Psalm 1 (NRSV)
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
In Psalm 1, we have the beginning of a beautiful formula, a theological concoction that has intoxicated God seekers for thousands of years.
Understand God’s will and live according to it, and you will find joy, prospering in all you do. Ignore God’s will, and life will be misery and loss. It is the classic theme of Wisdom literature from the Near East.
The psalm is all about action-oriented choices. A different translation, one by Hebrew professor Robert Alter, captures the first lines more literally from the Hebrew:
Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
One chooses where to walk, or with whom to stand or sit. The metaphor then shifts to something very familiar for people raised in an arid climate, the image of fruit trees in need of water. Plant yourself in God’s law, the revelation of God’s will, the Psalm is saying, and like a tree near an always-flowing stream, you will bear fruit. Plant yourself too far from the source of life, and you will wither until dry and blow away.
On the surface, these are beautiful ideas, concepts that fit our desire for justice. Without further development, they can seem quite empty to us, though.
If the opening theme of Psalm 1 were the only theme of Scripture, I would have long ago discarded my study of the Bible. The idea being expressed does not match the reality of what we observe during most of our lifetimes.
Too often, the clearly good people suffer. Too often, it is the wicked who flourish and seem to have all the fruit. Fortunately, Psalm 1 is just one piece of an elaborate puzzle.
The Book of Job is an equally ancient piece of Wisdom literature, and it takes us in a whole different direction. You may remember the story of Job. As it begins, he fits the pattern described in Psalm 1. He is a righteous man, walking with God and prospering mightily in terms of family and wealth.
The problem arises when Satan goes to God and speculates that Job is righteous simply because life is so good for him. Let me strike at him, Satan says, and Job will curse you, God. First, Satan is allowed to strike Job’s possessions and family. Later he’s allowed to strike at Job himself, afflicting him with terrible diseases.
In all of this, Job does not curse God, and he does not relent in his assertion to friends that he has done nothing wrong. He does complain mightily at times, though, and once he begins, he moves beyond his own problems and complains about how the wicked flourish and abuse the righteous, including orphans and widows, and God seems to do nothing.
You reach a story like Job’s in Scripture, and you realize the Bible deals with some very deep subjects. We may not find satisfying answers in Job to these deep questions about evil’s persistence, but at least the questions are asked.
So, with its simple opening formula, is Psalm 1 irrelevant? No, not at all. Its theme is a beginning point for us to think theologically.
If you teach a child something, you have to begin in a simple place. There is good, and good is what we must pursue. There is evil, and evil must be avoided.
The later, more complicated questions we ask as we mature do not change how the early, simple lessons need to be structured. And as our spiritual understanding grows and matures, the Bible is there for us every step of the way.
This is why it is so important for us to engage with the Bible continually throughout our lives. If we hear what seem like simple stories and lessons as children, and never return to the Bible as we experience more and more of life, we will think Scripture is irrelevant. And in the process, we miss so much that is useful as we continue to live.
When Jesus arrives on the scene in the grand narrative of Scripture, his teachings seem designed to take us deeper while also simultaneously emphasizing the early truths we learn.
Parables are a good example. Jesus teaches in parables to perplex us until we ponder for awhile, and in pondering we discover powerful new truths. Through Jesus―God among us, Immanuel―we learn that God loves us in ways the Jews had scarcely imagined. God pours out on the world what seems, from our perspective, to be this most illogical love, a love unearned and undeserved.
At the same time, Jesus teaches us to never let go of what we learned from the start. We are to come to God with the faith of a child, trusting that the basic lessons found in places like Psalm 1 really are true.
Yes, in the end, righteous, good people really do prosper; in the end, wicked sinners have nothing but failure and loss.
You heard me say “in the end” twice there, of course. So often, answering our difficult theological questions simply is a matter of perspective. We are confused because in our grief, in our pain, we have trouble with the bigger picture, which again, Scripture provides.
If you’re paying close attention, even Psalm 1 alone offers that bigger picture. As the psalm ends, the wicked and the righteous get their just deserts at the judgment, rather than right away. The path of the righteous may seem difficult, at times, but it is well-guarded. God ensures it leads to eternity with him.
Thousands of years ago, even suffering Job sensed the bigger picture in the midst of all his pain. In the 19th chapter of his story, he suddenly says prophetically, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
We are blessed to know Job’s Redeemer as Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus and believing in Jesus, we will have both justice and joy, neither of which will ever depart from our lives for all eternity.