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Sermon on Psalm 1
The psalms are all around us. In the church they are in our prayers and hymns and creedal statements; outside the church we see them on license plates, bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets. Even people who don’t read Scripture are likely to be familiar with at least a couple of psalm verses.
The Psalms have been the “go to” prayer book for Jews and then Christians for almost three thousand years. Martin Luther described the Psalms as a “little Bible,” which contains, “beautifully and briefly, everything that is in the entire Bible.” The Psalms give us a detailed map of the human condition; nothing about human experience is foreign to them – in fact, John Calvin described them as “an anatomy of the soul.” The psalms help us articulate our own prayers when we seek to praise God, thank God, or lean trustingly on God. They also give us a voice for crying out in distress and supplication. They even give us words for when we want to lash out at God in anger.
We tend to think of the psalms purely as devotional poems, and they are that, but they are also full of conflict. The psalms have a social context – they are not ethereal or other-worldly. Throughout the Psalter, we see God seeking to establish God’s reign of peace and justice, but always and everywhere there are enemies seeking to thwart God’s will. Even the faithful are subject to sin, and go against God’s purposes. Ultimately, though, God prevails over social, political, and even cosmic chaos. If the Psalms have one message, it is that God is in charge.
The Psalms are prayers, not stories, but there are identifiable “characters” who populate these poems. There are righteous people and wicked people, servants of God and enemies of God, lowly, poor and needy people and arrogant, haughty people. We may read the psalms, with their neat division of the world into good people and bad people, and say, “If only life were that simple.” Jesus said that “no one is good but God alone”(Mark 10:18), and as Reformed Christians we take that seriously. We know human beings are a mixed bag, full of good intentions but also full of selfish drives and sometimes murky motives. When Brett Kavanaugh stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee and said, “I am a good person,” I thought, “Well, theologically speaking, I think you should qualify that.”
The psalmists were not naïve about human nature. It is true that the Psalms do not leave much room for moral ambiguity – but from the psalmists’ point of view, the choices are pretty simple. You can lead a God-centered life or a self-centered life. From these two possible orientations everything else flows along a predictable path: one is the path of happiness and well-being, the other is the road to destruction. Again, this may seem simplistic, but the psalmist’s conviction is grounded in a deeper truth, that the quality of our relationship to God is seen in the quality of our relationships with our fellow human beings.
Psalm 1 presents this choice in the starkest possible terms. It is interesting that the very first words of the Psalter, the opening verse of the first psalm, are “Happy are…” Happy are those who don’t hang around with morally dubious people. On the surface, this may sound somewhat intolerant and judgmental – didn't Jesus eat with sinners and go to their parties? But the psalmist is concerned about influences, and ordinary human beings put themselves in danger of being swayed in the wrong direction when they habitually form strong associations with morally questionable people. We believe this, too – why else would we be so concerned with whom our children hang out with?
Who are these “wicked,” these “sinners,” these “scoffers” the psalmists are constantly referring to, not just here in Psalm 1, but throughout the Psalter? To judge from other references to them, the “wicked” are arrogant blowhards who cannot be trusted. They plot and scheme against others for their personal gain, and are contemptuous of people who try to live with gentleness and integrity. They lie and cheat and bribe and abuse friendships. Not only do they not care about the poor and disadvantaged, they can’t understand why anyone should be concerned. They may be outwardly pious, taking care to attend worship observances, but they believe that God is indifferent to human thoughts and actions.
The “sinners” are not as violent in their words and actions as the wicked – but they are weak-willed and easily influenced by the whim of the moment. And the “scoffers”: they are the cynical observers of the human scene. In ancient times they would sit in groups at the city gates and provide sarcastic commentary for the benefit of the idle and curious. So the psalm condemns superficial people along with the outright wicked. What these three character types have in common is that by their attitudes and behavior they eat away at the social fabric – they diminish the quality of human life in community.
The “happy” person is the one who is able to stand against these characters. The happy person is the one who is not only not attracted to their way of life but who has the fortitude to endure their scorn and malice.
Several books published in recent years have attempted to define the basis of human happiness. Why are some people happy and some not? Some writers have said that what we call happiness is just biological self-delusion, something to keep us perpetuating our species. Others have attempted to define the necessary elements of a good life: happiness is found in altruism, or satisfying work, or fulfilling relationships. Some say it has to do with the balance of chemicals in our brains. An article in the Atlantic said that happiness increases measurably after middle age, so it has something to do with hormones.
The happy state the psalmist wants to convey is not a matter of natural disposition, age, or a trained mindset – it doesn’t have anything to do with having a “cheerful outlook” or a “positive attitude.” From the biblical writers’ point of view, happiness is not a psychological state, and it is not all that complicated – it comes from the conscious choice to commit to a certain way of life, “a course that is governed by God’s Teaching”[i] (torah) and not by the possibly more enticing alternatives offered by fashionable society. If the psalmist were writing today, he would undoubtedly advise us to reject the version of happiness we get from the entertainment media and the advertising industry.
The psalm tells us that the reward for rejecting the false path of the wicked and the scoffers is a certain indestructibility. Like a tree planted by streams of water – actually, planted is too weak a word, the Hebrew means something more like “well-rooted” – the upright person can weather the storms of life. The tree in the poem is fed by perennial streams, not the quick flash floods that occur so often in Israel and then dry up just as quickly; in such a way, the upright person’s inner life and social behavior are continually fed and refreshed by God’s teaching. The “happy” person is the complete opposite of the “wicked,” who are like the “chaff” – they are insubstantial and lightweight and blow away at the slightest wind. They have no staying power. Their cases do not stand up in court.
Is it true? Are virtuous people protected and rewarded, as the psalm says? There’s a lot in our experience that suggests that it is not always true, and other Old Testament writers question the teaching of Psalm 1 and others like it. Many psalms attest that the righteous “meet affliction rather than fulfillment in life.”[ii] And we only have to look at the hard life and cruel death of Jesus to see that the godly and virtuous are not always rewarded in life.
But the way of life the psalmist recommends is the only one that keeps us connected to the source of life and connected with each other. The way to happiness, the psalms say to us, begins in God and ends in God. It is a way that will not perish.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
October 14, 2018
[i] Nahum M. Sarna, On the Book of Psalms (New York: Schocken Books, 1993), 30.
[ii] James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 44.