Psalm 73 “Why do the Wicked Prosper?”
I don’t pretend to understand economics but the news this week just does not add up. A tank of diesel is now costing me £80. But the leaders of OPEC meeting this week say there are plenty of oil reserves to meet present and future demand. So it’s all the fault of the falling dollar and oil speculators? Right? Why do the wicked prosper? And why are house builders Barrett and Persimmon laying off thousands of workers this week when the government wants another 3 million homes built by 2020? Why has the number of homes built this year actually fallen when there is an acute shortage of affordable homes? Is it the fault of land owners or property speculators? Why do the wicked prosper? And what about the G8 Summit meeting this week? Their report describes climate change as "one of the great global challenges of our time" and they recognised the need for "deep cuts" in global greenhouse gas emissions to fight global warming. So what do they decide? To halve harmful emissions by 2050. When of course, if my maths is right, none of them will be in power or probably still breathing. How convenient. A spokesman for the WWF's Global Climate Initiative called the G8 statement "pretty pathetic". I think I would use stronger language. Why do the wicked prosper? And what of the rising number of deaths from stabbings – six fatal stabbings in just one day. In London, four more grieving families to add to the 20 others who have lost teenagers already this year. It just doesn’t add up. Why do the wicked prosper? The dilemma is this.
God has revealed himself as sovereign and yet loving, all-powerful and yet all-good, punishing wickedness and rewarding goodness. So why do the wicked prosper? Why do they get away with it? Why does wickedness seem to prosper and honesty leads to trouble? Psalm 73 tackles this vital question which people of faith have been asking for at least 3,000 years.
The psalm describes our journey through life toward one of two destinations. It describes two ways to live. One leads to eternal life. The other leads to eternal destruction. There is a natural progression to the argument.
1. Faith Confessed (Psalm 73:1)
2. Faith Tested (Psalm 73:2-14)
3. Faith Fortified (Psalm 73:15-17)
4. Faith Vindicated (Psalm 73:18-28)
1. Faith Confessed
“Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” (Psalm 73:1)
By ‘Israel’ we should understand the faithful people of God, not a racial group or political reality. The word is used in the New Testament for God’s faithful people of all nations. And don’t misunderstand the word ‘heart’. It doesn’t mean our emotions or feelings. It refers to the centre of the human soul from which spring our thoughts, emotions, decisions, motivations and actions. Everything we do flows from the heart. The pure in heart, we are promised will experience God’s goodness. Jesus goes further. “Oh the bliss… oh the blessedness of the pure in heart… for they will… see God.” (Matthew 5:8) The writer therefore begins this psalm of praise, in the face of contradictory evidence, with a confession of faith. This afternoon around a dozen of our church family are going to confess their faith before being baptised. It is what we must be prepared to do every day. Faith confessed.
2. Faith Tested
“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. “ (Psalm 73:2)
Immediately the psalmist confesses being caught off balance. His feet nearly slip. Why? Because he makes at least three mistakes:
2.1 Envy of the Wicked
“For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Psalm 73:3)
What was it that he envied? Verse 4:
“They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. 5 They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. 7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits. 8 They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. 9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. 10 Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. 11 They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?” 12 This is what the wicked are like— always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.” (Psalm 73:4-12)
This is why people envy the wicked. Because they seem to get away with it. Faith is tested by envy. But that is not all. Look what happens if envy is left unchecked. What begins with envy of the wicked leads to
2.2. Wallowing in Self-Pity
13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.” (Psalm 73:13-14)
This is what envy does to you. It eats you up on the inside.
It consumes your thoughts, it drains your energy and torments your soul. Verse 16, “it troubled me deeply”. That is what envy does. It troubles you deeply. It corrodes your soul. It leads to wallowing self-pity. And then thirdly, if unchecked, envy leads to
2.3 Bitterness toward God
“When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” (Psalm 73:21-22).
As John Stott says, “To make presumptuous complaints against God is to behave like an ignorant animal, not like a rational human being.” Ever feel like that? Ever feel like you can’t pray? Like you don’t want to pray. Don’t want to read your Bible? Is it because you have been wallowing in envy? This is the cruel price of envy and self pity. Feeding on envy leads to turmoil in the soul and ultimately to bitterness toward God. Faith confessed. Faith tested. Has your faith been tested this week? Mine has. The vote on Monday at General Synod in favour of women bishops without any provision or protection for those of us who take the Bible literally has closed the door on conservative evangelicals as well as Anglo-Catholics. An increasingly ‘illiberal’ Synod has said you’re not welcome anymore. Thankfully we are part of a wider Anglican communion world-wide that still holds to the Scriptures as its authority. That is why we shall increasingly be looking to godly Archbishops and Bishops from other parts of the Anglican Communion for leadership. Faith confessed. Faith tested.
3. Faith Fortified
“If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children. 16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply 17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.” (Psalm 73:15-17)
“Our problems are aggravated because we are narrow-minded and short-sighted. It is a question of perspective.” Says Stott.
“A mountain which appears menacing when we stand at its foot and it towers above us, shrinks into harmless insignificance when we view it from a distance or from the air. So the problem of God’s providence cannot be solved in the limited context of time and earth; its solution awaits the next world and eternity. Many of life’s inequalities will remain now. But wrongs will be righted, evil avenged, and good vindicated in the final judgement.”
Where did the psalmist come to his senses? Where do we?
Perplexity and hopelessness lasted only, “till I entered the sanctuary of God.” Says the psalmist. Where is the sanctuary of God? Here – this is where we get the world in perspective. This is where we gain an eternal perspective, God’s perspective. This is where we gain strength from God to live for God. Perception, perspective and peace of mind is granted alone to those who seek God’s face – collectively here in church. That is why our Sunday services, our Sunday Clubs for children, our mid week small groups and monthly First Wednesday prayer meetings are not optional - if we want to have our faith fortified.
When we don’t make time to sit under God’s word and around the Lord’s Table, are we so surprised that we find doubts creeping in, that we despair and even become bitter toward God? “it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.” (Psalm 73:16-17)
See the progression? If only we would learn the lesson. Human nature has not changed in 3000 years – and nor has God’s provision. Stott continues, “When we are perplexed by the problems of God’s providential rule in the world, we are neither to look at the wicked with envy nor at ourselves in bitter self pity. Nor should we give up looking for any solution and lapse into despair, but rather fall on our knees and look to God. Then “from the secret place of the Most High we see things as God sees them.” (Campbell Morgan).
Faith confessed. Faith tested. Faith fortified.
4. Faith Vindicated
“Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. 19 How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! 20 They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.”
The current controversy in the Church of England is not actually over women Bishops or even over homosexuality. It goes deeper. It has to do with the authority of the Bible. If you did a survey of the sermons preached this morning in Anglican churches around the Diocese or around the country, you would hear two conflicting gospels – one based on fantasy and human reasoning and one based on the truth of God’s Word. One is universalist, liberal and self centred – and its purveyors regularly feature on TV and radio –
They say “come as you are and stay as you are – whatever your preference, God accepts you – just be true to yourself, respect the preferences of others and discover your potential.” The other gospel causes a scandal – it says we are in rebellion against God and under his wrath. We must repent and trust in Christ alone. He died in our place so we will not have to. He demands repentance, obedience and perseverance, a lifelong call to follow him, to the path of discipleship, holiness and witness. God is not impressed by our liberal friends. God has indeed placed them “on slippery ground”. The Bishops attending Lambeth now represent a minority of practising Anglicans. The Episcopal Church has been at the forefront of baptizing active homosexual lifestyle as God-blessed. [i]
Since 1960, that denomination has decreased in membership by 48%.
The United Methodist Church has been roiled by those adamant on establishing homosexual lifestyles as Christian legitimate. In the fight for one side or another that denomination has decreased in membership by 25%.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has likewise been embroiled in the tussle. That denomination has decreased in membership by 44%.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has also been riddled with in-house fighting over homosexual lifestyles as anti-God or pro-God. That denomination’s membership has decreased 74%.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has permitted the fight to be more open, some in administration arguing homosexual lifestyles as okay with God. That denomination’s membership has decreased by 31%.
The United Church of Christ (Congregational) has defended aggressively homosexual activity as totally legitimate in the definition of "Christian." In the last 40 years, that denomination has lost 40% of its original membership.
By contrast, denominations preaching the Bible as divine revelation, openly stating their love for homosexuals but their disdain for homosexual activity, have grown in membership and church attendance.
For instance, the Southern Baptist Convention has increased in membership by 76% according to the National Council of Churches statistics for 2007.
Why? The Psalmist tells us:
“Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.” (Psalm 73:27-28)
This is why Proverbs expressly warns us “Do not let your heart envy sinners but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 23:17). Why? Because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7) – fear of his holy, righteous, fear of his anger at sin, fear of his unrelenting wrath toward the wicked – this will surely drive out envy of sinners. Let me ask you – are you jealous of sinners or are you zealous for the Lord? It is impossible to be both at the same time.
The truth of God’s word should lead us to repent of our sin, to make the Lord our refuge and help lead other sinners back to God. The Church of England is in a mess because some of our leaders have failed to take this Biblical mandate seriously. Failed to apply godly discipline. Failed to warn of the wrath to come. Failed to present the good news of Jesus Christ clearly and boldly. And if they won’t, we will. We have no choice.
Our eternal destiny and that of those who hear depends on us taking God’s word seriously. That is why in September, Ro and I are going to address some of these issues from the Bible in more detail – but here is the New Testament application of this Psalm and the choice before us:
“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Can you see why this message is unpopular? Controversial? Jesus summarises the choice succinctly,
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Richard Coekin spoke at our men’s breakfast and ladies hour yesterday. His talk on these two ways to live, is, or will be, on the website by Monday. I warmly commend it to you. It is the same message we see here in Psalm 73.
There are two paths before us. Two ways to live. Two destinies. Judgement is certain – the ungodly will perish. Vindication is assured – the godly will endure. Choose wisely. Choose before there is no more choosing.
23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.” (Psalm 73:23-28)
Having surveyed the world and seen its injustices and contradictions, the psalmist looks to God from his sanctuary and makes several comforting discoveries:
4.1 The guarantee of His presence
The world may despise you. “Yet I am always with you” (73:23). His name is “Immanuel” which means God is with us. The guarantee of his presence.
4.2 The grasp of His hand
When you are tempted to slip remember “you hold me by my right hand” (73:23). We see God’s powerful hand in creation. We see his gentle hand lead us beside still waters.
We see his pierced hands on the cross as he died for us. The guarantee of his presence. The grasp of his hand.
4.3 The guidance of his counsel
“You guide me with your counsel” (73:24) God’s wisdom is here in the Bible for all who will receive it. He knows you personally. He knows your needs before you ask. But ask and you will receive. One step at a time, one day at a time. The guarantee of his presence. The grasp of his hand. The guidance of his counsel.
4.4 The glory of his heaven
“and afterward you will take me into glory.” (Psalm 73:24)
The assurance of sins forgiven and of eternal life are yours if you trust and believe in Jesus, as your Lord and Saviour.
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:25) This indeed is faith confessed. Faith tested. Faith fortified. Faith vindicated.
Despite all the bad news in the press this week, there were two encouraging stories that briefly made the headlines. Two Christians who were vindicated by God because of the uncompromising and unpopular stand they have taken.
Lillian Ladele, is a Christian registrar who was bullied at work and threatened with the sack by Islington Council because she refused to conduct civil partnerships. An employment Tribunal declared Lillian Ladele's bosses at Islington County Council had discriminated against her religious beliefs. Her testimony to God’s pattern for marriage between a man and a woman and her freedom of conscience has been honoured.
And Tammie Downes, a Christian GP in Cornwall, was subject to investigation after the General Medical Council received a complaint about her last year, probably brought by a doctor with links to the pro-abortion lobby. She risked being struck off the medical register. Dr Downes refuses to sign abortion referral forms, but is happy to discuss other options with women who come to her seeking an abortion, including keeping the baby. She estimates that one in three women changes her mind when given time to consider alternatives, and says that at least eight children are living today because of these conversations. The GMC ruled in her favour and has now confirmed that her behaviour did not constitute a breach of its guidelines and she is free to continue to practice her faith as a life saver not a life taker.
“You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:24-26)
Faith confessed. Faith tested. Faith fortified. Faith vindicated.
With grateful thanks to John Stott, Favourite Psalms (Word, 1988), Michael Wilcock, Psalms 73-150 (IVP, 2001) and Warren Wersbie, Prayer, Praise and Promises (Back to the Bible, 1992).