The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany February 9, 2014
294, 390, 394, 432
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Truly God is good to Israel,
To such as are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes bulgewith abundance;
They have more than heart could wish.
They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression;
They speak loftily.
They set their mouth against the heavens,
And their tongue walks through the earth.
Therefore his people return here,
And waters of a full cup are drained by them.
And they say, “How does God know?
And is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the ungodly,
Who are always at ease;
They increase in riches.
Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain,
And washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
And chastened every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children.
When I thought how to understand this,
It was too painful for me—
Until I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I understood their end.
Surely You set them in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction.
Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment!
They are utterly consumed with terrors.
As a dream when one awakes,
So, Lord, when You awake,
You shall despise their image.
Thus my heart was grieved,
And I was vexed in my mind.
I was so foolish and ignorant;
I was like a beast before You.
Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You hold me by my right hand.
You will guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish;
You have destroyed all those who desert You for harlotry.
But it is good for me to draw near to God;
I have put my trust in the Lord GOD,
That I may declare all Your works.
Dear fellow-redeemed by the blood of God’s own Son:
Who in our day does not see that the wicked and the wealthy have their way in the world, while righteous Christians and law-abiding people are despised, persecuted, and destroyed throughout the world? In our own country open adulterers, homosexuals, and abortionists receive invitations to the White House and are often more acceptable to their fellow Americans than a confessing Christian.
This is nothing new. Solomon saw this in his day (cf. Ecclesiastes 6:15). Four hundred years later, Jeremiah wrote similarly of the “prosperity” of the wicked even among the people of Judah (Jeremiah 5:18 ff).
Three hundred years ago the English poet, John Dryden, warned that “virtue in distress, and vice in triumph make atheists of mankind.” In other words, when the good people of a society are despised and persecuted while the godless and the wicked prosper, man concludes that atheism and materialism deserve his utmost devotion! Even the Christian wonders at times: “Why do the wicked seem to prosper in this world, while the righteous do not?”
Asaph, the psalmist, was troubled by such thoughts. He nearly fled away from the nearness of God because of them. He was beginning to think that his faith in the Lord was a plague rather than a blessing. The first verse our text is the conclusion to which Asaph was finally led by the Spirit of God. But he almost slipped and lost faith’s footing before he came to the right conclusion that SURELY GOD IS GOOD TO HIS PEOPLE I. We must not look out and about, down and around! II. Look up to God where life and truth are found!
When this Old Testament Christian looked out and about, down and around in the world, he saw the prosperity of the arrogant and the wicked. He became envious of their success. He was tempted to use their schemes and means to “get ahead” in business. Asaph noticed that generally the wicked die without being bedridden for months and years and racked with pain. Their bodies are often strong and vigorous until death. The rich among the wicked are not troubled and plagued by the sufferings of despised Christians among men.
It is God who grants the rich their successes. But instead of living in humility before Him, verse six tells us that the prosperous wicked wear pride as a their necklace. They are not clothed with meekness and gentleness in their dealings with others. Instead, “violence covers them like a garment.” They do not have the sunken eyes of the poor and the wretched, but the “bulging eyes” of the fat and prosperous. They have more than they can use without gluttony. By comparison with what they have, they share little or nothing with others! They have “mouths” too, which they use to spew forth their corruption and rebellion against the true God [cf. vv.8-9]. In their pride they speak openly and boastfully of how they will oppress others! They grow accustomed to having their own way with people. They speak as if they were gods themselves! Denying all authority but their own, “they set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue parades through the earth” [v.9].
They talk of making the weak and the poor into their slaves. If there is opposition to their plan, the wicked threaten violence with their mouths! If the wicked come up against the truth, their tongues brazenly lie against the truth! If we dare to defend what is true and right with the Bible, these great mouths call us superstitious and ignorant!
What is our reaction to the prosperous wicked and their pompous mouth? We too may be tempted to think like Asaph: “Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and chastened every morning” [vv.13-14].
When brother Asaph looked out and about, down and around in the world of men he saw the prosperity of the wicked next to the suffering of the Christ-believer. What he saw with his eyes caused him great spiritual anguish and unrest.
He thought: “If I should speak these words which I have thought, I would then be denying the goodness of God out loud. Then I would be preaching a false doctrine and offend Your children who hear me, O Lord” [cf. v.15].
When we, like Asaph, stop to think about it, we realize that to simply blurt out our thoughts in such cases would result in denying God’s goodness toward His believing children. We would be giving offense to others! Therefore we can only do what Asaph did: Look up to God where life and truth are found!
We must look up with the eyes of our faith. We must “go into the sanctuary (or presence) of God” [v.16], where His Word may comfort us with the divine truth of it all. Asaph tells us what he learned from God about the prosperity of the wicked: “Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors. As a dream when one awakes, so, Lord, when You awake, You shall despise their image [vv.18-20].
What did this troubled Christian see when he looked up to God in His Word? He saw that the LORD has set the wicked “in slippery places.” No matter how high their position in life, they were waking on slick ice! The same divine hand which lifts up the wicked will quickly and suddenly cast them down in total, inescapable destruction.
The truth is that God has been patient with the wicked who prosper. It is as if God is in a “dream” where the image is not fully revealed. But just as a dream vanishes when we wake up, so also, the Lord will “awake” and despise” the image of the wicked, so that they vanish from life forever.
Asaph’s grieving was caused by his own beast-like ignorance and foolish envy of the wicked because of their earthly prosperity. In the same way that a grass-eating ox can only value things by their outward appearances as it looks out and about, down and around, so the psalmist had judged the worldly prosperity of the wicked the way a cow or a pig would—with the scanning of the eyes pointed downward to this earth!
Yet notice the saving grace in which this child of God rejoices in spite of his sinful beastliness. Asaph says: “I was like a beast before You. Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by Your right hand. You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.” [vv.22b-24]
Like Asaph, we behave like beasts, and yet we are continually with God! We are severely tempted so that we almost fall into the God-denying wicked ways of the world. But the LORD mercifully preserves us through repentance and forgiveness found only in the blood of His Son!
Having poked out the eyes of his reason, the Psalmist looked up to the LORD and saw the glory which awaited him afterward. The blessing of God does not rest on those who boast that they possess the things of this perishing world. God’s blessing belongs to those who possess Him by faith in Christ. For it is not material or things, but God who remains forever—and those who belong to Him. Therefore, Asaph rejected everything in heaven and earth as having no real value. Even his own flesh and heart were without real value, for even these would fail him in death. God alone was “the strength of his heart and his portion forever.” [v.26]
All who want to be far from God chase the after this world. Asaph concluded that drawing near to God is far better! This has always been the confidence of Christians when suffering and dying. May our merciful God give us such wisdom whenever our foolish and sinful hearts are tempted to envy and follow the prosperous wicked to destruction. May we be led to lift up the eyes of our faith to our God in His faithful Word. Then we shall see the true blessedness of God’s believing people. Then we shall be preserved from the beastly foolishness which only looks out and about, down and around!
May we be led by the Spirit of our God to put our trust in our gracious Lord, so that we are able to “declare” to the world His saving name and work [cf. v.28]. Then, some day soon we shall be received as honored guests at a “state dinner” in Heaven. We shall not drive ourselves, Christ will bring us! We shall not be entertained by homosexuals and adulterers. The holy angels will sing for us, and we will join them with perfect voices. And we won’t go home after the meal is over, we will be at home forever. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.