Happy are those who do not follow
the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in
the law of God,
and on God’s law
they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand
in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation
of the righteous;
for God watches over
the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
What most people don’t know is that the majority of the Old Testament was written in an attempt to understand a good situation that had gone really, really bad. It all began with a nation of people known as the Hebrews who believed themselves to be God’s specially chosen people. These Hebrews occupied a very small chunk of land, but this land was the most prime piece of real estate in the world, because it was the only piece of land that connected the three continents of Africa, Europe and Asia. The Hebrews called it the “Promised Land” because they believed that it had been deeded to them directly by God at the time Moses rescued them from Egypt. But in order to occupy their “Promised Land,” the Hebrews first had to kill off the Canaanites who were already living there. The Hebrews justified this action by claiming that the Canaanites were heathens. They knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that God was on their side, and they knew just as intensely that it was their manifest destiny to occupy the land.
Legend has it that David built the most marvelous city the world had ever known, and that his son Solomon built a temple that was so incredibly magnificent, dignitaries and heads of state would come from all over the world just to lay eyes on the splendor. These Hebrews, or Jews as they later became known, were major players in the world political arena, and the nation enjoyed a time of prosperity and wealth that they thought would never end, because whoever controlled this little land bridge, had all the power, and God, had promised them the land.
But as we know, it all ended in disaster for Israel. When King Solomon died, the northern tribes refused to submit to his son, and they revolted which led to two kingdoms of Hebrews: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. These kingdoms remained separate states for a while, but as history has proven time and again, a nation divided cannot stand, and this particular tiny nation situated as it was, was of the utmost commercial and military importance to all of the super powers that surrounded it. By 586 BCE, the Jewish kingdom had been completely destroyed, and it seemed that the promise made to the Hebrews, had been broken and completely forgotten by God. The people struggled to understand why, and after a long period of soul-searching, the Old Testament was written to provide not only a theological explanation for the destruction of the kingdom, but also some instruction on how to move forward and avoid making the same mistakes again.
Now if you’re going to compile a collection of poetry to point people in the direction of righteousness, it’s fitting to begin with a poem that will set the overall tone, and Psalm 1 fits the bill nicely by opening with the word “Happy.” The reader is drawn in immediately as they seek to discover how to be one of the happy ones. And what is happy? Happy is what God wants us to be. How do we know this? Because the happy ones are the ones who are delighted by God’s teaching. The Hebrew text uses the word Torah which has been translated as “Law.” But a more accurate translation for Torah is “teaching” or “instruction.” Psalm 1 is an invitation to be open to God’s instruction and to the reality of God’s reign in the world.
God’s instructions, or teachings, provide us with the details on how to thrive, and those who are mindful of God’s instructions are compared to trees that have been planted next to water and are provided with the nourishment that they need to flourish. The text uses the word “prosper” but that is a bad interpretation. Flourish is a much better word because being rooted in God does not guarantee that everything is going to be carefree, easy and rich. The alternative to meditating on God’s instructions, and flourishing, is the way of the wicked. And while the wicked certainly seek to be carefree, easy and rich, instead they wind up being temporary, like dandelion fuzzies. A clear choice is being offered in this Psalm, and the consequences are not the least bit vague. The way of the righteous is blessed by happiness, and the way of the wicked is to wither and perish.
We hear it said all the time that hindsight is 20/20, and hindsight is exactly the perspective that Psalm 1 is written from. Somewhere along the way the people of Israel had stopped meditating on God’s instruction; they had begun to rub elbows with the wicked, and they found themselves on the path that sinners tread. But this is not a fire and brimstone threat of what happens to those who don’t obey God’s laws; God does not punish the wicked – by their own choice the wicked separate themselves from God…and through the exile that was what the Jews had learned.
So what constitutes true happiness in our culture? 2,500 years after the first Psalm, here we are, still thinking and talking about happiness. There is even an actual science that studies happiness, and the topic has its own journal of happiness studies. The advice of the wicked tells us that happiness is found through satisfying our wants. And of course we’ll do anything to pad ourselves from unpleasantness, so we’re always buying more stuff. And then we have to protect that stuff and so we are always at war with each other. Commercials and billboards bombard us with the message that happiness comes from pleasure, and that if we want to be happy all the time then we must dedicate ourselves to seeking pleasure. Our culture seems to define happiness as an experience that blows your mind, and if you don’t routinely feel the as though you are madly pulsing with a billion watts of Wow, well then you are falling woefully short. Even churches have jumped on the bandwagon of showmanship and promises of wow in order to fill seats. The times might be different, but in a lot of ways things are the same as when the Psalm was written. We claim to be “one nation under God;” we believe that we are God’s chosen people; yet how often do we really spend time meditating on God’s instruction?
For the psalmists, the primary subject was never the human being, but God! Happiness, according to the bible, is not getting what we want, it is justice and righteousness, and maybe our task is not so much to seek happiness as it is to stop making ourselves unhappy by constantly trying to satisfy our wants rather than placing our trust in God. It’s no accident that this most sacred hymnal of ancient Israel, opens with a poem about ethics, lifestyle, and decisions. The goal is a changed life and before we even bother to start praying or worshipping, God requires a black and white decision: do you “walk with the wicked or do you delight in my instruction?” Framed this way, it’s really no choice at all, is it? I mean, who would knowingly choose evil or destruction? Let’s see, do I jump out a window, or do I sit down to a lavish dinner with those I love? Will I ruin my life? Or fulfill my destiny?
But what is not so clear is how we steer the lives-we-really-live in the direction of the right choice. Because let’s face it, more often than not, we find ourselves dallying with wickedness. And how often is our attitude toward God’s instruction really one of “delight?” Part of what makes wicked, wicked is that it is so darn sneaky. It would be a whole lot easier if the devil wore a red suit and carried a pitchfork, but the devil dresses up like an angel of light and promises the sun, the moon and the stars. The “good life” defined by society mimics the good life God offers, yet lures us into an empty life that pays little attention to God and leaves us hollow inside. The pursuit of wealth, pleasure and leisure are out of kilter with God’s adventure, which would be the richness of generosity and prayer, the pleasure of service and worship, and the leisure of Sabbath rest and silence in the presence of God.
“Happy are those who delight in the law of God.” Some scholars like to translate “happy” as “blessed” because our frantic quest for “happiness” can deflect us from God. My Psalms professor Clint McCann put it well when he said happiness does not involve getting what one wants; rather, it comes from being connected to the source of life.” Psalm 1 tells us that the instruction of God is the spring that nourishes the life of the believer. The same Christ who said “If anyone thirsts, let them come to me and drink,” also said, “It is the scriptures that bear witness to me.” And as Jesus would summarize later, happiness derives from discerning what it means at all times and in all places to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and…your neighbor as yourself.
So on a practical level how do we become “connected to the source of life?” We block out time for prayer, we never miss worship, and we become daily students of Scripture. But it’s more than that, Psalm 1 says that the happy one is one who meditates on God’s instruction day and night. Now obviously we can’t stay up all night every night reading the Bible; we have lives to live and families to raise. But we can make God a constant presence in our lives by practicing a devotional regimen that is as essential as brushing our teeth. Maybe we place little reminders like a cross or a printed prayer in places where we are sure to see them.
The Christian life is not about pretending to be somebody were not, but rather discovering who we really are, and then being that person, authentically and passionately. Thomas Merton said, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. It ‘consents’ to His creative love. It expresses an idea which is in God’s mind. So the more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him.”
Our lives are not our own: we depend on the sun, the rain, and the grace of God which we do not control but only soak up as a precious gift. We live in the light, but our roots go down deep where it is dark. To be holy is not to grit our teeth and carefully try to do what God requires. We may grit our teeth, and we do try hard. But we are not capable of doing what God wants of us because a changed life is the gift of God’s Spirit. Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, as “the fruit of the Spirit;” not “the fruit of my good intentions.” “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22).
So feel your arms stretched upward, feel your roots running deep, and be trees giving glory to God, swayed only by the wind of the Spirit, and watered by the grace of Baptism. Amen