Many moons ago, my family lived in South Florida. It was there that the Lord was pleased to plant us into the good soil of Reformed Theology, at First Presbyterian Church of Coral Springs/Margate. On March 16, 2003, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey was our guest preacher, having come at the invitation of our pastor, Richard Phillips, after the annual Ligonier National Conference in Orlando. The sermon Dr. Godfrey preached that morning was, to me, electrifying. I don’t know if it was a ‘turning point,’ in my walk, or if it was the capstone to the wealth of good theology I had imbibed at the Ligonier conference, but this sermon has remained one of my ‘favorites’ over the years. I have finally transcribed it—the original cassette tape was transferred to cd days before it wore out, and the cd was packed, moved, lent, and returned countless times.
This is more than a five-minute read. Read it with your Bible open. I pray this sermon blesses you with even a fraction of the blessing I have received. Soli Deo Gloria.
Well, it is a delight and a privilege to be here with you and to be able to worship with you and to look into the word of God with you. I have known Rick for many years so I had to come and check up on him, to see how he’s doing down here. He’s not quite as smart as I am, you know. I left Philadelphia 20 years ago, and it’s taken him all this time to figure out that he ought to do that. But I am so thankful to know that he’s here with you. And I’m sure you have already discovered what a faithful and effective minister of the word of God you have in him. And we wish Rick and the ministerial staff and all of you the Lord’s blessing as you serve him.
I love to preach the word of God, and it is a great privilege. I want to preach to you this morning from Psalm 73, and I’d ask you to stand for the reading of God’s word.
Psalm 73; Let’s give our attention to the reading of God’s own word.
1 Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
5 They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
8 They scoff, and speak with malice;
in their arrogance they threaten oppression.
9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10 Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, “How can God know?
Does the Most High have knowledge?”
12 This is what the wicked are like—
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been plagued,
I have been punished every morning.
15 If I had said “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
17 untill I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
20 As a dream when one awakes;
though when you arise, Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
21 When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and arrogant;
I was a brute beast before you.
23 Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
27 Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.
So far the reading of God’s word. Please be seated.
As a good Presbyterian church, I am sure many of you are familiar with the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: What is the chief end of man? What do we live for? What have we been created for? What is the purpose of our living?
And the catechism with tremendous insight and biblical awareness answers that question. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Now I think most of us probably have some sense of what it means to glorify God. It’s to praise him. It’s to worship him. It’s to serve him. It’s to grow in holiness for him. It’s to know his grace and live for him and speak for him. That’s what it means to glorify God. To magnify him. To make him great, not by increasing his being but by making him known.
But what about that second phrase of the answer: to enjoy God? That’s a little strange, isn’t it? What do we mean when we say we want to enjoy God forever? Enjoy, unfortunately, has become a kind of weak word around us. “How’s the new restaurant in town?” “It was alright, we enjoyed it; I don’t know if I’d go back.” Enjoy has become a kind of sad little word, in a way. It’s not very strong, it’s not very powerful. And therefore when we say we want to enjoy God—what do we mean by that? We want to hang out? We want to go bowling? What can it mean to enjoy God?
At the time that the catechism was written in the seventeenth century, enjoy had a much stronger meaning to it. It came from a tradition where, at least in the church, to enjoy something was to make it your highest value. To make it supreme in your life. To say: this is what is most important for me. This is why I live. This is the direction of my living. I want to enjoy God. I want him to be all-in-all for me.
And it’s interesting, when the Westminster Divines wrote the catechism and wrote the confessions, at each point they made little footnotes with scriptural references so the people could see that what they were summarizing for their faith in the catechism and confession came right out of the word of God. And for this phrase “enjoy him forever” they quoted just one verse: Psalm 73, verse 25: “Whom have I in heaven but you?” And if I’d change the translation a little bit from the NIV: “Whom have I in heaven but you, and having you, there is nothing on earth I desire.”
That’s what it means to enjoy God. To be able to say from the heart, “Lord, you’re enough for me. You are my portion.” You know, for the Israelites, their portion was a part of the land of promise that God had given to their tribe, and that they’d inherited from their fathers. It was precious to them. But the Psalmist is saying here, “More precious to me than my home and my land and even than my family is you, my God. If I have you I have everything I need.”
That’s easy to say, isn’t it? Easy to say. Maybe even easy to feel when we sit in church on Sunday morning and we’re feeling healthy and wealthy and wise. But it’s not always easy to say. And this psalm is an illustration of the struggle of one of the people of God, to live out that confession. And as he struggles to live it out, I think he can help us in our struggles, to live it out.
You notice how the psalm begins with a wonderful confession of faith. “Surely God is good to Israel.” God is good to his people, isn’t he? Every one of you’d say “Amen” to that right now, wouldn’t you? I hope so. Surely God is good to Israel. But do we feel that way all the time? We know we ought to confess it all the time. We know we ought to believe it all the time. We know that we ought to live it out in our lives. But the truth is, it’s not always easy, really, to feel that God is good to us. And part of the glory of the psalms is, they are so honest before God. They give voice to the frustrations of our lives.
Because, the psalmist says: “Surely God is good to Israel—You know, I grew up in a pious home. I learned my catechism” (maybe not the Westminster shorter catechism, but he learned his catechism), and he says, “I know God is good to his people. But, as for me”—notice the shift there—”as for me, my feet had almost slipped.”
I don’t know how much ice they have in Israel. I know how much ice you have here. But in Philadelphia, for example, in the winter there are moments when you go out to walk on the sidewalk and your feet can slip right out from under you. That’s what the psalmist is talking about here. He said, “My feet ought to be planted on the promises the word of God. I ought to be confident that God is good to Israel. But as for me—There was a time in my life when my feet of faith almost went right out from under me.”
And, what was the problem the psalmist confronted? What almost upset and toppled his faith? It’s what I call a temptation to worldliness. That’s what did it. Worldliness isn’t a word that we use so much anymore. Christians use the word worldliness a lot. It means taking the world’s standards and making them your own. Taking the world’s way of living and evaluating life and making it your own. Conforming your life and your thinking to the way the world lives and thinks. That’s worldliness. And the psalmist was tempted to worldliness and the very essence of his temptation was this: he came to envy the wicked. He came to envy the wicked.
And the essence of his envy was this: it seemed to him—at a moment in his life—that as he looked around, the people who didn’t care anything about God, who didn’t live for God, who despised the law of God, who mocked God and his people—those wicked people—their lives seemed to be going great. And his life seemed to be nothing but loss and struggle and frustration.
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m a Christian, I’m trying to live for God. I know I’m not perfect, I know I’m a sinner, but nonetheless, I try to live for Jesus Christ, and it seems like trouble after trouble after trouble comes into my life. And then I look at the neighbor down the street, they don’t care anything about God. They may not be—I mean, I hope you don’t have the mafia living down the street—we’re not talking about the wicked who are going out shooting everybody all the time necessarily. There are people like that, they’re wicked too. But I’m talking about the people who just don’t pay any attention to God. They’re a little crooked in their business dealings, getting ahead. Not entirely honest, sorta gossipy. And we look at them sometimes and we say, “Everything seems to be going right for them. Their kids are getting all A’s in school, and look at my kids. They’re perfectly healthy; I’m sick. They have a great job; I’m out of work.”
We have moments when we feel that way, don’t we? “Surely in vain,” says the psalmist, “have I washed my hands in innocence.” What has been the point? If God is good to Israel, why isn’t he good to me?! And if God will judge the wicked, why are the wicked prospering now? That’s what he’s wrestling with. And, Beloved, if you haven’t wrestled with that, you will. There will be those moments when you’re sick, or when you’re mourning, or when you’re worried about money. And you’ll begin to wonder: where is God in this? Why isn’t God coming to my rescue? Why isn’t God more present? Why don’t I feel more of his blessing? Why isn’t he acting to change my situation?
See how he sums up what the life of the wicked is like: verse 12, “This is what the wicked are like; always carefree, they increase in wealth.” Or verse 4, “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.” I live now in Southern California; we see that all the time. Think of those Hollywood movie stars. They lead notoriously wicked lives and they never even grow old! They eventually reach the point they can’t stop smiling—but nonetheless, they never grow old, nothing sags. Or think of some notorious sports players who live openly immoral lives and it just seems every year there’s a new multi-million dollar contract. We think, how is this world put together? How can it work this way?
I just heard this morning that Brian Chappell had had a heart attack. I was shocked. He’s younger than I am, and much thinner. It’s rather worrying. Why does it happen to a fine young man like Brian Chappell, and notorious reprobates live to a great old age?
The woman who made the propaganda films for Adolph Hitler, Leni Riefenstahl, is still alive and well, over 100, still going scuba diving. How is this world put together? How does it work? And you see—what the psalmist helps us to see—is that you’re not the first one who ever wondered: where is the goodness of God in my life? Where is the action of God to help me? You’re not the first one who ever looked around you and said, “Seems to go better for the wicked than for the godly.”
They even lay claim to heaven! And then secretly, behind God’s back, think they can mutter, “the Most High doesn’t know. I can be wicked and get away with it and still get to heaven.” That’s what they’re saying. And the psalmist is wondering, what’s going on here?
Now I don’t want to take you to get this wrong. I’m not disagreeing with the word of God, but you know the psalmist isn’t right here. It’s not really true, is it, that the wicked are always rich? It’s not really true that the wicked are always healthy. But there are days you feel that way, and that’s what the psalmist is expressing here. There are days you feel: they have it easy and we have it tough. And again, one of the delights of the psalter is the honesty with which it speaks.
There is a psalm for every moment in your life. If you can’t find it you just don’t know the psalter well enough. God has given voice to every one of our spiritual struggles in the psalter. And it’s a wonderful comfort to know, whatever struggle it is you’re undergoing, the people of God have been there before. God understands. God knows. Jesus Christ took the psalms on his lips and fulfilled them for us. He identified with us in every one of our frustrations. And the psalter helps us express that.
The psalmist felt his feet were slipping out from under him. The psalmist felt his life had been in vain. But that’s not where the psalm ends. Thankfully.
If he faced the temptation of worldliness in the first half of the psalm, the second half of the psalm helps us to see the triumph of godliness in the life of the psalmist, and leads us to see how godliness can triumph also in our lives. And how does that happen? How does that happen?
Verse 16, “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me.” I couldn’t understand it. My heart was filled with the question, “Why?” Why is this happening?
Now, in my experience, most of the time, ministers say to the people of God, “Don’t ask why.” Do you know why ministers say that? Because ministers don’t know the answer to the question why. There are a lot of things that happen in our lives that we really don’t know why they happen. We don’t know the plan of God. We don’t know the mind of God. We don’t know what God is doing. But, again, the psalter encourages us: it’s not wrong to ask why. Cause that’s the reality of the burden of our hearts sometimes. “I don’t understand, God, what’s going on in this world! Why?”
Why do our young men and women have to be over in Kuwait in the heat? Because there’s some idiot in Baghdad, who is so stupid, he wants to take on the whole world, and so selfish that he’s hated for decades his own people. Why do people like that even exist? Why? God doesn’t mind you coming to him and asking why. And the psalmist helps us see how, at the very heart and center of our faith, God answers our whys.
Verse 16, “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me, until I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.”
The psalmist, in his frustration, has gone up to the temple. He’s pious Israelite. He’s entered into the temple precincts, filled with frustration and confusion, and why’s in his life. And then he says, on entering the temple, verse 17, “Then, I understood the final destiny of the wicked.”
What happened when he entered the temple? Some commentators say, “Well, he entered into worship. In the midst of our spiritual frustrations go and worship and fellowship with the people of God and that will bear you up and that’ll support you and that’ll encourage you.” A lot of truth to that. A lot of truth to that. In spiritual struggles don’t cut yourself off from the people of God, but unite with the people of God and you’ll find their faith and their love a support.
But I don’t think that’s what is the central thing being said here. What did you see, if you were a pious Israelite, when you entered the courts of the temple? What was the thing that first stood at the center of your vision as you entered the temple? It was the altar for burnt sacrifice standing out in the courtyard in front of the door into the holy place. And I think what’s being said in this psalm is that, as the psalmist, filled with the agonies of his life, entered the court of the temple, he sees that altar. That altar where the sacrifice for sin is offered. And as he thought about the meaning of that altar, he saw how God has really set up this world.
Now, I don’t know how you picture the temple in your mind. I think some of us have seen drawings and renderings of the temple. Maybe some of our children have made little paper cutouts—models—of the temple. And in my judgement, what’s always wrong with those models and those renderings is: they’re so neat and tidy. Like a really good housewife has been there, cleaning everything up. But you know, that wasn’t the way it was.
It must have been a pretty gruesome sight. There must have been all the sounds and smells of animals in the temple, awaiting sacrifice. There must have been blood on the altar. There must have been flies buzzing around. It must have been a pretty gruesome sight with the smells of burning meat on the altar.
The altar was not intended by God to be a pretty sight. It was intended to be gruesome, because it stood there, testifying to the character of sin in the sight of God in all its ugliness. And it stood there to testify in the sight of God to the judgement that comes upon the wicked.
You notice what the psalmist says, verse 18: “Surely you place the wicked on slippery ground.” The way he regained his feet of faith was to see that in the long run, God comes in judgement on the wicked. In our sense of timing he may not come soon enough, and may not come fast enough, as we would like it. But the promise of the word of God is that one day there is a great day of judgement coming. One day every human being will have to stand before God and give an account of his life. And on that great day, only those who have a substitute and a sacrifice will stand before God.
When the psalmist entered the temple, what he saw there was a sign of Jesus Christ. What he saw there was one of God’s great pointers to the meaning of Christ’s coming and dying.
Who is Jesus Christ? He is our sacrifice and our substitute. What is his cross? It is our altar of burnt offering. Jesus Christ, as he was nailed to the cross, bore the sins of his people. He carried them away. He bore the wrath of God. He was forsaken that we might never be forsaken. And when we’re tempted to envy the world, and its apparent wealth, and its apparent health, and its apparent success, remember this, that one day it will pass away in a moment. It’ll be gone like the blink of an eye. And the question—the only question—will not be why. The only question will be, are you in Christ? Has his blood been shed for you? Did he bear the penalty of your sin upon the cross? Do you have a substitute who takes your place on the grisly altar of sacrifice? Or must you die there for your own sin? And, you see, when the psalmist saw that, he was renewed in faith.
God is so good to us. He gives us signs and seals. We saw one this morning in holy baptism. Martin Luther—I couldn’t help but think this morning—Martin Luther was asked once, “How do you know you’re a Christian? How do you know?” You know, Luther had intense spiritual struggles in his life. He felt the devil was often standing next to him, saying, “Ah! Luther, God couldn’t love somebody like you! You are much too sinful for God to love! You have little faith; you’re doubting God all the time. You keep falling back into the same old sins over and over again. God won’t love you!”
How do you know you’re a Christian, when those frustrations and doubts come to your life? There are a number of answers you could give to that question. The answer Martin Luther gave was, “I’ve been baptized.” Now, he didn’t mean by that that the water had done something magic. He knew the power wasn’t in the water. But he said, “You know, I’ve been baptized. God made me a promise. And the promise that the water of baptism touches me with, is that God washes away sins in Jesus Christ.”
Remember that you’re baptized. Satan has no hold on you. You belong to Jesus Christ, if you have faith in him. And your baptism is a lifelong reassurance that you have faith in Jesus Christ, you’ve been bought with a price. You’ve been marked with a seal. You belong to him today and forever. That’s what the psalmist came to know as he looked at the altar, a sign that God had given to him.
And so then the psalmist—filled with faith—declares some of the most precious, warm, and wonderful verses of scripture about his closeness to God. And it’s precisely because we’ve seen his struggle of faith that we can take so much more seriously his confidence now in faith. He says in verse 22, “I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast.” And, again, I think the NIV translation I’m using isn’t the best at this point, “I was a brute beast—yet with you—that’s another wonderful promise. Even if we’re being stupid, if we’re the children of God, we’re still with God. He’s still with us.
“I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.” Whenever I think of that, I think of my daughter when she was four and five, and we’d go to the mall and there’d be crowds around, and she was a busy one—always on the move—and I’d hold her by her right hand. And I knew if she got away, it’d be a long time before I saw her again. God’s like that with us. He holds on. You know, we don’t hold him by the right hand. He holds us by the right hand. That’s why we have confidence. That’s why we have hope.
“You guide me with your counsel.” God’s with us every step of the way.
“And afterward, you will take me into glory.” Underline that in your Bible, if you have a Bible with you. Verse 24, “afterward you will take me into glory.” You know most liberal Old Testament scholars say there is no doctrine of eternal life in the Old Testament. Well, here it is. Here it is. Afterward you will take me into your glory. I will be with you. I will live with you. Do you believe that? Do you believe that we live only for this life? We’re pitiable if we believe that. This life’s over in a moment. If for this life only we have believed, we are of all men most to be pitied. But God has said we’ll live forever with him. And because of that—because he’s always with me, because he holds my hand, because he leads me, because he’ll take me into glory, I can say, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And having you, there’s nothing else on earth that I desire.”
Enjoying God is the pinnacle of faith. To be able to say that God is enough. You know we sing easily Luther’s great hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, and at the end of it we sing those words with great enthusiasm—we always sing them at the Ligonier Conference, we have the Westminster Brass playing and supporting the singing, and it’s a great moment of declaration. But those final words really are very sobering words: “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.” It’s easy to sing those words, it’s not so easy always to believe them.
When Luther wrote them there was real danger that the Imperial troops might appear at his door, and take his home away from him, and take his family away from him, and take his life away from him. Luther never thought he’d die in his bed. He thought he’d die at a stake.
Is God enough then? It’s not always easy to say so. But when we really look at reality as it is, then we can say with the psalmist, “You are enough for me. You are all I need. You are my portion.” It’s a constant struggle to say that, and believe that, and live that. But it’s what we’re called to. And it’s worth everything. Because when God is the portion of our heart, in Jesus Christ, then indeed, we do have everything.
May God grant you in the struggles of your life that you will come through to the faith of the psalmist, and find in Jesus Christ all that you need for this life, and for the life of the world to come. Surely God is good to Israel. Amen. Let us pray.
O Lord our God, you know how real and intense the struggles of this world can be. And you know how weak we often are, how inclined we are to take the values of this world and make them our own. Give us the grace that the psalmist so richly enjoyed, to turn our eyes in every temptation to Jesus Christ, and to see in him our great hope. To see in him our sin-bearer. To see in him our life. And so we pray this morning, O Lord, that every one of us here might know Jesus Christ as our life, and our hope, as the one who holds our hand. O make for each one of us, O Lord, Jesus Christ to be enough. Teach us to enjoy him. For we pray in his name. Amen.