Open a Bible near the center, and you will find the Book of Psalms. In many ancient manuscripts, the first psalm was unnumbered, untitled and printed in red ink to indicate that it frames and prefaces the whole Psalter.
Psalm 1 is both a wisdom psalm, showing us two contrasting ways to live, and a torah psalm, inviting us to saturate our whole lives in Scripture and thence to know which of the two ways to choose and how to proceed.
It’s a good text for reflection for the first full week of a new year. Here is the first half of the psalm, or song:
“How happy is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked or stand in the pathway with sinners or sit in the company of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. He is like a tree planted beside flowing streams that bears its fruit in its season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.”
For most of us, these are familiar words. The psalm encourages us to shape a satisfying and rewarding life that comes from weighing the options, aligning heart, mind and will with God’s agenda and immersing our lives in God.
Woven into the text of the psalm are four contrasts:
- Those who are righteous, and those who are wicked
- A luscious tree, and dry, useless chaff
- A wicked crowd and a virtuous individual
- The advice of sinners, and the wisdom that comes from God.
Ethics is at the heart of what it means to be a person of faith; and ethics is meaningless in the absence of a commitment to objective truth and investment in a spiritually grounded life.
Line by line, in this psalm, the questions arise: Where do I stand? Where do I find my place? My people? My identity? My compass? My destiny?
For those who follow the psalmist’s ethical advice, verse 3 declares, “Whatever he/she does prospers.”
This is a reminder of the mercy and grace of God, and, within this theological frame, of the basic moral principle of cause and effect.
Faithfulness to God’s word and God’s purposes has its consequences, as does the alternative (compare verses 1-3 with 4-6).
Those who take the narrow but virtuous road will increasingly “prosper.” Their work will bear fruit. God will bless it.
They are like a graceful tree beside a billabong, with leaves that do not wither, though all else withers.
Their branches are laden with healthy fruit, in abundance, true to the tree’s intended nature and fulfilling its purpose.
This is a tree that flourishes in all weather conditions, that withstands scorching fire, tearing wind, pressing flood and crushing drought – for the blessing and joy of others.
You and I should aim to be that tree and follow the psalmist’s advice on how to do so:
- By diligent study of Scripture
- Discerning the big picture painted by the authors
- Perceiving how our lives today find their place in the age-old drama
- Understanding and applying the Bible’s timeless yet eminently practical wisdom
- Trusting God to take and shape our humble lives so that they become increasingly attractive, fruitful, satisfying and rewarding, a blessing to others
You and I are that tree, as we follow our Maker’s instructions and as the life of God shapes and transforms us.
This psalm not only introduces us to the Book of Psalms but points eloquently to the kind of life that Jesus embodied, to the fruit of the Spirit that Jesus displayed and to the source of his power and influence.
If Psalm 1 points to an ideal life to which we may all aspire, it points pre-eminently to the life of Jesus, and the example he gave us: of uncommon faithfulness to God, unfaltering dedication to his mission and unyielding compassion and commitment to those around him.
During this week that began with the celebration of Epiphany, we recall the words of Titus 2:11-14 and the call to an ethical life:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous and godly way in the present age while we wait for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people for his own possession, eager to do good works.”