November 16, 2017 Chapel Service — Dirk Naves
Posted On November 20, 2017
“Nothing on Earth”
Dirk Naves is chief creative officer at Ligonier Ministries in Sanford, Fla.
It really is a tremendous privilege to address you today, to be able to share some thoughts with a community of learning like RBC: a place where your time here can have a profound shaping effect on your soul, on your future endeavors, on your life. It can be a place of tremendous spiritual blessing and growth. A place where you’re shaped in ways that you might not even be able to recognize until years from now. It can also be a place where your heart is hardened, a place where familiarity with holy things can lead to contempt. And the difference between those two outcomes of your time here at RBC often comes down to the perspective you maintain while you’re here in the midst of your theological studies. And that’s really what Psalm 73 is all about. It’s about perspective, and we’re going to watch as Asaph, the writer of this Psalm, goes on a journey that changes his perspective, and we’re going to draw some conclusions and some principles from this Psalm for your time here at Bible college and beyond. So let’s read Psalm 73 together. Psalm 73, starting at verse one:
“Truly God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as 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 his 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.
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!
Like a dream when one awakes,
O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.
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.
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.
For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
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.”
Let’s pray together. Father, we pray that You would send your Spirit here this morning. That You would take this portion of Your Word, and that You would use it to change us. That it would not be just dead letters on a page or or ancient poetry, but it would be your Living Word moving through the pews here and doing the work that You would have it do in each of our hearts. Don’t let us leave here the same as how we came. Transform us, Lord, by the power of Your Word. Help us to see, in Your Word, Your Son set before us, a willing and a ready Savior eager to draw us closer to Himself and to present us flawless before Your throne. We ask all these things in His name. Amen.
Well, as I mentioned, Psalm 73 is all about perspective. And we’ll see as we spend our time in this passage, how Asaph’s perspective changes as he moves along on this journey and how that change in perspective changes everything in his life.
We might be tempted to gloss over the first two verses of Psalm 73. They sort of form a preface at the beginning of the Psalm, and it’s really a hermeneutical key to unlock everything that follows. And it’s written from the perspective of Asaph having completed this journey. So Asaph has gone on this journey that we are about read about, and having completed that and having gained this new perspective, he writes this preface as a key to understanding everything that’s about to follow. The very first affirmation is this: “Truly, God is good.” You might not have even noticed that the first time we read it through because it’s obvious. It’s basic. Yeah, of course God is good. God is by definition “good”. So let’s move on. Let’s find out what else there is here. But we shouldn’t move so fast. This is not a systematic theology textbook. This is a Psalm. And when we encounter a Psalm, we need to give it access to the deepest recesses of our hearts if we are to benefit from it. We must not block out what it has to say by responding with just the theological dictionary that we have stored in our brain: “Yes, God is good. Okay, let’s move on.” But what he’s saying here is, “God is good.” Do you believe that? Not just that that’s the correct answer, but that it’s really true. Not just in an abstract way, but in your life, God is good. As we’ll see in the rest of this Psalm, this is not a foregone conclusion for Asaph. When he looks out at the world, he sees a lot of evidence showing that God is not good. And he needs to go on a significant journey of self-examination and of soul searching before he can come to this conclusion: that God is good. So let’s not gloss over that, but let’s instead reckon with it and let it reckon with our hearts and use it as a key to understanding everything that’s going to follow.
And then there’s a second thing that I want us to notice in this preface as well. In verse one again he says, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” He mentions purity of heart right at the beginning here. And we’re not far enough into this Psalm to know exactly what he means by that. But it is important for us to see because this is central to the revelation that he is about to receive: “It is the heart above all that matters, not circumstances.” Asaph needs to learn a lesson that every generation of believers needs to learn: the lesson that God had to, in put in the previous generation just before his time, teach the Prophet Samuel, “Man looks at the appearance, but God looks at the heart.”
Asaph has a lot in common with you guys. I just think about a couple of the ways Asaph is in a very similar position to all of you at RBC. First of all, he is publicly associated with God. So Asaph, is the head of the Temple singers, appointed by David himself. And so he is very publicly associated with God. If you were business majors, you would have a choice whether or not to publicly associate yourself with Christ, but if you’re Bible majors at Reformation Bible College, you are publicly associated with God no matter what you say, and the same is true with Asaph. And as part of that, Asaph is very near the things of God on a regular basis. He’s in the Temple more than your average Israelite. He’s carefully considering the Temple worship day by day. And likewise, you are considering holy things on a daily basis. And Asaph, as he says in verse two, almost stumbles. See no one sets out to be the hypocritical sort of high-profile Christian. No one sets out to be the choir master in Israel while inside they’re doubting God, while inside they don’t believe the Word that there leading the congregation in, yet many times they find themselves in that position. Many find themselves in that position, and, sadly, many stumble and fall. And Asaph says, “I almost was one of them. I almost stumbled. And what all those people have in common is something that you have in common with them: They were at one point sitting exactly where you are sitting right now. So as we make our way through this Psalm, let’s keep those commonalities in mind and think about how this Psalm can expose and reveal the sorts of temptations and dangers we might face as we are near God’s things that a typical Christian, who is not in Bible College, or is not in some sort of vocational ministry, has less exposure to this particular kind of temptation.
He gives us a summary in verse three of what caused him to nearly stumble. He says that he was “envious of the arrogant when he saw the prosperity of the wicked.” I love that turn of phrase: “envious of the arrogant.” If he had said, “I was envious of the rich” or “I was envious of the powerful,” that would make sense to us. But “envious of the arrogant”?—nobody meets an arrogant person and then thinks, “you know, I wanna be like them.” And the way he phrases this—“envious of the arrogant”—is so biting and so revealing. It immediately gets beneath of the surface and shows the foolishness of this attitude, because he’s moving. In this preface, he’s showing us where he’s going to go. He’s gonna move from circumstances (“rich, powerful”) to the heart (“arrogant”). And he’s sort of condemning himself right at the beginning, here. He was “envious of the arrogant,” and it took him a long time to realize that this was going on. And like Asaph, we share this, we’re tempted to focus only on the things of this world, only what we can observe on this plain, here and now. And isn’t that why our Lord was so earner to help His disciples see that they should not be judge in those who they encounter by appearance—they should not be evaluating every situation by the standards of the world—but that it was the heart, the and issues of the heart that mattered. That’s why Jesus was so insistent on confronting the Pharisees who were so careful to keep the outside of the cup clean, but on the inside was rottenness. And we, too, must gain this perspective. We, too, must have our perspective shifted because we serve a Savior who says, “My Kingdom is not of this world. It’s not of this world.” And so, how can we grow in this, not evaluating things on the basis of circumstances but rather by the work that God is doing in hearts?
In verses 4-12, Asaph makes a number of observations about the wicked. We won’t look at those in detail today, but here’s the picture of what’s going on, perhaps in more contemporary language: Asaph is the worship pastor of the most influential and respected church in the country, and every week, everyone is looking to him to lead them in worship, in praise, in confession before the Lord. Between services, he’s not just leading his choir musically but he’s shepherding them spiritually. But when he’s standing there at the front of the congregation with his arms raised, leading the worship, what is he thinking? He’s thinking, “I wish I was wicked. If I was wicked instead of righteous, I would have a better life—‘All in vain, I have kept my heart clean.’” That’s what he’s thinking. What is the heart of Asaph’s problem, here? Is it that he’s so zealous for justice that, when he looks out on the world and he sees these violent, arrogant people succeeding, that he is so eager for justice that his heart is incensed, and that’s where his frustration comes from? Well, verse 13 reveals what the true problem is, here. He says, “All in vain, I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” His frustration with God is not because he cares about justice above all, it’s because he cares about Asaph above all. He’s self-centered. He’s using God. He is saying, “We had a deal: I was going to obey you, and you were gonna make my life easy. I’ve done my part; you’ve failed to do your part, and I’m not getting anything out of this. I have kept my heart clean for no reason.” I wonder how many of us are living this way. “I obey God because He rewards me for obeying Him—because I get something out of it.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “I actually get more out of sin than I do from obedience, so why am I obeying?” That’s what Asaph was thinking. More, whatever it is—pleasure, power, respect, satisfaction, whatever it is—you value God because He seems like the best way to get you those things. That’s the situation that Asaph found himself in. And, when it became clear that he wasn’t going to get those things by obeying God, he thought to himself, “I’ve done this all for no purpose—in vain, I’ve kept my heart clean.”
But I want to pause here and think through the particular danger that theological studies can present to you. Because, what gets you respect here at Reformation Bible College looks a lot like godliness, even if it’s the furthest thing from it. See, if you were in business school and you were pursuing wealth or power, it would be pretty obvious to you, it would be pretty obvious to your Christian friends, where you had set your heart and where you were putting all of your energy. But, at Bible college, what does pursuing respect or pursuing power look like? Well, it looks like very diligent study of God’s Word. It looks like a daily application of yourself to understanding theology and articulating it as well as you can. And if you’re using those things to get the things that really matter to you, it’s much harder to diagnose. And Asaph finds himself in the same position, where he discovers that leading worship has been a means to an end. God is not that ends, but a good life is that ends. And since the wicked are having more success in achieving that, he’s wondering, “Should I quit this and start that?”
At the beginning of the Psalm, the most important thing to Asaph in Asaph. He’s upset because God has not kept His end of the bargain, he thinks. But something amazing happens in verse 15: “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” Asaph, by articulating exactly what he’s thinking in verse 13 (“all in vain I have kept my heart clean”), by saying that almost out loud to himself, he shocks himself into a better frame of mind. Oh, what a tremendous mercy of God! What underserved grace! In verse 15, you are seeing God, for reasons drawn wholly from within Himself, save an ungrateful, a thankless, and a petty, self-serving child who had already received so much from God and who had not only failed to recognize those gifts but had concluded that he should trade them all and pursue a life of wickedness instead. And yet, God here, by His grace, shocks Asaph, by His own thinking, into a better frame of mind. Asaph recognizes, by God’s grace, the audacity of what he is saying to himself, and he enters a new frame of mind. This is that shift in perspective that I was talking about. By God’s grace, Asaph realizes, “If I share these thoughts, it will not be for the good of God’s children. It will be to their destruction.” He would betray the generation of God’s people, and thought of sharing what’s going on in his head shocks him into a new frame of mind, gives him a new perspective. And then we see, in the following verses, what results. He still needs to reconcile these things in his mind. How can he understand the world? He knows he’s in a dangerous place. He knows he needs to flee for safety. But how can he understand this? He says, “…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.” He gains clarity at public worship.
Sometimes, we read this psalm as though Asaph’s not really going to church, and then, when he goes to church, it suddenly becomes clear. But we have got to remember: “No, he’s probably there more than anyone else.” And I think that’s an important point to remember. Something happens here when he’s in the sanctuary. God mercifully resets his perspective, perhaps during a very particular visit to the sanctuary or a set of visits. But another important thing, in light of how Asaph is there, is to remember the importance of the ordinary means of grace and of regular attendance of the worship of God with the people of God. Even in your darkest hours, even when doubts are ready to overwhelm you, do not abandon the simple and the ordinary means of grace. You have no idea, when you walk in on a Sunday morning, what God is planning to do in your heart through the means of grace that are there: the Word and the sacrament. The same, old pastor, the same, old congregation, the same, old songs, but you have no idea what God has planned. And Asaph discovers this. His perspective is divinely reframed when he’s attending to the means of grace, like he does all the time. But what’s so important here is that, in this case, by the grace of God, he approaches God not as an object of speculation, not as his job, but as an object of worship. This is so important for Bible college students to remember. Asaph’s perspective is Reformed when he approaches God not as an object of speculation but as an object of worship. This safest place to do theology is on your knees. That’s not to create a dichotomy between devotion and learning, not at all. Infact, all of your theological studies are fuel for your devotion, but we must remember to never let our theological studies lack devotion. All your studies must be devotional in character.
That’s what Asaph suddenly comes face to face with, while he’s in the sanctuary. And it’s important for us to remember, too, the huge difference between an Old Testament sanctuary and a New Testament congregation, in that the temple was the place of atoning sacrifice. The sanctuary was a place of atonement. We do not, any longer, witness the shedding of blood or the sacrifice of animals in our gathering because we have a full and sufficient, one-time sacrifice in Jesus Christ on the cross. And it’s important to note that when we go to church, it’s not the church that has the potential to change our heart, it’s Christ. And so, as Asaph goes to the place of atonement, so we must not be satisfied simply to go to church, but we, too, must go to the place atonement—that is, to Jesus Christ, Himself. Only Christ and a full reliance on His finished work will take us on this journey with Asaph, because only Christ can change our hearts.
This is the turning point of this entire psalm. Asaph goes to the sanctuary, but in light of the entire revelation of the Old and New Testaments and God’s salvation in both eras, we might rather say, Asaph goes to Christ. See, you’re never going to be fully free of hypocrisy. You’re never going to approach your theological studies, or whatever you do after RBC, with a purity of heart apart from Christ. There will be doubts, there will be wrestlings, and that’s why you need a Savior. The point that Asaph is trying to communicate here is not: “In your own strength, remember to maintain this perspective” but that, when he went to the sanctuary, he gained this perspective from a Savior. And we, too, especially in Bible college, must be cultivating a full reliance upon Jesus Christ.
At the sanctuary, two things become clear to Asaph. The first is the ultimate end in store for the wicked, and the second is his own ignorance and his beastliness. It’s amazing to see the shift in perspective. In verse 2, he recognized the danger to himself. In verse 15, he recognized her danger he was causing for others. And hen, now, in verse 22, he recognizes the offense he has given to God. There’s a progression in terms of his understand of his sin, and yet—look at this—he is saying, “I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.” And then, the next verse: “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.” This is an amazing and sudden shift in tone. It’s taken a lot of verses to get to this moment, and yet, suddenly here we are where He is saying, “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.” And this just shows us how eager and willing God is to receive His children in repentance back to His breaths. He wants to hold them close. He is far more willing to take us back than we are to believe that He would ever be that willing. God wants to draw His children back. He doesn’t dictate to Asaph, “Okay, 2 years of penance for all the doubts, all the times you were leading worship with blasphemous thoughts in your head.” No, Asaph’s repentance is founded on the perfect work of Christ, and God is ready and eager to draw him back into full communion—not after 5 years of penance but immediately. Asaph is transformed. He’s drawn back into a full communion with God, and he has a new perspective. He says in verse 25, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”
In the late Roman Empire, there was a very wealthy and very powerful aristocratic widow who wrote St. Augustine on the subject of prayer. She said, “How can I know how to pray?” And the gist of what he said to her was this, the heart of what he said was this: in order to pray, you must account yourself desolate in this world.” Imagine how difficult that would be for this lady who has—imagine an ultra-powerful billionaire at the top of the aristocracy, with tremendous wealth. And he’s saying, “You’re not going to be able to pray until you account yourself not rich in this world, not powerful in this world, but desolate in this world. Then, you will know how to pray.” And I think most of us can probably attest to that. When our hearts are set on the things of this world, when we’re actually gaining things in this world, it becomes more difficult to pray, and we must remember the perspective that Asaph has gained here—this desolation that we have in this world, where Asaph is able to rejoice in the end that he has nothing in heaven but God and on earth there is nothing that he desire beside Him.
You’re at a place in your life where you’re beginning to build really exciting things. You’re about to get a degree, and that’s an exciting step. That is going to bring you respect, it’s going to bring you opportunities that others do not have, that’s gonna be a foundation upon which you can build something really exciting. And the more you build, the more God blesses you in these desires, the greater the temptation will be to love those things and the harder it will be to account yourself desolate in this world. What Asaph has learned is not to look at those circumstances, not to judge his spiritual health, the favor of God, by circumstances but by what is in the heart. So, that’s what Augustine was trying to encourage in this lady. Prayer is possible when we consider ourselves desolate.
I’m sure you’re familiar with Augustine’s famous ordering of love. When we look at these testimonies of Asaph, it reminds us of course of Paul’s testimony that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul, too, and been on this journey—a journey away from using religion to gain respect and power, and a journey toward having nothing but Christ. And, that may seem like it pits a love of Christ or a love of God against everything else in this world. But what Augustine’s framework of rightly ordered loves helps us do is see that it actually enhances those things. It actually builds those things. It’s an enriching of other relationships rather than an excluding of them. And that’s why Asaph is able to move forward into a new and rich season of testifying of God’s mercy. He is very clearly moved from speculation to worship, in all of life. He has found not just a Savior but a treasure, and that’s why he’s saying, “Whom have I in Heaven but you, Lord? There is nothing on earth that I desire beside you.”
And then, one last thing that is particularly applicable to us this morning, is found in the last verse. “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.” Contrast that with verse 15. Previously, he was saying, “If I share what is in my head, I will have betrayed the generation of your children.” And now, after this shift in perspective, after this transformation of his heart, he is saying, “Why have I made the Lord God my refuge? ‘That I may tell of all your works.’”
I know that not all of you are seeking ordained ministry after your degree here. In fact, I’m sure there are many different paths that you are considering. But I do think, and I assume, that part of the reason why you’re here is so that you can better articulate the truth of God’s Word to whoever that might be. Maybe it’s a congregation, maybe it’s your family, maybe it’s those you encounter in business life. Asaph has discovered that he can only open his mouth after this shift in perspective. Previously, if he had shared what was in his head, he would have done tremendous damage. But now, having gained a new perspective, having a new treasure, he has made God his refuge, and now he may tell of all God’s works. So, I hope this time we’ve spent in Psalm 73, here, would encourage you to maintain this perspective, to rest on nothing but Christ in your time here. And, as I said at the beginning, this can be a season of profound shaping of you and your future for good—tremendous blessing as God raises up a new generation of Asaph’s who will be able to tell of all His works, because they have nothing in heaven but God and there is nothing on earth that they desire beside Him.
Transcripts are lightly edited.