My children are in the habit of asking, when they hear about a person in the news that they don’t know, “Is he a good person or a bad person?”
I usually try to explain to them that no one is completely “bad” or completely “good.” They acknowledge that. Then they ask again, “But is he (or she) a good person?” And then I give my honest opinion of the person in question.
The readings for this Sunday are in the same mode as my children’s question. There is no gray area here. There are simply the righteous (the disciples and those who believe in God) and the wicked (Judas and those who do not believe in God).
It is Psalm 1 that draws the sharpest contrast between the wicked and the righteous. The psalmist has no qualms about “binaries,” unlike some overly-woke people today. Psalm 1 speaks of a fundamental choice between two paths, and the psalmist has no doubt as to which path is the right one to choose. She wants to lead her students in the way of life.
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This first of all the psalms begins with the word ash-ray in Hebrew, meaning “blessed, happy, fortunate.” “Happy/fortunate is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked; or stand in the path of sinners; or sit in the assembly of scoffers” (Psalm 1:1).1
The NRSV translation obscures the progression of verbs here. The psalmist describes a devolution, from merely walking alongside fools and scoffers, to standing with them, to finally sitting fully in their assembly, as one of them.
The psalmist is not naive. She has seen how sin works, insinuating itself into one’s life slowly, seeming at first like harmless pleasure. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to just walk in the path for a while, see where it leads. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to stand for a while with the scoffers. They are, after all, attractive, witty, sophisticated people who get a lot of followers on social media. But that way leads to folly, says the teacher, and soon one finds oneself as one with them, sitting in their assembly, forgetful of what is life-giving.
Now, here, it behooves me as a Lutheran to say that the situation is not as black and white as the psalmist paints it. We are all at the same time saints and sinners, simul justus et peccator, as the famous Lutheran phrase goes.
But our teacher isn’t interested in nuance. Our teacher wants to paint a stark contrast between two paths, so that her students choose wisely.
And there is, of course, truth in what she says. Sin insinuates itself into one’s life almost without one knowing it, and it is easy to progress from walking to standing to sitting with scoffers and fools, becoming one of them. But that is not the path that this teacher wants her students to choose.
Instead, she paints another picture, this one not of a group of fools lying about, but of a single individual meditating on the teaching of the Lord. “Happy is the one who does not walk, or stand, or sit with scoffers, but the torah of the Lord is his delight, and he meditates on it day and night” (Psalm 1:2).
The torah (“teaching”) of the Lord is this one’s delight, and he chews it over day and night. The Hebrew verb used here for meditating, hagah, is the same word used in Isaiah 31:4 for a lion growling over its prey. As Eugene Peterson puts it, this is meditation as mastication, meditation as gnawing a particularly juicy bone to get all the rich marrow out.2
A well-known collect from the Book of Common Prayer uses similar imagery:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
That’s the kind of meditation this psalm commends: Hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s Word. Chew over it until you’ve gotten the rich marrow out. And know that there will always be more to discover.
The psalmist knows that such study is the privilege and the responsibility of a student. She invites all who will listen to her to make this the path they choose. You, dear working preacher, also have both the privilege and the responsibility to study God’s Word. But it is not for your sake alone.
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The psalmist ends Psalm 1 with one more set of images. The one who studies the teaching of the Lord will be “like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in its season, and its leaves do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). What a lovely image. A tree which bears fruit in due season. A tree whose abundant foliage does not wilt in the heat of the sun because it is connected by deep roots to the source of life: well-watered soil.
Now, a tree abundant in fruit and foliage is a lovely sight anywhere, but especially in a semi-arid land like Israel. In that dry land, a tree is a life-saver, quite literally. It is a sign that water is near. It is itself a source of shade, which can make the difference between life and death by sunstroke. It is also, of course, a source of nourishment for a weary traveler. A fresh fig goes a long way towards restoring a tired person, body and soul.
So, the one who studies Scripture, the one who allows Scripture to shape his or her prayers and life, is like such a tree, constantly connected to the source of life, abundant in fruit and foliage, providing shade and sustenance for a weary sojourner.
The wicked, on the other hand, are like chaff, dried up plants with no roots, driven hither and yon by the wind (Psalm 1:4). They have scorned the life-giving water, and they suffer the consequences.
The choice in this psalm is clear: Be like a tree. Study torah, pray with the Psalms, pray with Jesus, enter into the privilege and the responsibility of being a student of Scripture and a disciple of Jesus Christ, and (here’s the point; here’s where the tree imagery leads us) do it not just for yourself, but for those who are nourished by the fruit of your studies.
Be like a tree.
One of my own dear teachers, in a sermon on Psalm 1, tells about a short Jewish blessing that is said “when someone catches sight of a particularly beautiful tree.”3 The prayer goes like this: baruch atah Adonai elohenu melek ha-olam shekakhah lo beolamo. “Blessed are you, O YHWH our God, King of the universe, who has something like this in his world.”
My hope for you, Working Preacher, is that your own practices of prayer and meditation on God’s Word would shape your life and ministry in such a way that those who encounter you would be nourished and strengthened in faith, and would then bless God with these words:
“Blessed are you O LORD our God, King of the universe, who has something (or someone) like this in his world.”
- This and many of the other quotations of Psalm 1 in this essay are the author’s translation.
- Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (HarperOne, 1989), 23ff.
- Ellen F. Davis, “Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament” (Westminster John Knox, 2005), 150. This article, especially the end of the article, is indebted to Davis’ sermon.