Writings of the tutor
This page contains fiction, poetry, reflections and sermons composed by the Tutor.
Reflections on the Cross Matthew Turnbull
It was Athanasius' book and my wife’s cancer that compelled me to consider the cross afresh. The really amazing thing about the suffering and death of Christ upon the cross is that it shows the power of God. How could the fact of the Son of God being beaten and excoriated and humiliated and shamefully killed be considered as evidence of the power of God? If we put ourselves in Jerusalem on the day of His death, what do we see? We see the Man whom most considered to be a prophet sent by God being rejected by the trusted religious establishment, being handed over to the hateful Romans for torture, and being then severely scourged, violently ridiculed, spat on, punched, scorned and then displayed in that condition for all to see by Pontius Pilate. Furthermore, He is then paraded through Jerusalem carrying his cross to be derided by the people. Finally, He arrives at Golgotha and--in what appears to be the complete triumph of evil over good, and thus the end of anything like hope or goodness or truth for His followers--He is nailed to a cross and set to die a slow and ugly death.
Consider how that must have appeared to us if we had been there. Wouldn't we, who believe Him to be the Son of God, be compelled to conclude that we had been wrong? Wouldn't we be forced to conclude that our view of God was mistaken? Surely God would do something to stop such treatment. Surely God would not allow His Son to be so abandoned to the powers of the world and of evil. Certainly, as we look on Christ bleeding and suffering, we can not say that this is the work of God! For us to turn to one another in those hours of the crucifixion and say, "God is being glorified and the Kingdom is triumphant right now" would seem to be one of the most ridiculous utterances that the human mouth has ever spoken. But that is the tremendous thing about that day.
To all appearances it was the ultimate triumph of evil over good. This sinless Man who rightly deserved the thanks and worship and kindness that all humanity could bestow received instead the fiercest hatred and malice that the world could summon. And God allowed the world to do that to Him. In fact, He did not just allow it, it was, as Peter said (in Acts chapter two) completely in accordance with "the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God." To me, that is the truly remarkable thing about God and His ways. He uses this seemingly hopeless day to create the greatest hope that men can enjoy. He trumps the evil of Pharisees and Roman governors by allowing them to have their way with His Son, knowing all along that they are merely doing precisely as He willed. He shows appearance to be what it so often is, a lie and a cheat that keeps men from believing the truth. He shows evil to lack the fangs it boasts and he manifests that Good--though sometimes hard to discern in the midst of a fallen world, though sometimes quiet in the jangle of earthly noise--rises surely and inexorably over all and, like the sun breaking through a sullen, cloudy sky, blazes supreme over earth and heaven. He takes the darkest malignity that corrupt society can foist upon one Man and uses it to effect the salvation of the world! That is the power of God.
Without the eyes of faith we look at the cross amiss. We see defeat and death. In reality, it is victory and unconquerable Life. When Christ dies on the cross, it is not merely a man wrongly accused, tragically suffering. It is God, taking on human flesh, and suffering in our stead, for our own sin, and in so doing, granting us new life. Who else, but God, can receive the wrath of the world into Himself and use that very wrath to fashion ultimate mercy? If we are not going to follow the God who can do and has done this, who else will we entrust our lives to? Where else shall we go for hope? To whom shall we turn? He alone has the words of eternal life.
If that barren waste of stone and dirt and sage were the inchoate world of old, then the tawny hawk that gyred his way over it in ever-rising circles was the Spirit hovering over dark, primeval waters. But it was not the ancient world and he was only a young Swainson’s hawk hunting a meal. And although he did preside in the moments of his rising as a sort of lord over that land, it was—as all risings and empires—a transient one.
Naturally, no thoughts so grand filled his avian brain on that sultry afternoon. The heat of the land seemed about to crush the earth with the quick-rising humidity of an impending thunderstorm and by impulse the hawk had sought and rode a thermal. He mounted the spiral ramp of air as his eyes scanned the ranging dirt and rock of his petty kingdom.
Before his flight, he had been perched in the crown of a decrepit cottonwood, the tallest of a trio that grew at a bend in the wash, and now he saw the tops of those trees below him blend as he ascended higher. He could see also the dry wash wind its snake-like course through a farrago of low benches, rises, and swales of copper-hued sandstone and crusted soil—at times the wash was torturously curved, at others it ran nearly straight for a hundred yards or more to bend again unwillingly around a jutting elbow of stone. Up and higher he circled. Soon his flight brought him level with the expansive mesas that ran on the north and south sides of the canyon.
These opposing tables of sandstone stood more than a hundred feet above the valley, several hundred feet apart and ran long and wide for miles into the East. In fact, they were actually the main feature of that part of the desert, and Dalton’s Wash (a name unknown to the hawk) was really a lengthy canyon that incised the sprawling mesa from east to west as though it were Moses’ path through a sea that here was truly red and also frozen in stone.
As spontaneously as it had arisen, the thermal dissipated and ceased to support the body of the hawk. Unfazed, he flapped his wide wings several times and scudded down the canyon toward the west, still scrutinizing the land with sensitive care like a grave monk inspecting a manuscript. The bird’s gaze tracked the canyon as it ran on for a mile or more and then abruptly and precipitately ended in a great cliff that towered several hundred sheer feet over what constituted another world. Like some dry, forgotten Niagara, or a monstrous eroded vertical fault, the end of Dalton’s wash--and the edge of the mesas through which it ran--loomed as a great stone fence forming the border of a sweeping network of canyons, washes and tablelands known as the Mosaic.
Here, close to the crisp verge of the wash, the hawk spied a coyote.
The coyote had emerged like some drifting, noiseless spirit from a patch of shade along the southern cliff. The hawk blinked, tilted his head, circled and watched him canter across an open space. The coyote moved down into a shallow depression, and up onto the surrounding rise of soil. He slowed at the crest and took two more cautious steps, his head hung low, sniffing the ground. Then he halted. The tip of his dusty nose skimmed the earth. After a moment, he turned sharply toward the north, keeping his pulsing nostrils close to the ground. Back and forth for extended moments (like a pendulum clock running down) the coyote sniffed until he discovered the source of the scent he had detected: eleodes armata—a dull-black, armored stink beetle. Impulsively he touched the beetle with his nose, licked it and hopped back a step. The coyote was fascinated. The beetle was annoyed. The coyote snapped at it twice, bobbing his head like a chicken pecking at meal. On the third lunge, the beetle oriented its abdomen and squirted the coyote’s snout. He yelped, retreated a few steps and sneezed, shaking his head repeatedly as though he thought it possible to cast off the stench like a soiled garment. The coyote gradually sat back on his haunches and began a careful process of licking his nose and jowls clean. Meanwhile, the beetle continued toward a clump of yucca with the waggle of an officious banker who considered delays of business bothersome. After completing his toilet, the coyote resumed his canter.
If the beetle marched off like a businessman, the coyote loped away with the distractable air of a boy on his lazy way home from school. Every clump of Indian ricegrass and every nearby specimen of Artemisia warranted investigation and more sniffing. Over the next ten minutes he made his zig-zag way gradually closer to the end of the wash. At one point a scrub jay “graaked” abruptly from the top of a neighboring juniper, flew off, and sent the startled coyote running ten paces away from the tree as though it were a shouting man. For several minutes afterwards, the coyote’s demeanor was that of a hunted, fidgety convict. He periodically stopped to look back over his shoulder at the juniper and smell the air.
The change of direction brought him eventually into the wash bottom. He ambled along it for a space, weaving around stunted tamarisk and an occasional gnarled juniper, and then a new scent led him up out of it on the north side. He mounted a sequence of diminutive rises that swelled like waves nearing a shore. A final rise leveled out for a space and the coyote walked warily ahead until he paused, poised between two sagebrush that were twice as tall as he. As he passed beyond them to the great cliff-edge of Dalton’s wash, he resembled a rumpled, forgotten Ozymandias emerging warily from a portal in his ruined palace to look upon his forlorn kingdom. For a full minute the coyote scanned the scene that lay at his feet. Even the animal-instinct for perpetual motion, it appeared, could be stilled briefly by the vast and beautiful.
If the coyote had a capacity for math, he would have known that the vista at the end of Dalton’s Wash afforded a vision that encompassed several hundred square miles of sandstone canyons, rims, washes, buttes and tablelands. Toward the south, an endless mesa, topped with low brown hills and rimmed with white sandstone was intersected by countless canyons and washes that looked like hollow hungry fingers scraping grooves out of the living earth. Out west, the land was shaped by a sequence of steppes and low-slung buttes that gave the appearance of a series of shallow rusted stairs. The top stair formed the dominant line of horizon and, through the heat-hazed distance, appeared as some distant cousin to the cliff on which the coyote stood. Toward the north, wandering between and around four colossal plateaus, a thin green line marked the edge of the only major source of water that ran through the Mosaic: the Nevada River.
Nevertheless, the most imposing feature of the view that afternoon was the hulking cumulonimbus that slid imperiously out of the West. It was slowly flinging its sullen, lead-colored mane across incalculable tracts of sky so that an ever-growing shadow quietly devoured the heart of the Mosaic, washed it in semi-darkness, and began to climb the cliff beneath the coyote’s perch. The coyote lifted his head and stared at the cloud for a time. The sun rimmed its towering piles with a glowing halo. The coyote blinked repeatedly as he gazed up. The air grew tense as it grew even thicker. A hot breeze began to rise. The coyote smelled the wind and, impulsively, turned around to stride back up the canyon.
Up and over the series of rises, back down into the wash-bed the coyote wandered until, rounding a bend in its course, he halted suddenly. Twenty yards ahead two white-tailed jackrabbits sat tensely crouched under a hackberry. They, too, felt the storm’s approach and were instinctively waiting as though the thunderhead gripped them by an invisible hypnotic hand. The coyote lowered his head and fixed his gaze upon them. Gusts of wind coming from the Mosaic carried the scent of the coyote down the wash ahead of him. As if he knew this, he burst into a dead-run across the scraped rock of the wash, jumped over the body of a downed pinion pine, and shot toward the rabbits.
They spied the coyote just as he cleared the tree trunk. With squeals and widened, fear-filled eyes and flattened ears, the rabbits hurtled together down the streambed away from the predator, scattering dust and small pebbles behind them. As though they were braiding the air, the female criss-crossed the wake of the male as they bolted through the curves of the waterway. The coyote strained to catch them, his tongue lolling.
After a panicked sprint, the rabbits slid under a large flat rock that lay, slightly tilted, in the middle of wash. The coyote skidded up to the rim of it, sniffing violently around its circumference. He ran to and fro, whining, trying to scan the shadowy ground under the rock. After a few seconds the male rabbit fled from cover and made three bounds up the north side of the wash and over onto the open country of the canyon. With less celerity, but eagerly, the coyote scrambled up the shoulder and ran after his quarry. The rabbit wove through clumps of grass and brush. The coyote leaped and spun in pursuit.
After a few moments, fortuitously, the rabbit spied a disused but intact entrance to an old warren under a gnarled arm of sagebrush root. He hurled himself down into it like a soldier under fire finding his foxhole. He crawled three or four feet into the tunnel and turned around to look out, breathing heavily and sniffing the air. His watching, luminescent eyes seemed to possess a kind of prescience. The bright circle of light circumscribed by the doorway of the warren was quickly occluded by a furry snout that made its way a few inches down the tunnel. The air rushed stiffly and loudly into the coyote’s nose while he sucked in the scent of the rabbit. It was as if he expected to inhale his meal. The rabbit backed down the hole another foot. The coyote’s sniffing, frantic digging at the opening, and desperate whining continued for a full minute until he raised his head and tacitly acquiesced to defeat –and hunger.
Meanwhile, several seconds after the male rabbit and the coyote disappeared over the bank, the female rabbit emerged diffidently from under the rock. She sniffed the breeze, hopped twice and sniffed some more. A scent her nose caught made her crouch. She waited, ears back, tensed. After a few more seconds she craned her head up into the air and smelled again. So cautiously and slowly did she finally clamber up the slope that she appeared to be dragging an unseen weight. She crested the wash-side and sought the shelter of a sagebrush. For nearly a minute she sniffed and rested. The gusting wind increased. Dust swirled in miniature devils through the lanes between junipers, sagebrush, and grasses. As she waited, the canyon around her was quietly swallowed by the shadow of the cloud and the pressing storm.
The coyote had resumed his distracted wanderings. He headed east, being driven like an errant leaf by the vigorous wind. Suddenly, his loping form swung into view from behind a juniper ten yards away, and although he did not see her, the sight of him sent the female rabbit scrambling in terror back down into the wash, across the bottom, and up the southern bank. She ran and ran. A house-sized jumble of sandstone boulders appeared as she cleared a small rise. She halted beside a juniper to smell the air and scan the outcropping ahead. Another gust of wind sprayed dirt up in front of her and set her running toward the boulders. Just as she neared the shelter of the closest rock, a blur of brown flashed over her shoulder.
In an instant, the female rabbit felt several fire-like points pierce her back and sides. She writhed and tried to run, but the weight of the Swainson’s hawk pinned her on her side in the dirt. Her claws scraped dust frantically, leaving arcing grooves in the soil. She could not get traction. She lay still for a moment. Her blood-shot eyes rolled. She screamed twice and struggled once more to lift her body. While the rabbit vainly strained, the hawk kept his wings outspread, arched, waving slightly like some wide-eyed Aztec priest presiding over a blood sacrifice.
After a few moments, the rabbit ceased to move or to breathe. As the triumphant hawk began his meal, the wind whipped. Then a light rain began to fall on the hawk, the loping coyote, the lone male jackrabbit, the canyon, and the man on the south rim of the canyon who had been watching everything.
The Lost Appendix to Plutarch’s Biography of Fabius by Matthew Turnbull
It became a noted custom among Roman generals of the time whenever one would send a query by messenger to another after the close of a skirmish or when one would return from a battle to enter the precincts of Rome that he would ask or be asked, Quid eum egit or “What did that?” This question was always followed by the name of the town or army against which the Roman forces had waged war. Thus, a Roman commander who had just plundered Aleria, upon his return would hear the words Quid eum egit, Aleria?, or “What did that, Aleria?” Awkward to our ears as it is, it sufficed for the military culture of Rome at the time.
Perhaps it was a habit that spread throughout the world from the terse Lacedaemonians or perhaps it was just a carryover from the field of the blunt, grammatically awkward wordings employed by so many military men who found compactly phrased messages to this or that adjutant of this or the other wing of the army during the fume of battle to be the most effective method for making one’s orders or needs known. The form of these messages came to constitute a sort of dialect or code that persisted and was added to during the ages between the consulship of Valerius (or Publicola as he is now known) to the time of Caius Marius who, as a foremost of tyrranizers, eradicated this dialect of the battlefield in an attempt to impress his stamp on every aspect of Roman life.
However the custom arose, what this question actually represented was a request for a rendition of the losses extracted by the enterprise. Though the query was terse—“What did that?”—the answer, as it happened with this custom, rarely was. In fact, this question most often indicated to the returning general that he had an audience and that his fellow commanders were eager to know the minutest proceedings and the casualties (as I mentioned) as well as whatever glories or humiliations wereassociated with the conquest. Though I have digressed, all of this allows the reader appreciate the famous Roman adage that arose in connection with this tradition and the remarkable story of one of Fabius Maximus’ lesser known generals, Teges.
Of Teges’ family we have little knowledge. There is a legend that Teges’ great grandfather was a part of the famous battles of Brundusium in Calabria during the consulship of Valens and that he was the soldier who fought so hardily and bravely before the city walls. It was said that when he became unhelmed in a sword fight with the Brundusian commander, his long, red hair fell suddenly down upon his shoulders and that such a strange appearance, especially from a soldier of the Romans who were known to clip their heads closely in those days, caused his opponent to hesitate and Teges’ great-grandfather struck him down and thus the tide of battle changed and victory for the Romans soon followed. Though his mother made this story known to all her acquaintances after the incident we are yet to relate occurred, Teges himself would only smile and never confirmed the truth of it. Teges’ mother weknow to have been Marcia, and his father was Lucian of Reate.
Like his father, Teges was known as a laconic and witty sort of fellow. Though he spoke infrequently in the discussions at the senate, his remarks were often incisive, sometimes acerbic, and nearly always memorable. During his days, it became a proverb in the Senate that, if someone was markedly restrained but given to aphorisms, he was said to have lingua Tegei or the “tongue of Teges.” One of his noteworthy remarks in this context arose when the senators were debating the fate of one Elianus who had incited a mutiny during some exercises at sea when a storm had overtaken the ship he was on. When Commodius through his eloquence had nearly persuaded the crowd to acquit Elianus, a move that would have been pestiferous to the morale and discipline of the seafaring troops at the time, Teges is said to have turned to his neighbor and remarked, “Though he appear as a dog, though he smiles, a hyena knows no master.” Though it was intended as a passing comment, the ears of many caught it and they carried it through the throng until all minds had translated the sense of his comparison and, realizing the dangerous course they were near to adopting, repented of their consideration and Elianus was condemned. Perhaps this gives the reader a sufficient sense that our Teges was a man of wit as well as action, as we shall now see.
It will be easily remembered that Fabius was conducting the war against Hannibal. And ashe had laid great waste to the cities of Tuscany, much of Rome was in severe perplexity as to how they were to engage and defeat the Carthaginians. Flaminius, as we have remarked elsewhere, in defiance of Fabius’s cautious counsel, gathered a large host of the bravest of the Romans and engaged Hannibal on the shores of Lake Thrasymene, a battle which destroyed not merely 15,000 of Rome’s choicest soldiers but also her confidence and security. Thus ennervated, the senators hastily appointed Fabius as dictator and, in such office, he began his pursuit of Hannibal that was as wise as it was careful. But many within the ranks, as well as back in Rome, took great exception to Fabius’ systematic avoidance of direct engagement with Hannibal and considered it to be a pusillanimous policy as opposed to what it really was, the only truly effective way to gradually deplete Hannibal’s supplies and morale. Had Fabius been left to pursue this policy, it is only certain that Hannibal would have been defeated long before Scipio accomplished the task. But of that, more elsewhere.
The incident for which Teges is remembered occurred during the first phase of Fabius’ pursuit of Hannibal. Fabius knew that a direct engagement of Hannibal was precisely what Hannibal was maneuvering for, confident as he was of his military superiority and his strategy. And so, shrewdly, Fabius kept his forces well out of striking range of Hannibal, but well within sight of him, and so tracked and mirrored his adversary’s movements like some kind of phantom or distant shadow. This policy maddened not only Hannibal who spent great effort in seeking to bait Fabius, but Fabius’ troops as well. But before the unrest among the Romans moved Minucius (one of Fabius’ more irascible, impatient commanders) to hasty and disastrous insubordinate action, Hannibal, himself, made a false move. He had commanded his leaders to move the Carthaginian troops to Casinum in order to provide needed pasture for their horses, but his commanders misunderstood his broken Latin and led the troops instead to the valley of the Lothronus river and the towns of Casilinum and Cos. This valley was bounded on either side by high, rocky ridges and was entered on the west through a relatively narrow defile that forced a marching army to reconfigure their customary formation. The eastern end of the valley ended at the sea in a complex of marshes and miry bogs. The village of Casilinum rested on the “frontier of Campania” and in the center of the valley surrounded by the richest of pastureland. Cos, by contrast lay farther up at the head of the valley on a promontory of rock that jutted out from the northern ridge and sat at least a half stadium (about 100 meters) above the valley floor. The town could only be reached by a road that switchbacked up the talus slope. As Fabius realized, Hannibal’s entrance into the Lothronus valley resembled the fox entering the hunter’s trap with no notion of the danger. It was a just reward for Fabius’ patience and now he had only to carefully draw a noose around his opponent.
Darkness had nearly fallen when Hannibal and his forces had settled near the town of Casilinum. Fabius wasted no time in dispatching a force of five hundred pedites (foot infantry) into the the low pass at the head of the valley. Then he sent one of his trusted commanders, Teges, with only a half a century of trained soldiers to secure the town of Cos which he knew would prove to be a strategic redoubt in the coming battle. Two units of sagittarii (Roman archers) were to follow Teges and post themselves along the heights of the precipitous wall that surrounded Cos and towered so imposingly over the western end of the valley. The rest of his troops Fabius divided between himself and Minucius to form lines below the southern and northern ridges with Hannibal’s army between them. In this way, Fabius was positioned then like some great wolf resting his open jaws around his prey, patiently waiting for the precise moment in which to snap. It was assumed by all Romans that at first light, Fabius would vanquish his foe who would either realize his fault and flee into the marshes at the sea’s edge, or come careening up the valley into the arms of the waiting Romans. This was, as all were to learn, a great underestimation of Hannibal’s cunning and Teges was first to discover it.
As the pedites readily ensconced themselves in the pass, Teges took his fifty in the moonlit evening through a dense forest and then onto the road as it began its ascent up the slope toward Cos. They made their way quietly in two rows up the three switchbacks toward the gate. A hundred yards from the wall, Teges halted his troops and called them forward to where he was crouching in the shadows of some trees along the edge of the road. They looked in amazement at the city ahead of them. The gate was wide open. This was not what they had expected and, after some quick conference between Teges and Euanes, another officer, Teges decided to proceed by himself toward the watchman’s hut to determine their course of action, all the while assured that the Cossians were waiting to receive Fabius as a saviour from the invading Carthaginians. He skulked ahead as the troops watched, none of them really daring to breathe. When he reached the gateway, a voice whispered out to him. “We received your payment and the city is yours. Watch out, Fabius’ troops are surrounding you. Bring in your men.”
Teges knew precisely what that meant and, playing the part, motioned for his fifty to proceed. It was as they crept forward that the watchman asked him for an answer. Teges’ Latin was too good for one of Hannibal’s soldiers and the watchman growing suspicious yelled an alert to one of his fellows. The sound of many Cossian soldiers scurrying around the entrance could be heard and the great gates of the city began to swing closed. Several arrows flew past Teges and into the roadway and as Teges hesitated, he beheld a small band of Cossian soldiers with spears rush from the shadow of the inner city toward the gateway. It was a decisive moment and Teges recognized that if the gates were closed, the advantage of surprise would be lost and the city with it. As the ponderous doors swung to, Teges flung himself at them and succeeded in jamming his right arm and leg forward just as they were about to heave to. The momentum of those great gates severed his arm just below the elbow and thoroughly crushed his knee. He yelled to his men, but they were already upon him and, with the gap created by Teges, pulled the doors back open far enough to gain sight of the Cossian band on the other side. Those soldiers of Cos, even with the advantage of the doors were no match for the well-trained 50 of Teges’ unit. There ensued several minutes of tense sword fighting at the doorway and, gradually, Teges’ men advanced to within the entrance of the city. By that time they received aid from the two units of archers whom Fabius had sent after them and, in a matter 15 minutes, Cos was taken by the Romans.
After he had dispatched a messenger to Fabius, Euanes sent four men with the mangled body of Teges down to the main camp with all haste. When they arrived, Fabius and several other generals including the renown Marcellus were waiting in the command tent. He was brought before them and, as the doctor set about his work, Fabius walked slowly over to his litter and saluted him. Then he crouched down and asked the customary question “What did it, Cos?” Barely opening his eyes, Teges met his general’s gaze, and with a perfect mixture of irony and gravity said only, “An arm and a leg.”
Is It Futile to Follow Yahweh?
Cornerstone Bible Church
On January 28, 1948, in a small town in the West African country of Liberia, Charles Taylor was born. Forty-nine years later, he was elected President of his nation. Although the 1997 election was declared “free,” Taylor’s tangled path to power glowed red with embezzlement, murder and violence.
Educated in the U.S., Charles Taylor earned a degree in economics in his thirties from Waltham College in Massachussetts. Noted for his eloquence and personal confidence, he returned to Liberia in 1980 to serve in President William Tolbert’s government. In a few months, Tolbert was murdered in a military coup led by Samuel Doe. The new President appointed Charles Taylor as the Government Purchasing Agent. Over the next three years Taylor successfully embezzled close to one million dollars from his country. His treachery was discovered and he fled to the U.S. where he was arrested, spending one year in prison. In 1985 he escaped from jail and made his way back to Africa where he spent the following four years amassing and training an army.
In 1990, his National Patriotic Front of Liberia joined forces with Prince Johnson’s army, invaded Liberia, overthrew the government and executed Samuel Doe. However, the alliance between Taylor and Johnson swiftly wilted and the two factions immersed Liberians in a seven-year civil war that reportedly “claimed 200,000 lives, created one million refugees, and shattered the once-prosperous nation.”
During the years of this conflict, Taylor’s men were engaged in a filthy campaign. In one episode his forces “were blamed for the vicious murder of five American nuns at a rural mission.” He forced hundreds of boys (some only six-years-old) into his “infamous Small Boy Unit” from which they were sent to the front lines of the battle. Later, these same boys were “kicked out of the army and left to wander the streets of Monrovia, where many [had to] beg for a living.”
Eventually his forces gained the upper hand, and because he had the financial resources and the personal charisma, Taylor easily won the presidential election in 1997. Upon taking office he stated, “I have already apologized to the Liberian people. I have asked for their forgiveness, and I have also forgiven them.... Wars are terrible wherever they are, and things happen you cannot account for."
But Taylor’s rule as President continued his epic story of oppression and thuggery. He soon began arming rebels in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone to continue expanding his power and incite a civil war there. In exchange for weapons, he received a king’s ransom in diamonds. He depleted the precious timber resources of Liberia to finance his operations. His government instituted “pillage, slavery for forced marriage purposes, collective punishment, and [continued] the recruitment and use of child soldiers.” In Sierra Leone and Liberia, his regime was known especially for the mutilation of those who resisted. And, like Stalin, over the years Taylor systematically executed many of the most faithful men in the inner circle of his government if he sensed they had become a threat to his power or public image.
In an act of ultimate arrogance and irony, in April of 2002, President Taylor declared a “Liberia for Jesus” rally. Thousands of Liberians packed the sports stadium in the capital city of Monrovia where he ordered three days of fasting, prayer and repentance. According to one African analyst, the Jesus rally was merely a ploy to demonize those who were resisting his rule. In other words, he was willing to pose as a repentant president, to utter duplicitous prayers, if it would further establish his political power. This is merely the preface to the litany of his atrocities. To put it civilly, Charles Taylor is a monster. To know what more he has done ask Tom. Ask Todd. They have been to Liberia and seen firsthand the personal and political devastation of his leadership.
But there is a much more pressing question to pose than what has Charles Taylor done. The question that leaps like fire to our minds is this: Where was God? Did He even know about Charles Taylor and the Liberian people? If He knew, why did He allow this kind of suffering--this kind of unbelievable injustice? And why did God seemingly “reward” Charles Taylor with expanding prosperity and increasing power while he crushed and oppressed hundreds of thousands? Does God care about those young children who were forced to commit horrendous deeds of violence? Does he care about a nation of real people like us who have been daily suffering under not only the heavy load of poverty but the suffocating blanket of fear and terror? If God allows such things, should we trust Him? Does it really matter if we serve Him or not if this is the kind of reward His faithful followers must face?
Guess what. In the Bible, God takes all of these burning questions, wraps them together and poses it this way: Is it futile to follow Yahweh? That is the question we want an answer to. And, thankfully, Psalm 73 was written as a square and forthright answer to this very question. As we open our Bibles, let’s pray.
A Preview of what is ahead: This psalm of Asaph’s starts with a prologue. At the beginning of the story comes the end of the story in the form of two confessions. In section two, Asaph musters all of the most devastating evidence against the statement he made in the prologue. In the third section, Asaph reflects on what ideas seem to be unavoidably drawn from the opposing evidence. He is deeply troubled and his faith is shaken. Then, in section four we see that all of the devastating evidence and the conclusions that seem to flow necessarily from it are themselves devastated by one, single, great Fact. From this one Fact, a new, Final Conclusion arises and Asaph proclaims his manifesto in light of it.
I. First, A Prologue in the form of Two Confessions, vv. 1-3 (READ)
A. A Confession of Faith—v. 1
This opening statement is akin to the disclaimer one gives before telling a harrowing story. Suppose you were going to read The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and your father, knowing that Robinson suffers two shipwrecks, is enslaved by Muslim pirates, contracts malaria, is attacked by cannibals and marooned on a deserted island for 28 years feels it necessary to tell you in advance that “Son, I want you to know, Robinson does live. Though it looks frequently hopeless, He makes it through all of his adventures.”
It is as if Asaph says “What you are about to see is discouraging and appalling, but the conclusion of it all is this: Truly, God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” This is his confession of faith.
It would be hard to emphasize how useful and transforming a cement-like conviction of the truth of this one idea can be for us. Asaph is telling us the moral of the story right here in the front and it is the one, unassailable, unwavering, irrefutable thing in the universe, no matter how that universe arranges itself on a given day: God is good to His children. He confesses this central truth and, as we will see, he fought hard to discover it, and as of first importance, he wants you and I to keep that idea grasped firmly in their minds as he chronicles the course of his struggles and temptations. God is good to those who are pure in heart.
Now, before we proceed, we have to stop right here and settle what will become a second burning question as we go, how can I have a pure heart? How can I be one of God’s righteous children? That very thing is what we celebrate today when we remember the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. This crucifixion and this resurrection is the means by which you and I can become pure in heart and God’s children. Those who trust in Christ have, as Hebrews 10 (19-22) states, “confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated through . . . his flesh.” The blood Jesus lost on the cross, is means by which we find life. The body of Christ that was broken, is the living way by which our brokenness is healed. Hebrews 10 goes on, “and since we have a great Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Don’t miss this! If we draw near to God, through Christ, in sincerity and faith, God Himself cleanses our hearts and washes us! Once more, we must rejoice in what God does through the death and resurrection of Christ. Truly, God is good to those who are pure in heart.
And this brings us to the second part of the prologue.
B. A Confession of Failing—v. 2-3
Though Asaph knew that God is good, he almost defected from God’s army and lost the spiritual battle. His steps were dangerously close to stumbling and slipping out of rank. That is, He almost concluded that God isn’t good to His children. How? How could a leader in Israel who had personal experience of God’s goodness come close to joining the spiritual ranks of those who oppose the Lord? He tells us.
It was envy. He was jealous of a certain group of people. Who? The boastful. The wicked. Why? Because they were prospering. Now this word for prosperity is an important one—it is the famous Hebrew word “shalom” and it means total welfare, a complete peace, or wholeness. It is the word one uses to indicate that, as the poet said, God’s in His heaven and all is right with the world. It is the word most often used in the OT for the kind of blessed life God’s people long to receive from their Creator. But here, Asaph shows us that this rich and excellent life filled with peace and good things is the very one that, not the righteous, but the wicked and arrogant are enjoying! In fact, their life is so much this way that Asaph, one of Yahweh’s followers is jealous of them. Their prosperity is evident and enviable. The wicked are so abundantly prosperous that one of God’s people considers defecting in order to enjoy the shalom of God’s enemies. This is incredible. So much for Asaph’s confession. Now we will see why he struggled so much. Though God is, in fact, good to His people, the state of affairs in Asaph’s experience is precisely the reverse. In fact, it appears that Evil treats her children better than Yahweh treats His. So, Asaph presents . . .
II. The Shocking Evidence vv. 4-9 READ
v. 4—Many people die in travail. The wicked die painlessly.
Many people waste away in hunger. The wicked are fat.
v. 5—Most people suffer trouble and pain and misery. Not the wicked. Most people are plagued or stricken at times. The wicked escape it. As Job said, . . . the wicked still live, continue on, [and] also become very powerful . . . Their descendants are established with them in their sight, their offspring before their eyes; Their houses are safe from fear and the rod of God is not on them. (Job 21:7-9)
v. 6—Because the wicked are not pained or stricken like the rest of mankind, they are prideful. Their pride is obvious, like an expensive necklace. And this arrogance overflows into their dealings with other people in the form of violence and injustice. In fact, violence is so much a part of their lives, it is as though they wear it constantly, like a robe. Calvin said, they account all other men as nothing in comparison of themselves; or rather persuade themselves that mankind are born only for them . . . the mother of all violence is pride.
v. 7—Their ease and pride affects their eyes. Like a great eye too big for itself, so their heart’s imaginings and plans burst out and cross all limits. They dream grand but evil dreams.
v. 8 and 9—Like their eye, the tongue of the wicked is animated by pride. They mock and jeer and blaspheme God and their fellow-men. They talk about how to satisfy their own desires at the expense of others. They plan oppression and crime. In fact, it is as though their tongue is strutting through the earth speaking what it will and accomplishing it. It is as though their mouth sits up in the heavens making grand pronouncements against man and God and faith in God.
This occurrence is not just a fact in Asaph’s day. This is a perfect picture of the present. Take this assessment from the mouth of one our culture’s most respected and popular biologists—Richard Dawkins. Listen to Dawkin’s tongue parade through the earth for a moment in his book, The God Delusion: The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Does this kind of irreverence and arrogance cost him? No. He is praised. He was named author of the year by the British Galaxy Awards for this book in 2006. The editors of Time magazine list him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. For many years, Dawkins has been regarded as one of the most distinguished faculty members at Oxford. His life has been packed with talent, achievements and success.
This is the shocking evidence. The arrogant and proud promote evil and are rewarded for it. And followers of Yahweh, who embody the frailty of the human condition, watch from the side and consider it all. Here is what they think. Here is . . .
III. The Devastating Effect of the Shocking Evidence, vv. 10-16 READ
It is one thing to watch and observe such things. The real devastation happens when we reflect and consider its implications—when we compare the kind of life the wicked get to live with the kind the followers of Yahweh know.
v. 10While this verse is a bit hard to interpret, I believe Asaph is talking about God’s people. Matthew Henry thinks God’s people “drink deeply of the bitter cup of affliction.” Yahweh’s people mix in the world and see the luxuries enjoyed by those who spurn and revile God and then they return to the temple and cry. Their eyes shed “abundant waters” as they grieve over the apparent injustice. These are, as an example, the Christian Liberians who are vexed and perplexed.
v. 11 And, then, the seemingly inevitable questions are posed. How! Does God know? Does the Most High have knowledge of what is happening in low parts of the earth? Who is asking this? It could very well be the wicked. They have every right—based on the endless success of their oppression and wickedness— to assume that God does not even know, that He does not care, and that He is not a factor to be reckoned with. It could also be God’s people who are seeing the world go as it does and wondering if God is even watching, if the Most High even concerns Himself with what happens in the world of men.
v. 12-14Then Asaph draws the contrast and the logic starkly in these three verses. First the contrast: compare v. 12 and 14: Behold! Look at the wicked! They are always at ease! They are secure! They are always growing in strength and wealth! Behold the followers of Yahweh: “I have been stricken all day long!” “I have been chastened and corrected every morning!” We can hear this same theme echoed by David in Psalm 38:
1 O Lord, rebuke me not in Your wrath, And chasten me not in Your burning anger. 2 For Your arrows have sunk deep into me, And Your hand has pressed down on me. 3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation; There is no health in my bones because of my sin. 4 For my iniquities are gone over my head; As a heavy burden they weigh too much for me. 5 My wounds grow foul and fester Because of my folly. 6 I am bent over and greatly bowed down; I go mourning all day long.
Asaph feels this. We know this. God’s love and grace at certain seasons can come in the form of stripes and rebukes and correction. There is nothing like the feeling of getting to school and seeing that Burton Black’s mom packed chocolate cake and a Hi-C in his lunch while your mom gave you extra carrots. So, the sorrow of receiving God’s discipline is only tripled when we decide to play the comparison game, when one sees his wicked neighbor enjoying health and happiness. Asaph makes clear that kind of comparison here: The result of a wickedly-lived life—ease and growing prosperity; the result of a righteously-lived life—daily stripes and chastening. And this comparison naturally leads him to . . .
the logic. Here we come to the dark heart of this psalm and the central error that, like a gaping canyon, waits to swallow the believer. Based on the obvious evidence (that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer) an equally obvious conclusion forces its way into the heart of Asaph and any observant Christian: Surely! (Certainly, Indeed!) It is vain—empty! worthless!—to serve Yahweh. As Asaph declares, “It is for nothing that I have kept a pure heart.” “It is useless that I have cleansed my hands.” “I strive to keep my inner and outer life pleasing to God and I receive discipline and distress, while those who care nothing for purity or innocence, who rather practice blasphemy and crime, are living the best of earthly lives.” He is on the very cusp of crying out: “I give up.”
v. 15-16 But before he actually does give up and broadcast his new unbelief to the world and assault the faith of his brethren, Asaph hesitates. He knows what is at stake. “If I say this—that it is futile to follow Yahweh—I will betray (the word means to “deal deceitfully with”) this generation of followers. If I proclaim the vanity of faith, I will be the Benedict Arnold of God’s people.” And so, it seems, he refrains. He does not say it aloud, though it is screaming in his head. He keeps his thoughts to himself, though his soul is vexed. The problem burns brightly still inside him. When he ponders, he is troubled. The questions, undoubtedly, nag him. Given that the wicked do indeed, actually succeed and enjoy life, doesn’t that nullify the meaning of a life lived righteously? Isn’t it a waste of time to follow Yahweh? If comfort and security and ease are, apparently, reserved for the arrogant, isn’t wickedness a better way to live? If the wicked are going to be allowed to keep oppressing and persecuting the righteous, shouldn’t I join them? Why should I keep striving against what feels like a growing and unconquerable darkness?
Have you ever wondered such things? I am confident you have. In your own small or big way I think you have wondered if God is really that sovereign, that observant, that fair after all. God knows you wonder that. In fact, even if you haven’t wondered, or ever stopped to consider this thorny problem before, God anticipated you by helping you ponder it here. He inspired Asaph about 3000 years ago to write this. He knows all about this temptation—an almost irrefutably logical one—that confronts every believer who is serious about living this life for Yahweh, in opposition to a dark world.
Thankfully, Asaph sees through the meretricious logic because God is going to reveal to his wavering, doubting child the one, simple, great Fact that trumps all others. It is . . .
IV. The One Forgotten Fact that Explodes the Evidence vv. 17-20
This is the crux. On this verse the whole psalm pivots. This discovery of Asaph’s is like Copernicus’. Because of it, everything changes. For centuries human beings in Western Culture conceived of the entire universe as a series of concentric spheres all centered on one planet—earth. Then Copernicus and Kepler and Galileo made their observations and realized that the center of the known cosmos had just leaped up and resettled upon a new axis. What was indisputably true for over 200o years for the Greeks, for the Romans and the Medievals was, relatively suddenly, proved to be a fallacy. The ancient, venerated Ptolemaic image of the universe was discarded and replaced violently by a brave new one.
So Asaph’s mind and heart are in anguish until he comes into the sanctuary of God. There he makes a discovery—or a rediscovery—that reorients the center of his thoughts and his heart. (By the way, since this is such a crucial verse, we should probably ask, What is the sanctuary of God? The Temple? Yes, likely. But it is probably more than that. It is the place where God presides; it is the place where God’s truth and His ways dominate. The sanctuary is, according to John Gill, possibly a symbol of the Scriptures, which are “profitable for instruction, and are to be consulted and entered into by a serious reading and by deep meditation on them.” Let us learn from Asaph—when we are distressed, let us come to the Lord for wisdom and pour out our hearts to him. He will open our eyes.)
In the sanctuary, in the place where God’s truth is vivid, Asaph sees the end or ultimate outcome for the wicked. This is the one, temporarily forgotten, simple, great Fact. While he was gazing at the ways of the world, Asaph was deceived. The appearance of things captured his understanding. The great mountain of shocking evidence of injustice smothered his earlier convictions of truth. If the sky and stars are all that looks down upon men, he realized, then there is no hope. If this present moment forms the perfect seat in which to sit and pronounce judgment on the justice or injustice of the world, then there seems to be no use to righteousness. But the sky and stars are not all there is. God is over all and sees all the sons of men. This present moment is not the perfect moment at which to make final pronouncements. Rather, there is a future Day that looms majestically over every day preceding it. Asaph comes into the sanctuary and his eyes are opened. And so are ours.
v. 18-19Look what God will do to His enemies—to the wicked and arrogant and violent. God sets them in slippery places. He sets their feet on an icy hill, on a frosty cliff. He casts them down to destruction. He throws them down to ruin. God destroys them in a moment—literally, in a wink. They are completely snatched away by sudden alarms. Please note, God’s judgment, when it comes, will be abrupt and surprising. The wicked will not expect it, and then, it will fall upon them irreversibly and it will be terrifying. This idea of a sudden realization of terror reminds us of the morning, about 100 years after crazy Noah started working on that ark, that it began to rain. We can wonder how many hours it took for the people to realize, too late, that there was actually a reckoning for all of their thoughts and acts of crime and oppression.
v. 20 Finally, God will despise His enemies. You how it is when we sleep. We dream and, while we are dreaming, the dream is as real as though we were awake. We walk in our dreams, we talk, we are happy, we run, we are terrified, we cry. The dream is engrossing. It is, for a short time, our total reality. And then, in a moment, we wake up. And though it takes a second, our thoughts clear and we say “Phew, it was only a dream.” What looked completely real was merely a figment of our imagination. That is what God thinks of the wicked. As though He slept, God waits patiently. He endures the spurning and reviling and the hatred and the ignoring and the crime and the violence and the pride and the oppression. But then, He rouses himself and casts His clear, piercing eye of justice upon them, and they are despised. They are scorned like a figure in a dream. They last for a short time and then, they are swept away with the dawn.
This one, simple, great Fact of the ultimate, irrevocable judgment of those who forsake God is a theme throughout the Bible.
Psalm 37–The wicked will perish; and the enemies of the Lord will be like the glory of the pastures, they vanish, like smoke they vanish away (v. 20).
Isaiah 1:28-31 Transgressors and sinners will be crushed together, And those who forsake the Lord will come to an end. 30 For you will be like an oak whose leaf fades away. Or as a garden that has no water. 31 The strong man will become tinder, His work also a spark. Thus they shall both burn together, And there will be none to quench them.
2 Thessalonians 1:7b-9 . . . the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.
This is the one, simple, great Fact that explodes the temporary but tempting appearance of things on the earth. Perhaps those who forsake God are at ease right now, but they will soon be thrown down. Perhaps the prideful oppress those who seek God right now, but they will soon be terrified. Perhaps the arrogant are fat and comfortable and successful and make great pronouncements, but soon, their voices will turn to wailing and their comfort will turn to torment and their success will be consumed in the greatest failure and despair a man or woman can know. God will judge His enemies. It is a fact. It is the Fact to which all other facts must bow. It has not happened yet, but it will. In one way, God’s judgment is the ultimate affirmation of His faithfulness. He is faithful to His Word. If a man spurns it, God will faithfully judge him. If a man follows it, God will faithfully, ultimately reward him. Asaph sees it all clearly now. And so do we.
V. The One Faithful Person Who Conquers the Devastating Effects vv. 21-24
Before he declares his renewed faith in Yahweh, Asaph looks carefully at what kind of fellow this deception turned him into. He is, in effect, asking how he has been treating God all the while he has been lamenting the prosperity of the wicked and his own contrasting distresses. And, he looks with wonder at how God has been treating him all that while.
Let’s learn from what happened to Asaph when he engaged in the Grand Comparison Exercise. In order to play this game one must a) forget about the future—it is only the present state of the opponent’s affairs and one’s own that matters at all; b) exaggerate the blessings of the opponent, and c) diminish and disesteem one’s own blessings. The fourfold reward for successfully playing (and winning) is as follows.
v. 21 First, naturally, Bitterness of Heart.
Secondly, Deep Piercing Sorrow—the kind that worms down even into the kidneys (as the language implies). Think about it, any time you decide to engage in comparing your state to anyone else’s the result can never be that good. If you come out ahead, it is with that tinny, hollow sense of self-satisfaction. But usually, you are the silent loser. When that is the case, of course your comparison will turn to envy and your envy to bitterness and your bitterness to a deep, settled, constant pang.
v. 22 Third, Senselessness. This kind of exercise leads ultimately to an impairment of one’s ability to think clearly in light of truth. In fact, it leads to forgetting the truth and it leads to non-thinking.
The fourth and final reward is to become a mindless beast—as the word implies: a large, unthinking cow. It only makes sense (if one can say that here) that Asaph, and all who succumb to this fatal error are actually considering abandoning Yahweh because of the earthly comforts and treasures and ease they do not presently possess! They—we—actually think it might have been better if we had been living worldly, ungodly lives all this time. Perhaps we were wrong to leave it all for the polyanna promises of a kingdom we barely understand ruled by a King we cannot see. What!? Can that even be called thinking? No wonder Asaph says he was a beast. But though cows and horses know their masters, Asaph was near to abandoning his. And so, perhaps beast is too good a word.
Psalm 49:20 Man in his pomp, yet without understanding, is like the beasts that perish.
Psalm 92:6-7 A senseless man has no knowledge, nor does a stupid man understand this, that when the wicked sprouted up like grass and all who did iniquity flourished, it was only that they might be destroyed forevermore.
Think about it. To view the wicked as enviable is senseless. To consider living in relationship with God as profitless is ignorant. It is stupid. It is beastly. What a fool Asaph was. What a fool am I. What a hopeless fool! But fortunately this fool, this beast, was not being beastly and foolish alone. Look what verse 22 says: I was a beast before You.
vv. 23-24 How does God treat His children when they are in this state? When Asaph was at his lowest and most despicable, when he was so in thrall to this deadly deception, God was faithful to Him. God does not leave His children when they are embittered. He does not leave His people when they render themselves senseless, ignorant and beastly. Even during the donkey days, Asaph was continually with God. God never left him, even when he was on the verge of speaking lies about Yahweh’s faithfulness.
God took hold of his right hand, much as a parent takes hold of a child’s hand when he stumbles. If her dad had not been there, the little girl would have fallen when she tripped over the sagebrush. But she did not fall. Her dad held her hand. So, God holds your hand. And God counsels His children and His counsel is trustworthy. He guides them. Much as a beast’s master knows what is best and where the animal should go, so God shepherds his children even when they cannot reason. His counsel is sure. His guidance is good. (Please note how crucial is God’s Word to His children!) And His goal is glory itself. God will be faithful, though His servants stumble. They can trust Him to the very end. Then, he will receive them to glory. Note this, too! Glory is the destiny of the righteous!
Remember that earlier comparison between the wicked and the righteous in the first part of Asaph’s song? Many people die in travail. The wicked die painlessly. Many people waste away in hunger. The wicked are fat. Most people suffer trouble and pain and misery. Not the wicked. Most people are plagued or stricken at times. The wicked escape it. The righteous are stricken all day and chastened every morning. The arrogant are always at ease, increasing in wealth.
In this passage a new comparison comes to light.
God is continually with His children, but He places the wicked in slippery places.
God holds those who trust Him by the hand, but He hurls the arrogant into ruin.
God guides His followers with the counsel of His Word while He sweeps the prideful away suddenly in terror. God receives His children into glory, He despises the image of the wicked as though they were a figment from a dream. No wonder John the Apostle and C.S. Lewis compared Christ to a Lion.
Because of the one, simple, great Fact of God’s judgment, a newly risen Sun sheds its light over the whole, once dark earth.
Now we know how Asaph feels as he declares his allegiance to God in the final section of his song in his . . .
VI. A Manifesto of Faith vv. 25-28
If we needed to, we might call this the Epilogue. I prefer to conceive of it as Asaph’s bold credo, even in the face of unthinkable, but very temporary earthly evil and suffering. It is as though he is shouting this creed in the hearing of all the angels, the demons, the oppressive rulers, the humble kings, the well-dressed cultural heroes and the starving poor. It is his manifesto for the common follower of Yahweh. If we can be permitted to change the pronouns, let’s take it as our own.
Whom do I have in heaven? (This is a rhetorical question.) God alone!
Then, naturally, what else could I desire on earth? Justice? Freedom from fear? Earthly comfort and ease? The chance to indulge in a little pride? With You, Lord, I desire nothing else on earth. You, God, are the sum of all Desire, the Longing of the World. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Even if my flesh fails, even if my heart gives out, God is my strength and my portion. Psalm 18:2 The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer . . .
Those far away from God will perish. (Are you far away from God? James says “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”) God himself will destroy all those who are unfaithful to Him. His judgment, though it waits, will come. As Churchill said of the war against Nazi evil, “though the mills of God grind slowly, they do ground fine.” Hitler is gone. He had his day and it was sable black, but it is permanently over. Charles Taylor is, today, sitting in prison in the Hague standing trial for his deeds before an international court. And someday, Richard Dawkins will stand before the fictional God he so eloquently despises. God’s judgment is the one, simple, great Fact of the future. Therefore, in the meantime, though the prideful and wicked may prosper and oppress, will you, with Asaph say this? The nearness of God is my good. I will make the Lord God my refuge. I will trust in Him. And, privilege of privileges, I will proclaim, that God does work and His works are glorious.
Before we are done with Asaph’s song, we must realize one central problem and this will force us to consider a New Testament counterpart. We are all judgable. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All of us, like sheep, have gone astray. We have become God’s enemies through our sin. We are condemnable. How can we say with the psalmist, “the nearness of God is my good” when we have chosen distance ourselves from Him by choosing that which offends Him? We are playing games with God and ourselves if we do not admit that, though on a much smaller and socially acceptable scale, there is a little Charles Taylor in all of us.
Christ’s suffering on the cross provides the perfect example of Psalm 73. If you were a follower of Jesus standing at the foot of the cross, all earthly evidence is arrayed against you and your faith. The facts are screaming at you. It appears that the wicked have won. By every appearance the forces of evil, visible and invisible, have triumphed over goodness. Jesus is brutally murdered. But that is a temporary state of affairs and though it appears that evil wins, that the unrighteous are victorious, that the wicked prosper, here is the grand secret. That murder is actually salvation. That apparent triumph of evil is actually the triumph over all evil, even sin, even death itself. And the death of Christ is short-lived. In just three days He bursts out of the grave, alive and invulnerable to death. Thus, what looked like defeat is actually incredible victory. The death of Christ is the very thing that allows us to become pure in heart, to become followers of Yahweh, to be made righteous.
So it is with us. In “just a few days” the wicked will be judged and God will vindicate His children. Those who trust in Him will be rewarded. Those who do not will receive their reward. It is this difficult time between the crucifixion and resurrection in which we seem to be living today. Before it happened, the resurrection seemed a religious fantasy and mythical wish. Today, after it has happened, we believe that fantasy to be fact. And that Fact and the Fact of the judgment yet to come is why we say “The nearness of God is my good . . .
By Beauty Slain
Oft I’ve wondered when I’ve read
In Exodus Thirty-Three,
Why, when Moses to God said,
“Show me, Lord, Your glory.”
Right willing, God kindly deigned,
“You My glory will survey.
Yet,” (one thing He retained)
“You may not see My Face.”
And then, as if to Moses’
Hidden thought, a reply:
“For no man living thus
Can see Me, lest he die.”
And this is what I wonder:
What is it in that Face
That kills a man? Murders
Never happen by Grace.
Is it simple Holiness
Unalloyed, fierce, complete?
That masters human sense
And shamed, the soul retreats?
Is it concentrated Light
Of twenty million stars
Congeal’d with perfect Might?
Is this what blinds and mars?
That this dread Face like fire, pure,
Though a bush will not consume
Consumes the man through dying?
But is Goodness dread alone?
No. In God it wedded is
To Kindness, Mercy, Love,
Grace, and rich Forgiveness.
This I thought, as on I read
That though the man be dead
Who sees His Face before,
Perhaps ‘tis not Fear or Fire
Or crushing Righteousness
That kills. But deep Desire
And devouring thirstiness.
For what man who, once that Face
Beholds, could know pleasure
In earthly pride or place
Or richest worldly treasure?
Surely all this world can ne’er
With its pleasures fatten,
Nor this new thirst or hunger
Slake, delight or gladden.
He sees nothing but that Face
Who on that Face is gazing:
The soul aches, the heart breaks
And the man dies—from longing.
So not all deaths are dreadful,
Nor every passing grim.
But every man is joyful
Who is consumed by Him.