Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 17, 2015
Psalm 1 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 1, in combination with Psalm 2, introduces the entire Psalter that is the book of Psalms. James May suggests that the combination of those psalms invites hearers to read and use the entire psalm book as God’s guide to a what constitutes a “blessed” or “happy life.” Some modern translators prefer “happy” over “blessed” as the best rendering of the Hebrew word asre. After all, to call someone blessed may seem to imply that God showers material blessings on her. “Happy,” by contrast seems to refer to the “righteous” person’s outlook on life in God’s world.
Those who study Psalm 1 carefully may be quickly struck by the bold, dark lines it seems to draw between “wicked” and “righteous” people. It seems to leave no middle ground, no room for the recognition that the line between good and evil runs not between people, but right down the middle of each person. That’s why James Mays is helpful when he suggests that the psalmist drawing a line not between people, but between ways of living. Concern with and the search of God’s teaching is the kind of pattern of life that pleases and honors the Lord. On the other hand, the psalmist asserts that a concern with and the search of one’s own interests is the kind of way of living that dishonors God.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 1 will do well to note that the psalmist fills it with many both “action verbs” and vivid images. It’s almost as if we can scarcely keep up with the breathless pace of all that walking, sitting, standing, meditating, yielding, prospering, blowing, watching over and even perishing. The psalmist’s palate is full of the vibrant colors evoked by terms like mockers, a tree planted by streams of living water, fruits, leaves and chaff. So those who exposit it will want to use lots of evocative and lively verbs and images. Psalm 1 offers no invitation to flat, dull, heavily analytical preaching.
Psalm 1’s “man” or “person” is like a hiker who has reached a kind of branch in her trail. Which way will the person walk? Will she lurch down the trail sinners and wicked people hike on? Or will she scramble up the path the righteous follow?
We might also say that this psalm’s person is like someone who’s entered a crowded classroom, looking for a place to sit. Will he sit in the back, along with the mockers? Or in the front, next to people who study God’s teaching day and night? Psalm 1 also invites hearers to imagine themselves as plants. What kind of plants will we choose to be? Worthless chaff? Or a flourishing tree? Those who preach and teach Psalm 1 may benefit from spending time looking for other metaphors for faithful and rebellious ways of living.
Of course, Psalm 1 suggests that the “wicked,” “sinners” and “mockers” are hard to avoid as we walk along life’s sidewalk. They seem to be almost everywhere. Wicked people are generous with their advice. Sinners stand along the way. Mockers even sit in various places. So is the psalmist calling worshipers to a kind of splendid isolation, to life spent crouched with other believers behind the walls of Christian “ghettoes?” Mays suggests that the psalmist is inviting worshipers to isolate themselves not from sinners themselves, but from wicked influences and affects on our ways of living. After all, while Jesus himself sat, walked and even ate with sinful people, their way of living and thinking didn’t negatively affect how he lived.
Yet Psalm 1 also offers thoughtful preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the affects of socializing with those who rebel against God and God’s good and loving purposes. Who is influencing who as Christians interact with family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers who don’t share their commitment to the Lord of life? What does it take for believers to walk, stand and sit with rebels, positively influencing them rather than being negatively impacted by them?
Psalm 1 compares the “happy” person to a tree that the Master Forester has planted by streams of living water. Its imagery is reminiscent of Jeremiah 17:7-8: “Blessed is the man that trusts in the Lord … He will be like a tree planted by the water.” Each passage emphasizes the work of transplanting, suggesting that the happy person doesn’t naturally stand by those life-nourishing waters. She may even have originally been planted among the “wicked.” Psalm 1 implies that the happy “tree” isn’t by that water by accident, but because of the loving hand of someone who has transplanted her there. It implies that it’s the work of the tranplanter God, though the psalmist doesn’t even explicitly identify God until verse 6.
The “happy tree” draws his nourishment not from the advice of the wicked, but from the life-giving “law of the Lord.” So he makes it his priority, his delight to spend his time meditating not on sinners’ teachings, but on God’s teaching as it’s found in God’s law. This teaching presents Psalm 1’s preachers and teachers with opportunities to reflect on how busy citizens of the 21st century can make God’s teaching such a high priority in the lives of those they love and them. How do we clear out time and space to meditate on God’s law for just an hour or so a day, to say nothing of all day and night long?
It’s a vital question given the stakes involved. Psalm 1 insists that those who make God’s teaching a priority in their lives do what God created them to do, yielding “fruit” in its season. Their leaves don’t wither, even in the drought of suffering and adversity. “Happy trees” that draw their nourishment from God’s teaching are fruitful. What they do brings glory to God and blessing to God.
Yet the psalmist insists that the lasting, we might say eternal stakes are even higher. After all, God watches over the way of those who make God’s law a priority. Nothing, not even the final judgment, can separate them from God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. However, the psalmist suggests that those who persistently and finally make their own ways their priority will not stand at the final judgment. Those who have permanently chosen to stand with sinners and their ways of life will not, in the end, stand in the assembly of the righteous. They’ll be blown away like chaff by the hot breath of God’s holy anger.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 1 may have to be careful not to even imply a kind of works righteousness that suggests that our meditation on and obedience to God’s teaching saves us. Read in the light of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, it presents an opportunity to reflect on what it means that God has already raised God’s children to life with Jesus Christ.
Few farm chores were traditionally more onerous than putting oats into storage. After all, oat chaff has a tendency to fly everywhere. Even the tiniest puff of breeze can send chaff swirling to land on a person’s clothing, as well as in her hair, eyes, nose and even open mouth. Sweat serves as a kind of adhesive that glues the chaff to skin. Such chaff feels very prickly once it’s latched onto human skin.
The psalmist compares wicked people to such bothersome chaff. She suggests that they’re so insubstantial that even the slightest hint of a breeze blows them “away.” Might it be too much of a stretch to suggest that their relative weightlessness also renders wicked people a nuisance to the people around them?
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