Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 4, 2016
Psalm 1 Commentary
In the liturgical calendar, we’re still in Ordinary Time, but this time is anything but ordinary for the students in our congregations. It’s back to school time. After a summer of letting the brain relax, it is time to fire up those synapses again and learn, learn, learn. That makes Psalm 1 the perfect Psalm for this time of year. As I’ll explain in more depth later, Psalm 1 is all about instruction; that’s the wider meaning of “the law of the Lord.”
When students begin college, there is a time of orientation, a time to get them ready for everything that will follow in their higher education. That’s what Psalm 1 does for us. It orients us to the instruction that will follow in the rest of the Psalter. Now, of course, there is more than instruction in the Psalter; there is worship, consisting of prayer and praise, lamentation and imprecation, thanksgiving and confession, and much more. But Psalm 1 reminds us that all of the words in the Psalter are ultimately designed to produce obedience. Worship in all of its parts must lead to a certain kind of life, a righteous life.
Psalm 1 makes that crystal clear by simplifying (some of your college students will say oversimplifying) all the complexities of modern life down to two stark alternatives. According to Psalm 1 (and the Psalms that follow), there are only two kinds of people in this world—the righteous and the wicked. There are only two ways of living—according to the law of the Lord or according to the counsel of the wicked. And there are only two results of the way we live—we can be blessed (the first word in the Psalm) or we can perish (the last word). There is no middle ground, no partly righteous or a little bit wicked, no greys, no shades, no maybes. It’s all very simple. That’s what we have to keep in mind if we are to learn from the rest of the Psalter.
Of course, that’s not how we experience life. We meet many kinds of people who exhibit multiple lifestyles. People are faced with innumerable choices, and there must be a billion definitions of happiness. We will have a hard time convincing our congregations that Psalm 1 is true, because it totally re-orients our perspective on life in this world. Indeed, that is its purpose. So we must preach Psalm 1 as though our lives (and theirs) depend on it.
Hearing and living by this Psalm will depend on our ability to tune out the counsel of the wicked. “Blessed is the person,” begins the Psalm, “who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers.” The multiplicity of verbs and nouns in that sentence suggest that the wicked can be found everywhere. They have all kinds of advice for us. They model how we should live. And they mock anyone who thinks there really is a God who has spoken an authoritative Word to the human race.
There is really no way to get away from the wicked, nor should we. In fact, if we are to make any impact for Christ, we must stay connected with the world as it is. Jesus was a friend of sinners; his followers must be as well, if we are to make disciples of all nations. So, Psalm 1 is not a call to retreat into some sort of religious ghetto surrounded by high walls that keep us physically and socially separate from the world. Rather, says the Psalmist, we must be sure that we don’t order our lives (“walk”) by the advice of the wicked, that we don’t commit ourselves (“stand in”) to the lifestyles of sinners, that we don’t identify ourselves (“sit”) with those who mock the reality of God and his word.
How on earth can we avoid doing what verse 1 warns us about? By doing what verse 2 calls us to do. This is the positive that makes the negative possible. To avoid walking and standing and sitting with the wicked, we must be planted in “the law of the Lord.” Verse 2 tells us what that means. We must delight in that law and meditate on it day and night. That’s what enables the righteous to make the right choices, to live the right way, to arrive at the right end.
This message will be a hard sell to many contemporary Christians, not only because of the ubiquity of wicked counsel as noted above, but also because of popular but mistaken notions about the place of God’s law in the Christian life. “We are not under law, but under grace.” All Christian know and treasure that Pauline summary of the Good News.
So we’ll have to carefully explain that “the law of the Lord” here doesn’t just mean the Ten Commandments. Psalm 1 is talking about the entire Torah, which essentially means all of the instruction God has ever given his people. Torah is the revelation of the way and will of Yahweh. It is not the way to be saved, but the way the saved must live if they are to be happy. As James Luther Mays put it, “Torah is a delight, not because it is an instrument of self-righteousness, material for a program of self-justification, but because Yahweh reaches, touches and shapes us through it.” Torah is “a means of grace” by which God show us how “live and die in the joy of the comfort” that comes from belonging to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Question #2)
We may still have a hard time convincing today’s believers that delighting in and meditating on the Word of God is the key to happiness. Isn’t Jesus the key to happiness? Aren’t we supposed to dwell in him? Isn’t the presence and power of the Spirit of Christ the secret of growth and fruitfulness in the Christian life? Yes, of course, all that is the Gospel truth. However, we don’t have to separate Torah from Jesus. Indeed, didn’t Jesus say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life?” Read those words from John 14:6 in the light of Psalm 1, and you’ll see that Jesus was Torah in the flesh. He lived by Torah; he fulfilled Torah; he died as Torah demanded; he enables us to live by Torah. As Paul said, Christ is the mystery of God “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
If we separate Jesus from Torah, we may end up with a fuzzy mysticism that doesn’t care much about righteousness and justice. If we separate Torah from Jesus, we could live by a rigid legalism that doesn’t know the joy and delight of walking with Jesus himself. Maybe an old gospel song says it best. “When we walk with the Lord in the light of his Word, what a glory he sheds on our way. When we do his good will, he abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
That’s what Psalm 1 is about—how to be happy, not merely as a subjective state of mind, but as an objective condition in union with Christ. “Happy is the person who” makes the right choices. Psalm 1 says, here’s the world in all its complexity, with all of its conflicting advice, all of its diverse ways of living, all of its complicated ideas about life and death. But in reality we have to choose between two simple options. Will we listen to Word of God or will we listen to the voice of Man?
The starkness of this choice made me think about Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” It opens with this line, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and ends with these immortal words:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
That is exactly what Psalm 1 says. Which road you choose, which way of life you pursue, which voice you obey “makes all the difference,” both in this life and “ages and ages hence.” Choose the wrong road and you will be like chaff that the wind blows away, light and loose and lifeless. And in the end, you won’t be able to stand in the judgment. The text doesn’t require us to talk here about God’s wrath on the wicked, though that is a theme in other places. Rather, the Psalm emphasizes that our choices have their own consequences. The “way of the wicked will perish” because they wander away, walking down a long and crowded road, only to discover that it is a dead end with a steep cliff at the very end. How we live is decisive for our destiny.
That doesn’t mean we can save ourselves by our own efforts. Psalm 1 makes it very clear that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.” That doesn’t mean that he merely watches us from a distance. The Hebrew word translated “watches over” in the NIV is really the word for “know” in the most pregnant sense. It refers to a personal relationship and loving concern. We can make ourselves perish, but only God can make us flourish. The verb “planted” in verse 3 is actually the verb “transplanted.” We don’t plant ourselves by streams of water; we are transplanted by the Gardner. Blessedness, happiness, fruitfulness, prosperity are not achievements; they are gifts which we receive by trusting and obeying.
Psalm 1 introduces the rest of the Psalter by showing us two ways that lead to two very different destinations. In all our prayer and praise, laments and curses, thanksgiving and confession, and all the other stuff of human life, remember that simple Gospel message. In a world that says there are many roads that all lead to the same place, Psalm 1 is bracing stuff. It will be intimidating to preach it straight, but the students in our congregations need a re-orientation as they begin to learn again.
I once preached a sermon on Psalm 1 entitled, “Growling Over the Book,” because that is a literal translation of the verb in verse 2, “on his law he meditates day and night.” In the Hebrew the word “meditates” is an example of onomatopoeia; in other words, the word sounds like what it describes. The word is hagah. One older commentator said it refers to “a dull deep sound as if vibrating within.” A more modern commentator talks about his old dog gnawing on a bone.
He writes, “Years ago I owned a dog who had a fondness for large bones. Fortunately for him we lived in the forested foothills of Montana. In his forest rambles he often came across a carcass of a white-tailed deer that had been brought down by coyotes. Later he would show up on our stone, lakeside patio carrying or dragging his trophy, usually a shank or a rib; he was a small dog and the bone was often nearly as large as he was. Anyone who has owned a dog knows the routine: he would prance and gambol playfully before us with his prize, wagging his tail, proud of his find, courting our approval. And of course we approve, lavishing praise on him…. But after a while, sated with our applause, he would drag the bone off twenty yards of so to a more private place, usually the shade of a large moss covered boulder, and go to work on the bone. The social aspects of the bone were behind him now; now the pleasure was solitary. He gnawed the bone, turned it over and around, licked it, worried it. Sometimes we would hear a low rumble or growl, what in a cat would be a purr.” (Eugene Petersen, Eat This Book)
It was a hagah, a growl of concentration, of pleasure, as he slowly but surely devoured the bone. The writer of Psalm 1 says that growling over God’s Torah is the secret of a deeply rooted, heavily fruited, always prosperous, thoroughly righteous life.
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