John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD
A Reading from Psalms
1 Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor stood in the way of sinners, and has not sat in the seat of the scornful;
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law will he meditate day and night.
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the waterside,
that will bring forth his fruit in due season.
4 His leaf also shall not wither;
and look, whatever he does, it shall prosper.
5 As for the ungodly, it is not so with them;
but they are like the chaff, which the wind scatters away from the face of the earth.
6 Therefore the ungodly shall not be able to stand in the judgment,
neither the sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
7 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the ungodly shall perish.Psalm 1:1-7
For me, the preparation of a message for Sunday morning is a multi-step process. In the Anglican Communion, I find the lectionary calendars wonderfully layered. The architects suggestively frame theology placing selections from the Bible’s library side by side. The yearly and three year lectionary cycles build into our lives rhythms where we are instructed about redemption in Israel and in the ministry of our Lord. Now for someone like me who has a habit of diving head first into theological rabbit holes, when I looked over the lectionary fields this morning, the holes were irresistible. This morning’s theological rabbit hole is a Wisdom word “blessed” read in Luke’s Gospel , Jeremiah and in Psalm 1. So please turn in your prayer book to Psalm 1.
Psalm 1 is strategically placed in Israel’s library promoting the wisdom of obedience to divine instruction and the tragedy of rejection. So the psalmist invites believers to reflect on influences that affect obedient living and to reflect on the effect of socializing with those who rebel against the Lord. Psalm 1 sets before us Wisdom’s vision of life where there is very little in the way of nuance. Everyone is either a righteous person or a wicked person. Everyone comes to a fork in life’s road: turn onto the Lord’s road – wellbeing; turn onto the other – judgment (vs. 7).
Wisdom in Israel and in the Jesus community is rooted in humble service to the total claim of YHWH on a person’s total life experience. So here are two larger proposals I want to make regarding Wisdom theology this morning. First, Wisdom in Israel and in the Jesus community orient actions and intrinsic motivations that make up our daily life. Believers are yoked to moral principles and concerns. Yoked to the Lord’s instruction, believers are plowing a furrow of truth we couldn’t dig alone. Believers were/are a minority society within society, and that minority status had/has its pressures. Notice please wisdom comes about from mixing it up in everyday life not in isolation from everyday life. However, second, Wisdom in Israel and in the Jesus community challenge and undercut a surrounding culture’s understanding of its identity, status and behavior in everyday life. In other words, Wisdom lived out by believers forms a judgment on not a selective affirmation of a culture. Believers should not expect to be warmly embraced nor even to be tolerated. Jesus observes in our Gospel reading “Praiseworthy are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice, in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Lk. 6.22-23).
Our Bibles are so English-y sounding sometimes word meanings often come across as mushy. Translators do their best to find reasonable matches for words from language to language. What they can”t control is when languages change meaning. Such is the case with the word “Blessed” now “happy” in most contemporary translations of vs. 1. Currently, happiness has become something of an experience, a feeling we get when our circumstances are good. In Wisdom’s theological perspective, the word behind “Blessed/happy” is about something so deep that surface experiences can’t take it away or overpower it. It’s about choice. It’s about obedience. May I suggest a good English-y translation is “praiseworthy”. Moving a bit forward to vs. 2 “Praiseworthy is the one who delights in the Lord’s Torah”.
With “praiseworthy” hanging in the air, with a preacher’s pulpit thumping intensity, the psalmist now brings forward three cultured despisers: Not the disloyal, don’t walk in their path….not sinners, don’t stand in their road….not scorners, don’t take a seat in their congregation (vs. 1).
All three are frequent visitors to Wisdom literature. In Wisdom theology, one’s relationship to the LORD and the community is inseparable, So these three groups portray non-praiseworthy departures from YHWH’s guidance. They represent deliberate offenses actively removing themselves from the common wellbeing of the community (TDOT 3: 272-273).They fancy themselves on the right side of history, in tune with the times, living authentically, affirming and celebrating feelings and behavior, considering those who live by Torah as not nice, haters, abusers, hypocrites. They know what they know and think and don’t want anyone to tell them otherwise. They fortify their positions with strong dislike for correction. They are not teachable “Oh, yeah, I know but…”. And they’re also debunkers, deconstructors with their finely polished phrases willfully seeking to deceive others with lies as old as Eden.
In an effort to get the listener to think about ways of living nurturing wellbeing and ways of living vandalizing wellbeing, the psalmist uses some brilliant poetic skill. Notice how the psalmist slows down acceleration in their thinking and behavior. First, there is “walk in step with” a pattern of thinking, then “stand in the road with” a pattern of behavior, and finally “sit in their congregation”, a pattern of identification. Wisdom’s irony: actively participating in this kind of thinking or behavior ends in a dead stop!
Now Psalm 1 is not a call to retreat into a religious abbey surrounded by high walls keeping us physically and socially separated from society. Rather, the Psalmist says don’t order our lives: “walk with” the advice of the disloyal, don’t commit ourselves: “stand with” the lifestyles of sinners, and don’t identify ourselves: “sit with” those who scorn the realities of the Lord and the wellbeing of the community. The psalmist is drawing a line between ways of living, telling us to be vigilant about the influences in our lives. Take an honest look at what we find attractive, where we spend our time, what really excites us. We can’t expect to walk, stand or sit in theaters of disobedience and social contagion with people who are devious, resentful, and just plain wicked and grow in righteousness. It just doesn’t work that way. The praiseworthy person avoids these patterns. Therein lies the start of praiseworthy acclaim.
The positive reversal of the three “nots” is stated in vs. 2 “Praiseworthy is the one who delights in the Lord’s Torah”. Torah is Wisdom’s interpretative platform. Choosing Torah’s wisdom is to be transformed before the Lord and others, to present our very ordinary selves, our daily selves, to the Lord and to others. Choosing Torah’s wisdom enables us to make the right choices, to live the right way, to arrive at the right end. Here’s some more Wisdom irony: only obedient believers are truly moving forward in truth in their thinking and behavior.
Torah, then, is best understood as divinely revealed instruction, guidance voicing the very structures of life YHWH’s intends. Torah is not the way to be saved, but the way believers live if they are to be praiseworthy. Torah is a delight because YHWH reaches out, touches and shapes us. Torah is a means of grace by which YHWH shows us how to live when confronted with the astonishing brokenness in society.
Now you aren’t going to wake up one morning in delight with the Lord’s Torah. Delight is not going to just “happen”. Delight involves hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting. The cost for character formation means turning from the path that seems wise in one’s own eyes to value, to cherish revealed truth enough to act on it. This psalmist says one of the activities leading to delight involves meditation or more precisely translated “whispering”. In the ANE people who could read did not read silently. People read out loud in a barely audible tone, a whisper. In our ego-centered world meditation is pictured as silence, as quieting, feeling our mind emptying of any thoughts. This is about as far from Biblical thinking as you can get. The psalmist intends Biblical meditation, that is, whispering to fill the mouth and mind with the Lord’s Torah. Biblical whispering speaks to the mind and heart – what you say and hear are the weighty words of revelation, directed by the truth of the word of God. Biblical whispering is a deep look into the story of Israel and of the church, a deep look into YHWH’s dealings and instruction in/through Jesus shaping both Israel and the church into communities that serve others.
Ah, here’s Wisdom for you. In vs. 3-5 agricultural images raise self-reflective questions about the directions we’re going. Or better yet, in what directions are we growing? Are we growing toward “praiseworthy” or “non-praiseworthy” thinking and behavior?
It seems to me the mature, fruit bearing tree points out how Torah provides cover for every aspect of human life toward YHWH, others (friend and foe) and self. Sinking one’s roots into revealed instruction by YHWH, that is, absorbing its nourishment gives a constant supply of streams of grace, mercy and deliverance making the obedient person grow and mature in righteousness. Simply, the person who sinks roots deeply into Torah reaches the “praiseworthy” goal.
Here comes that pulpit thumping psalmist again “Not so the Wicked”! making a bold claim that evil is not sustainable (vs. 5). The supposed success of the wicked is short lived. Sin is actually more like chaff, or for us urbanites, “dandelion fuzzies”. Because it has no roots in the divine vision of creation, it blows away in the wind.
These psalmist’s lines remind me of the final conflict between Harry Potter and “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named ” aka Voldemort. Voldemort was an evil, strong, and fierce master wizard. Previously, Voldemort had squirreled away pieces of his soul in various objects thinking he could make himself immortal. Before this final scene Harry and his friends had managed to destroy all those pieces. Voldemort was vulnerable and mortal. In that final, fatal conflict Voldemeort literally dissolves into what looks like flimsy ash and paper blowing away by a whispering breeze. He had been nothing after all. This is very much Psalm 1’s description of the wicked. The wicked, like Voldemort, had been chaff all along even when they seemed to be at their most substantial and formidable.
Now notice the Psalm doesn’t give us graphic pictures of wickedness, but focuses on its end. The “disloyal/sinner/scorner” are “like chaff that the wind drives away,” and they “will not stand in the judgment.” Life apart from YHWH in a broken world, is weightless, like chaff. It has no grounding, no lasting source of nourishment. So the contrast of praiseworthy is nothingness, meaningless. Notice YHWH does not exclude “the wicked” from “the congregation of the righteous.” Rather, “the wicked” choose not to be there. Remember they choose to sit in their congregation (vs. 1). To be sure, one may conclude the consequences of this choice are “punishing.” But if you want to go there, this is not a punishment YHWH intends. Judgment’s door is not locked on the inside.
In vs. 7 the Psalmist closes by pointing to the road less traveled: The path of those whose delight is in the Lord’s Torah. A path labeled restrictive and abusive by the disobedient – all those pesky “you shall not….”. People are complex. Life is not so simple. Yet this psalm depicts only the two ways and the consequences in stark reality. At any moment we can find ourselves moving in one direction or the other but we are always moving to a final judgment.
Notice, however, the psalmist observes someone else on the road: YHWH knows the path of the obedient. Jim Packer (of blessed memory) writes in Knowing God: “What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that He knows me. I am inscribed on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters”.
Believers delight in Torah because it is divinely given structure and order speaking of Jesus Christ who fulfills scripture and to whom it points “in Christ, are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2.3). Wisdom is knowable and personal. Wisdom, when you find Him, can tell you about what sort of person you were created to be. It can be painful to learn, initially, that doing whatever you think you want in the moment is not good for you, or even that interesting. What “seems” best is often–too, too often–something that enslaves those who don’t know their right hand from their left. But in the long run, you’ll discover Someone who cares for you so much that you will be delighted to do what He thinks is praiseworthy.
Now Beloved, may the word of the Lord richly dwell in us in all wisdom.