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Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: When Envy Overtakes Us

August 8, 2013

 
Sermon:  Finding Ourselves in the Psalms:  When Envy Overtakes Us

Text:  Psalm 73

It is good to be back with you after some time away. Someone said to me, “I hope you had a restful vacation.”  Well, it was as restful as it could be with nine other people.  Two of our sons, their wives, and five of our grandchildren joined Clare and me at the beach.  At night, though, Clare and I were by ourselves at a place she called a love nest.  I don’t know; I was asleep.  The five grandchildren definitely outnumbered the six adults.  We love getting together with the family once a year at the beach, but it is not a vacation in the ordinary way you think of a vacation.  That week was pretty taxing.

Several years ago I took on a good bit of the cooking when Clare said, “It’s no vacation at all to move housekeeping from the place you are familiar with to another place you know nothing about.”  Preparing the meals for our children and grandchildren each year at the beach has gone well, but it makes for a very busy week.

You know what a handy-dandy granddaddy I want to be.  I decided on one of our shopping trips that getting small bottles of bubbles for the grandchildren would be a good idea.  Blowing bubbles is a lot of fun at the beach or any place that is windy.  I found that arthritic fingers do not do so well extracting the wand from the bottle, but little fingers can retrieve it quite well.  I planned to get five bottles because we have five grandchildren, but Clare protested that was not enough and insisted that I buy twice as many.

I picked out the ten bottles of bubbles, thinking I had done a pretty good job on color assortment.  Of course, I am colorblind; so as it turned out, I purchased seven blue bottles, one yellow, one orange, and one pink.  That one pink bottle became a major problem.  Who knew that bubbles were not as good if they did not come from the pink bottle? 

The day we brought the bottles out, I let the grandchildren choose which one they wanted.  Needless to say, all three girls went for the pink bottle.  I watched as our granddaughters fussed over the color.  I gave them bubbles, for crying out loud!

Clare, who is so wise, stepped in and said, “No, girls.  You know PK bought the pink bottle for me.  That one is mine. You will have to choose from the others.”  Her intervention pretty much solved the hitch I had created.

When the five finally began trying to blow bubbles, some had a hard time.  Little Caroline, who is about a year old, thought the wand was a spoon.  She kept trying to eat the bubbles.  Allie, who is three years old, soon discovered she could stand in front of the electric fan on the back porch and let it blow those bubbles.  When the others saw that she was making more bubbles than anyone else, they, too, crowded around the fan.  The children engaged in what became a contest to see who could make the most and the biggest bubbles.

The story did not happen this way; but if I were writing this script, I would end it with Caroline burping and blowing the biggest bubble of the day.

Later while talking with Clare, I said, “You know, I am preaching on the topic of envy this coming Sunday morning. I have the perfect illustration right here with our own grandchildren.”

Does our DNA carry this trait of envy?  Are these grandchildren envious because they inherited this trait from Clare or me?  Two of our grandchildren are adopted, so I assume jealousy must be in the human DNA.  It must be part and parcel of who we are as people.  It only stands to reason that we need to take the commandment in Exodus 20:17 seriously: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”  All of us can be envious.  All of us can become so obsessed with possessions or desires for what others have that we overlook people. Envy is a part not only of our DNA as human beings, but it is also a part of our spiritual DNA.

Before we consider our psalm for today, Psalm 73, I want to share some passages about envy included in other parts of the Bible.  Many of these appear in the wisdom literature.

 –      Ecclesiastes 4:4:  “I saw all the labor and all the achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

          Proverbs 14:30:  “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.”

          Galatians 5:26:  “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

       James 3:13-17:  “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. James says that wisdom from above is not characterized by envy.

From the very first pages of the Bible, we read about destruction resulting from envy.  The brothers Cain and Abel experience tragedy that comes at the point of worship.  Abel offers a sheep as a sacrifice, which is acceptable to God.  Cain’s offering, which comes from the soil, is not accepted.  You can debate for a long time why one offering is acceptable and the other is not suitable.  The reason has something to do with the heart of each man.  Cain responds with envy.  He rises up in anger against his brother and kills him, an act that does not please the Lord.  God casts Cain into the land of Nod, the land of wandering, a land with no center, a land with no purpose, a land where he will forever be tormented by the fact that he took his brother’s life.

We move along in the Bible and come to another story of envy in the relationship between Hagar and Sarah.  One woman can have children, but the other cannot.  We see Jacob and Esau squabbling over their father’s blessing and a birthright.  We see Leah and Rachel quarreling over Jacob.  Saul loses his mind because of his resentment of David and David’s popularity.  In the book of Esther we see that Haman was envious of Mordecai.  The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 27 relates how Pilate could release a prisoner – either Barabbas or Jesus – but the crowd chose Barabbas. Verse 18 says that Pilate “knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.”

Envy is the unhappy feeling of desire for something that someone else has, such as position, status, ability, success, good fortune, qualities, or possessions. The problem, rooted in low self-esteem, makes us feel that we are not good enough, that we must be like or better than someone else.  We feel it is not fair that other people are luckier, smarter, or more attractive than we are.  Somehow they seem to have the upper hand even when we are the ones who have lived a righteous life.

Much of the current advertising is based on envy.  Advertising actually promotes envy.  Much of the debt in this country is due to envy.  Envy overtakes us, making us feel as if we must get what we want immediately.  Our desire is so great that we cannot wait.

Notice the note at the end of Psalm 72, which says the psalms of David (Psalms 1-72, according to tradition) have ended.  We now come a turning point at Psalm 73, which marks the beginning of the last three books of Psalms.  Walter Brueggemann says that Psalm 73 is the theological center of the book.  It begins with the reiteration that God is good to those who are obedient to Him.  Psalm 1 opens with a comparison of those who are righteous and those who are wicked.  Psalms 73-150 are primarily songs of praise.

We see early on in our text that the psalmist has a problem in his heart with envy.  I begin reading at Verse 1.

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.
They have no struggles;
    their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
    they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
    they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
    their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
    with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
    and their tongues take possession of the earth.

Most of us know people who are arrogant, wicked, or prideful, people who seem to be free of burdens and difficult circumstances.  We do not have to look much further than the celebrities and professional athletes promoted on all kinds of media.  These individuals make an enormous amount of money, entertaining the rest of us.  A real pitfall, a real trap, for us is envying them. 

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.

It just is not fair, is it?  It is not fair that someone is willing to pay a quarterback $59,000,000.  Michael Novak claims that we in this country have found our national religion in professional athletics.  It is where the crowds gather on Sunday.  It is where the crowds put their money.  The high priests are those who run and jump and knock down other people.  Some religion!  Not all professional athletes are “wicked,” but they do tend to attract our envy and our feeling that it is just not fair.  Luke 12:34 tells us, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

You will notice that much of the envy in the early pages of the Bible occurs within families.  I have seen families fight over sticks of furniture after the deaths of their parents.  I have known people who made a decision about whom they were going to marry, not so much out of love but  because they wanted a trophy.  Maybe they just wanted to make other people envious. 

Then we come to the turning point of the psalm in Verses 16-17:

16 When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply

Good.  We should all feel deeply troubled when we are afflicted with a sin like envy.

17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; 
    then I understood their final destiny.

I believe he understood more than their final destiny; he understood the condition of the human heart. 

Notice in Verse 18 that now the psalmist says, “Surely you place them on slippery ground.”  Earlier he was talking about how his own feet had almost slipped.  Now he sees that the people he had called wicked are on slippery ground, in danger of falling in ruin, in danger of displeasing God.

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.

The psalmist experiences a change of heart in the next two verses.

21 When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

Sometimes we blame God when we become envious of what other people have.  It sounds like Ecclesiastes when we say to God, “Look.  I have been as good as gold, trying to do my best to live a Christian life.  What do I get for that?  Toil and trouble?  Look at these other people, ones who spend all their time doing things that they should not be doing, but having it all.  They seem to have no sorrow, no trouble.”  The psalmist has the realization that something else is more important than material possessions.  Something else is more important than the funds in a bank account and more important than a vehicle parked in the backyard or garage.  God is more important. 

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.

When we have God we have everything we need.  He is our strength.

The psalmist concludes with praise for the Sovereign God.

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.

Pride and envy go hand-in-hand.  Sometimes people are prideful because they want other people to be envious.  “I have the pink bottle, and you don’t get it.”  Some people are guilty of flaunting what they have.  A Bible story about a father who had twelve sons addresses this very topic.  Fathers and mothers can sometimes create envy in their children.  Jacob presented a beautiful coat of many colors, some say, to his son Joseph.  Perhaps the coat was actually very long, so long that it touched the ground.  Regardless of its appearance, no field hand would wear this type of coat.  It was obviously meant to be worn by someone who would remain indoors, living a pampered life.  The fact that Joseph was the exception grated on his brothers.  They were envious because they all had to work hard for their father, while Joseph was the son of privilege.  They considered killing him, but Reuben spoke up, offering a better solution: “Let’s throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery.”  How odd that they sold him to Ishmaelites, cousins from Ishmael. 

Joseph was like cream; he always rose to the top.  Though sold into slavery in Egypt, he became the head of Potiphar’s household.  Though falsely accused of having a sexual relationship with Potiphar’s wife and thrown into prison, he became the prisoner in charge of other prisoners.  Finally because of his ability to accurately interpret dreams, the pharaoh made him Secretary of Agriculture.  Joseph took this position of prominence, guiding the people through seven years of plenty and preparing them for seven years of famine.

When Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt for food during the famine, Joseph’s heart was broken.  Through a series of conniving, he managed to get his entire family in Egypt.  Do you remember how Jacob blessed the children of Joseph?  He gave a cross-handed blessing.  Grandfathers can promote envy among children too. Following Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers thought that surely Joseph was going to exact revenge, but Joseph spoke one of the best lines in the book of Genesis, maybe one of the best lines in the entire Bible:  “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). 

If we are to get beyond envy, we must develop an attitude like the psalmist did, thinking, “Nothing I desire can be apart from God.  Everything I need comes from God.  He is always with me.  It does not matter what kind of automobile I drive.  Regardless of the problems that life deals to me, the one thing that matters is to know that God is with me, that God means it for good.”

Do you know that God intends your life to be good because of Him?  Do you believe it with all your heart?  God sent Jesus into this world to teach us how to live.  Jesus did not teach us to live in envy.  God showed us that Jesus was willing to die for our sins and that Jesus could conquer death itself by the power of his resurrection.  Have you made a commitment to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior?  We extend that invitation to you this morning.  You know what God would have you do.  We invite your response.

 

Kirk H. Neely

© August 2013

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