READ : Psalm 1
What directs us into the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked is not simply whether we hear the Word of God, but rather, having heard it we follow it, we obey it, we put it into practice.
This is Psalm 1.
1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff which the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
The most obvious place to begin in considering this Psalm is to note its position in the Psalter. It stands at the head of the book. At some point, someone somewhere in ancient Israel brought together all the 150 Psalms into the collection we now have, and whoever did that deliberately chose this Psalm to be the first one, to serve as an introduction to all the rest. The reason isn’t hard to see. Psalm 1 is all about the right way to live. Its very first word is “blessed.”
To be blessed is to be made profoundly well. It is to be happy in the deepest and most meaningful sense of the word. So the first Psalm offers us a roadmap to true happiness, a map whose details will be filled in throughout the rest of the psalter, indeed, throughout the rest of the Bible.
Trees and Chaff
Psalm 1 is all about contrasts, especially the contrast between two different ways of life. One is the way of those who know, love and serve God. This is the way that leads to blessing and to everlasting life. It’s the way of the righteous.
The other is the way of those who know, love and serve themselves. These people follow the advice of the wicked; their lifestyle is given over to sin; they scoff at religion and righteousness. And in the end, this way of life leads to . . . nothing.
There are two key similes or images that describe these two ways of life and the differences between the people who follow them. The person who follows God’s way, who delights in God’s law (that is, his revealed will) who studies and meditates upon God’s Word, is like a tree, says the psalmist. Not just any tree, but “a tree planted by streams of water” (v. 3).
In an arid land like Palestine, access to water in the dry season makes all the difference in the world. Trees growing out in the desert are small, struggling, bush-like affairs. But a tree planted on the banks of a flowing river is a very different thing.
The life of the godly is like a tree “that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” What a life! Productive, evergreen, fruitful, flourishing, full, happy, prosperous in the true meaning that is how life will be for those who delight in God’s Word and live by God’s will in God’s way.
But not for those who don’t. “The wicked are not so,” declares the psalmist (v. 4). When he speaks here of “the wicked,” we shouldn’t get the wrong impression. He does not mean only people who have been leading spectacularly evil lives. He’s not just talking about terrorist murderers and serial killers and child molesters. No, the wicked, in the psalmist’s view, include all those who reject God’s way and scoff at the idea of obeying his law. This is the common denominator: the wicked choose for themselves, they pursue their own way throughout life.
So if you have decided to make yourself the final authority on matters of truth and right and wrong, if you have placed yourself and your needs and desires at the center of your life rather than God and his will, then you have turned out of God’s way. Whether your lifestyle is debauched and disgusting, or quiet and dignified, whether you behave as wildly as an outlaw or as respectably as a judge, you are still walking in the counsel of the wicked and standing in the way of sinners.
And where does that lead? If the lives of the righteous folk are like strong, healthy, nourished and nourishing trees, what are the lives of the wicked like? “They are like the chaff that the wind drives away” (v. 4).
When grain was harvested in ancient Palestine it would first be cut and tied into sheaves. These would then be taken from the fields and carried to an exposed spot outside the village for threshing. The stalks would be laid on the hard-packed ground and beaten with heavy flails to separate out the heads of grain. Then it would all be tossed up into the air, so that the heavier kernels of wheat or barley would fall back to the earth while the husks and straw would be swept off by the breeze. That is what the lives of the wicked are like nothing but wind-blown chaff.
A life lived apart from God is rootless, parched, empty, and meaningless in the end. How pointless it all looks all the striving and hustling after money, fame and prestige, after cars, houses, lands and clothes. What is left of such a life after the judgment-harvest at the end? Just stalks of grass once alive but now dead (see Matthew 6:30). It doesn’t last. The way of the wicked leads to nothing in the end.
There is a remarkable parallel to Psalm 1 in the New Testament, in a story Jesus told at the conclusion of his famous Sermon on the Mount. In this story Jesus illustrates the two different ways and two different ends by using the image of two builders and two houses, one built on rock and the other on sand. When the wind rose and the storms came, the house on the rock stood firm, it lasted. But the house that was built on the sand fell with a great crash, and disappeared, “like the chaff which the wind drives away.”
Here is the key. What distinguished these two types of people in Jesus’ story was their reaction to his teaching. The two builders are two different kinds of hearers, he said. The wise builder is the one “who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.” The fool is one “who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice” (vv. 24, 26). There is the difference.
What defines us as wise or foolish, what directs us into the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked is not simply whether we hear the Word of God, but whether, having heard it, we follow it, we obey it, we put it into practice.
The test of authenticity for any follower of Jesus is not mere profession but rather practice. It’s not how much we claim we love him, not how loudly we sing the songs, not whether we can teach Sunday school or preach sermons or perform miracles. No, the test is much simpler. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them.” It’s all about the way you choose to walk.
Maybe you can recall what some of those words of Jesus are. He talked about being poor in spirit and merciful and pure in heart. He honored God’s law. He warned against things like anger, lust and lying. He issued commands about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, about non-retaliation for injuries and insults, about serving God humbly and quietly for his own sake, about living simply for heaven’s values rather than for earthly reward, about not being consumed by worry and anxiety, about treating others the way we’d like them to treat us. Those are some of the words Jesus says we must put into practice if we want to be wise if we want to prosper.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the book he wrote on the Sermon on the Mount, “The Cost of Discipleship.” Following Christ is hard. But remember, there’s an even higher cost for not following. If you choose not to walk in God’s way, if you listen to God’s word but then turn away without doing anything about it, then you’re making a life of chaff for yourself. And one day everything you have and everything you are will simply blow away.
It will certainly happen on the last day, the day of judgment when God brings in his harvest. But it will probably happen even before that, maybe on the day you lose your job, or your money, or your family, or your health. That’s when you will look around and realize that you have really been living for nothing. And nothing is exactly what you’ve got.
But if you see that now, why not admit it to God? Why not turn to Jesus Christ, come to him without delay, and follow his way? Put his words into practice. You know, the way of sinners is broad and easy and well-traveled, but it leads to destruction. The way of Jesus is narrow and hard, but it leads to life (see Matthew 7:14-15) Which way do you choose?