73 Truly God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
7 Their eyes swell out through fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
8 They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.
10 Therefore his people turn back to them,
and find no fault in them.[a]
11 And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all the day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed the generation of your children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end.
18 Truly you set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
20 Like a dream when one awakes,
O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.
21 When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.
23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength[b] of my heart and my portion forever.
27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
28 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.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
These are not words which can be uttered overnight. That is because the world around us is filled with lies that it can sustain itself outside of God. After all, to justify its own existence, the world must continually preach the falsehood that it can build a city, a Tower of Babel, that can rival the heights of His throne (v.9). To do that, it must present itself as beautiful; as desirable; as filled with abundance (vv.4, 7); as free from trouble (v.5); as growing in riches (v.12).
That is what the enemy does. He tries to lure the world by attractive gems. He is not so crude that he will just present these temptations in their naked form; he will present them as if they are goals, rewards, that we must work towards. The religion of the world is that hard work will results in just deserts; and once we obtain them, we wear these achievements proudly, and arrogantly, as a badge of merit. We exclude God’s intentions for our lives in these worldly pursuits.
Yet, the veil of the enemy’s lies can be torn in half, once we go before God Himself. Once we step into His sanctuary (v.17), and by the Spirit discern their end, we realize that the world has but covered itself in a skin of leaves, like Adam and Eve after the fall. These achievements, these growing riches, the sleek fat bodies which they possess, are all emblematic of the skin of pathetic leaves to cover their own naked shame. What is more, is that Godis the one who arranged it so; that these apparent blessings of the world are, in fact, the curse by which they are doomed to hell. As Spurgeon eloquently put it:
“Verse 17. Until I went into the sanctuary of God. His mind entered the eternity where God dwells as in a holy place, he left the things of sense for the things invisible, his heart gazed within the veil, he stood where the thrice holy God stands. Thus he shifted his point of view, and apparent disorder resolved itself into harmony. The motions of the planets appear most discordant from this world which is itself a planet; they appear as “progressive, retrograde, and standing still; “but could we fix our observatory in the sun, which is the centre of the system, we should perceive all the planets moving in perfect circle around the head of the great solar family. Then understood I their end. He had seen too little to be able to judge; a wider view changed his judgment; he saw with his mind’s enlightened eye the future of the wicked, and his soul was in debate no longer as to the happiness of their condition. No envy gnaws now at his heart, but a holy horror both of their impending doom, and of their present guilt, fills his soul. He recoils from being dealt with in the same manner as the proud sinners, whom just now he regarded with admiration.
Verse 18. The Psalmist’s sorrow had culminated, not in the fact that the ungodly prospered, but that God had arranged it so: had it happened by mere chance, he would have wondered, but could not have complained; but how the arranger of all things could so dispense his temporal favours, was the vexatious question. Here, to meet the case, he sees that the divine hand purposely placed these men in prosperous and eminent circumstances, not with the intent to bless them but the very reverse.Surely thou didst set them in slippery places. Their position was dangerous, and, therefore, God did not set his friends there but his foes alone. He chose, in infinite love, a rougher but safer standing for his own beloved. Thou castedst them down into destruction. The same hand which led them up to their Tarpeian rock, hurled them down from it. They were but elevated by judicial arrangement for the fuller execution of their doom. Eternal punishment will be all the more terrible in contrast with the former prosperity of those who are ripening for it. Taken as a whole, the case of the ungodly is horrible throughout; and their worldly joy instead of diminishing the horror, actually renders the effect the more awful, even as the vivid lightning amid the storm does not brighten but intensify the thick darkness which lowers around. The ascent to the fatal gallows of Haman was an essential ingredient in the terror of the sentence—”hang him thereon.” If the wicked had not been raised so high they could not have fallen so low.”
Imagine an empty man, like Asaph, who admits openly that he has stumbled (v2); that he envies the prosperity of the wicked (v3); who feels that he has vainly kept his heart clean and washed his hands in innocence (v13); who is weary (v.16), then even more reason that he would want to fill up his cistern with the riches of the world.
Imagine then, the mind-blowing truth of the situation once Asaph has received the wisdom and insight of the Holy Spirit: that these blessings are designed by God to be a slippery path. That God has given these people over to their sins; and the result is the apparent blessing; the result is like Haman, preparing his own gallows, as if for Mordecai, but only to find out that the gallows are for himself. Like the enemy who thought that he is climbing a mountain to heights above God, who is actually struck down as quickly as lightning strikes the earth (Luke 10:18).
And so, the people of this world have committed two evils: they have forsaken God, the fountain of living water; and they have dug cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that cannot hold water (Jeremiah 2:12-13). With eyes that see and ears that hear (Proverbs 20:12; Isaiah 6:10), as we go before God in His sanctuary, we begin to see with insight and discernment (vv.16-17) the end of the people of the world. Those who reject and refuse God are set by Himin slippery places (v.18); Godis the one who makes them fall to ruin. In a moment, they are destroyed.
Can we adopt the same response as the psalmist? Can we say to God, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength/rock of my heart and my portion forever”? By remaining in God’s sanctuary, by being close to Him, by being in His presence, we see that our true end is to be received by Him to glory (v 24). But those who are far away from Him shall perish, and God(not the enemy) is the one who puts an end to everyone who is unfaithful to Him (v.27). The psalmist clarifies that the enemy can do nothing of his own accord; it is only through God’s permission that anything is done (c.f. Job 1:7).
How fitting it is for the third book of the Psalms to open with this chapter. Indeed, the religion of the world, the works and rewards which people clothe themselves with, are exactly what God is guarding against in the book of Leviticus (i.e. being, in parallel, the third book of Moses in the Pentateuch). Imagine the Pharisees, working hard to comply with every single law, and adorning their pride in their own abilities, like necklaces around their necks.
God would respond in very much the same way as He does with the people of the world: those who view the law as the means of their salvation are set by Him in slippery places, and they will fall to ruin. It is those who recognize their own weaknesses, like Asaph, who go before God for wisdom. It takes a humbled person, an envious person, a person who delights not in his own abilities and treasures, to step into God’s sanctuary, only to be clothed by God with beautiful animal skin instead of the pathetic leaves and scraps of this world. Just like the Levites who carefully, but confidently, approaches God in the book of Leviticus; so also let us – the priests of the era after the Spirit was given to all – approach the throne of grace with similar confidence:
“16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:16