|Psalm 1: Life Is Choice
October 4, 1998
A friend of mine has recently been going through the sort of sifting and trial that only those who have experienced it themselves can understand. Within the space of a year, his wife died, he suffered a major spiritual failure, and he lost his job. Here is part of a note he sent some of us who have tried to stay in touch with him during this triple ordeal of death, sin, and financial crisis:
I live in the Psalms. I never knew they existed before. I have learned that "my soul finds rest in God alone. . . . He alone is my rock . . ., My salvation and my honor depend on him" (Psa. 62). I have learned that "I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy"; he "delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling" (Psa. 116). I love him and trust him more today than I ever have. I have lost my soul-mate, the mother of my children, my reputation and self-respect, my vocation, my income, and my health. Yet I have learned that God alone is enough. More than enough.
Oh, how I wish none of those terrible things had happened to him! Or do I? Did it take precisely the sort of struggle and heartache he has experienced to teach him that God alone is enough, more than enough? Only last week, I was re-reading a book while on a plane and came across this passage:
Countless are the cases where the descent to despair via alcohol, drugs, sex addiction, or some other path was the prelude to a recovery of faith: The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., is a well-known example. From the depths of an alcoholic despair, praying for the first time in many years, he had, by his own report, a mystical experience that led him not only to stop drinking but also to go on later to found AA. In effect, one could argue, the world is designed to present the mind with a fundamental moral choice as well as a dilemma whose only solution lies in an acknowledgment of, and encounter with God.1
And so begins our twelve-part study of the Psalms. First, you heard my friend’s testimony to the meaning they have come to have in his life. "I live in the Psalms," he says. Second, you are reminded that his experience of facing a life crisis and encountering God there is not unique. The world does seem designed to present our human minds with "a fundamental moral choice" and "dilemma" whose only solution is a faith-grounding, life-altering experience with God.
The psalter begins with the simple affirmation that life is ultimately a choice between narrow options. One either opts for or against God, is open to the Word of God or closed to its instruction, embraces righteousness or wickedness, chooses life or death.
Life’s Two Ways
Psalm 1 does not have a discernible social or cultic setting. That is, it is not a "royal psalm" for a king’s coronation or "pilgrimage song" for worshippers traveling to Jerusalem; it is not "communal lament" for the annual Day of Atonement. Its belongs to the literary genre of "wisdom psalms." It introduces all the psalms that follow. Indeed, Spurgeon called it the text upon which the remainder of the psalter is a sermon.2
Following the three-fold classification of Walter Brueggemann in the study notes written for this series, this is a psalm of orientation. It was written in a time of reflection and gratitude to honor Yahweh for his faithful blessings. It affirms the joy of those who will live in the light of the Lord’s torah. Against such a profession of faith, there may indeed be painful times of "disorientation" followed by delight in workings of God to reestablish faith in a time of "reorientation." But without an initial orientation in the things of God, the possibilities for the future are necessarily limited.
So some unknown editor wrote this preface to the poems, songs, and prayers we call the Book of Psalms:
Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does 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 will perish (Psa. 1:1-6).
Or perhaps this psalm will be a "fresh read" to you from a modern translation:
How well God must like you –
you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon,
you don’t slink along Dead-End Road,
you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.
Instead you thrill to Yahweh’s Word,
you chew on Scripture day and night.
You’re a tree replanted in Eden,
bearing fresh fruit every month,
Never dropping a leaf,
always in blossom.
You’re not at all like the wicked,
who are mere windblown dust –
Without defense in court,
unfit company for innocent people.
Yahweh charts the road you take.
The road they take is Skid Row.3
A Study in Contrasts
While Peterson’s translation is fresh and while it does have merit at certain points, it also has a decided weakness. That "weakness" comes in the opening verse where – at least on my first reading of it – an arrogant tone of self-righteousness can be heard. Does an authentically righteous person congratulate himself on how much God must like his behavior? Does he take pride in the fact that he is able to avoid bad company and, as in the final verse, stay off "Skid Row"? To be honest, I think practically all English translations of this psalm tend to leave a bad impression of "the righteous" person whose "delight is in the law of the Lord."
I suspect this bad impression is rooted in what Psalm 1 affirms about "law." Doesn’t it say that the righteous man is made so by law? Doesn’t it seem to affirm what some of us have come to despise as "legalism"? Have we been proved wrong on this point? Was the old brother right after all who prayed "Lord, we thank you for giving us this book of rules by which we can please you, if we do everything you have commanded"?
No, the man wasn’t correct in his legalistic approach to righteousness. It was Paul, after all, who wrote: "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin" (Rom. 3:20). Again: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Rom. 3:28).
Psalm 1 is not a recommendation of legalism and a corresponding invitation into self-righteous arrogance. The possibility of understanding it so comes from misunderstanding the Hebrew word translated "law" (i.e., torah) in this and other biblical texts. "The Hebrew word can mean ‘law’ in the sense of specific injunction (Exod. 12:49) or a collection of legislation (Exod. 24:12; Deut. 4:8); however, it essentially means ‘instruction.’" 4
As McCann points out, The Torah fundamentally signifies to Judaism the five books of Moses – Genesis through Deuteronomy. The Torah is not a five-volume set of law books but a series of narratives in which God reveals himself. There are "laws" in those stories to be sure, but the real issue in those five volumes is God’s personal interaction with selected individuals and a nation he elected as a "chosen people." As Paul would later point out about Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Israel, these interactions were by God’s choice and based on his grace freely bestowed. Under either the Old or New Testament, the ideal for those he chose and to whom he revealed himself was that they should live "by faith" in the God they had encountered (cf. Hab. 2:4; Rom. 3:28; Gal. 3:11).
So the "blessed" (i.e., happy, fortunate) man of the psalms is not necessarily the noblest, purest, or most obedient person. Think, for example, of Abraham’s lies about Sarah; yet he is called "the father of the faithful." Or take the case of David’s adultery and murder; yet he is said to have been "a man after God’s own heart." The people God blesses are those who are teachable, always open to his instruction, counsel, and reorientation when their lives get off track.
But doesn’t this psalm promise that good people will prosper, while only the wicked will suffer? Hardly! Although, again, a careless reading of Psalm 1 almost sounds like that is its message: "Whatever [the righteous person] does prospers. . . . but the way of the wicked will perish." If that is its message, later psalms contradict it. For example: "Do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes" (Psa. 37:7b). Again: ""For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (Psa. 73:3).
It must also be noted from the outset that the psalmist was no naïve optimist any more than he or she was a self-righteous, simple-minded legalist. The psalmist knew about the "real world." The psalmist knew that the wicked appear to do very well for themselves. The psalmist knew that obedience to a set of rules does not guarantee that one will be healthy or rich or famous or popular. The psalmist knew that the righteous suffer. All one has to do is read the rest of the Psalter.5
How, then, should we understand this psalm? If there are no guarantees of being healthy, wealthy, and wise for the righteous, what is the value of it anyway? "Ah, that’s what heaven means!" proclaims someone. But the Old Testament had no doctrine of heaven. So the whole issue must somehow be other than some of us have yet conceived.
Indeed, the point of biblical faith is quite different than many – if not most of us – have yet grasped. We are not in a point-gathering contest to win the heavenly prize. We are not building a firewall against hell. We are trying to know the God in whose image we are created and to honor his likeness planted in us from the creation. We are learning to love God for his own sake. We are finding out the meaning of walking before him and one another in integrity.
Taking a clue from the central metaphor of Psalm 1, to be "happy" or to "prosper" is to have a solid foundation, to have a place to stand (vv. 1, 5). For the psalmist, that foundation is to delight in and to meditate upon torah, to be constantly open to God’s instruction. Taking such a stand or such a stance enables one to live with purpose and integrity in a world of confusion (see Pss. 19:13; 119:1 where "integrity" would be a more auspicious translation than "blameless"). It enables one to live with hope in a world full of despair, and it enables one to perceive the mystery of life where others may perceive only the misery of life.6
So here is the meaning of Psalm 1 – and the psalms that follow on this preamble: The truly fortunate person in this turbulent world is the one who has found stability for his or her life in the counsel of the Lord.
The righteous man or woman is neither perfect in obeying law nor exempt from "paying dues" to life’s heartaches. Instead, one is blessed who – even in a time of despair, sickness, poverty, or moral failure – listens to the voice of God, delights in that holy instruction, and meditates on it day and night. Such a woman or man will be like a tree planted firmly and watered by faithful streams. That person’s "prosperity" will be the deep roots and solid foundation that enable him or her to survive what otherwise would have been overwhelming.
The wicked are not so. Because they are self-seeking, self-willed, and self-centered, they feel no need for divine instruction. They’ll get by just fine on their own, thank you! And in trying to live apart from God and his counsel, such persons will be revealed as rootless, insubstantial souls – no better at coping with life’s storms than dry chaff the wind blows away. They will always be small of soul and weak in character. There’s no way for them to survive on their own. And they will never fit or be comfortable among those who know the Lord and love his ways.
It is the ultimate choice every human being must make: To live the lie of "autonomous man" or to long for and cherish the instruction of the Lord; to search for the meaning of your existence within yourself or to discover that God alone is enough, more than enough. It is your choice to make today.
1 Patrick Glynn, God: The Evidence (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1997), p. 76. (Note: Italics supplied here for emphasis.)
2 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 7 Vols. (London: Funk and Wagnalls, 1892), Vol. I: p. 1.
3 Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: Psalms (Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing Group, 1994).
4 J. Clinton McCann Jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 27.
5 Ibid., p. 34.
6 Ibid., p. 35.
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