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New Horizons

A Beast Before You

Stephen Sturlaugson

Sometimes our cows understand us. When we bring new hay, they come running. But they don't always understand us. Sometimes the cattle kick at us. Once a cow had twine wrapped around her hoof, and she didn't understand our attempt to take it off. She didn't understand being separated from the others, or being put in the shed, or our handling of her hoof, or our cutting away of the twine. She just didn't comprehend our concern for her, and she struggled against us.

We can act like cows when we don't understand how God is treating us. In Psalm 73:22, Asaph confesses, "I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you."

When you're tempted to feel that is God treating you like dirt, it may help to remember that you are dust, and that to dust you shall return (Gen. 3:19). When someone complains that God treats him like dirt, your first reaction might be to say, "No, he doesn't. He's been good to you. Look at the blessings in your life." God has every right to treat sinners like dirt, of course, and sometimes he does deal with people in this way. He puts them beneath his feet, figuratively speaking—and once he quite literally turned a person into a pillar of salt.

You might feel from time to time that God treats you like a dog, and then it might help to recall the words of Psalm 73:22—"I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you." When people think that God treats them like some measly cur, perhaps we shouldn't jump to God's defense, as if he needed any. God treats people differently. He reveals different sides of himself to different people. Psalm 18 says, "To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the crooked you show yourself shrewd" (vss. 25-26). People may feel that God is treating them like swine, and perhaps he is, because they're acting like swine before him. "I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you." Pinocchio, you may recall, grew donkey ears.

Times of Testing

In Ecclesiastes 3:18, Solomon writes, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals." God tested Asaph, who relates the test in the opening words of Psalm 73: "Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (vss. 1-3). The wicked were prospering around him, and this covenant singer was jealous. Verses 13-14 reveal his frustration: "Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning." God gave prosperity to the wicked, but to Asaph he gave plague and punishment—or so it seemed to Asaph. God tests us in our fallen human condition, so that we will come to see that we are like beasts before him. Asaph came to see that this was true of him.

I presume you've felt like Asaph, and more than once said, "What's the use?" Your service to the Lord seems worthless. Your obedience seems to be in vain, because you never seem to be blessed like other people are. Sometimes I wish I had sowed more wild oats when I was younger, because I don't have the opportunity or the energy to sow them now. Feeling like this is natural to the human heart. What is unnatural—and a sign of new life—is admitting envy, as Asaph does, and confessing our frustration—not hiding it, but making it known to the whole congregation, as Asaph does, by making confession of sin part of our worshiping song. In confession, a beast turns back into a man. So Asaph could say, "I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you."

In the book of Daniel, we find a dramatic example of God's testing. Nebuchadnezzar was driven from men, to dwell with the beasts of the field and eat grass like oxen. In the grace of God, the king learned what God intended to teach him. The king wrote to the people of his kingdom, "Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble" (Dan. 4:37).

When Jesus confronted Paul on the road to Damascus, he told him, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 9:5 NKJV). Jesus characterized Paul as a beast, kicking against the goads. Jesus was goading him, poking him, spurring him on to salvation and service, but Paul's response was to persecute the church and oppose Jesus, kicking at him like a brute beast.

Paul finally submitted to the Shepherd of his soul. Some never do. Second Peter 2 has some sharp words for false teachers in the church—"These men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish.... Of them the proverbs are true: 'A dog returns to its vomit,' and, 'A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud'" (vss. 12, 22). The books of Daniel and Revelation portray powers that are hostile to God and his Messiah as enraged and unruly beasts—dragons, serpents, and animals with hard horns, or the feet of a bear, or the mouth of a lion. Satan, the old serpent, never learns.

In Psalm 73, one thing is especially said to characterize a beast: foolishness and ignorance. This is a cow's problem. It just doesn't get it. It doesn't understand what we're trying to do. It doesn't realize that kicking, or jumping over a fence, is foolish and can make matters worse.

I teach philosophy at a regional college, and I find Asaph's remark instructive. Philosophers often identify the difference between human beings and animals as our ability to reason, but some say further that we must never submit our powers of reason to any external authority—never submit to the yoke of the Lord. But such thinking was part of Asaph's problem: "I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you." His confession suggests that mere human counsel in rebellion against God isn't truly human. A philosopher can in fact be a brute beast.

Asaph's foolishness and ignorance affected him deeply, and these feelings compounded his trouble. In verse 16, he admits that his attempts to understand were oppressive. Verse 21 leads into 22: "When my heart was grieved, and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you." He was grieved over the prosperity of the wicked and embittered over his own calamity. Grief and vexation aren't always sinful, but in this case they were. They were bestial.

Understanding Breaks In

Asaph envied the wicked and bemoaned his own innocence, but understanding eventually broke in: "If I had said, 'I will speak thus,' I would have betrayed your children. When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny" (vss. 15-17).

Asaph realized that making disparaging complaints would have been untrue or disloyal to God's children. They entrusted themselves to the leaders of the church, and Asaph was such a leader. He wrote psalms for public worship, and people trusted him to write words of life. If he had expressed himself like a senseless beast, especially in corporate song, he would have betrayed them.

I shudder to think how I let my children down by the faithless remarks I utter in their hearing. We betray the members of the church, young and old alike, when we talk in this way. We're in the covenant together, and our complaints violate a trust. They tear into us, tear us apart, and tear us down, giving voice to the heart of a beast.

Asaph entered the sanctuary of God, and there he understood the sorry end of the wicked. What exactly triggered this understanding? I'm not sure. The sanctuary was the holy place where the altar of incense smoked, where the bread of the presence lay on a table, where the lampstand burned brightly, illuminating the walls of angels and palm trees. I think of the beauty of the room, the fragrance, the nourishment and the light represented by the room, but most of all I think of the presence of God himself.

In the last verse of the psalm, Asaph says, "It is good to be near God" (vs. 28). When he entered the sanctuary, he drew near to God. In verse 23, he says, "I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand." In the sanctuary, it became clearer to him that he was with God, and that God was with him, holding him by the hand—that close. In the sanctuary, he realized that "you guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory" (vs. 24). Asaph could have given in to despair, but instead he realized that his end or purpose was to be taken into glory. The wicked? Their end is destruction, terror, and contempt. Why? They are "far" from God and unfaithful to him (vs. 27). By the grace of God, Asaph drew near, gained understanding, and regained his humanity.

Our Confession says, "Neither prayer, nor any other part of religious worship, is now, under the gospel, either tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed: but God is to be worshiped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies" (21.6). In the gospel age, we don't draw near to a temple made with hands, but we may draw near to God anywhere—in public assembly, in households, and in our hearts.

May the Lord be near us in Christ Jesus, so we can draw near to him, hope in the glory to come, and in that hope serve him, even in plague and chastisement, as he renews us not in the image of birds, four-footed animals, and creeping things, but in the image and glory of God.

The author is a ruling elder at Bethel OPC in Carson, N.D. He quotes the NIV unless otherwise indicated. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2002.

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