Monday, October 08, 2007

Psalm 73: A correction in perspective

You've probably noticed that the Psalms have been a particular focus in my Bible reading lately, probably because we looked at some of them at church over the summer. Over the past couple of years I've preferred to read through whole books of the Bible for quiet times, but for October-December I've temporarily reverted to using devotional notes. (I'm using Scripture Union's Encounter with God). Their Sundays - I'm a day behind - are reserved for looking at a psalm. So I was struck once again when I read Psalm 73 tonight. It's fairly straightforward and a good tonic for the times when everything else seems hunky-dory for everyone but you.

The notes started by asking what my idea of a good life might be like. I thought about it and tried to be as honest with myself as I could. This is my version: a life where I am surrounded by good friends who will provide good companionship and intimacy, and where I never need to worry about money. But not for Asaph, one of David's music leaders, who presumably wrote this psalm. For him, he sees that "it is good to be near to God" (v.28). This statement comes right at the end of the psalm, but the journey to this conclusion is by no means easy. He felt that he all too easily often slipped from the path of godliness (v.2). Furthermore, contrary to his own stumbling gait, he saw the wicked and arrogant around him who "have no struggles" and "are free from the burdens common to man" (v3-4). I think this is a feeling familiar to many of us. I know I certainly often wonder whether being a Christian is worth it. I remember walking through London's financial district recently one evening and was struck by the palpable sense of power that practically exuded from the many suits that had gathered at the many pubs for drinks. And feeling completely inadequate. "What good did it do me to keep my thoughts pure and refuse to do wrong?" (v.13, CEV).

According to my notes, two factors helped Asaph break out of his disorientation. The turning point appears to come in v.15, when he sees going against the fellowship of all those straining on the journey with him as a fundamental betrayal. Second, 'he regained his spiritual balance by visiting the temple, where he came to understand (perhaps through a sermon) that the prosperity of the wicked would be short-lived (v.17-20)'.

This, then is a psalm of two halves. I haven't examined it yet, but there might be a chiastic structure. In any case, it's not hard to contrast the sentiments in v.1-14 with v.21-28. Most encouragingly, though, is v.26. "My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever". The heart, in biblical language, is not referring just to the emotions, but the center of the human spirit, where emotions, the will, thoughts and so on flow. The psalmist confesses, as we must, that God is the sustainer of our total being, our whole life. And he does so by grace, and so "I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge." And this psalm is here in the Bible, presumably, because it speaks to every generation, who would have felt as Asaph felt. Psalm 73 makes it possible, as G.K Chesterton puts it, that "one might see great things from the valley".

Rather randomly, I happened to listen to a Hillsong United song (doesn't happen often nowadays!) that I've only heard a couple of times before right after reading this psalm, and the lyrics seemed rather apt as a response. And so I end with it:

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