[[This is a first draft of an attempt at a reflection on Psalm 1. I use daily Bible notes which are meant to help the reader apply a passage of the Bible to their lives, but I think it’s a hard task to write something meaningful and helpful in only a couple of brief paragraphs, and to make the application points so general that they’ll suit everybody. I wanted to experiment with something a bit more personal, a sort of guide through my own reflections on a few Psalms, without trying to create a one-size-fits-all style devotional guide. I wanted to see if reading one persons reflection was helpful for other people in thinking through the specific relevance to their own lives. I want to make a little booklet of a few of them, and get friends to try them out and report back. So this is attempt number one.]]
At 22, in my final year of university, and faced with a seemingly infinite number of choices about the life panning out before me, a good bit of wisdom never goes amiss. Psalm 1 is known as a wisdom psalm, sharing its literary style and themes with other wisdom literature like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. This kind of writing in the Bible often has a sense of passing down advice through the generations, sharing the accumulated wisdom of many years experience. I imagine this Psalm as a poem sent from a grandparent on an important birthday, making sure I know how to make the most of my years to come.
It asks us a big question, the answer to which will shape our lives – whose advice are you going to take? We’re given two options, a group described as “wicked”, “sinners” and “mockers” (v1) or the law of the Lord. When I consider my usual sources of advice, I’m not at all sure they fit into either category. I haven’t been to the local prison to ask if or when I should get married, nor turned to Leviticus to see if I should apply for a graduate scheme next year. It’s common in wisdom literature, and in Hebrew thought in general, to use polar opposites to make a clear point, and sometimes that feels uncomfortable to our post-modern, tolerant, accommodating way of thinking. But sometimes we need to be jolted out of our ambiguous, shades-of-grey thinking. Jesus uses such contrasts – “whoever is not with me is against me.”It’s difficult to swallow, but however lovely and genuinely helpful our friends and family are, ultimately they fall on one of two sides. Either they’re following God, and living for him, or they’ve rejected God and are living for themselves.
It’s worth noting the second alternative, the law of the Lord. If we think of law in its narrowest sense, the rules which told the Israelites not to each shellfish and to make sure they had a fence around their roofs, it feels pretty hard to “delight” in (v2). It feels more like a burden to bear. But when God gave his law to the people of Israel, it was never intended as a burden. When God gave the law at Sinai, it was all about relationship; it was about God choosing Israel as his treasured possession. He gave them a blueprint, a gift which would show them how to live as his special people. They were to be “a kingdom of priests”, in other words a nation who would stand in the gap between the rest of the world and God, pointing other nations towards Him. It was a real privilege, and the law was a gift from God which would tell them how to do it. We still need God’s blueprint for life now, as His special people. We need to know how to live in relationship with Him, and how to live in a way which shows Him off to other people who don’t yet know Him. While some of the laws which helped Israel to do that wouldn’t help us in the same way now (for instance, a fence around the roof of my house wouldn’t do much good, as I don’t tend to have parties on it like the Israelites could have), the concept of God’s law is still the same – his gift of a guidebook for us, to show us how to live “life to the full”.
The Psalmist wants to help us to decide then whose advice we will take, by giving us a plant-based analogy of the consequences of each option. On the one hand is the person who is like a tree (v3). This person refuses to get too comfortable with the advice of those who are against God. If I want to be this person, it doesn’t mean that I never ask my non-Christian friends for their opinions and help on my specific situations in life, of course I’m still to share my life with my friends. But I need to be aware that the priorities and assumptions, for instance of the glossy magazine I might pick up, will be very different from God’s. So I shouldn’t get too comfortable with taking my advice on sex and relationships advice from there. The problem is that its worldly advice we’re consuming all the time, without wanting to or even realising. Through various forms of media and people, we’re constantly being told what to spend our time and money on, what our priorities and career plans should be, how to dress and how to attract people. If we choose to not get comfortable with that advice and instead to listen to God’s blueprint, the law of the Lord, we’re going to need to do some serious countering. An hour a week in church, especially if I spend it doodling or turning the service sheet into an origami rabbit, will never drown out the saturation of worldly advice. I need to meditate on God’s blueprint for my life day and night (v2). This isn’t a meditation in the ‘clear your mind and think of nothing’ way, but a call to a serious focus, filling our minds with the words which God speaks about our lives instead. For me, this means trying to read a bit of the Bible when I wake up, and walking through the coming day in my head, imagining what different the message I’ve read will make to the things I say and do. Sometimes it’s meant writing a particular verse on a card in my purse, or setting it as a reminder on my phone, it’s meant putting posters on my wall and texting verses to friends. It’s trying to get my heart and mind as saturated with God’s word as it is by other messages and advice, and choosing to listen to Him instead.
The results are where the plant analogy comes into force. The person who chooses to listen to God’s law is like the tree – satisfied and strong, productive and prosperous (v3). It makes sense that following the Designer’s plans would produced a life like this. This tree has roots, it is connected to food and drink, it never goes thirsty. It reminds me of what Jesus said about himself as the one who could fully satisfy. In relationship with God, our deepest desires are met, and living His way ensures that. The tree produces fruit too, it has a purpose and it’s useful. It brings about good things. People who are productive, creative, bringing about a better world in the places they are and the things they do, those people are satisfied people. God’s blueprint tells us how to really live out our purpose.
The alternative is not such a nice image, listening to the world instead makes a person like “chaff” – dry and parched, easily swayed, not anchored or rooted in anything much. In fact, by listening to the advice of the wicked, those who are against God not for him, this person becomes “wicked” themselves (v4). The chaff is ultimately pretty useless, being discarded in favour of the wheat it came from, the useful part of the plant. But a sense of dissatisfaction and purposelessness are not the worst consequences of this way of life: v5 puts this whole decision about advice and lifestyle into a much bigger context. At the judgement, the day when we stand before God to give an account of our lives, those who have rejected God as the Designer of their lives will not stand. They’ll be judged guilty.
It’s a sobering note to end on. The difference between these two groups is crucial though – it’s not simply that one is obedient and one disobedient, that one tried harder than the other to be good. No, God’s law was never what made people right with Him. No-one will stand innocent at the judgement because they were good enough, because they obeyed the law enough, or even because they tried hard enough. The law was given for people who were in relationship with God. He’d brought them out of Egypt where they had been slaves and made them into His own special nation. It wasn’t because they were good enough or tried hard enough. It certainly wasn’t because they obeyed God’s law: He hadn’t even given it to them yet! It was because God showed grace, kindness and love to them. The blessed person in the Psalm wants to live according to God’s blueprint because they have experienced the love and kindness of God, bringing them into relationship with Him. The wicked person rejects God’s law and listens to the world’s advice instead, because they reject God and His offer of relationship.
So as I finish university and stand at this crossroads of my life, the decision I make here is crucial. Will I accept God’s offer of relationship, accept Him as the true Designer of my life, and fill my heart and my mind with His blueprint? Or will I reject Him and turn to the media, pressure from others, and my own inner desires to guide my life? If I want to be like the strong and satisfied tree, I’ll plan to live as one who longs to listen to my Creator, free to live life to the full, and free from fear of judgement.