Light Breaks Through: The Sanctuary of God and a New Perspective (Psalm 73)

Light Breaks Through: The Sanctuary of God and a New Perspective (Psalm 73)

Written by: Pete McClanathan

We’ve moved slowly through the first half of Psalm 73, noting Asaph’s lament over the prosperity of the wicked. And we’ve sought to extract truth and wisdom to apply to today, in our own lives and in our observations of others. My wish is for this to have been a fruitful journey.  

Asaph was a sensitive, introspective, and wise man. A musical leader in the temple and a prophet. His descriptions of the apparent success and leisure of persons who openly ignored or defied the Lord make for a classic lament. One that touches many of our experiences and emotions. We’ve dealt in detail with the similarities between Asaph’s lament and today, some 2,900 years later. We’ll not revisit them here, but it might merit another reading of the past several articles to bring us to a wise place as we move forward.  

We’ve observed Asaph’s frustration develop into anger and despair. And, true to the literary form of the biblical lament, we’re about to witness a dramatic turnaround. Asaph has reached the bottom of his emotional dip, and will soon climb out of confusion and misery. His upward journey is relatively quick, glorious to behold, and filled with core understandings for us to embrace.  

“But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God, then I discerned their end.” (Ps. 73:16-17) 

Asaph identifies a time and an experience that parted the clouds of his despair and allowed the appearance of fresh understanding and refreshment. He describes the event rather plainly… “until I went into the sanctuary of God.”  What are we to make of this declaration?  

We begin with the obvious. Asaph clearly is referring to  an experience at temple worship, probably a Festival Service. But let’s not oversimplify. In his roles as worship leader and prophet, Asaph likely spent the majority of his time in the temple or its surrounds. We know that Asaph’s ministry extended over several decades under David and Solomon. So he would have been well-acquainted with the people and manner of temple worship. And just as clearly, he appears to have struggled with the aspects of his lament for some time. It seems we can conclude, then, that it was more than the act of entering the temple that led to his newfound peace and understanding. So what might it have been?

The fact is, we don’t know and can’t know precisely. But as we speculate, there are clues to help us. And though it may seem a relatively small part of the psalm, the idea of the “sanctuary of God” represents a crucial turning point for Asaph. And it can do likewise for us. 

The term “sanctuary” has several uses, in and apart from the Bible. Common uses include a place of refuge, a holy gathering place, and a place where grace and wisdom can be found. Traditionally many churches have referred to their auditoriums or worship centers as sanctuaries, a use that is fading a bit but still conveys the sense of refuge, worship, grace, and wisdom. Let’s take a look at some of the many scriptures that apply the word or its meanings to various aspects of life.

“O LORD, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells.” (Ps. 26:8)

“And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” (Ex. 25:8)

“Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.” (Ezek. 11:16)

“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  (John 4:24)

“For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” (Heb. 9:24)

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1Cor. 3:16)

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  (Rom. 12: 1-2)

We’re observing a rather clear teaching here. In Old Testament times, under its covenant, God directed the building of a place where His Glory and His Spirit would dwell among His people. That place became the wilderness tabernacle, and later the temple in Jerusalem. Each in its time housed the ark of the covenant, God’s dwelling place on earth.     

At that place God chose to meet His people in ways He had set forth. The system of sacrifices, the various feasts and festivals, the worship music and readings, all were ordained by God as elements of worship, confession, justification, and edification. All were directed and mediated by the priestly order. 

This is not to say that God was not concerned with the ongoing lives of prayer and obedience among His people. To the contrary, God supplied prophets in various locales to inquire of the LORD on behalf of the people. And the Old Testament scriptures are filled with God’s laments and warnings over the people's conduct and their indifference toward Him. 

Yet the Old Testament term sanctuary appears to refer to the presence of God’s Glory and Spirit in a physical location.          

And Asaph was deeply a part of that sanctuary, as a leader and participant. He knew the scriptures well. His insightful mind had learned to blend their content wisely with the questions of human life. We know this as we study the eleven psalms which he authored. But we also observe that Asaph’s regular temple worship had not brought resolution to his lament. Something occurred in his mind and heart that day which reversed his lament and opened the way for joy, praise, and eagerness for ministry. How did it occur?  

We still can only speculate but we do so now with better understanding. The sanctuary of God is not identified merely by a physical location. It is a place in the mind and spirit where transaction occurs with God’s Spirit, and change takes place. 

Was Asaph experiencing some “a-ha” moments as the Book of the Law was read? Did the music (which may have been his own) weave itself among his mind and emotions in a fresh way? Did his fellow worshippers appear especially sincere that day, or perhaps did one or more of them stop to share concern and wisdom with him? Had he already begun to sort out his lament, and this worship experience served as confirmation and encouragement? Was he just generally in a receptive and engaging state of mind that day?

Any or all of these, and others, are possibilities. What we do know is that Asaph emerged with an entirely new point of view and an excitement we had not seen.  

The presence of God is no longer confined to the tabernacle and the temple. The New Testament describes the features of a new covenant, one in which the Holy Spirit indwells the individual believers in an ongoing way. 

But let’s not miss an important lesson in all of this. We do not worship alone effectively.  We learn from each other, are encouraged by each other, and strengthened by observing each other. We receive the personal ministry of others that can bring focus to our struggles and offer the promise that we are not alone.

All of these things and more are presented in the New Testament gospels and epistles as functions of the Body of Christ. We’ll get on with Asaph’s story soon, but for the next article we’ll linger on the question of sanctuary and the church. It is important.

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