It’s not by accident. It wasn’t editorial happenstance. No one flipped a coin to decide which Hebrew poem to turn into Psalm 1 in this collection. Rather, the Hebrew Psalter is a carefully edited, thoughtfully and intentionally put together collection of poems. The design of the larger book is evident in many ways (for instance, the last verse at the conclusion of each of the 5 internal books is some version of “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting, Amen.” Cf. Psalms 40:13, 72:19, 89:52, 105:48). The whole book crescendos dramatically with Psalm 150’s exuberant call for everything that has breath to praise the God of Israel.
But we begin with Psalms 1 and 2. These are the tone-setting poems, the poetic pace car that gets the whole race rolling, the Key or Legend that unlocks the larger map of the poetic landscape to come. In the case of Psalm 1, what we have sketched for us here is nothing short of an entirely integrated world-and-life view. If you are going to understand any or all of the psalms to come, you have to be able to view the world through the finely ground lens of Psalm 1.
What’s more, the picture that emerges here is pretty simple: there are two classes of people in the world: the Righteous and the Wicked. Apparently there is not much in between by way of spiritual categories. Make no mistake: you are not misreading this psalm if you take away from it a fairly black-or-white picture of reality. You also will not be incorrect if you keep noticing this pattern popping up all over the 149 psalms to come.
In terms of poetic imagery, Psalm 1 is straightforward: the Righteous are pictures of stability and faithfulness. They are nearly motionless in their pious repose. They do NOT walk with, stand with, or sit with the Wicked. They exhibit all the movement of a well-planted tree. They have roots and as such are stable, strong, quite literally well grounded. But the Wicked? Just the opposite. They are forever running down, standing in, taking their seat in all the wrong paths and in all the wrong places. They are frenetic, a blur of motion, but since they lack the rootedness of the Righteous, they also finally just blow away. There is, in the end, no substance to these people. There is no “there there.”
The Righteous, though, are planted next to an ever-flowing stream that just is the ways and laws and realities of God. They soak up the nutrients of the reality God created in the beginning and this leads to growth, to substance, to an everlasting firmness and solidity. The choice is yours, Psalm 1 as much as says: you can be established forever or spend your days running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, making waves and appearing to be always on the move toward something better, always appearing to be building something of substance but . . . in the end, it will all vanish like the morning mist. It will be, to evoke Shakespeare, full of sound and fury but signifying finally nothing.
It’s not terribly difficult to discern this picture as it emerges from Psalm 1. What may be quite difficult, however, is to square this picture with what you can actually see with your eyes. I can think of at least a few things people in our congregations might say when confronted with this singular way of looking at the world:
~~Many people are more of a mixed bag. There are many non-Christians whom you could not write off as merely “wicked” but who exhibit great kindness and love. There are also too many Christians who are themselves hardly a picture of well-rooted stability and who can also be altogether too nasty a good bit of the time. Unbelievers are often nice people. Believers are sometimes not.
~~Maybe in the end the wicked blow away like fluff but for now . . . a lot of them seem to be doing quite nicely, thank you very much.
~~ And maybe in the end the righteous will be revealed as rock solid but for now, many of them are suffering quite terribly and don’t feel nearly as well-planted along a living stream as they might wish.
~~While we’re at it and similar to first point above, in a world characterized by nuance, by ambiguity, and by many moral shades of gray, are we really well served by adopting so black-or-white a worldview? Is this too simple, too reductionistic?
It would be difficult definitively to argue against any of these counter observations in the face of Psalm 1. So what are we preachers to do if we want to proclaim the truth of this psalm, which is also (as we just noted) the tone- and pace-setter for the entire Hebrew Psalter and all of its 150 poems?
A couple of ideas: First, maybe this seems like a too-easy way out but there is the option of taking the long look. Psalm 1 describes what the nature of reality will be revealed to be when the day finally comes when God is all in all. The things we so readily can see and observe now will be shown to be incorrect, only a partial view, sometimes even the sturdiest of things will be revealed as hollow on the inside after all even as the meekest of all people will prove sturdy enough to inherit the earth.
Second and of more immediate value perhaps: we can view Psalm 1 as a way to make us pause in order to probe more deeply into what C.S. Lewis called the deep structures of things, the deep magic of the universe. Yes, in the sweet by and by we will see clearly but even for now and well short of that ultimate picture of God’s kingdom fully come we can perceive the shallowness of so much of what passes for pop wisdom. Many of the methods people use furiously to get ahead in life are self-defeating. In an effort to make a life for themselves, so many people fail actually to live life fully and well. Marriages get shipwrecked, relationships with children go sour, people literally ruin their physical health all in some mad and desperate rush to seize the brass ring. Even now there is often a deeper peace and contentment in saintly people who may or may not count as being among “the beautiful people” of fame, riches and success as the world defines those things but who exhibit far more repose than those very people.
So yes, let’s not let Psalm 1’s simple picture of who’s who and what’s what distort things for us or cause us to make snap judgments and assessments that may run roughshod over life’s gray areas. Let’s not let some claim to be among “the Righteous” of the world become an excuse for moral sloppiness or other unpleasant behaviors too often exhibited by believers. But let’s allow Psalm 1 to remind us that there is a reality beyond the reality we can see with our eyes most any day. The New York Times might print all the news that fit to print but it can still miss the biggest truths of God. CNN can “bring you the world” and yet miss the real nature of that world as the creation of a good and loving God who still exists as the bright center of all existence.
And really, given the sad and broken nature of this world and the disturbing stuff that makes up the news headlines of any given day, is it such a bad thing that Psalm 1 can remind us to embrace a larger world?
Regular users of Calvin Theological Seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching—and careful observers of our website at that—might recognize that the Psalm 1 image of a tree planted beside a stream of water is our logo. It is also the stained glass window that is the centerpiece of the Student Center at the Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We chose this image for the preaching center years ago because this is at base what we all believe preaching to be and hope it actually is a lifelong nurture and feeding of God’s people with God’s Word.
The stability, the everlasting repose, the rock-solid certainty of being on the right side of reality exhibited by Psalm 1—and then furthered by the following 149 psalms that follow Psalm 1’s lead—all depends on that lifelong, abiding meditation on God’s Word, on God’s precepts, on God’s Law. Ultimately it is a lifelong and abiding meditation on the Gospel of grace that climaxes the Word of God and that brings us final salvation.
That is why we preach. Psalm 1 reminds us of that fine truth, too!
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 8, 2019
Psalm 1 Commentary