Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leave does not wither --
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
The psalm above is the opening psalm of Psalms. As I mentioned in the previous post, the compilers of the book put it together with intention. We can thus assume that this first poetic prayer sets the tone for the book. In fact, as I have been reading the first three psalms over and over this week, I have been impressed by how all three prepare the reader for what is to come: the first lays out a contrast between ways of living; the second extolls God's authority, sovereignty, and power; the third demonstrates living righteously by crying out to and depending on the God introduced in psalm two. But today we focus on Psalm 1.
What is the main idea of this psalm?
Without understanding the main idea, we run the risk of missing what the psalmist is trying to say or, worse, misinterpreting or misapplying the Scripture. Consider this sobering thought in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, (p218, emphasis mine):
Decontextualizing any part of a psalm is to betray the psalimst, and will often lead to wrong conclusions. Whenever one takes even a part of a piece of literature and uses it wrongly, and especially with poetry(!), that literature will be unable to do what it was intended to do, and so God's purposes in inspring it are thwarted.
That made me pause the first time I read it! How important it is to treat the Word of God with proper respect and honor. That reminds me of Psalm 1 a little!
In this psalm, we find the main idea in the major contrast that is presented between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked; the former is laid out by God and the other is not. Using the imagery of a flourishing tree in contrast to chaff that gets blown away, the way of God is presented as fruitful and lasting while the way without him as unproductive and finite. The focus is on these two ways of living; one is under God's direction and wisdom, the other not. It's not about individuals and whether or not they are good or bad. The central theme of the psalm is the two ways of living. Will we take God's wise way or will we go on our foolish own?
Remembering we are dealing with poetry, not prose, commands, or narrative helps us to keep the words of the psalm and our hearts in check. So when we read lines like "whatever they do prospers," we know it's not a promise for following a formula. Even the Bible highlights that bad things happen to good people and vice-versa! Nor can we get puffed up and think, "At least I'm not like the wicked," because we know darn well that we aren't as righteous as the righteousness described in the opening verses.
Considering Psalm 1 within the full counsel of the Bible is helpful at this point. This two-ways message is reiterated over and over again throughout the Bible. God created us to be with him. The story of the Bible is his unfolding plan to be with his people again as he was with Adam and Eve in the garden in Genesis 1 and 2. Part of that plan was the provision of the law, to show his people what his way looks like and that they could be a light to the nations by living it. To be frank, the law devastatingly (to human pride) revealed that there was no hope for them to walk in that way without complete dependence on the giver of the law. The point was not to get the list of rules, obey them perfectly, and prove their worth to the Lord. The point was to worship and fall into step with the way of the One who gave the law, that they might know the flourishing of a tree planted by streams of water that is fruitful and unwithering. The coming of Christ to fulfill the law and be the way is the climax of the story.
I woke up thinking about how to close these blog posts this year. In the opening post I mentioned that the primary purpose of the psalms is liturgical, to guide us in worship. Let's consider Psalm 1 from that perspective then. Psalm 1 is not an us versus them psalm. Psalm 1 is not a "live this way and you're guaranteed a prosperous earthly life" psalm. Psalm 1 is not about instilling fear of a capricious God who will blow you away if you don't get it "right."
Psalm 1 certainly humbles us to the dust; we know we are incapable of constant meditation on the Scriptures and that our delight in God cannot be sustained by our own willpower. Yet Psalm 1 also lifts up our heads; the Creator-King God loves us so much he shows us the way that we might enjoy the blessing of walking in it with him, now and eternally! Psalm 1 is an invitation. Psalm 1 is a gift.
You know how it opens "Blessed is ...?" Well, I read once in reference to the beatitudes that it could be translated as congratulations! "Congratulations to the one who walks in God's way!" It's a way of joy, peace, hope, and flourishing. Happy is the one who finds it, indeed.
To bring this ancient psalm into the present, lest we ever be tempted to pat ourselves on the back for being "righteous," our worship is reoriented when we remember that it was because God loved us and while we were still sinners that Christ - the Way, the Truth, and the Life - died for us to set us free from sin and send the Spirit to enable us to walk in His way.* As it was for David, it is for us; to be a person after God's heart is a work He initiates, directs, and sustains. All glory belongs to God!
Praise the Lord, Christian. Worship him with wonder and delight!
If you believe, that was his work.
If you walk in his way, that's his provision and protection.
If you count yourself among the righteous, that is all to his credit.
Without the God who reveals the two ways, we're blind. But when we hear about Him, learn of His way, and take Him at his word, He gives us hope, makes us righteous, and walks with us in His way.
The goal is not righteous living for righteous living's sake. The end is our Creator-King Himself, who watches over His children on their way, helping them bear fruit as they abide in Him, and keeping their leaves green as they stay close to the river of life.
Lift up your head, dear one. God has shown us the way of life and invites us into it because of his love for us. His mercies are new every morning. His faithfulness endures forever.
Enjoy Him and walking in His way! And, while you're at it, why not invite a friend to join you?
*I realize I'm assuming some knowledge here, feel free to get in touch if you have any questions!