Are we ever envious of those who live in the world? Does it seem like they get all the freedom and fun in life? I’m sure we can all think of examples in our own lives where our beliefs have prevented us from doing something that we would have liked to do.
For me, as someone who loves driving, I would have loved to have been a pursuit driver for the police force, but the potential conflict for having to use violence, judging others and swearing an oath of allegiance to our Queen go against the principles set out by Jesus. That’s just one of many examples where the teachings of Christ conflict with my worldly desires.
Psalm 73 addresses this very issue of coveting the things that are of the world, even to the point where the Psalmist declares that he is envious of them.
A Psalm of Asaph. Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. (Psa 73:1)
For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psa 73:3)
It’s this prosperity of the wicked that is the temptation to us, for the flesh seeks pleasure and sometimes what is out there in the world seems so much more pleasurable. That word prosperity is the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ and is translated as ‘prosperity’ four times, but on 175 occasions it is translated as the word ‘peace’.
So the writer of this Psalm is looking at the world around him in envy of the peace that they enjoy in their lives. They have no cares, they have no constraints, they have no-one but themselves to answer to, they will simply die and that will be it, they will go to the grave and stay there.
With us though we build up a wall of faith around us, we surround ourselves with friends of like faith, we study the Word of God and try and stay within the boundaries that have been set by the teachings of Christ, but we all like to peer over the wall and see what’s on the outside. It’s no coincidence that James says:
Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (Jas 4:5)
Our flesh has the basic characteristic of envy and it’s something that our spiritual mind has to keep under control. It is something that the Psalmist says almost got the better of him.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. (Psa 73:2)
God has been good to Israel, as we read in v1, but as for the Psalmist, his feet had almost stumbled, he had almost slipped up because of his envy. This was more than a casual look over the fence to see what was going on, he had almost been lured away by it.
Let’s have a look at a few of the things that he sees…
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. (Psa 73:4-5)
Firstly he comments that they are not under any constraints, they have nothing to worry about until death takes them, if they haven’t responded to the call of God then they will have to make no answer in the day of judgement for they will simply be left in the grave, they know of nothing beyond death, they have no sense of guilt. Their bodies are fat with a life of abundance, they are not hungry, they are having the time of their lives. They appear happy while others are afflicted with the burdens of life.
Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. (Psa 73:6-7)
They are proud of their accomplishments, their possessions, their power, their status and they wear it with pride like a beautiful necklace that they show off to everyone and they don’t have any reservations about being unjust or cruel to others to obtain their pride. They have more than they could reasonable expect, they have power, money, possessions, the finest seats, the finest meals, always seeking to gain more.
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. (Psa 73:12-14)
How often do we feel like that, seeing these wicked people enjoying a life of ease, like those who are handed out generous welfare benefits even though they can’t be bothered to work, those who receive huge bonuses for doing little more than turning up to work, those arrogant sports stars on £100,000 who still don’t think it’s enough. They are invariably self-centred, indulging in wasteful spending without a care for others, only themselves. I’m sure we can all think of examples where the wicked seem to enjoy all the prosperity.
This is the problem that the Psalmist faces, he is struggling to understand the affluence of the world, and could he actually be thinking that the world is a greater attraction than the attraction of eternal life. He is peering over that wall and contemplating all the things that he sees and I’m sure we do the very same thing. Do we struggle with the same thoughts, do we wish we were on the other side of the wall?
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. (Psa 73:16-17)
It wasn’t until the Psalmist went back to the sanctuary of God that he understood the end that awaited the wicked.
Jesus told a parable of that exact nature. The parable of the Prodigal Son, which was a follow up to the parable of the lost sheep.
The Prodigal Son was the younger of the two sons, and he had this idea from looking over the fence into the world around. We have a saying that the grass is always greener on the other side, and looking out from his father’s sanctuary he thought he could see greener pastures.
And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. (Luk 15:12)
He asked his father for his inheritance so he could go out and explore those green fields he could see, and what does he do?
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. (Luk 15:13)
He couldn’t find what he wanted in his Father’s house, or at least he thought he saw something better elsewhere. His father gave him freewill and the ability to make that choice and he chose to cross that fence and leave the protection of his father’s house. What happened to him? He wasted his money with reckless living, a life unbecoming to his father’s household, he lived beyond his means and was unable to maintain that living. It’s now those words of Psalm 73 become clearer to us.
…until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! (Psa 73:17-19)
The Prodigal Son has spent all he had, and along comes a mighty famine in the land and he suddenly had need of what he couldn’t get. Here was a man in a slippery place, fallen into ruin, destroyed in a moment and swept away by the terrors that were before him. He was left to find a job feeding the pigs and he was so hungry he would have gladly eaten the pigs’ food as no-one was giving him anything to eat.
Then comes that moment of understanding, like with the Psalmist, the Prodigal son realises he is far better off in the house of his father after all.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘(Luk 15:17-19)
Sometimes it takes a major event in our lives, or even terrors to bring us back to a knowledge and understanding of our Father’s blessings. The Psalmist has looked over the fence, but he didn’t cross the fence like the Prodigal Son did, but both come to their senses and realise that the sanctuary of God is the place to be.
How does the father react when he sees his son returning?
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luk 15:20-24)
The father was looking for him each day for he saw him a long way off, he was looking down that road to see if his son was returning and one day when he does see him he rushes out to meet him with compassion. The father didn’t let the son give the little speech that he had prepared, nor make him as a servant. He was still a son to the father.
As Jesus had said in the previous parable,
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luk 15:7)
For those who show humility and repentance our Father will forgive them and still offer all the blessings that come with his household.
There is also a lesson for those that didn’t stray from the household, those that look over the fence but remain in the Father’s sanctuary. The older brother was touched with envy at the way his father welcomed his younger son back.
But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ (Luk 15:28-30)
The older son had served his father for many years, maybe grudgingly. He couldn’t even call him his brother any longer, he was envious of the way his brother had been treated, similar to the parable of the workers where each was paid the same amount no matter how long they had worked for, he felt that an injustice had been done. His father saw it differently though…
And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'” (Luk 15:31-32)
The brother had been lost, but he was found. He was dead but was now alive. That was reason enough for celebration.
When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. (Psa 73:21-22)
Was this like the Prodigal Son? So foolish that he was like a beast before his father, he had walked away from the blessings of his father’s house and was as dead as a beast, but when he came back he was made alive again. Without the saving work of Christ we would too be just like that beast, consigned to death with no future, without hope. After these doubts the Psalmist realises his position before God.
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. 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 of my heart and my portion forever. (Psa 73:24-26)
We have a choice. The riches of God, or the riches of the world. Will we allow ourselves to get caught up in the prosperity of the world like in the parable of the rich man who built bigger barns to store his wealth? Or when we look over the fence in to the world outside as the Psalmist did, will we come to our senses and realise that true riches lie within God’s sanctuary.
As we think about the sacrifice of Christ, let us remember the blessings of the Father’s house and remember these words in v28.
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. (Psa 73:28)