Few of us do what many monastic and other traditions have done in history with the Psalms: namely, read them straight through and in order. Instead we bob and weave our way through the Psalms, picking and choosing to read this Psalm or another for no particular rhyme or reason. And so it’s easy to conclude that the collection of 150 poems we call the Book of Psalms is a more or less haphazard collection. The Psalms, we think, are kind of like a “Greatest Hits” musical album by The Rolling Stones or Simon & Garfunkel: these were the best songs over the years and so they all just got slapped together into one album.
But scholars have come to realize that the person or persons who put the Psalter together into its final form did so very carefully. There is an order and a sense to that order. There is a discernible collection of five specific books within the Psalter, each book ending with some version of “Praise be to the LORD forever / from everlasting to everlasting” (cf. Psalms 41:13, 72:19, 89:52, 106:48). These poems were carefully selected, edited, and ordered.
So also the first Psalm does not appear at the head of this collection randomly. Rather it was intentionally placed here to set the stage for all that will follow. As such, Psalm 1 sketches for us the rather stark—some today might say the rather simplistic—worldview from which all of the next 149 poems will derive. And it is pretty straightforward, pretty black and white: everyone in all humanity falls into one of two camps: the Righteous and the Wicked. Again, although this may strike us as a little too neat and tidy, you really cannot understand the theology of the Psalms if you do not accept the operating premise that at the end of the day, every person is in one of two camps. One either lives life oriented to the Creator God of Israel or one does not.
What’s more, Psalm 1 describes the characteristics of each group quite forthrightly: all the imagery of this poem concerning the righteous is about stability, rootedness, resolve. The righteous do not walk, do not stand, do not sit among mockers. They are planted like trees by a riverside with a perpetual source of nourishment from God’s Word, from God’s Law. The wicked by stark contrast are always on the move but in bad ways. They run toward wrongdoing, they blow away like chaff in the wind. In some ways there’s kind of nothing to the wicked. No matter how substantial they may seem in this life, in the end they are dust in the wind. They have no roots, no stabilizing forces in their erratic lives. They bounce from one thing to the next driven and propelled forward by their selfishness and self-centeredness. But for all the things in life they may succeed in amassing, the one thing they can never achieve is a long-lasting firmness of place and identity.
Again, this opening Psalm establishes the landscape for the rest of these Hebrew poems. And indeed, the contrast between the Righteous and the Wicked, between the psalmists who see themselves as innocent and all the others whom they regard as enemies—this contrast will pop up all over the place. Maybe this is supposed to be a God’s-eye view of the world in which God at least can see clean down to the core of every person and so can know without hesitation who is on God’s side and who is not.
That might explain our own hesitation at adopting so black-or-white an outlook ourselves. After all, a lot of the people whom we know as a matter of fact do not spend their days meditating on God’s Word or God’s Law yet they seem like pretty nice folks. A lot of our unbelieving neighbors are people we’d call friends. We would entrust them with the keys to our house. We’d be fine with letting them babysit our kids. They water our plants for us while we are on vacation and we do the same for them. If an emergency came up and we called the neighbors, we’d know for sure that they would hurry over to lend whatever assistance they could.
They don’t go to church, don’t meditate day and night on God—they may not even be sure if there is a God to believe in to begin with. Still, we’d be hard pressed to conclude they are chaff, dust, unrooted and insubstantial people worthy of all the divine wrath God could muster.
Actually, some of us know certain religious people and some whole denominations of Christian people who more or less do have such a grim and straightforward take on anyone who is not a member of their own church. And we don’t generally appreciate those folks that much even as fellow believers and some such Christians are unpleasant enough that—given a choice—we’d rather spend time with our unbelieving neighbors than with those pinched and judgmental folks.
So what do we do with Psalm 1 if it not only sets the stage for the whole Book of Psalms but represents a biblical worldview that gets reflected in other places too? Well and again: maybe Psalm 1 is sketching all of this in ultimate terms. In the short term even we can sometimes see life’s truly wretched, twisted, wicked, and cruel people. Even we can discern the difference between those who commit heinous crimes and those who are loving to all they meet. We can pick out those who devote their lives to patterns of destruction from those who are forever seeking to build up community.
But our vision is limited. We cannot really see into the hearts of others nor know exactly what God will do with good people who seem far from God any more than we can know for sure what to make of those who have the outward semblance of following God but who actually (and sometimes secretly) are leading double lives. When it all shakes out, though, the One whose vision, judgment, and perception are perfect will sort it all out, will reveal those who had been well-rooted in God after all (including maybe any number of people who fit that category who may surprise us) and those who are finally a vapor with roots only in their own self-absorbed hearts (and there may be a few surprise figures in that camp too).
What we do know is this (and it may still seem too simple for some today): if there is a Creator God, then we in the long run lean into his ways and the fruitful patterns for living with delight and flourishing that God established or we do not. We either live for God or we live for ourselves. We either see this creation and the downtrodden within it the way God sees all that or we don’t. In a pluralistic age of tolerance and relativism that vision may be very simply too stark for some folks. But unless we want to believe that reality has no bottom line, no purpose, no final reason to exist (and some do so believe), then we have to affirm that in the end, we are either rooted in God or we are not. We either believe there is one way to live that leads to shalom and another that leads to destruction or we do not so believe and it’s all an individualistic crapshoot.
For now, though, most of us would prefer to throw in our lot with rootedness in God and in his higher purposes for this cosmos. Because that is the way that leads to an ever-verdant flourishing like a tree planted by a riverside.
Something about Psalm 1’s imagery of the wicked being finally nothing but chaff that blows away in the wind reminded me of the film version conclusion of the Harry Potter cycle of stories. Throughout the novels the figure of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” (but who did have the name of Voldemort) loomed large. He was evil, he was strong, he was a master wizard and seemed absolutely indomitable and fierce.
Yet in Voldemort’s final battle with Harry and after Harry and friends had managed to dispose of all those piece of Voldemort’s soul that he had squirreled away in various objects (the last piece residing in his pet snake), once Voldemort’s fatal death curse rebounds back onto himself, it turns out there is nothing to him after all. He literally dissolves into what looks like flimsy ash and paper that very simply blows away on the breeze. He had been nothing after all.
Sort of like Psalm 1’s description of the wicked: they are like chaff. But in truth, that is what the wicked, like Voldemort, had been all along even when they seemed to be at their most substantial and formidable. (You can see the video clip here.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 17, 2019
Psalm 1 Commentary