How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, Which yields its fruit in its season And its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so, But they are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord [e]knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the wicked will perish. Psalm 1
Psalm 1 celebrates the blessings that comes to those who walk in devotion to the God of Israel and contrasts those blessings with the calamity that comes to the unfaithful, i.e. the "sinners" and the "wicked". Those who take delight in the law of the Lord will be like trees that are firmly planted by the river, getting all the nourishment they need to prosper, says the Psalmist. When we think of "taking delight in the law of the Lord", we tend to think that means something like, being enthusiastic and devoted to keeping the moral rules of God. But that is not exactly what the Psalmist has in mind. There are many things that the Jews did in the days of the Psalmist that Western Christians today would balk at concerning ethics and morality but which the ancient, Torah observant, "righteous", Israelite wouldn't bat an eye at. Multiplying wives for example or taking vengeance on ones enemies or treating women like cattle or turning one's enemies into slaves. To be "the righteous" concerning the Law in ancient Israel did not mean necessarily being morally perfect. It meant that you took the calling to be God's people, set apart for God's unique purposes, seriously. It meant that you observed the statues of the Law not as a ladder by which you might climb into heaven but as a marker that you have received the identity and vocation to be God's instrument for God's purposes. If you did that, the thinking goes, certainly when God completes His purposes through Israel, you will be part of the group that benefits from the blessings that result. The key to the status of "righteous" for the Psalmist is not how well one performs morally (though that is important), but whether or not one worships the One true God. The definition of "moral" in ancient Israel was very different from our Western definition. But it was also a morality that would be challenged by Jesus Himself. But Jesus hadn't come yet, and the Psalmist was speaking from his own perspective. Does this seem complicated? Maybe so, but I think we will be handicapped in appropriating the Psalms if we don't make this distinction clear. It will also help, I believe, when it comes to passages such as 2 Peter 2:4-10 where Lot is called a "righteous man" despite the fact that he committed incest and was willing to give up his daughters to gang rape in order to save his own wretched neck (Genesis 19:8)! It is also important to note that this status of "righteousness" is not totally unrelated to moral uprightness. It is not as though God didn't have a higher standard for His people. Not at all. The difficulty here is simply that exactly who God is, what He is like, what He approves of and disapproves of, etc., had not yet been fully known. John says in His Gospel that "no one has ever seen God. They only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him." (John 1:18). In other words, we take for granted certain standards of morality and we assume that these standards are universal and readily recognizable, but that is not the case. We owe more than we can comprehend to our ancestors for the way we think today. Ultimately, it is Jesus who has paved the way to a fresh understanding of who God is and hence, what holiness is. It is not a new set of rules but a fresh revelation of God and a new and renewing way to be human. All this to say that when the Psalmist speaks about being "righteous", he means being a devoted member of God's covenant family. Those are the people who will "prosper" because God is with them and working for them. The wicked, (a.k.a. those outside the covenant and who do not worship the one true God), will not benefit and will be removed from being an obstacle to God's people and God's purposes. So what does this say to us? Are we the righteous or the wicked? How can we move from one side to the other? How do we become like the tree planted by the river which yields its fruit in season and its leaves do not wither? The simple answer is to plant yourself into Jesus. Just say "Here I am Lord. I want to be part of Your family and Your purposes. Plant me by Your river." It is that simple. It will mess up your world, just like it is upsetting for a tree to be uprooted and planted somewhere else, you may feel some tearing and bewilderment. But when your roots feel the cool water from the stream of God's new Life, you will know that it is more than worth it. And besides, without water, you will perish. "For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish." Psalm 1:6