Psalm 1 “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
Let me first put this psalm in its biblical context.
1 A GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO THE PSALMS.
We all know where to find the book of Psalms is in the Bible. The book of Habakkuk is something else, but you don’t need the index to find the Psalms. You open the Bible in the middle and there it is at the heart of revelation, and that is not unimportant. The centre of Scripture is experiential religion, and so it begins not with the word ‘LORD’ but with the word ‘Blessed,’ or “Oh the blessedness of this particular man . . .” It is reinforcing our knowledge of the living God and the true nature of our relationship with him in joy and repentance in a world that has lost its way because it has rejected God. The Psalter’s place in the Bible is significant; it is hedged in between on the one hand the sad history of most of the kings, and on the other hand the warnings of the prophets to a rebellious and careless people. You could think reading the historic books and the prophets preaching vainly to a disobedient people that there was no Holy Spirit at work in the Old Testament period. Then you read this massive treasury of devotion, so filled with spiritual aspirations and wrestlings, yearnings and love for Jehovah in one of the largest books in the Bible. God was there in grace.
I’ve been reading what one man wrote about the Psalms. He said: “The Psalms appeal to the whole person; they demand a total response. The Psalms inform our intellect, arouse our emotions, direct our wills and stimulate our imaginations. When we read the Psalms with faith, we come away changed and not simply informed” (Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms, Intervarsity Press, 1988, p.13). I want that for you and for myself too, every time I read the Psalter or preach on a psalm. I don’t want to take a psalm when I am tired or weary, like taking an energy drink. I want comprehensive biblical transfiguration. I want adoration; I want to worship the God of the Bible and tremble at his word. It was the power that made the universe that inspired Psalm One. The results of hearing any sermon should be that we love God more, and understand the truth more clearly, and when the sermon is ended we know that good has been done to our souls. We feel we’ve been changed, that we are better people, holier, sweeter and more loving.
In this hour I am your link with these psalms; I stand in the gap between you and this book, and there are gaps. There is the chronological gap. The latest psalms were written about 2,500 years ago and the earliest 3,500 years ago. It is like someone in the future, doing research in the National Library of Wales in the year 5500, and reading about life today and scratching her head. Times change; there is the world of the psalmists, and there is our world all these centuries later and I have to be the bridge by which these truths come to you and then I must bear you into these inspired words.
There is also the cultural gap between our technological Western world and the Near Eastern people who lived in rural Israel, and we find some of their customs and expressions different and perplexing in our society.
Added to that there is also the dispensational gap. The Book of Psalms was written during the old covenant period, before the coming of Jesus Christ, when there were judges and kings and holy wars and priests and sacrifices and a temple and feasts like the Passover, or the feast of booths which required a visit to Jerusalem (sometimes to live as a family for a few days in temporary tents), and there were food laws which banned the people from eating bacon, and there was circumcision. None of that stuff exists today. Its purpose has been fulfilled and it has gone for ever, its usefulness is over.
I am standing between that world and this world of ours, between these psalms and you, to invite you into the instruction and wisdom and spiritual life of these psalms. “What do you think of this? Isn’t this magnificent? Isn’t it utterly relevant, state of the art Christian instruction for today? What faith this man shows!” And so on . . . today I want to introduce you to the blessed man of Psalm One in order that you love and fear his God, and live as he lived. His God is the very same Jehovah whom we are worshipping now and we can learn, as he did, to overcome common temptations and sins which never change in thousands of years.
2. AN INTRODUCTION TO PSALM ONE.
i] This psalm is an introduction to the whole Book of Psalms. I shall dub Psalm One the ‘holy bouncer’ guarding the door to the Psalter. If you sincerely desire to enter the congregation of the righteousness then you cannot avoid dealing with this doorkeeper. He will make things very clear to you, permitting your access or rejecting you until you change.
ii] The first word of Psalm One begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the last word begins with the last letter. That is quite deliberate. The creative device is making a comprehensive statement; it is saying that this psalm (and the Psalter itself) is full of words which give answers that you need to the greatest questions anyone can ask, who are you, who is God, how can I know him. They are found here in this psalm. Where is happiness to be found? What road should I take through life? Who should be my closest friends and companions? How can my life be fruitful? What is the destiny of all men? Where can I find someone to watch over me? What is the nature of a life lived with God? Words – for that is all we have – with the answers to those questions are here in these psalms.
iii] Again, I want you to notice that the first word of this psalm is the word ‘Blessed’ and the last word is ‘perish.’ What is the psalmist doing? He is taking us back to the whole motif of the Bible, to our first parents and the blessedness they knew under the shade of the Tree of Life, living life to the full Then they rebelled and they ended up living amongst the thorns, perishing. The psalmist is saying to us, “Don’t make their mistake! Aim at blessedness. Fear perishing. Why perish?” He wants to draw you into enjoying the only blessed life; it comes from knowing and loving God. “Don’t perish!” he cries.
iv] The Psalmist is insistent that there are only two options before us all and not three or even more. There are the blessed people, and there are the wicked people who are mentioned four times in this psalm because there are multifarious categories of wickedness but only one kind of blessed and happy people. Two categories, and we are all either in one or the oth
er. The Lord Jesus spoke of the last day, at the end of the world, and all mankind being divided into two constituencies, those he calls ‘sheep’ and others he calls ‘goats,’ and everyone will fit into one or other group, and their destinations will be as different as heaven and hell. There are in this psalm just two portraits, two men, two ways, two lives. There is no ‘in-between’, no tolerable agnosticism. It is an either/or; you cannot belong to both. You are either blessed by God with every blessing or you are a wicked person. You say, “That’s too simple.” We are simple people.
v] Blessedness consists of actions you are delivered from, and practices you do not do, as well as everything you are and do. If you would be a blessed person then there are people whose influence you’d better avoid, whose company and conversation you must dodge because they will corrupt you. There are seducers and liars and mockers all around us. It is saying, ‘Those who sleep with dogs will get fleas.’ Look at the gang culture in London and the weekly knifings and shootings of teenagers who have fallen into the wrong company. Don’t walk with them! Don’t listen to what they tell you! “My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them. If they say, ‘Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul; let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse’ – my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths; for their feet rush into sin, they are swift to shed blood” (Proverbs 1:10-16).
Psalm One is telling preachers how to answer an estranged listener who says to them at the end of the service that he ‘really wants something more positive.’ We are living in days in which we are encouraged to present the faith in as bright a light as possible. One result of that is the Christian theme of the fight, the holy war against the world, the flesh and the devil, is exorcised from Scripture. The pilgrimage from the City of Destruction through many challenges until one arrives safely in the Celestial City is gone – if the goal of the pulpit is to stroke the affections of everyone who comes to our services. Christianity is made a sinner’s safe tranquilizer. We all have to agree that negative attitudes do not necessarily repel people; they draw all righteous people. I am against things; I am against the abuse of women. I am very negative about that. That doesn’t mean that another man who doesn’t oppose abusing women is some wonderfully positive person. I am against cruelty to animals. I hate it. That does not mean that badger baiters are enviable, positive men and women and I have to deal with my negativity towards them. We Christians must be negative about everything that destroys and corrupts, and positive about whatsoever things are true and noble and just and pure and lovely and of good report. We have to be positive of course; we have to breathe in the oxygen, yes, but negative too; we have to breathe out the poison.
3. WHEN THE VERSE SAYS, “BLESSED IS THE MAN” OF COURSE IT INCLUDES WOMEN TOO.
What does the original Hebrew of verse one say? It says ‘man.’ Why am I even referring to it? Because this verse has become a cause celebre amongst what are called the ‘gender-neutral’ Bible translators. They say it is objectionable that the Bible uses a single male example to teach a general truth, so they have changed the translation of this verse to ‘Blessed are those . . .’ The issue is this, are we going to water down or omit details of meaning that some in our modern culture find offensive? There are five words in dispute and that is all. They are: “father,” “son,” “brother,” “man,” and “he/him/his.” What young person can’t understand those words? Yet in the new gender-neutral N.I.V. translation those words have been deleted thousands of times. Can we stock it and sell it in the Book Shop? It is not that people can’t understand those words, for they are extraordinarily simple and common. The ultimate reason for doing what they have done is that those translators have decided it is objectionable today to translate literally and accurately the Bible’s uses of an individual male example in order to teach a general truth. So they have changed thousands of verses in their translation of the Bible.
It has affected hymns too. You might think that the modernization of great hymns has been about changing ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ to you. It is more than that. I could not use the metrical version of psalm one tonight which is found in a recent English hymnal after making this point. How has the author translated the first psalm? “Happy the people.” But the Holy Spirit didn’t say that; he said, ‘How blessed is the man;’ that is what the Hebrew says. Can’t you see the significance of this concrete example, a transformation of this one man? Don’t you know that God made man in his image and in his likeness? Don’t you know that that man forfeited all the blessedness of fellowship with God when he sinned? Can’t you see what happens when God comes and blesses him with redemption? How blessed is that man. That is what the word is saying, not, “Oh, happy people!” ‘Happy people’ is popular music; it is The King and I; ‘Happy, happy people, happy talk.’ But the word ‘man’ takes us back to Genesis 2; “And God created man in his image and in his likeness. Male and female created he them.” Man created by God; man ruined by sin; man redeemed by the last man Christ Jesus and thus becoming the blessed man by the last Man. “Happy people” loses all those links.
Since this psalm was written people have been aware without any problems at all that when the Bible uses an example of an individual man to teach a general principle, the principle also applies the other way to an individual woman. Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:18) teaches men as well as women about being persistent in prayer. The parable of the prodigal son also applies to prodigal daughters. We do not have to change the words of the Bible for such general applications to be understood. The Bible frequently teaches by using concrete, specific examples of individuals. It does not just use vague principles, or groups. Jesus spoke of the prodigal son not the prodigal child, and that specificity draws you into the tale; it helps bring your affections into the events described, with that other son lurking in the background with all the overtones of the dynamics of the relationship of an older and younger brother. Ever since you read and memorized Psalm One it never dawned on you that this blessedness did not apply to a woman who refused to walk in the counsel of the wicked. In exactly the same way you had no difficulty understanding that the prohibition, “you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” (Exodus 20:17) also applies to a woman not coveting her neighbour’s husband. Moses did not have to write it; it was self-evident.
Another danger in the trend of adopting the gender-neutral policy is that hundreds of other details that minorities in modern culture find offensive might be watered down in future translations. More and more, we will have a Bible that does not accurately represent in English what the original Hebrew and Greek languages said.
Rather these Bibles will represent something that the translators think will be a little more acceptable to our unbelieving sin-sickened world. But then we will no longer have the Word of God in all its wisdom and richness. Instead, we will have the Word of God adulterated with the words of man.
4. YOU CAN LIVE A BLESSED LIFE.
“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (vv. 1&2). The blessed person is the one who has discovered a new delight in life. His delight is the God of the Bible, or what he calls “the law of the Jehovah.” He uses the word ‘law’ because the first five books of Moses were the most prominent part of Scripture at the time he was writing this psalm. The part is standing for the whole. It is a figure of speech called a ‘synecdoche.’ You meet it again, for example, in Psalm 24 where the reference is to the person described as having “clean hands and a pure heart” meaning he himself is clean and pure, not just his hands and heart.
So this man is blessed in the God whom he has found revealed in Scripture, and his delight is in the Bible. He has fallen in love the Bible. He is passionate about it. He can’t hear it preached too often. He reads it, and he reads about it; he tells us he meditates on it day and night. In it he finds the living God. It is a mirror in which he finds himself portrayed. It is the most efficient medicine when he is sick. He finds the answers to his problems, and the satisfaction of his greatest needs in the Bible. He learns how he can worship God. “I am delighted with the Bible,” he says. “Oh how love I thy law.”
You remember Paul saying to the Thessalonians, “I thank God that you received my word not as the words of men, but for what it really is: the word of God.” The Thessalonians took delight in the word they heard, just like the psalmist, and we are also encouraged to be thrilled with it, and meditate in it day and night, even to eat it up and imbibe it! It is sweeter than the honeycomb to our taste. Think of the observation of Solzhenitsyn when he was in the Gulag prison camp. He records it in his book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. The great Russian writer remembers when he was sharing a freezing dormitory with a Baptist pastor who had secreted away a little New Testament. The preacher took it out from its hiding place in the bunk as dawn broke and then he read it aloud, but quietly, day after day. The men around him, Solzhenitsyn included, would hear those words. No one objected. It kept the pastor in touch with his calling for which he was suffering. It kept him sane; it gave him a purpose to go on living in that horrible regimen of prison life. That was his discipline; that was also his delight. There is no tension between those two attitudes. You read in obedience; in read in delight. You discover yourself and the wonderful grace of God who transforms us by the word of God that lives and abides for ever. Delight in it! Meditate in it! Live by it, even when it makes you uncomfortable, as it will; live by the Book, and then you will be like the psalmist, a blessed man.
But one other thing; evil influences will keep you from this Book or the Scriptures will keep you from evil influences. “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers” (v.1). You see the progress there. There was that older boy, and as you walked together. Oh bliss! He was two and a half years older than you but he walked with you. He told you about girls and what you could do. He said to you, “You know, drugs can be a lot of fun.” You didn’t know that wicked man had his obsessions with women, and ecstasy tablets, and real ale, only that he told you stuff. You couldn’t know his unspeakable future. But that was only the start. Sin is never satisfied with words; sin wants deeds and consummation and death. So you see in Psalm one how we are being moved on a pace, not just to walk with a wicked man but then there’s the next stage, to hang around with them, to stand – that is the next verb – to stand with him and with other sinners and listen to them talk so knowledgably about things of which they know so little and which are utterly unimportant. See them nod their heads, and hear them guffaw, and impatiently wait for their turn, and boast, and scheme as you stand with them.
Then you see how we are moving on again, that there is another step, no longer walking or standing but now we are sitting with those who mock purity, and modesty, and self-control, and the Word of God. It is the ubiquitous discourse of the men and women at the bar in the pub as they sit together and drink their pints, making sure everyone pays for a round of drinks, but now they’ve become your gang. You hang out with them most weeks. They’ve got you. You’ve become just like them, unblessed men. A journalist was writing in the Times this week about the sorts of conversations in pubs that he has been self consciously evaluating for this article over the last six months. This is his conclusion, “I struggle to recall overhearing or joining a single meaningful conversation . . . I mean: a conversation of more or less equal parts talking and listening, a genuine exchange preferably involving someone else’s private life; not a list of facts, platitudes or clichés about sport, mechanical objects or transport arrangements, but an organic encounter that goes where it may, with passion perhaps but without aggression or self-aggrandisement. No. I can’t remember one.” He ended his piece with his tongue in his cheek, “Maybe I’m going to the wrong pubs” (Times, October 29, 2008, Robert Crampton, “In need of a decent chat?”). Psalm One is the story of Dylan Thomas isn’t it? The young expert wordsmith, and Wales’ greatest poet, who becomes the expert in writing begging letters to pay for his alcoholism. Walking . . . standing . . . sitting – where are you in the process? Beware!
How blessed are you if you’ve been delivered from that superficial world where irony triumphs, where men are evasive about specifics and unadorned in their boasting. Who wants to sit and talk with the cheeky chappie, the professional extrovert, the wit, the wag, the whatnot with his bowtie and his wacky parachute jump? What a deliverance! “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers” (v.1). That is the fruit of knowing the message of the Bible. That is true blessedness.
5. YOU CAN LIVE A FRUITFUL LIFE.
“He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (v.3). You are going to mock that? Wicked sinners, what are you going to say about people who are deliciously verdant, fruitful and refreshing people? Are you like that? Is your life like a tree planted by rivers of water? Then why are you mocking us when we are able to surround you by an orchard of fruitful trees? Didn’t you read this week about 34 year old Gayle Williams, a Methodist woman living in Afghanistan, who had gone there over two years ago to work for the disabled in that needy country? As she was walking to
her clinic this week two men drove up alongside her on a motorbike one of them shooting her six times, pumping bullets into her body, even shooting her legs. Those men and their bosses hated the fact that here was a free woman, was blessed by the Lord Jesus, delighting in the law of the Lord and meditating in it day and night. They cut down the fruit-yielding tree planted by streams of water. They did that cowardly, heinous act because they were walking in the counsel of the wicked, and standing in the way of sinners, and they’d spent their lives sitting in the seat of those who scorn Jesus Christ – the Saviour of all who believe in him.
What does the word of God do to those who delight in it? It makes them fruitful. It makes them give up their lives to serve the disabled. If it made them invisible then no one would notice them, but in a world where people are cold and hard they have the fruit of love; in a world where men and women are totally discouraged with life they have the fruit of joy; in a world which is full of angry people falling out with one another and refusing to have anything more to do with one another, they have peacemaking fruit; where people are short-tempered and snarl at one another these people are longsuffering and gentle – luscious fruit. In a bad world they are good. In a land where men and women break their marriage vows they are faithful. In a society where people are encouraged to give in to their feelings – “if you want it then go ahead and do it” – they are self-controlled. The most lovely fruit is found in their company.
What makes them like that? The indwelling Holy Spirit. He is the river of water. He comes into them in gentle washing, purifying, refreshing and irrigating power. He sets up his abode in their lives. They have illimitable access to him. He makes them fruitful. Think what he did for a tinker named John Bunyan or a cobbler named William Carey. The Holy Spirit of God made one exceedingly fruitful in a foul prison, or the other in Hindu India full of idols 200 years ago. Bunyan’s incarceration, lasting twelve long years, did not result in one leaf of grace withering in his life. While Carey never returned to England but lived and died in India nursing his first wife through mental illness and then nursing his second wife and never did his leaf wither. They became like trees planted by streams of water yielding their fruit in season, and there are millions of other people like them, transformed by the message of the word of God. Blessed men and women! Fruitful people even in drought! What blessedness! Whatever they do prospers. That is what the psalm says. Their souls prosper; their relation with God prospers; their Christ-likeness prospers; their wisdom prospers; their homes prosper; their churches prosper; their worship prospers. That is all through the message of the Bible; we deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but Jesus Christ because he loved us died for us. How God prospers those whose delight is that message of the gospel.
6. THERE’S AN END FOR THE WICKED.
I once was talking to my friend Paul Helm, and he had been listening to a sermon preached by the late Ken Howard on this psalm the previous Sunday, and as he preached it, Paul said, Ken came to these words of verse four, “Not so the wicked!” and in his sermon that refrain again and again sounded out; “not so the wicked!” This blessed life – but not so the wicked. The fruit of conviction of sin and repentance and holy living – but not so the wicked. Delight in the law of the Lord day and night – but not so the wicked. Resistance to beguiling temptations – not so the wicked. Fulfilling man’s chief end to glorify God and enjoy him for ever – not so the wicked.
Consider Jay Gould, the American millionaire with an enormous fortune. When dying, he said, “I suppose I am the most miserable man on earth.” Consider Lord Byron who lived for pleasure. At the end he wrote: “The worm, the canker and grief are mine alone.” Consider the French philosopher Voltaire who said: “I wish I’d never been born.” Think of Lord Beaconsfield who enjoyed wealth and fame and power. He wrote: “Youth is a mistake; manhood a struggle; old age a regret.” No blessedness there. “Not so the wicked!” They are like chaff that the wind carries away. Think of the howling winds of soccer and music and money and sex and greed and drink and gambling that are carrying away millions of lives today as I speak. Chaff is rootless; chaff is weightless; chaff is useless. It has no vigour, no life and no freshness. It has no root and it has no fruit. The wind from heaven will disclose who are chaff. Chaff will not stand in the judgment, when the rushing mighty wind of God blows upon them. They’ll never be in the assembly of the righteous around the throne of God and the Lamb in the glory of heaven for ever. The way of the wicked will perish. You are going to be destroyed. That is what lies before you today if you defy this great Saviour.
If you have Christ – oh what a difference – you are a blessed man; you are a fruitful man; you are a prosperous man; you are a cared-for man, “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous” (v.6). I was a teenager in the age of crooners and one popular song (which I guess I sang in the bath as a fifteen year old – we didn’t have a shower) expressed a longing for “Someone to watch over me.” “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see. I hope that he turns out to be someone who’ll watch over me . . .” Here he is! His name is Jehovah Jesus; the good Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep; the one who loves us with an everlasting love. He will watch over all our ways for ever.
7. THIS PSALM IS ALSO ABOUT CHRIST.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the blessed man. Do you see it? Do you see how perfectly this psalm describes your Saviour and your Lord? Christ is the blessed man. In Christ we have a man who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked. Not once. In Christ we have a man who did not stand in the way of sinners. Not once. In Christ we have a man who did not sit in the seat of scoffers. Not once. Instead, the Lord Jesus delighted in the law of the Lord. The law did not terrify him, for he had no sin for the law to condemn. The law did not awaken his sinfulness, for he had no sinfulness for it to awaken. He alone had clean hands and a pure heart. He alone could ascend the mountain of God and be in the presence of the Almighty without being consumed.
Christ Jesus meditated in the law of the Lord day and night, and he knew that it spoke of him. The book of Hebrews tell us the psalmist speaks of Christ when he says the following, “Then I said, ‘Lo, I come; in the roll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do your will, O my God; your Law is within my heart’” (Ps 40:7,8). Those are the words of your Redeemer! “I delight to do your will, O my God; your Law is within my heart!"
Christ, then, is the one who alone has merited the blessings spoken of in verse 3. In other words, he alone earned the right to be like a tree planted by streams of water, yielding fruit, without withering leaves. He alone had a right to prosper, and yet to Christ was the wickedness of verse 4 imputed. He had no wickedness of his own, and yet he suffered for wickedness on the cross. He became like so much chaff that the wind drives away. On Golgotha he underwent the judgment and the wrath of God, with thunderings, clouds and thick darkness. He died. He died like a wicked man whose way has perished. This psalm i
s about you, and it’s about Christ. Christ, who was incarnate blessedness made wickedness for us. He suffered the judgment and wrath of God, though he died a cursed death and was buried . . . yet he rose again on the third day. He passed through the judgment of God and was raised to eternal life. Now he is alive forever; the eternal fruitful tree set down in glory right next to the river of life and giving the fruit of his righteous life for the healing of the nations. They have come to us in distant Aberystwyth and to all the ends of the arth, blessed though the work of Christ. Everything that our blessed Saviour did has been prospered by God and will prosper for evermore. Truly and triumphantly does this psalm speak of our Lord Jesus Christ.
No longer can this psalm terrify us with its warnings of judgment and descriptions of the horrors that await the wicked. In Christ we’ve already been made like the wicked who can’t withstand God’s judgment. In Christ at the cross, our judgment day has come already. In Christ our foul, despicable, sinful ways have perished! At the cross, our sins have been put to death and we have died to sin. That is what we are blessed men. That is why we are fruitful and why all we do prospers. It is as we are joined to Jesus Christ our Saviour, and for his sake the Lord watches over us as those righteous in him. Be blessed! Be blessed in Christ. By personal faith entrust yourself to him today.
26th October 2008 GEOFF THOMAS