Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
When our children were young, my husband created a lively tune for Psalm 1 so we could all memorize it. They are in their 40’s now and can still sing this Revised Standard Version of the anchor psalm of the psalter.
I call it the ‘anchor psalm’ because the editors of Israel’s hymnal organized the 150 psalms quite meticulously into five books, each with their own internal theology. Psalm 1 sets the tone not only for Book I but also for the entire collection of poems that sing the life of Israel.
Plenty of the psalms lament the sad reality that often the world is not as it should be. But Psalm 1 boldly states Israel’s faith that God is for the righteous and God will judge the wicked. There are Two Ways, the faith of Israel insists: righteousness or wickedness. We humans are the ones who must choose our path while God is the One who oversees the consequences of those choices.
When we moderns read this, it’s important to read the words “righteous” and “wicked” within their ancient context.
See the synonyms our poet uses for wicked: ‘sinners’ and ‘scoffers.’ Scoffers is the most telling because it describes someone who does more than make a mistake or miss the mark; a scoffer intentionally rejects the instruction of the law/the Torah/the teachings. Since the precepts of the Lord are designed to bring happiness/blessedness to God’s people, those who ignore this Way will naturally find unhappiness in their lives.
Ironically, this rejection of instruction, this I-did-it-my-way Way is highly valued in our modern day culture. Autonomy is considered to be a strength in our Western culture. But looking at this word “autonomy” gives us a clue what is really going on. “Nomos” is the Greek word for law/instruction/teaching while “auto” describes the self. The correct understanding of one who is “autonomous” is a person who lives life by the law of himself.
On the other hand, within the other Way, “righteous” describes those who submit to the instruction of Torah; those who trust and obey. Righteousness in biblical language never means perfect or sinless. Here as well as in the New Testament (especially the letters of Paul), those who are considered to be righteous are those whom God has made right.
Here is a person who is the opposite of autonomous and instead lives life open to teaching of Scripture and to the wisdom of the universe. A person grounded (like a tree by a stream) but ever growing and becoming.
In our modern ways of thinking, our definition of righteousness really is a description of self-righteousness. We tend to think from a human perspective and depend upon our own understandings of morality and rule-following. We think of “happiness” in terms of what satisfies us and makes us feel good. All this is entirely different from the orientation of the Psalms where God is the center; where righteousness and blessedness are gifts given by the Creator to the never-quite-perfect-creature. Righteousness and blessedness are not feelings but real realities within the kingdom of heaven.
This core theology of Psalm 1 is woven throughout the entire psalter. Even in the laments, when the faithful complain that it is the wicked who prosper and the righteous who suffer, the core faith remains: there are Two Ways. And in God’s time, because of God’s faithfulness, justice and righteousness, the wicked will never find true happiness; they will indeed perish.
But the Lord knows/sees/protects/blesses the Way of the righteous. And it is only within this Way that we humans may find true prosperity and happiness.
Photo credit: Two Paths – Tim Street Photo & Design