The Old Testament’s book of Psalms is a collection of poems and songs written and composed centuries before Jesus came to earth.
The 150 psalms in the eclectic collection served as the first hymnal for God’s people. And their lyrics intend to encourage two vital aspects of faith and belief.
First, the psalms proclaim a couple truths about worship: Worship is – or should be – at the center of everything we do as God’s people, and worship is – or should be – more than just an hour on Sunday mornings. Guided by the Holy Spirit, in the righteousness of what we do and say, we worship and honor 24/7/365 the One whose loving design and gracious intention order – or should order – the living of our days.
Second, with God showing such active interest and real presence in our daily lives, it’s more than OK to talk to God – directly, honestly and candidly – about absolutely whatever it is that’s on your mind at any given moment. The book of Psalms is chock full of praise, worship and adoration, but it’s also packed tight with repentance, frustration, confusion, anger, longing, and whatever else its authors felt comfortable pouring out of their hearts and lifting up to God.
The psalms reveal the front-and-center God’s desires for the living our days, and they speak frankly to whatever we are feeling and experiencing along the way, and thus, the psalms – if we let them – have something to teach us about how to pray. For me, that’s what makes the psalms so appealing.
And so, for the next three months, I’m giving into that appeal and allowing these ancient words to speak to our souls and spirits as we spend “Summer in the Psalms.”
This morning, we’re going to begin at the beginning – with Psalm 1, which sets the stage for the 149 psalms that follow. And the scene is pretty simple: There are two groups of people in this world – the righteous and the wicked, and apparently – in the eyes of the psalmist, anyway – there’s no room for anything in between.
That struggle between right and wrong, good and evil, is the thread that weaves the psalms together, and we’ll be wrestling with that in the handful of other psalms that we’ll be hearing between now and Labor Day.
So, let us begin our Summer in the Psalms. “Come with open hearts,” and “let the ancient words impart,” as you listen for “the resounding of God’s own heart.” May these ancient words change you as much or more as they change me.
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. But their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1)
What to do, what to do?
It surely feels as if those folks mentioned at start of Psalm 1 are like hikers who come to a fork in the road and wonder which way to turn: Lurch down the trail with the wicked, or scramble up the path with the righteous?
The starkness of the choice recalls Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” It opens with this, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and ends with these touching words:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
That’s precisely the bottom line of Psalm 1. The road you choose, and the way of life you pursue, and the voices you obey “make all the difference,” both in this life and “ages and ages hence.” Your choices have consequences, and how you live just might end up deciding your destiny.
That doesn’t mean you and I can save ourselves by our own efforts. Psalm 1 makes clear that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.” So don’t for one minute think you or I plant ourselves by the stream of water. You and I are transplanted there by the Master Gardner. And in that rich soil, we find blessedness, happiness, fruitfulness, and prosperity – not as personal achievements but as gifts that we simply receive by grace and by walking humbly with God in trust and obedience.
In thanksgiving for those gifts, Psalm 1 urges, make sure that you don’t order your life by the advice of the wicked, and make sure that you’re not led astray by sinful example, and make sure that you don’t identify with those who mock the reality of the Lord and his word.
In a world that says there are many roads that all lead to the same place, Psalm 1 is bracing stuff.
It seems to leave no middle ground, no room for the recognition that the line between good and evil runs not between people but right down the middle of each person.
The psalmist isn’t drawing lines between people but between ways of living. Concern with and the quest for God’s teaching establishes the kind of life pattern that pleases and honors the Lord. On the other hand, looking out solely for one’s interests is the kind of living that dishonors God.
God created the world and set it up to work a certain way. People either go with that good flow, and so contribute to peace, or they swim against God’s current and leave in their wake plenty of senseless carnage and mangled human spirits.
In the end, God will sort out who is finally righteous and who is finally wicked, who gets into the eternal kingdom and who does not – and I expect there’ll be plenty of surprises all around when that happens. But, in the meantime, the notion that there’s such a divine order to the universe is surely correct.
We get ourselves in lockstep with that order – we avoid everything that Psalm 1 tells us to avoid – by doing what verse 2 calls us to do: “Delighting in the law of the Lord and meditating on it day and night.” That’s what enables the righteous to make the right choices; that’s what convicts the wicked of making wrong choices; that’s what empowers right living that arrives at the right end.
If meditation isn’t your thing, maybe a more literal translation of the original text might be helpful. The Hebrew verb hagah does mean “meditate,” but literally it refers to making a dull sound from deep within – rather like the sound a dog makes when she’s chewing on a bone.
Years ago, I owned a German shepherd named Sadi, and she loved chewing on bones – particularly beef T-bones and lamb leg bones.
But since my budget didn’t always allow for such prime cuts of meat, Sadi usually had to settle for a one of those big ol’ rawhide bone from the pet store.
No sooner would I open the bag containing the rawhide bone when Sadi would start prancing around and wagging her tail with excitement. I’d give her the bone, and she’d start running around the house with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning.
But then, after a while, she’d settle down in a place she could call her own and go to work on the bone. And that’s pretty much all she did every waking moment of the next day or so: chew, and chew, and chew on that bone, turning it over and around, loving it so much that she slept with it in her bed. And when she was awake hard at it, I’d often hear a low rumble or growl – what in a cat would be a purr – coming from somewhere deep within Sadi.
It was a hagah, a growl of concentration, of pleasure, as she slowly but surely devoured the bone.
That’s the kind of laser-focused attention and enjoyment that Psalm 1 urges us to give to the law of the Lord. It’s hagah for the way of Jesus – deeply rooted and heavily fruited – that leads to the kind of prosperity that reveals itself in a life well lived to the glory of God in the fullness of Christ.
There are lifestyles; there are choices.
There are patterns of being that either contribute to the flourishing of others or detract from it.
There are ways of living that nurture peace, and there are ways of living that vandalize peace.
Sure, you can live just for yourself, seeking ever and again to feather only your own nest, doing whatever is necessary to grab the brass ring no matter how many other people you have to step on, step over, or hurt in the process.
Or, you can choose service over self, sacrifice over massive acquisition of this world’s goodies, as you live into the patterns God sowed into Creation in the beginning and revealed to the world in Christ Jesus.
Chewing deeply on the Word of God creates a lifestyle that’s esteemed and honored. A diet of anything else is finally self-defeating and futile.
Ancient words, ever true, hopefully changing me and changing you, as we each stand at our own forks in the road, wondering which path to take.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, June 6, 2021. It is the first in his series “Summer in the Psalms.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, Scott Hoezee, Stan Mast, James Mays, and Eugene Peterson inform the message.
Our morning song is “Ancient Words”: