Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
Psalm 73 is perfect for Nashville. Most people in our city have had exposure to the gospel. They may even believe it at some level. A new Gallup poll reports that 79% of people in Tennessee consider religion an important part of their daily lives, and that’s one of the highest rates in the nation. But look at us. We have all the same problems every other state has. Why? For too many people, the gospel just isn’t working. It isn’t changing them or freeing them or satisfying them. They don’t say so. They go to church and smile, because admitting the sadness within would be embarrassing, impolite, socially disadvantageous. But underneath the appearance of okayness, their hearts are not okay. God is not as real to them as they’d like, and they feel stuck where they are. Psalm 73 opens a door into newness of life for every one of us today.
Psalm 73 came into my life in the 1990s. It took me to a deeper place with Christ. When I read verse 25, “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you,” I saw something new – that God could be not just obligatory but desirable to me, more desirable to my crazy heart than a Ph.D. or a new Vette or that lifetime trophy buck that keeps eluding me season after season. My heart was not in the right place with God, which meant that Psalm 73 was perfect for me. The man who wrote this psalm had wandered from God – not at the level of behavior but in his heart. And God helped him. God had mercy on him and changed him.
His name was Asaph, and he was not a model believer. In fact, he nearly lost his faith. He tells his story honestly. He saw bad people succeeding and good people failing, and it drove him away from God. But God held onto him, and this man stumbled his way into richer enjoyment of God than he even knew existed. Psalm 73 is God’s breakthrough point for every one of us who is secretly disappointed with God and skeptical that that will ever change.
There are four things I want you to see about this psalm that will help you get inside it. One, this man is honest. He tells us about his real struggles. When that kind of honesty spreads out into a church, the help that everyone feels goes up exponentially. Two, this man is practical. He is not interested in the finer points of Bible interpretation. He wants God to be real to him. If you desire God, you’re feeling the most profound desire of all. Three, this man found relief. Maybe the most important word in all the psalm is the word “until” in verse 17. This man was in secret anguish – until God met him. If you are frustrated with God, don’t give up. Cry out to him, and he will schedule into your life an “until,” when he meets you in a new way. But four, the most important thing is this. The two key words in Psalm 73 are “envious” in verse 3, at the beginning of the psalm, and “desire” in verse 25, at the end of the psalm. Asaph went from envy of the arrogant to desire for God. His theology didn’t change. He had the right theology all along. What changed was his emotions. The words “envious” and “desire” are emotional words. So many people in our city believe in God, but they don’t desire God. They are envious of this world. They’re secretly angry at God that he isn’t giving them the designer life they had in mind. God isn’t making them successful and rich and sexy and cool and sought after. They don’t want God; they want what God can give. They don’t go to church to meet with God and grow but to pay their dues so that God will fork over. That’s exactly where this biblical author found himself. And he knows how to help us all.
You can see the change this man went through in the structure of the psalm and how his breakthrough in the temple lies at the pivot of the whole psalm:
A1 The problem: “I was envious of the arrogant” (1-3) B1 They have it so good (4-12) C1 Poor me! (13-15) D “Then I discerned . . .” (16-17) C2 Stupid me! (18-22) B2 I have it so good (23-26) A2
The privilege: “It is good to be near God” (27-28) Let’s think it through together now.
The problem: “I was envious of the arrogant” (1-3)
Truly God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart. (1)
In other words, “Those good Christians out there – they’re experiencing God. They don’t struggle. They’re enjoying the goodness of God. And I’m not denying that their experience is real. But I wasn’t there.”
But as for me,
my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (2-3)
I remember when a friend of mine came back from Viet Nam. He told me, “I’m not a Christian any more. I’ve seen too much of reality.” This biblical author was teetering on the edge of that despair. He wasn’t mad at the wicked. He didn’t want to scold them. He wanted to join them. He saw a lot of lucky people living happy, God-neglecting lives:
They have it so good (4-12)
Think of the corporate heads in New York right now raking in millions of dollars in bonuses for ruining their companies, paid for by tax-funded federal bailouts, and they’re congratulating themselves on how clever they’ve been:
Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches. (12)
True to life, isn’t it? The elites of this world can afford to erect barriers between themselves and the troubles of average folks. If their retirement funds drop 40%, they still have tons of money. And what we see both here in these verses and in our experience is that they got there by breaking the rules. In this world, greed and arrogance succeed. That’s the way it is. This world does everything wrong, on purpose, and it works.
The next step is obvious. If they have it so good, what about me? What about you? Asaph tells us about his own self-pity:
Poor me! (13-15)
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning. (13-14)
This biblical author is saying that, for him, the Christian life was punishment. He’s saying, “I sacrificed so much to be a Christian. I gave up so much. And Christ isn’t worth it.” But he couldn’t admit he was thinking this way:
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” (15)
He knew his doubts would only upset other people’s faith. So he suffered alone. He kept smiling. He kept going to church. But there’s a great line in one of Jackson Browne’s songs: “He saw the ships bearing his dreams sail out of sight.” “There goes my chance at happiness. There goes hope. My life is over. And I can’t even talk to anybody about it.” That’s how he felt. But God had not forsaken this man. God met him in a profound way:
“Then I discerned…” (16-17)
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end. (16-17)
Just when he was wondering if he could hold on any longer, he saw something new. He thought he had looked at the facts; but he hadn’t looked at all the facts. He thought he had seen too much of reality; he hadn’t seen enough of reality. Finally, he saw hell: “then I discerned their end.”
The Bible says a lot about hell, because it wants us to go to heaven. Jesus said more about hell than anyone else in the Bible, and he was hardly a barbaric man. The Bible has basically three things to tell us about hell. One, it is punishment. In this life, people literally get away with murder. That’s why there’s a hell. Two, hell is destruction. Hell is a wasted life now tossed out onto the garbage dump of the universe forever. Three, worst of all, hell is banishment, exclusion, missing out. Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). But Jesus also predicted that he will say to some people, “Away from me!” (Matthew 7:23). Hell is having no place prepared for you, being exiled away from Jesus, alone with yourself, forever. To be away from Jesus forever, to be alone with yourself forever, telling yourself what a victim you are and how no one understands you and it’s everyone else’s fault – that self-pitying you churning on forever and ever, never able to stop, no relief or peace ever, that you is the worst that could happen to you. This is why you need to be saved from yourself. Hell is not God sending nice people into something they don’t want; it is the human being consumed with self-justification shut off by itself because that being refuses the joy of the Lord. In the end, there are only those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”
In verses 1-15, the psalmist had been looking at this world; now he starts seeing through this world with shock. Before he had been deceived by appearances; now he starts breaking through to reality. Before his perception was wildly unrealistic. Nobody has it that good. But envy warps perception. Self-pity distorts reality. We talk ourselves into grievance. If all you can see is this present world, you will become bitter. But who envies the elegant rich as they board the luxury liner Titanic? So Asaph starts changing:
Stupid me! (18-22)
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you. (21-22)
Do you see? This man’s problem was not that he didn’t have enough of this fraudulent world; his problem was his own brutish heart toward God. The Bible is blunt when it says, “Do not be like a mule” (Psalm 32:9). God had to put a 2×4 upside this man’s head. Three years in seminary would have made no impact, so God gave him three seconds of insight into hell. He woke up. He went into repentance. He saw his life in a new way – with a sense of wonder and privilege:
I have it so good (23-26)
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. (25)
Asaph finally got it. God alone is enough for all our happiness now and forever. Whatever other people may choose, this man knows what he wants out of life. He wants God. And he has God, all of God, freely and forever, in spite of his own stupidity, through the finished work of Christ on the cross.
Verse 23 says, “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.” Even when we are mule-like, God is holding onto us. Our crises do not overthrow his mercies. His strong commitment to us is more lasting than our flimsy commitment to him. He has determined to draw us away from envy of this world into desire for himself, and he will not be denied. Even as we age, it doesn’t matter to us. Our flesh and heart may fail (26), but for a God-enjoying person, turning 40 is a non-crisis. Having God is better than staying young. So where does Asaph end up?
The privilege: “It is good to be near God” (27-28)
For behold, those who are far from you will perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But 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. (27-28)
This man was a silent doubter; now he is a vocal worshiper. God wants you to make the same transition today. Here’s the key. Jesus died to give you God forever. The Bible says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). The Bible says, “In your presence is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). The Bible says, “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I consider them trash, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). When God wins our hearts this way, the disciplines of holiness no longer feel like deprivation; they are a feast of enjoying God.
You might be thinking, “Ray, that sounds good, but I couldn’t keep it up. It’s too hard.” But the truth is, the pursuit of this world is what’s hard to bear. Your heart will never find rest except in the green pastures and still waters of Christ. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy, my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28, 30). Wouldn’t you rather bear that burden?
Or you might be thinking, “But Ray, I’m not that spiritual. I’m not that high and holy. I’m just an ordinary guy.” But that’s the great thing about Psalm 73. This man wasn’t spiritual. That’s the whole point. But he rediscovered God, and so can you. Satisfied Christians are simply frustrated Christians to whom God reveals himself in a new way. Will you ask him to do that for you?
Or you might be thinking, “Ray, that’s scary. Orthodox belief I can handle. Church-as-usual I can handle. But the nearness of God coming to my heart to satisfy my desires – that’s another matter. That makes me nervous. I’m afraid.” Afraid of what? Happiness? It can’t be that. Afraid to change? What would you protect from change? Is your life right now all that great? If you’re protecting some kind of personal status quo from Jesus, then you’re telling Jesus that your personal status quo is worth more than he is. You don’t want to say that to Christ. That would be scary. Will you humble yourself and honor him and think well of him?
Picture the cross. You’re standing there. The dead body of Jesus has just been taken down. Everything is still fresh. You walk up and take a look from about two feet away. You see bits of his flesh stuck into the rough wood. You can see pools of his blood on the ground. It doesn’t smell good. It’s disturbing. What does it all mean? That cross is telling you that this successful world hates Jesus. And you have to choose sides. Do you know what else that cross means? It’s telling you how much God was willing to suffer to win the desires of your heart. Do you know what else that cross means? It’s telling you that nothing stands between you, with all your foolish values, and the love of God. The cross opened the way for you.
You cannot say yes to everything coming at you in this world, everything claiming your heart, and also enjoy the nearness of God. You have to choose. And if you still feel little to nothing for God, tell him so. Be honest with him. Tell him the ugly truth, and beg him to save your dead heart. He loves to answer that prayer. The Bible says, “If anyone does not love the Lord – a curse be on him” (1 Corinthians 16:22). That is what’s at stake here. Asaph didn’t love God. But God loved him and had mercy on him and took the curse away. And God put this psalm in the Bible and brought you to it today, because he is ready to work a miracle in your heart. Will you bow before him and seek it and receive it?
The Bible says, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful” (Joel 2:13).
Asaph thought God was being hard on him. But in fact, God was moving toward him in love. God desires every one of us so passionately that sometimes we mistake his love for fury. But it’s we who being are unkind to him. We need to change. John Donne, the English poet, showed us how to pray:
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new….
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, shall never be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.