Reflections on Psalm 1 —
The way we honor and apply the Bible to our lives is extremely important to God.
It is fitting that the very first psalm in the compilation of 150 psalms is written by David, the most prolific composer of psalms. David was godly man, known as “the man after God’s own heart.” More than any other biblical patriarch, David understood God. He was by no means perfect–his moral stumblings would litter modern tabloids. But perhaps his failings served to heighten his appreciation for God’s tenderness. For reasons he could not express, God still favored him, bestowing on him the promise of a continual royal line, a heritage without term limits.
In this first psalm, David speaks of the blessing of God. Who else but David would understand what it means to be blessed? God specifically chose him to rule Israel. God made him a renowned giant-slayer and a victorious warlord with a long list of military victories. He blessed David with many royal offspring, and made him ruler of a vast empire. Yet David mentions none of these things when describing what it means to be blessed. Rather than point to any of these things, David defines blessed in terms of a healthy state of mind, one that is characterized by security, fulfillment, and resiliency. In a world frenzied with materialism yet drowning in discontentment, these are precious commodities, rare jewels.
This is surprising, yet refreshing. Very few of us will have the opportunities David did. We probably won’t be put in a position where we have to lead armies, fight kingdoms, or rule empires. We may never have even a fraction of the great wealth David enjoyed, know the complications involved in ruling an empire, nor experience the “pleasure” of polygamous marriage. Few of us will come close to those things. On the other hand we can certainly experience the security, fulfillment, and resiliency David describes in Psalm 1. They are ours for the taking if we only care to listen, and David is about to tell us how to get there.
Mind Your Way
“How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers!”
David starts his explanation of how to be “blessed” by advising us to mind the way we “walk”, “stand”, and “sit”–metaphors that illustrate the behaviors, principles, and standards by which we live, or what I like to refer to as our “Way”.
Our Way is how we do life. It’s the stances we take, the principles we cherish, the habits we accept, the standards by which we judge things to be good or bad. Like a weather vane, our Way dictates every decision and directs the course of our lives. To define our Way, we pick up advice here and there from various sources, beginning with our parents. As we grow, we gather input from other sources, such as helpful books, advice from friends, cultural trends, and so forth. This is where David’s advice kicks in. If we want to experience blessing, we must mind our Way. We must test the sources we have trusted to define it.
David speaks of the “counsel of the wicked”, “paths of sinners”, and the “seat of scoffers”, and advises us to not walk, stand, and sit there or we’ll miss out on being blessed. Our Way can easily become sacred to us, not to be questioned. David’s advice for us is to scrutinize the counsel we follow, the patterns we find ourselves standing in, and the judgment seat upon which we sit. We must avoid these if we want any chance to be blessed.
The Counsel of the Wicked
First, if we want to experience blessing, we must discern the counsel of the wicked, and be careful not to follow it. The counsel of the wicked comes in many forms and is often cloaked in secrecy. The counsel of the wicked can come from sources you would not expect. Everyone loves to give advice–how to have clear skin, how to lose weight, how to have a happy life, how to raise your children the right way, how to get the most out of your lawnmower, etc. We often build our Way according to the advice we accept. Some advice is helpful, but some is not, and we’re not always good at discerning which is which.
Our problem is that we misunderstand wickedness. We think wicked people are the murderers, child molesters, kidnappers, terrorists, and the like. But David’s masterful use of comparison and contrast in Psalm 1 expands the definition of wickedness. After describing the man who delights in God’s Word, David leads into verse 4 with the ominous phrase, “The wicked are not so…” It is a subtle transition, but one that is eternally profound. In God’s eyes, “wicked” is not an adjective reserved for the evil dregs of society. In His eyes, anyone who does not delight in God’s Word can be considered “wicked”–a shocking and disturbing thought–and any thought, advice, or advertised truth issued from such a person can be considered “counsel of the wicked”.
Using this definition, there is a lot of wicked counsel out there. If we’re honest, we’d recognize some of it comes from our very mouths. Kids will unwittingly accept all kinds of counsel from parents, and not all of it is good. Some would even be classified as wicked. As a young parent, I struggled with temper tantrums, especially when I did not get the respect I felt I so justifiably deserved. I’m sure my kids picked up on that. They now bear the burden of having to undo the subtle, wicked counsel I passed on to them, and learn how not to react to adversity with anger.
The Path of Sinners
Next, David cautions us not to stand in the path of sinners. These paths are the lifestyle choices that are full of sin. They are self-serving Ways that allow or even encourage envy, lewdness, drunkenness, debauchery, malice, slander, greed, and the like.
Some make it a lifelong habit to walk in these paths, their lives devolving into a tangled mess of guilt, doubt, and shame as they suffer the consequences. But even those who consider themselves too noble for the paths of sin may find their feet on them occasionally, more often than they care to admit. All it takes are a few awkward compromises–dwelling on the arousing delight of a sensual scene, maligning a coworker, intimidating others with a raised voice, obtaining ends through manipulation. We may find it enjoyable in the moment, think nothing of it. But over time, little compromises turn into well-worn habitual ruts, and we find ourselves approving things we may have found repulsive earlier in life. Instead of the path of blessing, we find ourselves standing on the wrong path.
The Seat of Scoffers
Third, David warns us not to sit in the seat of scoffers. The “scoffer” is a critic, an unrelenting judge. He validates and justifies himself by targeting the shortcomings of others. He views others with contempt, excusing himself from any need to show mercy.
If we’re honest, we all sit in the seat of scoffers from time to time. We do it frequently in the home, husbands and wives holding court, denouncing each others’ character flaws–excessive leniency, messiness, or absent-mindedness, bad temper, etc.–using those flaws to justify their dissatisfaction.
These examples cut close to the bone. If we are wise, we will recognize that we’re all susceptible to accept wicked counsel, stand in the path of sinners, and sit in the seat of scoffers. To be blessed, we must seek other counsel, stand in another path, and avoid the judgment seat.
Delighting in the Word
“But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.”
Here we come to the crux of Psalm 1, the point where David discloses the secret to being blessed. It all comes down to this…his delight is in the law of the Lord.
God blesses those who love His Word. He doesn’t say he blesses the religious zealot, not the regular church attender, not the one moving mountains in prayer, not the generous giver, the wise parent, or nor the social activist. These are noble endeavors, to be sure, but at the end of the day, the blessing of God is given to the one who delights in God’s Word. Our attitude about the Bible makes all the difference. Is it a life-giving essential element of living, or just holy babble to be heard once a week? Are the words in the Bible authoritative, to be honored and put into practice, or just good ideas?
The one who wishes to be blessed doesn’t just read God’s Word, he adores it. He listens to it intently, tries to understand its meaning. His Bible doesn’t sit on a shelf. The leather-skin binding of his Bible is broken and worn out, the pages dog-eared. He meditates on it day and night, remembering phrases that stick out to him, committing them to memory, repeating them from time to time throughout the day. He thinks about them while walking to work, shoveling the driveway, mowing the yard, jogging his route, or waiting for a class to start. It is not enough for him to hear it once a week in church. He is not satisfied to check the box and move on with life. From God’s Word, he draws strength when weak, forgiveness when guilty, comfort when distressed, and hope when despairing.
It does no good to hear God’s Word, and then put it on a shelf. It must be applied. A thousand years after David penned Psalm 1, two great men gave commentaries on the importance of applying God’s Word to life. The first is none other than Jesus Christ Himself who gave us the unforgettable illustration of the wise and foolish builder…
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.” — Matthew 7:24-27
The second is James, a spiritual pillar of the early church. James brilliantly used the metaphor of a man looking into a mirror to demonstrate the folly of reading God’s Word with no intention of applying it…
“…prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves…one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.” — James 1:22, 25
The one who delights in God’s Word abides in it. He doesn’t just read, but he takes action on what he reads. His Way is shaped by it. He honors it, and gives it value, importance, and authority in his life. He looks intently at it to see if there are ways it can be applied. He works it into his weekly to-do list, lets it dictate the way he speaks to people, how he spends his time, what he watches.
As a result, he is well-equipped to plan and execute his Way so that it pleases the Lord. He is not susceptible to wicked counsel because he has poured through the Word enough to find the counsel that is good, and avoid that which is wicked. He knows that wicked counsel doesn’t even acknowledge relevant concepts like guilt, eternal rewards, and accountability. He only accepts counsel that reflects the mind of God described in the pages of the Bible.
The man who delights in God’s Word discovers timeless principles within its pages. He stands on these principles, lets them dictate his choices. He is not perfect…he is aware of his susceptibility to sinful behavior. But he does not tolerate sin for long. He sees God’s Word prescribe receiving assistance from the Holy Spirit and trusted peers to help him put sinful behavior to death. He is not lukewarm, but is bolstered and encouraged by God’s Word. He takes a stand for good, noble things even when it’s not the popular thing to do.
The man who delights in God’s Word realizes there is no room for contempt or judgment. He has a realistic self-awareness of his fallen state, and so he treats people with mercy and tenderness. He cuts them some slack. He is not aloof, but delightful to be around. He is full of grace, genuinely considerate.
This is what it means to delight in God’s Word. The one who is on this path is headed toward a wonderful state of being blessed by God, the subject which David takes up next using a perfect illustration of a fruit tree.
What It Means to be Blessed
“He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.”
Here in Psalm 1 and also in other psalms, we see that the benefit of delighting in God is satisfaction. Not a temporal satisfaction, involving perishable things like wealth and possessions, but satisfaction of soul, a contented heart. In Psalm 37:4, David says it plainly, “delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” In Psalm 1, he uses a bit more creativity, giving us the vivid illustration of a healthy fruit tree to teach us what it means to be blessed of God.
He is Firmly Planted
First, the man who delights in God’s Word is firmly planted by streams of water. Here we see a man that enjoys security. There is stability and certainty in his life. He is not worried about the future because he knows his life in the hands of a loving, all-powerful God. He is not easily shaken nor tossed about by adversity. His roots dig deep into the soil, standing firm in the fiercest of wind storms. Anxiety may come and go, but it never keeps him down for long, for he knows the God who orchestrates all things for the good of those who love Him. He takes consolation in the histories of the holy men who grew strong in faith, men like Abraham who believed when God promised his wife would bear him a son in her old age.
A healthy root system is critical to the livelihood of any tree. When the rains don’t come, the roots grow deeper in search of water. The same is true for the man who delights in God’s Word. He sees periods of drought in his life not as cursed punishment, but as opportunity–opportunity to trust God even more, to let his roots grow deeper. The deeper the roots, the more secure the tree.
He Bears Fruit in its Season
Second, he bears fruit in his time. In so doing, he accomplishes the purpose for which he was planted.
Three years ago, I planted a hydrangea tree in the front of the house. Every April, I look for tiny buds popping from its limbs, a sure sign of Spring. When the hydrangea blooms, it accomplishes the purpose for which I planted it, and it pleases me. In the same way, God plants and nurtures faith in us so that we may bear fruit for Him. When we bear fruit, we prosper. It is one of the blessings God has in store for the one who delights in His Word. This man develops wisdom and skill in whatever his puts his hands to, and is effective in whatever he does. His life is a beautiful testament to God. He feels a great sense of fulfillment because he is accomplishing God’s purpose for him. He does not long for better circumstances nor suffer the mid-life crisis because he is applying the skills his Master gave him and seeing return for his labor.
Another way he prospers is in the maturation of character. “Fruit” in the Bible can mean many things, but I tend to think of the “fruits of the Spirit”, as Paul calls them–character qualities that are both becoming of the owner and representative of God’s nature. These are qualities such as love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (Galatians 5:22-23). A man who delights in God’s Word grows to appreciate God’s nurturing, and learns how to respond in faith. He reads and applies lessons on how faith clings to God in utter dependence and waits patiently for Him. This man learns how to submit his will to God’s Spirit. When the Spirit rules within him, he can’t help but bear the fruits of the Spirit. He begins to love freely without pretense. He finds himself joyful no matter the circumstance. He has an uncanny sense of peace that is noticeable by others. He is surprised to find that he is content even if God waits years to answer his prayers.
The man who delights in God’s Word will bear fruit “in its season.” It may take awhile. For some, fruits come quickly and easily. Others like me require a maturation process–possibly years and years–before fruit starts to develop. Regardless of when they come, the fruits are marvelous to experience.
His Leaf Does Not Wither
Third, the man who delights in God’s Word is like a tree whose leaf does not wither. Not only does this tree produce fruit, it withstands heat, continuing to flourish even during times of drought.
Iowa springs are nice for plants. The climate is cool and wet. I’m well-motivated to care for my gardens during this time. On the other hand, the heat and humidity are brutal in July and August. The clay soil in our yard hardens and the plants suffer. Ironically, I often lose my motivation during this time of greatest need. My plants strain to survive, and some of the more delicate ones wither and die. That’s why I love the hardy plants–the ones that endure in spite of my negligence. For example, the Astilbe on the west side of my house may look fragile, but they are hardy little plants. They maintain their lovely pink blooms all through the summer for me to enjoy.
Such is the case for the one who clings to God’s word. Through long periods of drought, he maintains a freshness and vitality about him, a resiliency during the trials of life. He is willing to endure lengthy hardships for the right causes. He is tempted to do things the world’s way, to get what everyone else gets, to follow the easy, self-serving escape route. But for the most part, he avoids that path and keeps reading, believing, and applying the truth of God’s Word. He is patient. When it comes to waiting on God’s reply, he is prepared to think, not in terms of days and weeks, but years. He recognizes that his circumstances are ultimately good, fulfilling a greater purpose. As a result, he one finds contentment in the midst of trial. You don’t hear him complain often, for he has found his livelihood in knowing God’s Word and applying it to his agenda…and his attitude.
The blessing of God is a priceless gift, unattainable by any form of wealth or success the world has to offer. It is only available to the man who delights in God’s Word. Unfortunately, many do not see it this way. The majority of people see God’s Word as obsolete and irrelevant. For those with this attitude toward God’s Word, the end is not so bright.
Chaff in the Wind
“The wicked are not so, but they are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
“The wicked are not so…” After describing the blessed man, the one who delights in God’s Word, David talks about those who don’t. His calls them “wicked”, and in this subtle way, we are shocked into the reality that anyone who does not delight in God’s Word has some real issues. People who do not give God’s Word the honor it deserves, who don’t see a need to apply it to their lives, are not merely foolish, careless, or disinterested. They have entered the unthinkable realm of wickedness.
It may sound a bit black-and-white. But God is very black-and-white when it comes to sin, much more than our gray society wants to believe. Our old friend, Elder James of the early church, understood this. When he says, “…to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him, it is sin” (James 4:17), James groups millions of our little faithless and selfish acts–acts that deny the authority of God’s Word–into one large, ugly bucket called “sin”. It’s not a stretch to suggest that sin reeks of wickedness. By this definition, even the most holy of saints is susceptible to wickedness. It is inescapable and unavoidable.
The good news is, God has an incredibly fair process for dealing with our wickedness–a process that is both merciful and just. The one who delights in God’s Word–who allows it to expose his sin and govern his actions, and then acknowledges his sin and repents of it– this one is on the path to blessing. The one who persistently refuses to do so, who ignores David’s advice, is not on that path.
In contrast to the firmly-rooted tree that is the one who delights in God’s Word, the wicked will be like chaff, blown and tossed by the wind. His soul will be uneasy, unable to shake nagging feelings of uncertainty, dissatisfaction, and despair. As he grows old, he will increasingly question his life choices. He will look at his years of labor and wonder if all those hours at the office were worth it. He will be surprised how easily his nerves become unsettled, how unprepared he is for life’s unexpected trials.
Such is the reality for the one who ignores God’s Word. His Way will be untenable over time. It lacks integrity, and will not stand the Lord’s test at the end of time. Whereas God knows the Way of the righteous, and lends credibility and validation to it, the Way of the wicked is sure to perish.
In the end, it all comes down to this…how important is God’s Word to you? Are His words merely stoic, ancient literature, or are they life-giving instructions from God to be eagerly and regularly read and applied? The way you answer that question makes all the difference in the world when it comes to being blessed.
If we want to be blessed, we must be willing to look within ourselves, expose our Way to the light, hold it up against the plumb line of God’s Word. Delighting in God’s Word requires humility, for we must bring our autonomous nature under subjection to a higher authority. It takes willingness, for it requires us to chuck old habits and pick up new ones. It takes faith, for the thing David is prescribing involves renewed reverence for an ancient book many have discounted as irrelevant.
God is not looking for perfect people. He is looking for humble people, people who turn to the pages of the Bible regularly, who seek from it correction, encouragement, consolation, strength, wisdom, and understanding. These are the blessed ones, not because their bank accounts are full, not because they live in luxurious mansions, but because of the immeasurable contentment they feel in their soul.