August 26, 2018
A DOORWAY, TWO PATHS, AND THE IMPORTANCE OF GOD’S WORD
(1 of 8 in a series of selected Psalms)
A few months back I spoke at a graduation ceremony for the Augustine school, and I was intent on speaking only 10-15 minutes since no one comes to a graduation excited to hear from the commencement speaker. But this address caused me a little bit of stress in that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. Most of the time when I’m in front of people speaking, I get to take a text of Scripture and exposit it or teach on a theological topic. This time, expositing a text wasn’t called for, and explaining a theological topic seemed very out of place. What finally provided me some guidance was simply asking myself, “If my children were among the graduates, what would I say to them?” That became my jumping off point.
A form of that question has come into my mind this week. When I first started pastoring here nineteen years ago, I wasn’t much older than the average incoming freshman at Union University. Much of my application in preaching came as someone who’d walked in their shoes only a few minutes earlier, so it seemed. These days, however, I look at college students and see brothers and sisters who aren’t my age but the age of my children. And I’ve got to admit that this makes every fall semester around here a bit emotional for me.
I imagine what it must be like for parents to drop off their children, for students to be far from home, perhaps removed from a healthy, loving, local church back home, and I always pray that they’ll get plugged into a local church because that’s the very thing I’d be praying for my own children. Well, in God’s providence, I’m beginning a series of selected psalms this week. I say “selected” because they’re not random. I sat down, read through the first twenty-five or so psalms and chose eight that I wanted to preach. We begin the first in that series this morning as we look at Psalm 1.
But what struck me as I’ve meditated on and studied and worked through Psalm 1 this week is that this psalm makes a point that I would want to make to my own children if they were to leave my house and go off to college. Thus it feels very fitting to be looking at this psalm this morning. But I’m not suggesting that this psalm doesn’t address all of us, for it does. In fact, I’ve found myself praying for my own walk with the Lord this week, asking the Lord to bring me in line with the picture of this psalm. I’ve prayed this psalm for many of you. And so this morning, I want us to look at it together.
Let me give two brief prefatory remarks, though, before we dive in about the psalm itself. Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm, a psalm that speaks of how life works, often in very simple, straightforward, black-and-white ways. So, for example, wisdom literature will often only offer two ways. Think, for example, of Jesus’ teaching at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. The wise man builds his house on the rock while the foolish man builds his house on the sand. You could well read that and think, “Isn’t there some in-between option, like some nice dirt you could pack down and build your house on?” And the answer is no. That’s not how wisdom literature or teaching works. There are two ways and only two ways, and that’s what we see in this psalm.
Second, the psalms, so it seems were placed together in a certain order. I’m not going to pretend to know why the order of every psalm is the way it is, but there is an obvious order at times. For example, the last five psalms are all praise psalms, which seems to point us to the reality that history is moving toward the time when God will be praised and worshiped perfectly in the end as Christ returns. And Psalms 1 and 2 are also strategic. We’ll talk about Psalm 2 next week, but what Psalm 1 tells us being at the start of the psalter and focusing as we’ll see on the need to love and delight in and meditate on the Lord’s instruction, teaching, and word (i.e. “his law” in v. 2) is that though it is good and fine to sing or recite the psalms, even as we’ve done this morning with Psalm 23, the main reason they’re given to us is so that we might read them, meditate on them, study them, and be changed by them. They are God’s Word and instruction to us. Psalm 1 being the first psalm in the Psalter makes that clear.
What then does Psalm 1 teach us? It gives us a description of the righteous man, a description of the wicked man, and then shows us the ultimate reality for each. Let’s start, then, with the description of the righteous man.
A description of the righteous man
The Psalm begins by describing the righteous man as “blessed.” Some have translated this as “happy,” and that’s fair. But that might come across too lightly to our ears. The idea is that this man is blessed before God. That is, he dwells in the joyful situation of knowing that God shines upon him, is pleased with him, and is honored by him. This is the man who is not under God’s judgment or curse but under his blessing.
And the psalmist first describes this man negatively. That is, he tells us what the man does not do. He says, “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” (v. 1). Now, in saying this, the psalmist is showing a certain progression of sin that takes place in the unrighteous. The unrighteous man first walks in the counsel of the wicked. That is, he listens to their judgment on the world, hears of what they find good or pleasing, seeks their counsel and advice. This is a man who looks to the culture at large to receive his counsel and be told what he should judge as good and ideal.
But it doesn’t stop at that point. If you look to the world for judgment and advice and counsel long enough, you’ll soon start to imitate their behavior. And that’s what the psalmist means by “stands in the way of sinners.” To stand in the way of sinners is simply saying imitate their actions or behaviors. If you listen to the world’s judgments and counsel long enough, you’ll ultimately start acting and behaving like them.
And it doesn’t even stop there. Ultimately you’ll not be content to imitate the behaviors of sinners, but you’ll start to mock or belittle that which is good and right. That’s what is meant by “sits in the seat of scoffers.” Let’s play this out in terms of sexual morality as an example since I think that this is a clear point of attack by the enemy in our culture. If you listen to the counsel of the world revolving sexual activity long, you’ll ultimately find yourself mimicking them, walking in sexual immorality. And if you do that long enough, you’ll find yourself not only living out of accord with God’s commands but perhaps even mocking the one who is not sexually active. The acknowledgment by someone that he or she is a virgin might draw a snicker or glance of judgment from you when the Lord would see this as good and right. Do you see the progression? That’s how sin works in all situations. That’s the progression the psalmist is picking up on in these early verses.
And the psalmist begins by saying that the blessed and righteous man is one who does not do those things. He doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers. What then does he do?
Now, here’s where you’d expect the psalmist to provide an equal and opposite parallel, right? You’d anticipate the psalmist speaking of positive counsel, positive practice and behavior, and approving of what is good and right. But he doesn’t. He wants to get beneath these realities.i So, he simply says, “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (v. 2).
In other words, what Psalm 1:2 suggests is that holy living flows out of delight in and meditation upon the Word of God. The idea is that as Christians, we know this book, read this book, think on this book, hear it preached, sing it, pray it, and think about it throughout the day. And obedient, holy, blessed-by-the-Lord living flows out of that.
In fact, according to verse 3, the one who delights in, meditates on, and lives in light of the Word finds life and stability. “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and is leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” This doesn’t mean the “prosperity gospel,” that is, promising that you’ll have health and wealth all your days. But it does mean that all is working for your good, making you like Christ, in whom is life.
Now, I want to come back to this near the end of the sermon, but let me say a few words about delighting in and meditating on the Word. It seems that there are continually different suggestions for what most shapes us as believers. There are even different suggestions among Christians. Certain worship practices, for example, may be suggested in that if we get our liturgy lined up a certain way we’ll be transformed and shaped rightly. And I’m not downplaying what we do on Sunday morning by any stretch. In fact, we’ve thought about it very deliberately, even offering a pamphlet on it in the lobby. But I do want to say that if you ask the Bible how is it that we’re shaped and transformed so that we become unlike this world and more like our Lord, the consistent answer is that what most powerfully shapes us is God’s Word.
We see this throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy 17,ii the Lord speaks of when a new king of Israel takes the throne. What is the first thing he must do? What is most important in shaping him as king? We read in Deuteronomy 17:18, “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests.” I actually listened to a podcast on writing instruments in that time, and I’ll try to keep from boring you by simply noting that this would have taken a long time.
So, why have the king write out by hand the words of the law of God and read them again and again. It is because the Word of God is what shapes his people. Or think back just a few weeks ago to what the Lord said to Joshua in Joshua 1:8, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and you will have good success.” Doesn’t that sound like Psalm 1? This isn’t unique. The consistent message throughout Scripture is that it is the Bible that shapes God’s people.
Or when you get to the New Testament, Paul tells us that the way not to be conformed to this age but to be transformed in by renewing our minds to the truths he has laid out in Scripture. And so it is here. The righteous man is a man who loves God’s Word, delights in it, meditates on it, learns it thoroughly, and lives in light of it. And he is blessed of God, a continual recipient of his grace all his days. That is a description of the righteous man. The psalmist also gives a brief description of the wicked man.
A description of the wicked man
He writes, “The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.” In other words, everything said about the righteous is simply not so in the case of the wicked. They are like chaff. When a farmer would harvest the grain, he would take a winnowing fork, toss the grain up in the air, and the wind would blow off the chaff while the heads of grain would fall to the ground. Those meaningless pieces of chaff that are so light that the wind carries them off is what the Lord compares the wicked man to in this verse. It may feel like the wicked are prospering left and right, but in the end they ultimately will have no significance.
Brothers and sisters, those in the world can feel like they carry such weight. Their opinions, their judgments, and their declarations can seem like we should bend to them. It can often feel weighty to know that the unbeliever will mock what we do and say. Just the other day I had a conversation with a brother who was telling me about how an unbeliever with whom he was conversing mocked the gospel—the message of Christ’s perfect life, penalty-bearing death, and justifying resurrection—in a severe way. It seems foolish to them—as the Lord designed (1 Cor. 1:18-25). But don’t feel their opinions and judgments and mockery as weighty. They are like chaff, Psalm 1 says.
I wish I had someone hold this truth up to me in my adolescence. My years of high school were spent with very few believers and most of my friends walking in sexual immorality and boasting about it. I was often on the outside because of my concern for holiness. And I wish I could say that as I did not walk in their counsel, or stand in their way, or sit in their seat, I found myself strong. But the reality is that I often found myself depressed, envious, and feeling like I was keeping myself from life’s most precious rewards.
But this is the very reason why we must delight in and meditate on God’s Word again and again. It says, “Don’t envy them or their ways. They are like chaff that the wind drives away.” My judgment suggested that they were getting out of life all it had to offer, but the Lord’s Word is a correction that says they hold absolutely no significance in eternity. Don’t envy the wicked. They are like chaff.
And finally, this psalms shows us the ultimate reality for each.
The ultimate reality for each
The psalmist writes in verses 5-6, “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
On the day of judgment, as the righteous are gathered to be brought into the Lord’s kingdom and rest, the wicked will not be among them. They will not know the glory of eternity. They will perish, as verse 6 says. And we know from the rest of Scripture that perishing doesn’t simply mean being annihilated or the like. It means the eternal torment of hell.
But interestingly the Lord focuses on the “way” of each. In other words, if you follow the way of the wicked, you’ll perish under the Lord’s wrath. But the Lord knows the way of the righteous. That is, the Lord is committed to caring for loving and preserving he who walks in that way.
Dale Ralph Davis tells the story of Ruth Clark, who lived in the latter part of the eighteenth century. When she was sixty-seven, she was crossing the street and was struck by a speeding horse. She never recovered as this led to greater illness until she died. But before her death, she was asked by someone close to her if she had any doubts, facing death. She answered, “Oh no, none. He that has loved me all my life through will not forsake me now.”iii That’s a good description of what the Lord is saying in verse 6 as he says that he knows the way of the righteous. He will love the righteous all his life through. He knows your way. What a beautiful picture that is of one who is blessed.
But I do want to make something unmistakably clear in this sermon. You could hear this and think that somehow the Lord is simply looking to see who will measure up, who will abandon sinful ways and pursue holy living. And the one who does this well will receive eternal life. But the rest of Scripture tells us that none of us has or can perfectly measure up. This is why God the Father sent his Son into the world to live a perfectly righteous life for us, die for our sins, and rise from the dead on the third day. And it is only by placing our faith in this crucified and risen Lord that we can stand before the Lord in righteousness. That is our starting point. So, if you are not a believer, I plead with you to trust in Christ. And if you are, hear this psalm from the starting point of being credited with the righteousness of Christ.
But I want to conclude with this. For those who are righteous in Christ, I’ve got a final exhortation to you. I started by reflecting on this time of year, students leaving home, coming to college, and how that makes me think of my own children. So, I want to speak to all of us this morning what I’d want to say to my children if they were to leave my home, as drawn from this psalm.
I don’t know what tomorrow holds or the temptations that you’ll face. But I do know this, the Scripture is your anchor. Everything it says is true, and every word is worthy of your delight, meditation, trust, and obedience. Make it your delight. When the rest of the world is taking its cues from the loud voices all around you, you open the pages of this book and meditate on what it says. There are things that will seem good to you in the world that simply aren’t. Remember Eve, who saw the fruit of the tree in the garden and saw that it was a delight to the eyes and desirable to make one wise. But God had spoken, telling her it would lead to death. And for you, God has spoken. Each word in this book is his word.
Join yourself to a church that reads this Word, preaches this Word, sings this Word, prays this Word, and walks in obedience to this Word. We can do many things as we gather in worship, but what we emphasize matters. It is your pathway to loving God, finding life in him, and living a life that is pleasing to him. I cannot walk with you as you go each of your days. I may not even live past this day. But as long as you have this book, look to it, and obey it, you will have what you need and more than I could ever give you. Believe the gospel this book tells you to believe, obey it at every turn, and the God who’s Word this is will watch over your way, loving and caring for you all your life through. I love you.
And I want to say the same to all of us today. I love you all, and I long for us to be a church that holds to this first message in the psalter and find ourselves delighting in God’s Word and meditating on it day and night. May we even obey it now as we come to the table. Amen.
D. A. Carson makes this observation: http://resources.thegospelcoalition.org/library/two-ways-psalm-1.
Jamie Grant argues that Deuteronomy 17 is the background for Psalm 1. The King as Exemplar: The Function of Deuteronomy’s Kingship Law in the Shaping of the Book of Psalms (Atlanta: SBL, 2004), 66-70.
Dale Ralph Davis, The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2010), 23-24.