When your doctor takes it upon himself to personally call you first thing in the morning—the day after an appointment, you know it marks the beginning of a bad day. “I hate making calls like this,” he began. “The X-rays picture a large abnormality in your son’s leg; possibly an aggressive benign tumor; but I must honestly tell you it looks to me like a malignancy called Ewing’s Sarcoma.”
How does one absorb such a call? You simply do not expect to hear such a thing about yourself, let alone your 14-year-old son. Just the day before, Nathan had begun his freshman year in high school. Having been homeschooled all his life, entering high school was to be the launch into a great new adventure.
It was a launch into an adventure, indeed! But not one of our choosing!
An occasional sharp pain in his leg and knee had consistently increased in intensity over that summer of 1996 leading into 9th grade. Originally written off by the family physician as “typical growing pains,” successive tests tended toward a confirmation of the worst. The “C” word – “cancer” – crept almost innocently into the naturally flowing discussions of the specialists.
The most brutal test to observe was the bone scan. One of our church leaders – a nuclear medicine technologist at that time – sat with us as the radiographic dye pulsated quickly through Nathan’s system. The problem area was painfully obvious on the screen. Even a three-year-old could have pointed to the large, bright, radiating spot of concern. My medical technician friend displayed a wonderful pastoral presence, but I noted how little he looked at the screen, and how much he gazed distantly at the floor.
I pressed for numbers. I wanted to hear percentages and know what we were facing. “Only a biopsy will determine the nature of this with certainty,” they said. “But we feel there is sufficient clarity in the MRI and other tests to identify it as Ewing’s Sarcoma. We honestly don’t expect to hear something different.”
That sounded like 99% to me!
I pressed again for more numbers – survival rate figures. “About 50% survive past five years, some with amputations, and some able to salvage the leg.” I secretly embarked on an Internet research crusade on the subject. The results were so discouraging that I chose to not tell my wife what I discovered, nor even that I had done it. I had reason for special concern for Diana. Just two weeks earlier, she sat with her sister as she died from cancer – leaving eight children behind.
Ewing’s Sarcoma is a rather rare form of cancer, and we were referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Often regarded, as you know, as the foremost medical facility in the world, gaining an appointment is very difficult. We would have to wait a month – a month to live in a condition one author has aptly entitled, “God’s Waiting Room.”
Our family attempted to live a normal life as we waited. One night, Nathan and I attended a Hagerstown Suns baseball game – a favorite outing for us. There I saw a man who I’d noticed at the ballpark practically every time we’d been there previously. He was a very loud, foul-speaking, verbally obnoxious person in his late 60s … a man who had quite obviously lived a foolish life of hard drink and personal abuse. Yet there he stood, basically healthy, out in public enjoying a recreational event, while my eight nieces and nephews mourned the loss of their godly mother and my son wrestled with the issues of a deadly cancer. It didn’t just seem unfair, IT WAS UNFAIR!
I was driven into the Scriptures for any hint of perspective. My reading soon brought me to the 73rd Psalm, which served as the anchor for my soul in the weeks to follow.
This story is a personal life background for this topic of our series. And I have begun each week by asserting both a theme, as well as a statement that describes the content for that Sunday. And so …
Theme – God is all we have and all we need.
Statement – Though I may be tempted to trust in things other than God for hope and help, such resources do not ultimately exist.
And so that leads to this title: “Nowhere Else to Go”.
Most of us like to be in charge of things … to grasp and manage and work out solutions to the challenges and problems of life. This is especially true of men. And it is why I’ve often joked that there is no more frustrating and painful situation for a man to have to endure than childbirth … sitting by his wife, I mean! There is nothing you can do to fix it or solve it or make it better than to utter a few words of encouragement.
No, seriously, it is not just men; it is all of us who like to work things out, or to find someone who knows how to work it out for us. We want solutions to problems … like, right now! We are annoyed and confused when we have to wait, and especially so when the problem just does not make sense at all as to why it should even be happening.
And that is the mental condition of the writer of this Psalm as we go to the beginning of Psalm 73. Note that the first words under the title say … A psalm of Asaph.
Understand that this is not a modern note that has been added by the publisher as an explanation or to share a traditional thought. This is a part of the Scripture text from the beginning. So what does it tell us?
Asaph was a temple musician in Israel, and he is listed with a number of Psalms. Many believe that this means he was the author, while others feel that he is the one who took the words and penned them in such a way as to be for musical/worship expression. Honestly, the writing sounds like that of David, the primary author of the Psalms. And the life frustration and irritation that is the experience of the writer certainly sounds like David, maybe especially at the time when he was yet to experience the fulfillment of God’s promises.
Imagine the frustration it must have been for David during that period of time when he was essentially a fugitive while King Saul was interested in eliminating him from planet Earth. David had been anointed even as a boy by the prophet Samuel to become the King in Israel. He didn’t seek it out. In fact, when Samuel showed up at the house one day, David was the kid brother out in the fields tending the sheep, and they had to fetch him from that place.
So David had a promise, but when was it going to be fulfilled? Time was passing. When he might have expected to be living at least a decent life as “king-elect,” rather he was living in caves as a fugitive with the local clans of rednecks and rejects … some tough dudes for sure. And surely there had to be times where he had doubts and second thoughts – challenges to his faith – that God really had good plans for him.
So we don’t know if this writer is David, but it could be. In any event, the writer begins by stating an upfront truth … a sort of caveat … Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. You know how, when you’re going to say something sorta controversial or negative and you don’t want to shock the listeners, so you begin with a disclaimer that includes a statement of fact? Like this: “Hey, I know my mom loves me and she’s a really great cook …” And then what comes next? Yes, a big “BUT…” And that’s what the Psalmist is saying … I know God is good to His people, to those who honor Him … then comes the “BUT” …
73:2 – 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.
The Psalmist wrestles here with the age-old question of the prosperity of the wicked, while suffering and difficulties are the lot of the righteous person who names the Lord. A famous book on the 1981 NY Times Bestseller List was that of the conservative Rabbi Harold Kushner, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” This was a reflection on the death of his 14-year-old son from a rare disease.
Various biblical characters wrestled with the same question. Just listen to these words …
Job … in chapter 21 …
7 Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?
8 They see their children established around them, their offspring before their eyes.
9 Their homes are safe and free from fear; the rod of God is not on them.
13 They spend their years in prosperity and go down to the grave in peace.
14 Yet they say to God, ‘Leave us alone! We have no desire to know your ways.
15 Who is the Almighty, that we should serve him? What would we gain by praying to him?’
Jeremiah … in chapter 12:1 … You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?
Habakkuk … 1:2-3, 13 … 2 How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? … 13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
And over the years here at TSF we’ve seen some very fine people who have succumbed to diseases and death at even untimely ages. Therefore, we might ponder as to what advantage we truly have in naming Christ as Savior and Lord when it surely appears that the sorrows of this life become squatters in our homes at least as indiscriminately often as they do to our godless neighbors.
So these questions in verses 2+3 are the beginning expressions of the Psalmist – representing the first of three interpretive points we want to make about Psalm 73 today, followed by three perspectives to take away with us.
- The General Observations of the Psalmist (2-11)
We first make note here about how the writer looks at the situation around him, at the stuff that simply does not make sense, being struck by the successes of those who do not honestly know God or honor Him. Speaking of the prosperity of the wicked, he goes on to say of them …
73:4 – They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. 5 They are free from common human burdens; 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; their evil imaginations have no limits. 8 They scoff, and speak with malice; with 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 would God know? Does the Most High know anything?”
So here are some of the observations of the Psalmist about the prosperity of the wicked …
– They seem to have few struggles in life. While physical ailments are commonplace, they are the beautiful people. It is as if they have some special “life inoculation” against common problems. Surely their affluence helps them afford the best things in life.
– They are proud in an open way, and why not? Everything seems to come up roses for them.
– They are able to always get their own way. They are “connected” to the systems of this world, and they can afford to use their connections to their advantage and wantonly against others. In so many ways they seem to be above the law, literally and figuratively.
– They have a huge following of people who want to be like them and known by them. People listen to their opinions and honor their thoughts, even though they truly know nothing about the situation at hand, while also being constituently evil and opposed to God and all that is good and righteous.
– They scoff at the idea of God; they see themselves as God. They don’t need such a fairytale, as that is for the weak of the world.
Yes, we see the Hollywood crowd, the deep state political operatives of the world, the wealthy who have gained their abundance often through questionable means. And they appear so prosperous in every way, even as we see they reject God. How can this be? It does not seem right by any measure.
And this is what the Psalmist noted, and it was grievous to him. And as he tried to understand it and make sense of it, his natural inclinations took him to where … well … natural inclinations always take any of us …
- The Foggy, Earth-Centric Interpretation of the Psalmist (12-15, 21-22)
The flat and linear perspective of this world will lead us to simplistic, confused, minimal and errant conclusions. And that is what happened to the writer …
73:12 – This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.
15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children.
21 When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
– He concluded that the wicked somehow go on in a non-accountable way, from success to success.
– He experiences a sense of futility, pondering what his efforts at righteous living have accrued for him. It appeared that it was a losing strategy. It was depressing, a daily sense of failure. He knew this was crazy thinking, but it certainly seemed verifiable.
– It led to increased sadness and even bitterness, estrangement from God. His foolishness rendered his relationship with God to a quality no better than a stupid animal.
But, here comes another “But” …
- The Clear, God-Centric Understanding of the Psalmist (16-20, 23-28)
The writer did not stay in that lowly place. His troubles and grieving sent him to the presence of God, and there he gained a higher perspective …
73:16 – When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply 17 till 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 They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.
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.
Yes, the writer gains a new view from “mount perspective” – from the place of God’s overarching truth and His viewpoint on the world.
– The writer sees that the currently prosperous people of this world who do not honor God are in a slippery place. They’re standing briefly, but they have a disastrous destiny. They will be swept away. Their current prosperity is like a dream – lasting for a time, but an awakening to reality will ultimately come, likely soon.
– On the other hand, the righteous who claim God as Father are secure when perilous times come. They have God’s continuous presence, they are held by God’s hand, and they have His counsel in the dark times. Beyond that, they have a promise of glory – an eternal presence with God.
– The conclusion is that there is nothing in heaven or on the earth that is better. This is the one true and timeless reality. There is nothing better, and that is because there ultimately is nothing else or no one else to turn to … but there does not need to be anything else.
– Final conclusion – So where do you go to hide when things are going poorly, when all of life seems to be falling apart? You go to the refuge – as the writer says that God is the place of refuge to run and hide and to gain strength.
Here then are three takeaway perspectives when life does not make sense …
- God is really, really good at keeping score!
The Psalmist says, “I entered the Sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. You cast them down to ruin. How suddenly they are destroyed. Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you” (Ps. 73:18,19,27). The perspective is this – God is a good score keeper, and in the end the righteous always win.
Vince Lombardi, the famous Green Bay Packers football coach, said, “Sometimes the clock runs out, but in the end, we will win.” Even championship teams suffer some regular season defeats. We’ve even seen in the past week that you can lose every game at home in the World Series and yet win in the end. Yes, the ultimate goal is to win the playoffs, and such becomes our guarantee as believers. That really is an incredible knowledge to possess! How much else in life are we able to know with such certainty? We know the final score before the game concludes, and we know we win and the wicked lose.
- When sorrows move in, God doesn’t move out!
The Psalm writer pens a second great perspective as he considers the nature of his relationship with God, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:23,24,26).
God pledges to us His constant presence, counsel and strength extending into eternity. The weight and pain of the sorrows we experience may seem to suggest that God has vacated our lives and an ugly stranger has taken up residence, but such is far from reality. Amidst such times of frail incapability, God often reveals his most real presence – at a time when there is absolutely nothing we can do but rest in Him.
- We just plain don’t have anyone else to turn to!
The pinnacle of the Psalm was scaled in verse 25, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” The fact of the matter is that we ultimately possess no other options as a refuge for inclement times. But the great truth is this – we don’t need anybody else! Doctors may help, loved ones may support, but only God will pour an eternal peace into our empty and hurting souls.
My month in God’s waiting room provided the opportunity to uniquely experience the reality of His sufficient peace. I also gained a new appreciation for the incredible blessing and assistance of the prayers of God’s people. Reports of prayer support came to us from as far as Kazakhstan. Heaven surely resonated with the supplications of friends and family.
The orthopedic specialist at Johns Hopkins looked at the various magnetic images and X-rays and said, “Could be Ewing’s Sarcoma – it would look like this. But let’s not cross that bridge until we have to.” “Too late,” I thought. I was already across that bridge and well up the other side! He continued, “My gut feeling is that this is an infection rather than cancer,” he said. “A biopsy will tell us immediately what we are dealing with. If it is cancer, we’ll close it up and come back to fight another day. If it is an infection, we’ll begin cleaning it out immediately.”
An excruciating pain wracked Nathan’s leg the last several days before surgery. But an hour after sending him off, the doctor sent word out to us that it was indeed a bone marrow infection. The news dropped us into a limp emotional heap. It caused great excitement and rejoicing for friends and family, and left our local medical community stunned. The hospital radiology technicians posted some of the pictures and ultimate results on a bulletin board with a label that said, “Can You Believe This One?”
Some folks have suggested we were on the receiving end of a miracle. I don’t know. Such is surely possible. The worst thing that could be said is that we received a huge answer to prayer. And 23 years later, Nathan is well … the father of four children … and I guess he was not offended that I told his story today, since he is running the sound this morning and did not cut me off!
But honestly, for me, the greatest lesson, however, was the experience of knowing God’s sufficient grace in some very dark days of life. I learned that: He is all we have, and He is all we need!
Week Eight Items for Discussion
- Have you had a time in your life that you could share where you felt like a situation you were facing was very unfair and that it did not seem that God was anywhere around to help you or to make sense of it all?
- What happened in that situation in terms of how it resolved? Did you learn some surprising lessons from it? Were you able to see a larger picture of God’s hand in your life?
- Why do we have such a natural tendency to try to work out situations on our own? But it is not wrong to look for solutions in the earthly realm, is it?… like looking to doctors for resolutions to medical crises. But where does working in the flesh end, and faith in God begin?
- What are the elements of truth that we may list about trusting in God that give us peace even in the darkest of times?