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“Two Ways” on Psalm 1 by Joe Ellis — June 16, 2024

Most of the Psalms are prayers. Psalm 1 is unique among all the Psalms, because it 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.” It means if you want to know how to move through this building, study this map. That’s what Psalm 1 does for the rest of the Psalms. Psalm 1 shows how to move through the rest of the Psalms — but Psalm 1 is more than a “You are here map” for the Psalms. It’s also a “You are here map” for life.


Life is confusing and not straightforward at all, life seldom seems to go the way we hope it will. The Psalms help keep us from getting lost. Psalm 1 is often referred to as the “Two Ways Psalm” because it sets out two different paths that a person can follow throughout life. They are the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. Those who walk in way of righteousness will flourish, and those who walk in the way of wickedness will flounder. But who are we really talking about? It has fallen out of fashion to label someone as wicked. Can you think of

someone you know who is definitely wicked? Can you point to someone who might be a poster child for the wicked? Or, can you call to mind someone who is righteous? Someone who never does anything wrong? Someone who is a living saint? Perhaps it’s easier to think of someone as righteous, but we’re not used to thinking of people as either righteous or wicked. 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 when we say wicked and righteous.


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, it’s not necessarily talking about those who take every possible opportunity to do something mean, vile and nasty. When the Bible talks about the wicked, we don’t often find caricatures of someone going around popping little kids' balloons, kicking cats, and double parking their car in our way — although a wicked person may in fact do some of those things. The wicked aren’t just those who are especially guilty of sin. After all, we are all touched by sin.


The term ‘wicked’ describes those people who are on a different path altogether. They’re not reading the map of Scripture. They’ve tossed the map aside, and have gone out on their own. The wicked are people who are autonomous; people who create their own moral code; people 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 who see no need to be guided by the wisdom of God. The wicked are defined by a disregard for God’s revealed wisdom. The wicked are those who strike out on their own and have drawn their own map for what’s right and what’s wrong.


But Psalm 1 paints a clear picture of where that path leads. Scripture consistently states 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 grain from the harvest. So the farmer throws the seed up in the air, so that the wind could carry away the useless stuff as the seed falls back to the ground. The wicked are described as chaff, lightweights, a 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 is a reward. Each 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 that's outlined in the Bible, the natural result is to dry up and be blown away.


And really, that’s why we gather together in worship — isn’t it? We are here because life is not easy, life is confusing, and we’ve seen that when we totally strike out on our own, we get lost and tangled up. And so we gather together because we know that we need a better map than we can draw up on our own. We gather together because we need each other to help us find the way.


That brings us to talking about the righteous. The righteous are defined in verse one by how they don’t walk, stand, or sit. They don’t not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor do they stand in the way of sinners, nor do they sit in the seat of mockers. The righteous aren’t those who follow others away from the map. They don’t follow the advice of the wicked over and 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.


Now, this 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 he had his lover’s husband killed to escape being found out. He stumbled violently off God’s path, but God called him back onto the path. David confessed. David repented. And once again David made his heart steadfast to walk in

the way of God. That’s why David was called ‘a man after God’s own heart.’


Praise God that the righteous are not those who never stumble off the path. The righteous are those who,

when they stumble off the path, they let God help them find their way back to the path again. They let God and his people help them back onto the only pathway to life. So 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 that God sets out for us is the only path to life.


So this Psalm is the antidote 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 into 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 some translations render verse 1. A more apt 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 — a sense of well-being. This blessedness consists in living out God’s purposes in creation, finding a way of living 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 by 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. That’s our most basic orientation in life — yet, as we know, life doesn’t always seem to work out that way. The writers of Scripture were not embarrassed to admit that life often goes sideways.


Sometimes those who abandon God’s will seem to be doing really, really well, and those who set their eyes on the Lord appear to be doing terribly. Sometimes it seems that the life-giving stream that the righteous were planted by suddenly has risen about 10 feet. The writers of the Psalms 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 Lament Psalms invite us to live in the difficult tension between realism and hope.


Take Psalm 13 — the psalmist cries out, “How long will you forget me, O Lord?” In other words: this is not the way it should be! We are off the map! “Why should the enemy prevail while I be shaken!" and “Why should the wicked prosper, while the righteous are besieged from all sides!” This is a heart cry that the world, as outlined in Psalm 1, is not as it should be. But Psalm 13 doesn’t end with the world of Psalm 1 falling apart. Psalm 13 ends with trust that the map of Psalm 1 is true. That’s why in the midst of utter desolation, the Psalmist clings to their expected hope like a tree clinging to the ground throughout a flood. Even in the midst of great desolation he manages to say, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation…” Although the psalmist is in agony, he clings to the 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 with that as our baseline — in both good and hard times.


That’s one of the reasons the righteous meditate on God’s law, we learn how to pray when life hits the fan. 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 first 5 books of the Bible; Torah can also 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 when the Holy Spirit speaks directly to you or me. So when we’re living in the middle of a Lament Psalm, when things are not going well on God’s path, we are 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 promised fate of God’s people is blessedness. Most people think that the word meditate is like someone sitting quietly somewhere thinking serene thoughts. Maybe that person is sitting in a room 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; it’s used elsewhere in Scripture to describe a dove cooing or a lion

roaring. In history, reading meant to say the words aloud. Reading silently is only a recent thing. 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. 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.” Think of saying that like a dove cooing.


But sometimes when we meditate on the Word, we will will need to meditate 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, almost in the same breath, 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 finishes off with a 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, but blazed the trail for the rest of

us. Jesus sets out that the path is true, and we can trust that we shall be raised to see the goodness of God in the land of the living. The righteous path of Psalm 1 will be complete and everlasting.

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