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Psalms Series One

Envy

Psalm 73

Isaac Asimov, early in his career, wrote one of his rare "Jewish" stories. I cannot find it in my library, but as memory serves me, it went something like this:

Abraham (Abie, as we shall call him) was poor, elderly and Jewish. He lived in a little brownstone apartment in New York. One night, a demon from Hell appeared in his living room - dressed in a three piece suit. After preliminary introductions, the demon announced his purpose.  

"I'm here to grant you three wishes - you know, like Aladdin and his lamp."

"What's the catch?"

"The catch? Simple. Your worst enemy gets double what you ask for."

"You're out of luck, booby. I don't have a worst enemy."

"Oh yes you do. It's Bernie."

"Bernie! Bernie's my best friend."

"He's also your worst enemy. It often works out like that. Look, when you want to make a wish, just stand in the center of the room and announce it. Immediately there will be a knock on your door; your wish will be granted."

"Why three wishes? Why not one?"

"Oh, most people waste the first wish, just to prove that this really works. Then they wish for money; then they wish for what they really want - and Hell loves the fireworks then!"

With a flash the demon disappears. Abie has to try it. "I wish for 50 pounds of chopped liver and onions!" Immediately, there's a knock at the door. "Sign here!" As Abie is trying to find places to stuff his treasure into the refrigerator, the phone rings. It's Bernie.

"Guess what? I won 100 pounds of chopped liver and onions on a radio call in show! Not only that, when the caterer got here, he was short for the day. It seems he had an emergency order for 50 pounds that he couldn't fill. So I sold him 50 pounds at twice the retail price!" Abie, of course, is furious.

Abie stews for a couple of weeks, and then decides that, Bernie get double or not, he's got to get rich. "I wish for 100 million dollars - tax free." Immediately, there's a knock at the door. The lawyer explains that his long lost uncle, the black sheep of the family, died at his immense sheep ranch in Australia. Remembering little Abie as the only member of the family who did not condemn him (Abie being six weeks old when uncle left), he has left him his entire estate. By his direction, the estate has been liquidated, the taxes paid, and the remainder sent as a check - for $100 million. Abie is ecstatic - until the phone rings.

It's Bernie. "I told you should have invested in my nephew's company! I just sold my stock and cleared $200 million - after taxes! Not bad for a thousand dollar investment!"

Abie stews for a month - and then the light goes on. "I want a woman. I don't quite know how to put this, but she should be just as much woman - no more, but certainly no less - than any one man can handle."

Immediately, there was a soft, sexy knock at the door.

Envy. Whoever "wins" in this story, someone envies. Envy is no light sin; indeed, the medieval theologians considered it one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The psalmist begins his experience with envy thus:

{73:1} A psalm of Asaph. 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. ‑‑ Psalms 73:1‑3 (NIV)

More than any recent time, we can sympathize with Asaph. He "envied the arrogant." Truly the arrogant are dominant today. Like no time in written recent memory, our society considers arrogance a virtue rather than a vice. "If you got it, flaunt it."

In former times arrogance was still seen as evil - which at least gave rise to some "polite" hypocrisy. "Hypocrisy," said Montaigne, "is the tribute vice pays to virtue." The tribute is no longer paid; the arrogant no longer see the virtuous life as worth pretending to. Such arrogance being public, we as Christians are given more temptation to envy.

"Envy," says Dorothy Sayers, "is the sin of the have-nots against the haves." Unfortunately, in one sense or another, we are all "have-nots." Envy then becomes one of the great temptations of our time - all the more because it is almost never preached against. Let's hear Asaph's complaint:

{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. ‑‑ Psalms 73:4‑12 (NIV)

In the background, you can hear Asaph's complaint: why is it that God allows these obviously wicked people to prosper. God says He is a God of justice. God says He is omnipotent. God says He loves the righteous - so why do the wicked prosper?

Interestingly, Christ never answers this argument. He simply advises us to do likewise:

{44} But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, {45} that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. ‑‑ Matthew 5:44‑45 (NIV)

The answer may perhaps be deduced from this passage. God is also a God of love; it is not his wish that any should perish. There are some other points of interest:

1) Is it not at least a little presumptuous to tell God who He should or should not strike with lightning?

2) And if He struck the wicked down like that, perhaps some in this class would be in the grave, and on to Hell, rather than saved?

So why do we complain? It is the comparison between them and us. If we were rich and carefree too, who would care that the wicked were such? But, says Asaph,

{13} Surely in vain have I 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. ‑‑ Psalms 73:13‑14 (NIV)

In other words, I've been good and look where it got me. Once you see that envy is, in the words of Frederick Buechner, "the consuming desire to have everybody else as unsuccessful as you," you see its power. If God won't let me become rich (because I have to be good) why should anyone else get it?

Asaph isn't totally lost, however. He knows when to keep his mouth shut:

{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 ‑‑ Psalms 73:15‑16 (NIV)

I may not know what's going on, but I know when to shut up. A good thing too, for envy is contagious. If you think not, listen to the conversation around the lunch table at work, especially when the subject of management comes up. It's a real temptation to envy (and condemn) those you may not even know. James gives us some good advice on this:

{14} But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. ‑‑ James 3:14 (NIV)

The turning point now comes. We have seen Asaph, in the mind's eye, down in the depths, looking up in envy. We are about to see the virtues of regular worship - worship which obliges the human mind to touch the mind of God:

{17} till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. ‑‑ Psalms 73:17 (NIV)

The word "sanctuary" gives us the clue to Asaph's restoration. In Old Testament times, most people could not enter the sanctuary. Indeed,

{10} Appoint Aaron and his sons to serve as priests; anyone else who approaches the sanctuary must be put to death." ‑‑ Numbers 3:10 (NIV)

So Asaph was a priest! His restoration then must be thought of as being that of a priest who comes into contact with God. Indeed, the solution to the problem of envy is to see the situation from God's point of view. Now, according to Hebrews, we too are priests - a kingdom of priests. A priest is one who is the bridge between man and God. So let's look at this from the point of view of a priest in our world. What does a priest (in our context, a minister) see? He sees the heart worries of all who come to him. Put yourself in the position of the priest (minister) in our society. The wicked, arrogant man comes into your office for a little heart to heart talk. What does he say? How does this person appear to God? Asaph describes it this way:

{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, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies. ‑‑ Psalms 73:18‑20 (NIV)

Consider well the secret fears of the ungodly! Arrogance is often the cover of fear; especially if you have the money to pull it off.

Asaph now bursts into one of those characteristic songs found in the Psalm. Consider it as the verse and chorus. Verse by man; chorus by God:

Man

{21} When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, {22} I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. ‑‑ Psalms 73:21‑22 (NIV)

How like us! Envy turns us into animals, running on emotion alone. But God is patient; He understands and cares for us.

God

{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. ‑‑ Psalms 73:23‑24 (NIV)

 

Even when I behave like an animal, God cares for me, gently guiding me back into the right path. And when He does guide me back, I realize how gracious He has been, and what strength He is to me:

Man

{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. ‑‑ Psalms 73:25‑26 (NIV)

That pair of verses is a chorus of worship yet today. The proper response of man to God's grace is praise. Even to this God gives us guidance:

God

{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. ‑‑ Psalms 73:27‑28 (NIV)

It is not sufficient to praise Him in sanctuary; we must tell others of His deeds. This, however, is a result. It is the natural out flowing of God's spirit in us. As James tells us,

{8} Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double‑minded. ‑‑ James 4:8 (NIV)

There is the real solution to envy. Draw near to God; see things as He sees them. Love others as He loves them.

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