Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 25, 2020

Psalm 1 Commentary

For a long time I never knew or recognized the fact that the Hebrew Psalter was a thoughtfully edited collection of 150 songs and poems.  I am not sure if I ever actually thought this collection was random or haphazard but it did not occur to me that someone put each psalm where it appears for a reason.  But that is the case and so the first psalm in this book—followed by also the second psalm—was placed at the head of the Psalter to establish a tone and to set out some basic worldview perspectives that would then be reflected in all the psalms that followed.

Specifically, a basic principle of the Psalter is set forth here in terms of dividing up the whole world into two spiritual categories: the righteous and the wicked.  At least in Psalm 1 there is very little by way of nuance.  Everyone is one or the other: a righteous person or a wicked person.  What’s more, if you are a righteous person, you have stability, deep roots as well as unmovable and unwavering principles.  But not so the wicked: they have no roots, are tossed around by the wind like wheat chaff or feathery dandelion puffs.  In Psalm 1 the wicked are a blur of motion but it’s all bad motion.  The righteous by contrast are well planted and we are told they will NOT stand with the wicked, will NOT run with sinners, will NOT participate in their wicked flurry of unjust actions.  The righteous are settled.

Psalm 1 sets the tone for the Psalter.  And yet . . . this very book will have more than a few poems that lament how well the wicked often do in this life.  Sometimes they get ahead financially, they triumph over the righteous, they succeed sometimes where the righteous fail.  And so not a few psalmists will cry out to God “Why?  Why do the wicked prosper?”

But that’s just the Psalter.  The rest of us will have our own qualms with a worldview that strikes us as very unnuanced.  Yes, we too could note how sometimes rotten people get away with murder in this life.  That is surely an issue.  But these days we may be unsettled for a slightly different reason: we dislike sorting people in such polar terms.  Many of us know people who may not self-identify as Christians but who we surely would be loath to label as “wicked.”

One of my theology professors once addressed the topic of what is known as Common Grace.  In doing so he observed that the idea of a kind of divine grace that is available to all—even non-believers—stems from the dual observation that sometimes Christians are not as good of people as one would expect even as sometimes non-Christians are not as bad of people as you might think.  Recently a friend of mine shared a little piece of wisdom that his father once shared with him from a business perspective: “I would rather make a business deal with a good unbeliever than with a bad Christian.”

If Psalm 1 is a tone-setting psalm—sort of like the concertmaster of an orchestra helping everyone to tune their instruments before the start of a concert—then what do we do with this seemingly overly simplistic perspective on the world and of its inhabitants?  Again, the Psalter itself seems to contradict such a naïve view of people: the wicked do not always  seem to be blowing away like chaff and the righteous do not always seem to be flourishing like a tree planted beside a stream.  So what gives?  How can we preach on this psalm without having to either buy into its black-or-white view of a world filled with shades of gray OR so deconstruct this psalm’s point of view as to come off as doing violence to God’s Word?  Depending on your church context, it feels like either or both of these options could land the preacher in trouble!

I always tell my preaching students that it’s really important to ask vital questions in their sermons to catch people’s attention.  But I also tell them to never ask a question in a sermon to which they can never finally give an answer.  Don’t dig yourself a homiletical hole out of which you cannot successfully crawl across 20 or so minutes of preaching.  In some ways, I feel like I just dug myself such a hole as I don’t have real good answers.  But let me suggest an idea or two that might help me crawl out.

It might be too simple to say that what Psalm 1 reflects is one of those “in the long run” kind of scenarios.  Yes, for now life is more nuanced and textured than some neat picture of everyone being good or bad, righteous or wicked but in the longest possible run and from the perspective perhaps of eternity, this is how it will all shake out.  No one—not a professing believer nor a professing unbeliever—can straddle the eternal fence forever.  There will ultimately be a final sorting.

That feels a little unsatisfying, however.  It may be true but . . . for now it feels like a too-quick escape hatch from the potential scandals of a certain straightforward reading of Psalm 1.  So maybe in an effort to nuance the psalm a little nuance of perspective can help.  That is, maybe we can at least affirm that in this world, there are lifestyles, there are choices, there are patterns of being that either contribute to the life and flourishing of others or they detract from it.  There are ways of living that nurture shalom and there are ways of living that vandalize shalom.

A person can live just for him- or herself, seek ever and again to feather only their own nest, do whatever is necessary to grab the brass ring no matter how many other people they have to step on, step over, or hurt to do so.  And then there are those who choose service over self, sacrifice over massive acquisition of this world’s goodies.  One of these kinds of people are living into the patterns God sowed (or sewed) into this Creation in the beginning and the other is tearing things up for the sake of self alone.  For the short term and in the long term one lifestyle is esteemed and honored and the other is finally self-defeating and futile.  One way of being is admirable the other despicable.

And it may just be that plenty of people who do not outwardly (from a religious perspective) qualify as being “righteous” are also the ones who live a life of self-sacrifice and service even as some who wear the badge of righteousness proudly are finally a little mean and self-serving after all.  And so it may just be that when we observe all this, we see what the poet of Psalm 1 saw after all: patterns of flourishing and patterns of diminishing, patterns of vibrancy and patterns of decay.  Even those who may not seem overly religious on the outside often have a sense as to which of these two ways of making one’s way through the world will endure and redound to glory and which is doomed to the dustbin of history.

The psalms are considered Hebrew poetry first of all.  But many of them have a crossover into also the biblical genre of wisdom literature.  Psalm 1 is one such example.  Yes, it’s a poem but it also participates in biblical wisdom: God set up the world to work a certain way and people either go with that good flow and so contribute to shalom or they fight against God’s flow and leave in their wake carnage and mangled human spirits.  At the end God can sort out who is finally righteous and who is finally wicked, who gets into the eternal kingdom and who does not (and probably there will be surprises all around when that happens) but the notion that there is such an order to the universe is surely correct.

And that may be what Psalm 1 is really telling us.

Illustration Idea

It is one of those “How can that be true?” true stories.  On the day when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mother, Sara, died, the weather was clear and calm with nary a breeze in Hyde Park, New York, and on the large Springwood estate where FDR had grown up along the Hudson River.  Yet a few moments after Sara died at Springwood on September 7, 1941, one of the largest oak trees on the estate inexplicably crashed to the ground.  Small wonder: in life, Sara Delano Roosevelt was like a well-planted oak.  She was firm resolved, fierce, and utterly confident in her only son, Franklin.  Sara was a force to reckon with.

But strong people are often compared to oaks or redwoods.  The solidity of trees, their well-rooted nature, their strength and majesty: they all provide metaphors for certain human characteristics too.  Spiritually speaking one thinks of Isaiah’s well-known image of how the day will come when God’s people would be hailed as “oaks of righteousness.”

A well-rooted and well-watered tree beside a bubbling stream is Psalm 1’s leading image for righteous people, and it’s an image we know pretty well as it turns out.


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