As the introduction, the forward, the preface to the whole of the psalms, Psalm one instructs the reader of the purpose of reciting the psalms: To find Peace in the will of God.
Before we get to far into the psalms, there are some risks and realities associated with the Psalms that are important to highlight. It maybe goes without saying, but the psalms are poetry, and as with just about all poetry, it doesn’t always make sense, and often a reader of poetry will attempt to make sense of it in a rational way, try to figure out what the author’s original inspiration was, to make it concrete, to over analyze it. But in the best poetry, like the Psalms, whats more important than knowing the specifics of what inspired an image is just simply how does that image makes a person feel. Poetry is a writers attempt to strike a feeling of common emotion. Maybe a line of poetry, in eliciting an emotion, be it joy, sadness, anger or pain brings the reader to some moment in their life when they felt the same way. At that point it is not at all about the specific image that inspired the author to write those words, or what the psalm “means”, instead it becomes about the shared emotion between author and reader.
The psalms are meant to be felt in the heart.
Another thing that is important to note about the Psalms, is that as a book they have the ability to stand completely on their own. They were written in a time when most folks didn’t know how to read, and it was easier to memorize the psalms (often set to music) than long sections of the Torah or the prophets or the wisdom texts. The psalms don’t need the other books of the bible, they can be read in their own context. This is not to say the Psalms don’t have connections to the other parts of the bible, or that they can’t complement the other books of the bible. It is not particularly important to know the exact details of a particular battle that is referenced, or the events that inspired a particular psalm. This is because in many respects, the Psalms are the raw expression of the Holy Spirit, and that in itself carries with it a great deal of meaning. They are made up, as the monk Thomas Merton put it, as cries, that upon knowing God, the one who has done great things for us, that the only possible reaction is and I am now going to start quoting merton directly: “the cry of half-articulate exultation that bursts from the depths of our being in amazement at the tremendous, inexplicable goodness of God to humanity.” The Psalms are all made up of such cries
And Psalm one is the introduction, it primes the reader for what lies ahead, again, that by reading the Psalms, and getting to know them, to delight in them, one will find peace in the will of God.
I really love this psalm, it is a great way to start things, it is short, only 6 verses, and yet it confers so much information, it does so much to help unlock the rest of the psalms.
It speaks of two paths, the one of righteousness and the one of wickedness. To the modern ear, righteousness and wickedness can be a little bit misleading, or at least righteousness can. Most of the time, to the modern reader, righteousness implies something like self-righteousness, or a kind of certainty founded within a person. In the context of the Psalms, and pretty much the whole of the bible, righteousness is less about inner certainty, but rather a certainty offered in God, through knowing God. Specifically righteousness is meant to imply someone who is in relationship with God, and who strives to do God’s will. When it comes to wickedness, it helps to think of wickedness as ungodly actions, things that are counter to God’s will.
Now, this idea of two paths, the way it is set out in this psalm, it can be a bit misleading, because it could seem to imply that if one is on the path of righteousness, then they never do wicked things, and if one is on the wicked path, then they are a lost cause to righteousness. Remembering that this is poetry, and is meant to paint a picture, a feeling in the heart more than a set of direct instructions, it is important to meditate on this.
In one’s life, there are so many decisions one makes, many are small, like what cereal will I buy at the grocery store, or what will I watch on television, and some are quite large, like getting married or buying a house.
But even for the big decisions, they are really a series of much smaller decisions, often with two options, take the purchasing of a house, it doesn’t drop out of the air from no where. There are so many factors that were already decided before the house question comes up. A big one is location, why would someone decide to pick a particular location to buy a house, a lot of times, its because of a job, and think of all the decisions that it took to get to the job that pays enough to buy the house. There were decisions about schooling and what to be trained in, there were networking decisions, who to build professional relationships with, decisions that went into the resume design, decisions that went into where to even find a job, through the internet or through a professional organization, through a friend? maybe a job was picked because it was close to family, why does a person like the type of work they like, that often has to do with decisions made in childhood. The list goes on and on, the big decisions are a series of much smaller simpler decisions.
And it is in these smaller decisions that this two path approach starts to become clear. In nearly every decision a person makes, and yes, even the kind of cereal one buys, there is a godly decision or righteous choice, and there is a ungodly or wicked choice. I hate to make anyone feel guilty about their cereal choices, but think of the possible working conditions of the folks who make the cereal, or the way in which the products that go into the cereal like the grains and the sugars, where they made in a way that promotes justice? Were workers paid a living wages does the company commit to less invasive farmer practices and reduced use of pesticides? There are some cereals that are better for the world than others. And on the flip side, what is the sugar content of a cereal, what is its health value, a surgery cereal can slow the body down, make it harder to function fully, make it easier to make mistakes, not all cereals are good for the body either. This notion can be expanded to an awful lot of seemingly meaningless decisions that one makes during a day.
These are the choices one is faced with, daily. Every decision affects both the individual making the choice and the world around them and there is almost always A Righteous Choice or a godly choice, and a wicked choice or ungodly choice. And here is where it gets tough, because the wicked options, they don’t get presented as wicked, they are not presented by someone wearing a red suit with horns and a tail, the wicked choices can be hard to discern. And the other side of the coin, the righteous choices, they don’t always look so great in the short term, they often are a little harder, at least at first.
These are the forks in the road, and there are many. And the reality is no one gets it right 100% of the time. At its surface, this psalm may make it seem cut and dry, but life is anything but cut and dry.
That being said, this psalm offers a helpful way of knowing, albeit after the fact, which decisions were godly and which were ungodly, when a person feels like a tree planted besides fresh water, full and healthy and strong, confident, able to bare the storms of life, then the righteous path was taken, when one feels lost, when they feel like chaff, ready to be turned into dust at a moments notice, then the wicked path was very likely taken.
So, the question then becomes, how does one discern between the righteous pathways and the wicked ones? Luckily the Psalm offers an answer: Mediate on the Laws of the Lord, which is pretty darn specific for a psalm. Happiness depends on ones ability to not only meditate on the Laws of the Lord, but to delight in them as well.
I want to get back to this idea that the Psalms are self containing. I believe when the author of this Psalm speaks of the Laws of the Lord, I believe the author is referring specifically to the 149 poems, songs and hymns that follow this one.
The laws of God, at their root, are about fostering not only a deeper love of God, but a deeper love of neighbor, which these days is just about the whole of the world, thanks to an internet that brings everyone awful close. The ten commandments, as I have discussed here, are ways of living that lead to healthier relationships. By submitting to God’s law, say by not murdering anyone, one is freed into a greater happiness, because they will be in healthier relationships and healthier communities. Now, in the world’s eyes, laws seem to be restrictive, think of opposition to the affordable care act, much of it is rooted in the view that it limits liberty, many man made laws can be seen in this way, that they limit that they restrict, that they take away all the fun stuff. But the laws of the Lord, they are the opposite, when one submits to those laws, which, according to Jesus all flow through love for God and love for neighbor, they have the ability to bring greater freedom, greater happiness.
The Psalms offer their own pathways to God, they are their own ways to know the heart of God. The Psalms were written by folks who struggled with their faith and the world around them, and experienced suffering, but still found ways to put their trust in God. They are a testament to all that God has done, and will continue to do in the world. They are testaments to the communities of faith that were able to rely on God and continue.
Over the next few weeks, as we explore the Psalms more deeply, we will further explore this notion of the Psalms as the laws of the Lord, and what it looks like to meditate on them, and to take delight in them.
Most importantly, it is understanding that when one reads the psalms, and recites out loud the Psalms, or sings the Psalms, as they were most often originally meant, that the more a person spends time with the psalms, the more one connects with God, the more one gets to know God, and the better a person will get at discerning the righteous pathways of God, and in turn the happier they will be.
The psalms lead one to feel like a tree planted next to a stream, with full fruit, reaching to the sun, full and strong, able to handle the winds of life. They are pathways that are watched, that the Lord watches over, they are the very Good News of God!