MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MUSINGS

The Turning Point 

Psalm 73 

Everyone has a turning point in life. Some are quiet and ordinary, but others are dramatic and sometimes traumatic. They are the times of important changes, usually involving new ways of thinking and of seeing things as they had not been seen before. In the religious life, these turning points are what we often call conversions. Some of them are famous in Christian history. In 386, Augustine of Hippo was struggling for faith and satisfaction in his troubled life. In the garden of a house in Milan, with Alypius his friend, he heard a child in a neighboring house say, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it” which was an unusual thing for a child to say. Augustine took it as a divine command to open his Bible and read the first passage he found, and he did. The passage was Romans 12:13:  “Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and envy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.” He said that he needed to read no further, because something like the light of full certainty infused his heart, and all the gloomy doubt he had suffered vanished away. It was the turning point in his life, and he went on to become one of the most important leaders and teachers of the early church. 

In his commentary of Psalms (1557), John Calvin wrote of a “sudden conversion,” but he did not explain it further and he spoke very little of any conversion experience. We assume that the “sudden conversion” came as he studied the Psalms. It was some kind of turning point. John Wesley, already a minister but not doing very well (torn within himself and “beating the air,” as he put it), went to a Moravian service on Aldersgate Street in London, on Wednesday night, May 24, 1738, and felt his heart “strangely warmed” while Luther’s preface to the Epistle of Romans was being read. It was a turning point, and he went on to become a great preacher and the leader of Methodism. There have been many others. 

The speaker in Psalm 73, who is unidentified, was unable to deal with envy and doubt until, he says, “I went into the sanctuary of God” (v. 17). The psalm indicates that the speaker was near a total spiritual collapse, which he expresses in his words this way: “My feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.” The trouble was a futile attempt to reconcile faith in the affirmation of God’s goodness to the pure in heart in Israel and the well- being of those who scorned such commitment. (Note:  the reading of the first part of verse 1 is frequently changed to “Surely God is good to the upright,” but it is better to keep “good to Israel” and understand the reference to the upright and faithful in Israel). The speaker in this psalm finds it very difficult to sustain the proposition set forth in verse 1. The problem is the prosperity of the wicked, which causes envy to arise in the mind of the speaker. How can it be true that God is good to the pure in heart when those who scorn God are always at ease in using their power to mislead and exploit the poor? They are the sleek, well-dressed people, always going to parties and speaking with arrogance. They seem to have no pain and no trouble. The speaker on the other hand, finds every day a torment of painful and discouraging experience (vv. 11-14). Walter Bruggemann says that the trouble of the psalmist is caused by “secular seduction.” He is strongly tempted to join the way of those who have no moral commitment to God and “who regard religion as stuffy, pompous coercion and will not fool with it,” living as if there is no God or anything sacred. (1) 

The great distress of the speaker is described for us in verses 15-16. Unable to resolve the matter in his own mind, he was tempted to deny the goodness of God to the pure in heart and join the partygoers and exploiters. That way he could enjoy what seemed to be the good life. However, he refused to yield to the urge to make his distress public. Thus he was in the position of personally believing something that he did not think he could share with others of faith. In this condition, he came to the sanctuary of God (v. 17). There the turning point came:  “I understood their end.” We are given no detail about this expression. Perhaps we should think of a participant in worship in the Temple in Jerusalem on one of the great days of festival time, who has a vision as Isaiah did (see Isaiah 6). Or the speaker may have come to a new awareness of the reality of the situation while the priests and people chanted, “O give praise to the LORD of Hosts, for his stead fast love endures forever.” Or it may have been in a time of quiet mediation and reflection on the ways of God in the world. In any case, it was a moment of disclosure, a turning point, when the eyes of a mind blinded by personal torment from envy regarding the material glory of the wicked were opened. Who can say what the exact nature of the turning point was:  it matters little. 

The results of the turning point are dramatic with a new orientation toward those matters that have been so painful. First, there is new perception of the real situation of the wicked (vv. 18-20). They no longer seem invincible, despite their apparent strength and power. But their security is an illusion, because their prosperity can be gone in an instant, leaving behind no more than a nightmare. Indeed, they are in “slippery places” (v. 18) although they may not seem to be. There is comfort in knowing that the wicked are not as well off as they think they are. We find reassurance in the perception that their “end” is grim – reassurance, but not joy. 

Second, there is a new understanding of the psalmist’s own self (vv. 21-23). In a flashback, he recalls that the trauma described in verses 2-16 was largely a matter of the heart (“heart” is one of the key words in this psalm, appearing in verses l, 7, 13, 21, and 26). A “soured” or “embittered” heart left him reacting to the wicked like a brute beast, while the real problem was a “stupid and ignorant” heart. He had a “heart problem.” (It is always well to keep in mind that biblical “heart” includes what we call the mind, the center of will and action). The power of the wicked is so often the power to arouse coveting in the hearts of others. 

The third new orientation, or reorientation, was the realization that God has been present with the psalmist throughout the ordeal of envy and doubt. An awareness of God’s presence surges up into the consciousness of the distressed person. Despite all appearances to the contrary, “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.” The guidance of God never ceases, and the future is good. There is a question about the reading of the last part of verse 24. The Hebrew words are literally “and afterwards glory you will take me.” “Afterward” rather clearly refers to the future, but does it mean after death? or from this time on? The “glory” is often understood as heaven, but it does not normally mean that in the Old Testament. Should we read the expression as “afterwards (in the future) God will take me to a glorious place”? More probably, we should understand the words here to mean that in the future God “will take me gloriously (to himself)” – as his own and with honor. This would satisfy the desire of the psalmist’s heart: “There is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.” Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to conclude that the glory of verse 24 has a dynamic quality that has the power to transcend death and restore it with life. The psalmist declares, “My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the rock of my heart and my portion forever.” These words point to an enduring relationship that will not be terminated, now or forever. The “rock” does not wear out, and the word “portion” has its referential basis in a permanent entitlement to a portion of land passed on from generation to generation. 

The new orientation of the turning point allows the psalmist to declare that “for me it is good to be near God; I have made the LORD God my refuge” and he will tell others of all the works of God. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Hold on to your faith until you come to a turning point; then you will understand that “it is not profit but presence that counts; not succeeding, but communion. . . . [it will be] a moment of amazing recognition.” (2)

 

(1)          Patrick Miller (ed.) The Covenanted Self (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), pp. 66-67

(2)          Walter Brueggemann, Prayers of Walter Brueggemann: Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003,) p. 69.