THE PUZZLE OF PROVIDENCE
July 8, 2007
I don’t know if you ever get to take a look at the want ads. I saw a want ad that somebody is supposed to have posted. I am not going to claim that this is absolutely true, but it sounds like it could be. It was a lost and found ad, and it said, “Lost dog. Brown fur; some missing due to mange; blind in one eye; three legs slightly arthritic; answers to the name ‘Lucky’.” Would you like to be that lucky?
Most of us realize that is one of the reasons why the theme of providence in scripture is one of the most encouraging and precious ideas that the Bible has. What it says to us is that God remains involved in the lives of his people, that God is active in his world, that he works to accomplish his purposes. In Psalm 37:23-24, there is this statement: “The steps of a man are established by the Lord when he delights in his way. Though he fall he shall not be cast headlong for the Lord upholds his hand.” We just sang about the Lord holding our hand and that is the idea of providence. In some way, it is true. In the song, “The Providence of God” by W.E. Brightwell and L.O. Sanderson, there is this stanza: “The mighty God, Omniscient One, His ways we cannot trace. He recons every good begun And crowns it with His grace. He’s here, and there, and everywhere. In all the ways I’ve trod. I’ve never passed beyond the sphere of the providence of God.” That idea that God remains with his people has been so precious over and over and over again.
But if it is true that there is no more encouraging theme than providence, it is also the case that there is no problem which has baffled the human mind more than God’s providence. How does he oversee his world in a morally upright way? One writer said, “The problem can be simply stated: ‘God has revealed himself as good and just, punishing wickedness and rewarding goodness. If he is all powerful as well as all good, why does he allow such a morally perverse state of affairs to continue on earth?’” (John Stott, Favorite Psalms, p. 62) If God is really involved and if he does providentially rule his creation, why does he allow sometimes the good to meet difficulty and the evil to seem to be doing just fine? It is a question for which no human that I know of has come up with an adequate answer.
The Experience of Psalm 73
Psalm 73, however, at least deals with the experience. The experience of Psalm 73 is really the story of a man who makes quite a journey, a journey from being at a place where his feet feel like they are about to slip out from under him to standing at a place where he feels like he is on good, solid ground and ready to meet whatever life may bring to him. Let’s take the walk with him through this experience.
It starts in verses 1 and 2 with the account of his weakened faith, something that made him feel like he was slipping. Notice, if you start in verse 1, that this is a fellow who was convinced of something about God. He said, “Truly (or surely) God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” What he is saying is that it truly is the case; everybody knows and believes that God is good to people and that he responds to goodness in the lives of people. But this man, though he believes this way, had almost stumbled. He says in verse 2, “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.” Have you ever been at a place where you felt like you were about to slip? As kids, we used to wade the creeks down home. If you get in one of the clear Ozark streams at the right time of the summer and you get on just the right rocks where that old mossy stuff has started forming on the bottom, you will be looking before long for something to catch on your way down. That is what it is to be slipping.
Not what is the problem that can make a man who thought God was good begin to slip? Well, the problem is his envy at the prosperity of the wicked. Look at verse 3. “For (here’s the reason I’m slipping) I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” In verse 12 he says, “Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.” When I looked around in view of the problems I felt like I was having, he says, and I saw that they were people who ignore God and their obligations to him, they ignore their neighbors and any need to treat their neighbors right, and seem to live such carefree lives, just doing whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it and never having a thought beyond that in the world, I was envious. I started sort of tending to wish that I could live that way.
His thinking is reinforced by what he observes about the experience of the wicked over these next few verses. First, he points out their seeming immunity to any kind of trouble. He says in verses 4 and 5, “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.” He is talking about people who seem to have a situation in life where everything is going just like you would want it to go, no problem, no worry.
Then, this leads to an arrogant outlook in this way of life. Verses 6-9 says, “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.” Look at all the arrogance, the looking down not only on other people but even on God or on any question of whether one ought to consider how he lives his life.
And to make things even worse for the Psalmist who looks at this, there is the apparent popularity of this outlook in the rest of the world. He says in verses 10-11, “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?’” They are thinking about what people think of them here and not what God thinks, and they seem to be the folks whose pictures would appear on the cover of “People” magazine or who would be named one of the most influential people of the year.
And he says in verse 12, “Behold, these are the wicked.” There is the problem he is dealing with. Do you realize that in some ways this is a more thorny problem than why bad things happen to good people? We can look at why bad things happen to otherwise good people, and maybe we can invent some possible lessons that we can learn. Maybe it increases our patience; maybe it puts our minds on heaven; maybe it helps us to grow more concerned about people around us. But this is the other side of that. Why, while bad things are happening to good people, does it seem to be that only good things are happening to bad people? That is the part of this that he struggles with. It is almost as if “Alright, I can endure what trouble I have to face if you just let something happen to the people who don’t have any faith in you, too.” That’s what bothers him. It is pretty human, isn’t it?
In the middle of this situation, the feelings that develop are where the slipperiness comes in. The first feeling he describes is the fear that maybe all of my efforts to be good have all been useless and meaningless. Verses 13 and 14 say, “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.” It hasn’t paid for me to try to follow the Lord at all.
And then notice he thinks, “I feel like I can’t really say how I truly feel” (v. 15). “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” I was going through these struggles; I felt like I couldn’t voice them because it might make somebody else stumble. That is one of the biggest problems when we feel like we are slipping or stumbling.
And then he says, “I got to the place where I was weary of even trying to come up with an explanation.” He says in verse 16, “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task.” What if the Psalm stopped right there? This would be a pretty disappointing journey, wouldn’t it?
There is a crucial word in the next verse – until. He begins to take some helpful action now. While he recognizes the problem and he feels like he is slipping over it, he begins to do some things that are actually going to help him. The first thing he does is to realize that he is a human being and not an animal. And as a human being, he has to think his way through these struggles and act thoughtfully in the presence of them and not merely react to feelings of fear like an animal might. Notice he says in verse 17, “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” Verses 21-22 say, “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.” I wasn’t thinking clearly, in other words. A person has to think about this.
And then thinking realistically about life in this world, there is the fact he recognizes that things are not as perfect with the wicked as they might have seen at first thought. Have you ever noticed what a capacity we have to assume that we are working harder than everybody else and everybody else is getting paid better than we are, that we are busier than everybody else and everybody else has more free time than we do, that we have weightier problems than everybody else and everybody else just has small cares? We all have that capacity. When you get weary and you feel like you are slipping, you look around at other people and you see all of the good that is going on. And since you are not God, you may not see any of the problems they are dealing with. But look at verses 18 and following, “Truly you set them in slippery places (notice that now he sees he is not the only one slipping); 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.” He is saying the wicked are truly not secure and prospering, but they are like ghosts in a dream who are pursuing a way of life which cannot possibly last for one simple reason. That reason is that some day our souls are required of us. We are not here permanently.
And having reflected on that, this man realizes that his own relationship with God is what is really important – not how that other person seems to be doing at the time. Verses 23 and following is one of the most sublime statements of faith in the Lord that you find anywhere, but especially in the Old Testament. “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.” Isn’t that wonderful?
But then notice that having thought through this, this man who was slipping comes to the place where now he is standing solidly. His faith has been renewed. He says in verse 27, “For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.” Then he says, on the other hand, “But for me it is good to be near God.” Notice the contrast between far from God in verse 27 and to be near God in verse 28. “I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”
The Application of Psalm 73
When we deal with the puzzling question of providence, what do we learn about the journey from slipperiness to standing solidly? How do we in our own lives make this walk through a world where things are not always fair and keep our footing? Let us take these applications from Psalm 73.
In dealing with the providence of God, all of us should start with convictions that are based on who God is and not on what happens to us or how we feel about what happens to us at the time (v 1). We all need to start with convictions that arise from our conclusions about what God is like. Convictions, you see, are decisions about ultimately reality. For us who believe in God, we start with him. We believe that all the rest of reality arises from who he is, and the convictions about such things as God’s goodness are not to be surrendered, no matter what. When you get to the slippery place in life, you will have to act in keeping with what you know about God until your feelings come along. I want to assure you that those times will happen. The providence of God doesn’t mean that there won’t be a time when our flesh and our hearts fail, according to verse 26, but it does mean we have already decided who is real.
Second, keep your heart and your hands clean because it is the right thing to do and not because it pays. Consider verse 11 with this. “Serve the Lord because he is the Lord and because he is worthy of your heart.” Somebody said, “The man who says honesty is the best policy probably isn’t.” Think about that for a moment. If you have to with every moral choice in your life, sit down and think it over saying, “Which way would be more to my advantage right now?” then how morally upright are you really going to be? Don’t fall into the habit of keeping your heart and your hands clean when it seems to be the policy that pays at that moment because there will come a time when it doesn’t seem to be paying and you will sell out to what is right for what is convenient, and you will meet disaster.
Third, in dealing with the providence of God, go regularly to the house of God to regain your sense of perspective so you can take the long view and so that what is immediate won’t overwhelm what is important and eternal in your life. That’s what this fellow did. All of us need a fixed point. There has to be a “north” somewhere on our compass so we can get our bearings. There has to be a time and a place where we turn to get a clear view of life so we can go at it again. So go to the presence of God. Take a new look at things from his viewpoint. Refocus. Of course, for every New Testament Christian, the Lord’s Supper offers the ideal opportunity to reset our lives and our minds on the first day of every week. I want to hear us praying at the table, not that we may put all of our other concerns of life out of our minds, but instead that we may put this into our minds and that we might see everything else for the rest of this week in view of this. Take the long view. What really will matter in eternity? What really will count? What really will make the difference? What do you want to happen in the lives of your children and your grandchildren as years unfold?
Fourth, treasure your own relationship with the Lord and tend to it. Don’t compare yourself to other people and envy them. Don’t begin to pity yourself because things are not as well with you as they seem to be with other people. Appreciate the “nevertheless” at the beginning of verse 23 and rejoice in the fact that no matter what happens, the Lord will be with his children. He will hold their hands. He will guide them with his counsel, and he will receive them in glory. Each one of those things requires attention and devotion from us as God’s children.
And then fifth, remember that you have someone in heaven who will be there on your side no matter what. Verses 25-26 are so important. “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.” Even if your flesh and your heart fail, he is still your portion. He is still your part of the Promised Land. He is your inheritance. The New Testament says in Hebrews 9:24 that Jesus has already entered into heaven to appear before the face of God for us. I John 2:1 says that this is being written so that we might not sin, but to Christians if anyone does sin, he has an advocate with the Father in heaven, Jesus Christ, the righteous. Remember, you have someone in heaven, and he is on your side.
Now that view of providence doesn’t explain every problem. God never undertakes to tell us, “Here is why I let the righteous face difficulties and here’s why I let the evil do ok.” But God does tell us the things that we have been thinking through this morning to help us have faith in his providential care, to look at things in view of his promises for later on, and to walk by faith.
Maybe you are here this morning and you have been experiencing this journey and you need to get things right with the Lord. Through the gospel he offers us the opportunity to come to him, to let him wash our sins away as we give ourselves in obedience to the gospel and invites us to bring our cares to him as his children and pray about them. If you are here today and you need help in one of those ways, won’t you let it be known while we stand and sing together.