The Two Ways: A Sermon based on Psalm 1
Today we are beginning a new series that I’d like to call, “Psalms for the Summer, and a bit of the Fall.” Each Sunday, we are going to look at a different psalm, and learn what it teaches us about prayer. The Psalms are the prayer book of the Bible. But Psalm 1 is unique among all the Psalms, because it in fact is not a prayer. Instead, Psalm 1 is like a map that you see when you walk into an airport, or a mall, that says, “you are here.” If you want to know how to navigate through the building before you, study this map. That’s what Psalm 1 does for the rest of the Psalms. Psalm 1 explains how the rest of the Psalms work.
This Psalm is often referred to as the “Two Ways,” because it outlines two different paths that a person can follow throughout their life. The way of the righteous, and the way of the wicked. Those who walk in way of righteousness will flourish, and those who will walk in the way of wickedness will flounder. But who really are we talking about? Can you think of someone you know that is definitely wicked? Can you point to someone who, without a shadow of a doubt is just plain wicked? In the same way can you think of someone who is righteous. Someone who never does anything wrong. Someone who is a living saint? Maybe its easier to think of someone as righteous, but we’re not used to thinking of people in those categories. So that’s the first thing we need to do to orient ourselves to this map. We need to be clear about who we’re talking about.
Let’s start out by talking about the wicked. When Psalm 1 talks about the wicked, and when the Bible in general talks about the wicked, its not necessarily talking about those who take every possible opportunity to do something mean, vile and nasty. When the Bible talks about the wicked, its not talking about a caricature of someone who goes around popping little kids balloons, kicking cats, and double parking their car, although a wicked person may in fact do some of those things. The wicked aren’t just those who are guilty of sin, because all of us are touched any sin. The wicked describes those people who are on a different path altogether. They’re not reading the map, instead they’ve tossed the map aside, and went out on their own. The wicked are people who are autonomous, people who create their own moral code. They are those who do what is right in their own eyes. Like it says in Job 21:13, the wicked are those who say to God, “Leave us alone! We have no desire to know your ways.” The wicked are those who choose their own path, who determine what is right and what is wrong by means of their own judgment, and refuse to be guided by the wisdom of God. The wicked are defined by a disregard for God’s revealed wisdom. Instead they’ve struck out on their own and drawn their own map for what’s right and wrong.
But Psalm 1 paints a clear picture of where that path leads. Scripture consistently state that there is only one path to an abundant life, and that is a life lived in obedience to the will of God. So, when a person leaves that path, they will leave the true way to life. Such a person becomes like chaff blown away by the wind. Chaff is the papery stuff around the seed that a farmer wants to get rid of to enjoy the harvest. So they would throw the seed up in the air, so that the wind could carry away the useless as the seed falls back to the ground. The wicked are described as chaff, lightweights, person without real substance and worth. Psalm 1 says that the wicked will not stand in the judgment, and the way of the wicked will perish. One commentator said, this “Doom is not a punishment any more than the happiness of the righteous of is a reward. Each is result is the natural outcome of a way of life which has been chosen.” In other words, Psalm 1 says that when you walk off the map outlined in the Bible, the result is you dry up and are blown away. That’s the fate of people who are called wicked.
But what about the righteous? The righteous are initially defined in verse one by how they don’t walk, stand, or sit. They don’t not walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. The righteous aren’t those who follow others off the map. They don’t follow the advice of the wicked against the counsel of God. They don’t share the life of sinners. Their community isn’t defined by those who mock the law of God. Instead, the righteous orient their life around the will of God. That doesn’t mean a righteous person never sins or screws up. Rather, a righteous person is defined by the path that they’re walking. That’s why King David isn’t thought of as a wicked king, even though he did some wicked things. He was capable of horrendous decisions. He committed adultery and then had his lover’s husband killed to escape being found out. He stumbled violently off the path, But God back onto the path. David confessed, David repented, and once again made his heart steadfast to walk in the way of God. That’s why David was called a man after God’s own heart. The righteous, aren’t those who never stumble off the path. The righteous are those who, when they stumble off the path, let God help them find their way again. They know that God’s way is the only way to life. That’s why the righteous are depicted as a tree rooted along a stream of water, which yields its fruit in season. Their leaves do not wither, and whatever they do prospers. The pathway of righteousness is the only path to life.
So this Psalm is a rebuke to the perspective that the with-God-Life is all about rules and devoid of fun. This psalm is a rebuke to the perspective that if you really want to enjoy life, you need to strike out on your own and not be hampered by what anyone says. This Psalm is a proclamation that the only way to the good life is by following the path which God sets out for us. That person will be blessed. That doesn’t mean such a person will always be happy, as versions translate verse 1. A better translation is the word blessed. A person can be blessed without always feeling happy. The person who walks the path of righteousness is blessed with a deeply rewarding life. The life that is touched by shalom—well being. This blessedness consists in living out God’s purposes in creation, finding a way of being in which we can find life rather than death.
So, Psalm 1 starts out with the idea that those who delight in the will of God are like trees planted in streams of water, they’re fruitful. Whereas the wicked are like chaff, who are blown away in the wind. That sets out the basic framework for all of the Psalms, as well as the Bible. God blesses the righteous, and the wicked wither away. But, as we know, life doesn’t always seem to work out that way.
The writers of Scripture were not embarrassed to admit that things don’t always work out that way. Sometimes those who abandon God’s will seem to be doing really, really well, and those who set their eyes on the Lord seem to be doing terribly. Sometimes it seems that the life-giving stream that the righteous were planted by suddenly rose about 10 feet and just washed out the ground beneath them. The writers of Scripture, the Psalmists, were not at all afraid to recognize this grim reality. That’s why the Lament Psalms were written, (which are about one quarter of all the psalms). The writers of those Psalms invite us to live in the difficult tension between realism and hope. Take Psalm 13, where the psalmist cries out “How long will you forget me, O Lord”! Implicit in that cry, and the whole Psalm is: this is not the way it should be! “Why should the enemy prevail while I be shaken!" Why should the wicked prosper, while the righteous are besieged from all sides. Its a heart cry that the world, as outlined in Psalm 1, is not as it should be.
But the Psalm doesn’t end with the world of Psalm 1 falling apart. The Psalm ends with trust that the map of Psalm 1 is true. That’s why in the midst of utter desolation, the Psalmist proclaims their expected hope. He writes, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation…” The psalmist is in agony, yet holding onto trust that the Lord’s salvation will come through. Psalm 1 sets the map for how the world should work, and the rest of the Psalms show us how to pray in light of that.
That’s one of the reasons the righteous meditate on God’s law, we learn how to pray when life hits the fan. So Psalm 1 says that we are to meditate on God’s Law, but this needs a bit of explanation. Meditating on God’s law isn’t simply about memorizing a bunch of rules.
The Hebrew word for Law is Torah. It has to do with God’s will for creation; his guidelines for creation. Torah can refer to the advice from the elders; Torah can refer to God’s natural law; Torah can even refer to unmediated divine teaching, such as the guidance of the Holy Spirit, where God speaks directly to a person’s consciousness. When we read about meditating in the law of the Lord, that’s the big picture. So when we’re living in the middle of a lament psalm, when things aren’t going well on the path of righteousness, we’re invited to keep meditating on the will of God, the truths of God, the laws of God, the pathway of God. We’re told to meditate on the fact that the assured fate of God’s righteous is blessedness.
When I think of the word meditate, I think of someone sitting quietly in a room somewhere thinking serene thoughts. Maybe that person is sitting in lotus position with their legs crossed. But that’s not the picture this word meditate is meant to conjure. That word meditate means muttering, its used elsewhere in Scripture to describe a dove cooing, or a lion roaring. So when we are told to meditate on the Law of God, we’re to mutter the words of Scripture, rehearse the words of scripture day and night, so that the words are imprinted on our very soul. Sometimes our meditation on the Word will be peaceful, like a dove cooing. As we’ll see, this is the way Psalm 23 is meant to be read: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” But sometimes when we meditate on the Word, we will do so like a roaring lion, as when Jesus roared Psalm 22 from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” He roared that the World is not as it should be, the wicked are prospering and the righteous are withering. But Psalm 22 roars an ultimate trust that the World of Psalm 1 will take the day. Although the Psalm starts with “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” the Psalm ends with the roar of praise and salvation: “You who fear the Lord, praise him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help.” God listened to the cry of Jesus, the afflicted one, and raised Him from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus is God’s promise to us, that the world of Psalm 1 is the ultimate reality. One day, all things will be made new, the dead will be raised and the righteous will flourish forever. Jesus is the first fruit; he has paved the way for the rest of us. Through Jesus, we trust that we shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living.