and dwell in God’s presence, that God’s presence is where he finds his rest, and that he wants to draw others into that presence by testifying to the wonderful things God does.
In 28 verses, we see Asaph, this seemingly respected worship leader who was almost destroyed by an envy of others based on mere assumption, transform his thinking from “Is all of this even worth it?” to “I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter.” and it is a redemptive story that we can not only appreciate, but share with him by pursuing and dwelling in the very presence of God.