THE THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING
(An Expository Sermon on Psalm 73)
By Dr. Diego Sausa
I would like to bring your attention to Psalm 73. It is a short chapter. Actually, it is a song. You know a psalm is a song composed by an inspired writer during the Old Testament times. The psalms were the “church hymnal” used by the Hebrew people during their worship service around the sanctuary. Psalm 73 is a short song but its message is profound and it has appealed to all of God’s people in all generations for 3000 years now. Psalm 73 was composed by Asaph. He makes his introduction to the song by saying in verse 1, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” But then he opens up the bitterness that has been bugging his mind all his life, he says in verses 2-17,
“But 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. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. Therefore their people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. And they say, ‘How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?’ Behold these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning. If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children. 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” (ESV).
Asaph’s gripe about the wicked getting rich, healthy, famous and prosperous, while the righteous suffers, is the same as today’s Christian’s problem with the secular people who get rich, famous, healthy and prideful about their wickedness while he who keeps his heart clean and keeps his faith in the Lord is stricken with poverty and all kinds of adversity. After seeing this “unfairness” and “injustice” Asaph says, “My feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped” (v. 2).
In order for us to understand Asaph’s dilemma, it would be important for us to know him. Who was Asaph? Is there anyone here this morning who knows him? I think it is fair to say that Asaph is one of the least known characters of the Bible. But the truth is, Asaph was a major Bible writer. He wrote more Scripture than Peter, James, Jude, Jonah, Amos, Micah, Joel, Malachi, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Nahum, Haggai, or Obadiah. He wrote twelve psalms, Psalm 50, and Psalms 73 to Psalm 83. But these 12 psalms are not the only songs that Asaph composed. There were other inspired songs that he composed that got lost. Asaph got to live about a hundred years from 1020 BC to 920 BC during the time of David, Solomon and Solomon’s son Rehoboam. He was picked by King David to be the chief musician in the sanctuary services in Jerusalem when he was only around 20 years old because he was so talented in music. In other words, he was the choir director in the sanctuary during David’s reign. But not only during David’s reign. He lived long enough to continue his function as the music director during the reign of David’s son, King Solomon, and during the tumultuous reign of King Solomon’s son King Rehoboam when the kingdom of Israel was split into two: the northern and the southern kingdoms.
ASAPH’S FAMILY AND EXPERIENCE
Scripture records that Asaph was the son of the Levite Berekiah (1Chr. 6:39) who was appointed by King David to be in-charge of the Ark of the Covenant. Asaph’s descendants would hundreds of years later continue to become the inspired lead musicians of the sanctuary even after the Babylonian exile when the sanctuary would be rebuilt during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 7:44; Ezr. 2:41). Asaph’s brother, Zechariah was also a priest in the sanctuary and also a prophet. Zechariah would condemn Solomon for his wickedness but he would pay dearly with his life for daring to expose King Solomon’s wickedness. He was assassinated by King Solomon’s henchmen while doing service in the sanctuary. This wickedness was so bad that even Christ had to condemn this murderous act one thousand years later, which was recorded twice in the Gospels: Matthew 23:33-35 and Luke 11:50-51. Christ says, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar” (Matt. 23:33-35). This was Asaph’s dear brother. Murdered by King Solomon because Asaph’s brother did the right thing. And yet, Asaph would live to see King Solomon accumulate so much wealth, so much power, so much prestige and so many women despite his wickedness. He was also there when God promised to David earlier that one of David’s sons would be the Messiah who would establish the kingdom of Israel forever. When Solomon was born, Asaph was there to witness David call his newborn “Solomon” meaning the Prince of Peace (Hebrew: Shelomoh from shalom meaning “peace”), the Messiah. But Solomon turned out to be the false Messiah, a farce. Asaph’s hopes were dashed. He would live long enough to see Israel divided into two and would see Egypt invade and crush Judah, burn the temple, kill the priests who were his family and friends and defiantly defame God and mock Israel, and yet Egypt would continue to be a powerful and rich nation. Can you see now what Asaph was going through throughout the years of his existence from the time of David, to the time of Solomon to the time of King Rehoboam? There was so much injustice and unfairness. The wicked seemed to have prospered and triumphed while the righteous was stricken with poverty and suffering everyday.
Does his life resonate with ours? Here we are, we try to live right, we keep God’s holy day, we return our tithes, we do the right thing, we don’t eat unhealthy food according to Leviticus 11 and yet we end up poor, sickly and miserable while the wicked who behave, drink and eat unrestrained end up rich, healthy and famous. What a disparity and injustice! Does Asaph’s experience ring a bell? I remember when my father died suddenly at a young age of 65. He ate right, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he went to church regularly, he read the Bible everyday, yet he died suddenly at a young age. And here were some people I knew. They never went to church, they ate whatever they wanted, they smoked they drunk, and they lived proud about their wickedness and yet they lived up to their 80s and 90s rich and happy. Do you understand what Asaph was talking about?
UNDERSTANDING HOW ASAPH FEELS
This also reminds me of Naomi. She lived a righteous life in the land of Moab but she ends up losing all her loved ones, her husband and two sons and she ends up with nothing, miserably poor and widowed! What in the world is going on with the righteous? Naomi declares, “Don’t call me Naomi [meaning happy]; call me Mara [meaning bitter], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:20,21). Why does the righteous suffer while the wicked end up prosperous, healthy and proud about their wickedness? We see all those paparazzi people, everything seems to be doing well and going right for them all the time while we who do the right thing end up suffering. Look at the senior citizen Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy Magazine. At 85 years old, he’s proud to be a playboy in his old age, flaunting all his beautiful young girls around him, and yet he gets to live a long time with all that money and young beautiful women around him, and proud of his wicked lifestyle publishing it on TV and magazines. But here we are, trying to live right and obey the Lord, yet we are in so much problem and difficulty. It doesn’t make sense does it?
Do we understand how Asaph feels? In Psalm 73:12-14 Asaph says, “Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” In the heart of Asaph he was questioning God and he was saying, “Better off are the unrighteous, they live easy lives, they do what they want to do with no restraints, they are proud about their wickedness and godlessness and yet they end up rich, healthy and happy. But here I am, I’ve always tried to live right and keep my faith, but I end up living miserably everyday!” Can we hear his cry of anguish? Can we equate our lives with his? Can we hear ourselves saying the same, “What’s going on God? I’ve tried my best to live right and yet I’m miserable everyday while those who despise you are rich and happy all their lives.”
WHY ASAPH ALMOST STUMBLED
Why does the wicked prosper while the righteous suffers? That’s a hard question which Asaph himself admits. He says in verse 16, “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task.” When our vision of life becomes focused on the horizontal plane, that is, on the things of this world it would be hard to understand why the righteous suffers while the wicked prospers. There is danger in comparing and keeping up ourselves with the “Joneses” because there will always be greater people than we are. When Asaph did this, when he focused his vision horizontally, that is, on worldly things, he saw injustice, unfairness and suffering that the righteous go through while the wicked thrived and prospered, and he admits, “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” (vv. 2,3). It is hard to understand and put things in proper perspective when our values and priorities become like that of the wicked. It will certainly cause us to slip and stumble in our spiritual journey. Asaph says he almost fell, he was on the brink of losing his faith because he looked at life the way the wicked looked at it. But this world is no longer a righteous-friendly home. Christ says to His followers, "In the world, you will have tribulation" (Jn. 16:33). If you don't go through any conflict or adversity, there is something very wrong with your Christianity.
Human culture has been attuned to investing in and focusing all energy and motivations on what is now and what is tangible. It cannot grasp nor live for the real yet abstract promise of the saints' transcendent inheritance made of concrete real mansions of gold and eternal blissful pain-free, death-free existence with God. Back in our subconscious we think that God's promise of eternal life and golden mansions is just an abstract mirage. Like Esau many demand for what is tangible right now! We want to enjoy that bowl of sweet-smelling soup right now that’s dangled right in front of our noses to the extent that we are willing to trade our eternal inheritance for that bowl of soup. It's like an heir who will inherit millions in the future but he is trading his inheritance for a dollar because he needs the dollar now. When we lose our vertical anchor, our grasp of the transcendent divine realities, we become like ships without a sail, anything goes including our faith. We exchange our limitless eternal heritage for what this life has to offer us now. Asaph almost lost it all too.
THE ANTIDOTE TO FALLING
And what stopped Asaph from almost falling? What saved him? Listen to what he says because this is very significant. He said, “I almost stumbled…my steps had nearly slipped….When I thought how to understand…it seemed to me a wearisome task.” But what stopped him from falling? Ah, verse 17 makes all the difference. He says, “Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” Do we see now the importance of going into God’s house? The importance of meeting God in His house, of meeting with Him in church? There is power in meeting God at His house! It totally changes our perspective in life from the ugliness and fleetingness of the horizontal scenes in this world to the vertical and eternal realities. When we come into God’s house and meet with our Heavenly Father, we come to grips with eternal realities and it puts our vision in proper perspective. It changes our focus from the fleeting things that dazzle to the eternal things that shine forever. It opens our eyes to the bigger picture, to the real three-dimensional picture of reality. It lets us realize who we really are and what we are to be and what the wicked really are to be. Asaph says, “I discerned their end.” That is, when he met God in His house, he began to understand the final end of the wicked and the final reward of the righteous.
When we see life from a vertical or divine perspective, we certainly see the end of the wicked and the reward of the righteous and there is no comparison between the righteous and the wicked because the wicked ends up burning in hell after living a short 65-90 years while the righteous ends up living endlessly worry-free, pain-free, death-free and blissfully in mansions and streets of gold (John 14:1-3; Rev. 21:4, 18-21). This is what saved Asaph! Going into God’s house to meet His Lord. Do not underestimate the power of meeting your Lord in His house! It changes your perspective from the transient worldly things to the eternal heavenly realities. It saved Asaph from stumbling and losing his faith, it could save you from stumbling and losing your own faith! When you come to God’s house, don’t look horizontally at your fellow sinners nor at the things of this world. Instead, look to Jesus the author and the finisher of your eternal inheritance!
Ah, Asaph began to realize that the rich, sturdy and healthy wicked people are like the pigs in a pigpen, they are pampered and spoiled inside the pen, their lives are parsed with all kinds of goodies to make them grow fatter and healthier only to be butchered in the end in the fire. Asaph began to see life in its proper perspective. He was the child of the King of the universe, the prince of the universe, heir to God’s eternal inheritance while the wicked is good us dung condemned for eternal nothingness. After Asaph met God in His house, Asaph declares, “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand [like a Father holding His child]. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory” (vv. 21-24). O the power of meeting God in His house! It puts our vision of life in the right perspective. Asaph says he was bitter “like a beast” towards God, blaming Him for his sufferings. Yet when he went into God’s house, he realized that all those times when he thought he was all alone, in reality God held him in his right hand like a father holding a little child up to keep him from falling and guiding him all his life so that in the end God will receive him into His glorious paradise.
When you meet God in His house, comparing the wicked with the righteous is like comparing a man having a dollar to a man with inscrutable billions upon billions of dollars. There is no comparison. The child of God, who is you - are richer than all the wicked billionaires combined! You will tread on streets of gold and live in mansions of gold and get to live pain-free, tear-free, and happy forever while the wicked ends up burning in hell so why compare yourself with the wicked in the first place? There is no comparison! Do not lose the vision of who you really are by solely investing your life in the fleeting things of this world! That would be building castles in the sand because the moment you thought you got it all, you die and end up into eternal nothingness because no matter how you planned your life, no matter how successful you are, no matter how much you have achieved and accumulated, you and the ones who are very dear to your heart will end up dead forever unless you have God that changes that cycle. Don’t be like Esau who gave up his birthright for a bowl of soup dangled right in front of his nose. Do not give up your eternal inheritance because the devil dangled the transient worldly things that dazzle in front of your face! If we can only catch a glimpse of the eternal inheritance and the immensity of the heavenly heritage that await us when we come to God’s house! Can we even imagine the mansions of gold prepared for the righteous (John 14:1-3) and the billions upon billions of galaxies that we need to explore at an instant speed when we all get to heaven by virtue of our faith in the merits of Christ?
William G. Johnsson, the former editor of the Review has aptly said, “Someone must remind us of the reality of our religion, of its surpassing worth – must tell us again of the glory of our Head. And tell us in such a way that we can grasp it, that it brings us to our senses. Once more we must hear that because our religion is so great, we must take it seriously. Perhaps if we can grasp the magnificence of our salvation, if we can see the transcendent dimension, the divine realities of it, then we will cease to be so wishy-washy as Christians. Then we may stand up on our feet and look the world squarely in the eye. Then we shall know for sure who we are and what we are to be” (Issues in the Book of Hebrews, pp. 29-30).
When Asaph went into God’s house, he realized the reality of his religion, and realized who he really was and what he was going to be. Christ, The Messiah, would receive him into glory. The same experience should happen to us. When we come to God’s house, we should realize that there is no comparison between us and the wicked. Through Christ, we are the sons of God, heirs to the eternal inheritance. When we have Christ, we have everything that we need in our lives. So shut up and stop complaining about suffering! Like Asaph, come to God’s sanctuary, meet God face to face and see your inheritance in Christ and realize who you really are. How true and lovely is the song,
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of [this] earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace (Helen H. Lemmel, 1864-1961).
May we like Asaph, encounter God face to face in His house, and realize who we really are, the apple of God’s eye, children of the King of the Universe, heirs of God's eternal kingdom through Christ. Amen.