Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law[b] of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
This psalm and thus the entire psalter begin with exclaiming over the blessed man and marking what exactly is it that renders that person blessed.
This word, “blessed,” is not a thin one – it echoes the first couple chapters of Genesis when the Creator blessed his creation. In blessing, God conveys to various parts of creation, this is what you do, what were made for. So the “blessed” man is the one who is behaving as a human in full, becoming/doing what humans were made for.
Note that this blessed man is described first by a negative, what he doesn’t do, what is not true about him. Sometimes we wish to just state things positively: what we are for, what we do. But what we don’t do, what we are against also tells the truth about who we are. “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.”
Generally speaking, the negative statement about the blessed man has to do with his engagement with people, his associations, his influences. Everybody is being influenced; this cannot be escaped. The blessed man has kept his wits about him and deliberately has not been influenced by certain types.
The phrases build on each other – walk, stand, sit – to portray a decline: from an incautious exposure to evil, to toleration, that gradually ends in full conformity.
The decline is marked not only by an increasingly lax posture toward how one is being influenced but in a deteriorating quality of associations: wicked, sinners, scoffers.
The “wicked” are the opposite of the godly, those who live in reference to God, and so are those for whom “God is in none of their thoughts.” Not necessarily that they are immoral or even irreligious. But practically speaking God is not making a difference.
“Sinners” are those who are living, existing, thinking, talking, etc outside of God’s saving covenant of salvation.
“Scoffers” actively deride the testimonies of God and sluff off His claims on human beings.
And so the first song in Israel’s worship book indirectly calls us to account: Brothers and sisters, by whom are we being influenced? You can take in a lot of entertainment that is pernicious not because of its explicit content but because it presents a world where God doesn’t make a difference at all. You can get brainwashed by political podcasters who present a blandly conservative politics that hasn’t been shaped by the Christian gospel. By constantly browsing and surfing you might be being transformed into a person who can’t gather his attention for anything except what is urgent and immediate, and you’re drifting away from attending to God. From constant exposure to worldly cynicism, you might get to the place where you are sneering at various types of Christians; embarrassed by aspects of the faith.
“Pay close attention…so that we do not drift away.”
So the blessedness of the blessed man lies in his not being impelled or brainwashed or won over by certain types. And yet the blessedness does lie in his being influenced. What is influencing him (and influence is too weak of a word)?
The law of the LORD. Torah. On this he meditates day and night, which is a figure of speech expressing that in all the hours and scenes of his life the words of God are conditioning, informing, holding sway, THERE.
Before we go on let’s pause and appreciate the simplicity of this psalm. This psalm is celebrating the blessed man. In doing that it presents us with two categories of people: the blessed person and the person who is not blessed. And the blessed person is marked just by this one thing: he meditates constantly on the Law instead of being influenced by something else.
Let’s say a few words about the Law. The law of the LORD is a translation of Torah – sometimes denoting the first five books of the bible and sometimes includes other segments of the Old Testament. We could rightly say, God’s word.
By “Law” we don’t mean to imply that there are only commandments, although of course the Law includes commandments, rules. But even “Torah proper,” the first five books, include a lot of stories too. Narrative. Though even those stories function as instructions, and thus they become a kind of law.
But let’s get to the heart of what the Law was for: the law of God was inspired by God, written by Moses, and given to the descendants of Jacob whom God brought out of Egypt and constituted as a nation and adopted as sons. The Law, by rules and story and genealogy and other genre, was intended to shape Israel into sons of God, restored image bearers after Adam’s fall, true humans. Kings who would bring God’s wise and loving order into the land. And priests who would convey the acknowledgment and thanks – the worship – of people to God.
Let’s look at a couple of passages from Torah:
Exodus 19:4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
Deuteronomy 14:1 “You are the sons of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead. 2 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.
So even in their grief this holy nation was to image God, to be kings and priests, to be the place where heaven and earth intersected. They were to grieve differently from all the peoples on the face of the earth who were defined by estrangement from God, suspicion of God, perhaps especially doubting His goodness in the face of death.
The Torah, the Law of God, the word of God, is given to the sons of God and instructs them in their sonship. Here is what it looks like to bear the image of the Father! The psalms are the songbook of the children of God as they celebrate and lament their lot as children of the Creator. The first psalm is celebrating the blessedness of the person who is a son of God filled with instructions of his Father, instructions in bearing the image, instructions in being human.
Ok, his delight is in the law of the LORD/ and on his law he meditates day and night. Now that’s a beautiful sentiment, but it might strike you as unrealistic. One thing that comes up when you set out to really get into God’s word: it doesn’t all seem delightful. There is a lot that is hard to understand. Some seems old and irrelevant. Genealogies. Repetition. Swaths of the bible are…dare I say?…boring. Yes, you can find some cool, stirring phrases in the bible, especially the psalms, but they can be buried in contexts that appear confusing, savage sometimes, having to do with Israel. Wut? I live in ‘Murica! So even when we quote those stirring phrases something in us connected to our integrity blushes a little.
To those who experience the bible this way, I feel you. But let me respond. The bible is a wonderful book. It will stretch you. The boring and tough to understand parts seem designed to increase your trust in God. Part of waiting on him involves sitting before a perplexing or mind-numbing passage and deciding to delight in this instruction, that is, to trust that eventually God will make it clear to you. Maybe, hopefully, I’ve travelled a little farther down the road than some of you in the skill and art and breakthroughs of bible interpretation, and I say with all my heart that the bible – heard in context, the Israel words, the savage words, the perplexing words – is relevant, is shot through with realism, is exactly the word we need. “Every word of God proves true…” – that is what I want my ministry to be about, demonstrating that every word of God – particularly the parts we want to rush past – is enlivening, righteous altogether, more to be desired than gold.
Don’t you love the simile, the image granted to us, of the person who is formed by a sustained interaction with the word? He is like a tree planted – there’s our grace word – planted. The tree didn’t arrive of itself. In a sense, this tree is not naturally occurring. God did this! God forms a desire and gives the endurance and enlightens the understanding and trains in follow through.
A tree planted by rivers of water – recalling that this poem song was penned out of the thirsty land of Israel, where every year the wadis would dry up until the latter rains replenished them, underlines this image. A tree planted in soil that year-round is maintained by water that trips and falls over stones on its way – that’s the effect of a life saturated with the Scripture.
Brothers, here’s what this imagery of a tree is suggesting: A life that is evergreen, hardy, productive, healthy in its parts and in whole, coherent, in line with the mind of the Creator, fitting, sturdy, consistent, natural, surprising, defiant against the ravages of nature and society, nurturing, deeply in the right, belonging, even beautiful.
There’s one word for all this: BLESSED.
On the other hand, the wicked – don’t match that word to some grotesque or scary image… In this psalm the wicked are those to whom the word of God has not found lodging, has not sprung up, has not stayed. The wicked are like the chaff that the wind drives away…[they] will not stand…[they] will perish.
Unlike the righteous, God does not know the wicked. He looks for, and does not find His word in them. Out of them there is no answering echo to His voice. Without the word of God in them, their image bearing of the God who speaks is more and more faint, twisted, disobedient, missing the mark. And since bearing the image of God is the great human vocation, they are only fit for the trash heap, the Gehenna, of the universe.
However trendy and self-confident and green the wicked and their wickedness looks (remember, “wicked” and “wickedness” are marked by the absence of God’s word) remember that their defining trait is impermanence. Those who aren’t marked by the word of God are always on their way to becoming deeply irrelevant.
How can we go forward in the art of meditating on God’s Law? Let me throw out a few suggestions:
- Plan to read the bible every day. Where will you sit? How will you obtain peace and quiet? What part of the Bible will you read?
- Read systematically through books.
- Don’t read on your phone.
- Get a notebook and write down phrases that puzzle or interest you.
- Pray a response to what you have read that includes some phrasing of what you’ve read.
- Practice during the day in your mind returning to a phrase or two you’ve read. Perhaps write down a phrase or two on a card or on your phone.
- Regularly (weekly or monthly) read through discreet, larger sections of the Bible. An epistle all at once. Genesis 1-11. Isaiah 1-39. Etc.
- Purchase a commentary on a book of the bible and read through.
- Especially make it your aim to grasp the overarching narrative of the bible more and more – from old creation to new creation. From the Garden to the new Jerusalem. Sometime in the next year we will go over this in a Sunday School session.
I want to conclude this message by asking a question: how do I know if I’m meditating on the law properly? Am I going about the engagement with the Word of God in a way that will end in a life that is fixed, permanent, known by God, in the right?
And I want to answer that question by introducing into the sermon a name that probably should have been uttered toward the beginning: Jesus Christ, the son of God. You know that you are correctly meditating on the Law of God when it becomes clearer and clearer to you that Jesus Christ is at the center of it.
The words of Scripture, all of them, testify of Jesus. He Himself is the Word, the ultimate expression of God.
The testimonies of God, or the narrative of Scripture, the stories – – all are streaming toward Him until He arrives on the scene, and then, once he shows up in Bethlehem, He becomes the fount of all the narratives that follow.
Let’s just trace that out along a specific current: Out of all the creation Adam is the image of God, God’s son whose primary vocation was to reflect the wise and loving reign of God over his creation and reflect the praises of the creation back to God. Adam fails to rightly image God into the creation; by doubting the wise Law of God and disobeying, he falls short of his vocation. In his failure as a human to be human, as God’s son, there is a break between heaven and earth, corruption and death enter into the cosmos and a chasm opens between the Creator and creation. Because the human has turned from God the whole creation he represents is estranged.
The great response to this predicament is that God chooses Abraham and his descendants through Isaac to be sons of God, to show forth the image of God in the earth. They were to be a kingdom of priests: renewed human beings who brought the wisdom of God into the world and brought the world to worship God. Particularly, David and his regal sons were emblems of this holy nation, these kings in particular were called the son of God, representatives of this holy nation of God’s sons, called to carry God’s rule to and through Israel.
The kings in particular and all Abraham’s descendants fail at their vocation, except one Israelite, a son of David and son of Abraham who in his life is a fitting temple of God, his body is a place where heaven and earth meet, where God is reflected into the creation and the praises of the creature return to God through him. He is the image bearer, the true son of God, and thus the true human, the son of Man.
And He is the regal son of David, the One anointed with God’s Spirit to represent his people. And who are his people? Those who believe in him, in whom the law of God finds lodging, that law that reaches its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ, they are given the permanence of eternal life, they are on their way to becoming oaks of righteousness planted by the stream of the water of life.