Commentary on Psalm 1
How fascinating: the book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible, the hymnal of ancient Israel, opens with a poem about ethics, lifestyle, and decisions.
It is as if the secret tip is being shared before we bother praying or worshiping. The goal is a changed life. God requires a decision, it’s black and white, and God wants to pervade the part of you that chooses. A thousand little decisions and the occasional Big Decision: do you “walk in the counsel of the wicked or delight in the law of the Lord?”
Once the choice is framed this way, it’s no choice at all, is it? I mean, you would never knowingly choose evil or destruction. Will I jump off a cliff? Or sit down to a sumptuous dinner with those I love? Will I ruin my life? Or fulfill my destiny?
But if the choice is so easy, why then do we find our ears perking up to the whispering of wickedness? And why would our attitude toward “the law of the Lord” not be fairly characterized as “delight?”
The “counsel of the wicked” is sneaky, isn’t it? The devil doesn’t jump out in a red suit, breathing fire, and wielding a blazing pitchfork. No, the devil dresses up like an angel of light, promising you the moon.
The “good life” is defined by society in ways that mimic the good life God offers, yet different enough to fool us. Then, we are led to a vapid life that pays little attention to God and leaves us hollow inside: wealth, pleasure, leisure — not evil — but a bit out of kilter with God’s adventure, which would be the richness of generosity and prayer, the pleasure of service and worship, and the leisure of Sabbath rest and silence in the presence of God.
Society says, “Don’t break the law, maximize your portfolio, travel and relish the party circuit.” But the Psalm shakes its head and pities us for missing out on the “delight in the law of the Lord.”
Part of our quandary is this: Robert Frost wrote “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry that I could not travel both…”1 But we think we can travel both — and not only both, but other roads as well. I’m in a clearing, four roads diverge, and I can’t miss a thing: I’ll take all four!
But we cannot take four, or seven, or even two. You wind up splintered, divided, out of focus. The “road less traveled,” the way of him whose delight is in the law of the Lord, seems boring or restrictive, when in fact it is the true joy of every heart.
“Blessed is the man … whose delight is in the law of the Lord.” Some scholars like to translate “blessed” as “happy,” although we had better be careful. Our frenetic quest for “happiness” can deflect us from God.
My friend and Psalms scholar Clint McCann put it well: “For Psalm 1, happiness involves not enjoying oneself but delight in the teaching of God. The goal of life is to be found not in self-fulfillment but in praising God. Prosperity does not involve getting what one wants; rather, it comes from being connected to the source of life.”2
Delight in the law of the Lord
How do we learn to praise? How do we become “connected to the source of life?” We block out time for prayer, we never miss worship, and we become daily students of Scripture.
But it’s even more. Of the blessed one, Psalm 1 says “On God’s law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). At Qumran, the Essenes took this seriously, and scheduled it so that somebody from their village was studying and copying Scripture by hand twenty four hours a day, three hundred sixty five days a year.
We can’t stay up all night reading the Bible, and we have to earn a living, eat, clean the house, and exercise. But is there a way to make “the law of the Lord” a streaming, omnipresent reality in our daily routine?
We begin by making a devotional regimen as essential as brushing our teeth. Maybe we plant little mnemonic devices (a cross, a printed prayer, a picture of St. Francis) in the desk, bathroom, kitchen, or car.
But can we begin to conceive of God as a constant companion?
Sometimes I travel alone, and it’s not as much fun as traveling with my wife, my children, or a friend. We share in the joy of walking together, settling down for a meal, and chatting over the highlights and challenges of the day.
Without these companions though, can we comprehend that we are never alone and God is there beside us wherever we find ourselves?
I talk to myself more than I like to admit. Can I talk instead to God? Can what I studied when I opened my Bible last night or this morning come alive in a seemingly non-religious situation? Do I behave differently if God is there?
Isn’t the comfort of God’s lingering presence the holy solution to the nagging loneliness we bear deep inside?
And don’t underestimate the crucial need we have to become diligent students of Scripture. I know some people love Bible study, and to others it feels corny and irrelevant. But, Jesus called “disciples” — a word which means “students.”
God wants to be known, understood, reflected upon in the mind, and explored intellectually. We are wired to discover immense fulfillment in the simple probing of the heart and nature of God, in the mental stimulation of reliving the Bible’s stories and singing its songs.
Like a tree
The Christian life is not pretending to be somebody I am not, but rather discovering who I really am, and then being that person, authentically and zealously.
Thomas Merton said, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. It ‘consents’ to His creative love. It expresses an idea which is in God’s mind. So the more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him.”3
What if I think of myself as an idea in God’s mind? The more I consent to be what God made me to be, the more I am like God.
Trees never try to be something else, like wart hogs or sledge hammers. They are content to be trees. But you and I struggle. We can be whoever we want to be, but the less I am in sync with God’s plan, the more hollow I become. I cannot find truth and meaning just any old place.
Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). Am I like a tree?
My life is not my own: I depend on the sun, the rain, the grace and power of God which I do not control but only soak up as precious gifts. I live in the light, but my roots go down deep where it is dark.
Holiness is not a matter of gritting our teeth and diligently trying to do what God requires. We may grit our teeth, and we do try hard. But I am not able to do what God wants of me. I am not capable of the life God wants for me.
A changed life is the gift of God’s Spirit. Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, as “the fruit of the Spirit;” not “the fruit of my good intentions.” “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5:22).
We feel our arms stretched upward, our roots deep, and we are trees giving glory to God, swayed only by the wind of the Spirit, watered by the grace of Baptism.
1From the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.
2J. Clinton McCann, Jr. and James C. Howell, Preaching the Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).
3Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1972).