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.
What is it about the psalms that is so enduring?
Renowned theologian and scholar Walter Brueggeman writes that the Psalms are the most reliable theological, pastoral and liturgical resource given us in the biblical tradition. In other words, they are the heart and soul of God’s Word. The psalms serve as voices of the faith—they put words to our very real, very human experience of the world. Reading, praying and studying the psalms can be compared to the experience of returning again and again to a deep well. Each visit provides new opportunities to be refreshed, renewed, and even challenged on our journey.
So what are the Psalms? They could be music. Many of the psalms are preceded by “sub-titles” that imply that they were meant to be sung, although the music is long lost to us. They are also poetry, and many of them are cleverly devised using complex and interesting structures that are all but lost to us in translation. For example, a number of the longer psalms are acrostics spanning the entire Hebrew alphabet. Which is pretty awesome in Hebrew, and nearly impossible to notice in English.
Whether they are music or poetry, throughout the history of God’s people, the Psalms have served as the prayer book of the Bible. To read the psalms is like looking in on the personal correspondence or text messages of God and God’s people Israel. It is a conversation that embodies both sides of the human-God relationship, and the good news for us is that, in the Psalms at least, that relationship can endure anything that our human experience can throw at it.
Perhaps this is why so many Christians for centuries have found this to be the peculiar place where God is most present. Luther, Calvin, the great reformers of the church, all found in the psalms a place of rest and repose. They found themselves there, and God answered them in these pages. Here, the song of the people—in joy, in lament, in struggle-echoed their own experience of the world, and in praying the psalms, those who came before us found strength and solace in the knowledge that if God was with Israel through this, then God could be with them too. John Calvin, founder of the reformed faith, gave the book a new title: he called the psalms “the anatomy of all parts of the soul.”
Psalm 1 is the first psalm—and as such, it sets the tone for all that will come after. And what is the tone of Psalm 1? Confidence. Psalm 1 speaks with an assured voice, and tells us that the only good way to live is in obedience to God.
Psalm 1 is a torah psalm, which may initially seem to pose a problem for us. We Christians don’t tend to spend a lot of time exploring the ‘torah’ of the bible. Sounds an awful lot like “law” and many of us who read our Jesus and our Paul come away with the idea that torah doesn’t apply to us. But consider that, for Israel, torah was a way of expressing the knowledge that God made the world and everything in it. For Israel, torah was the not just moral values, but God’s will and purpose, ordained in the very structure of life. So torah becomes the way of articulating God’s intentions for creation, for us.
And in that sense, torah very much applies to you and me. It is about how you and I, how all of creation responds to and honors God’s well-ordered world. And for the writer of Psalm 1, the best response is obedience.
I was talking with someone lately and he was joking around. He says to me, “you know me, I am a black and white sort of person. The only gray on me is in my hair.” Well this would be his kind of Psalm.
Psalm 1 envisions two roads, and each of us has a choice. We can choose the road of the wicked, where scoffers and sinners tread. Or we can choose the road of the obedient, of those who “delight in the law of the Lord.
I find myself wondering: What does it mean to delight in something?
I read recently that FDR had a sign on his desk that read, “let unconquerable gladness dwell.” And I wonder if perhaps this is the sort of orientation that the psalmist is getting at. For often when we read about the law or the torah, we are quick to think in terms of purity—we look at the law of Moses and see it as restrictive, as a list of rules to follow or to break. Or we look at our orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters who obey the torah, and all that we see are the limits.
But I do not think that the psalmist intends obedience to be a call to purity. I wonder whether the psalmist calls those who pray this psalm to choose the path of delight. To look at the world, and let unconquerable gladness dwell. And to find that God is in this choice when we do.
It turns out that the end goal of obedience and of torah isn’t purity. Rather, It is fidelity to God and all that God stands for. The telos of obedience is finding yourself walking with Jesus, not constrained or limited by what you cannot do, but freed and nourished by what you do know.
Catholic worker Dorothy Day often reflected that it is our “duty to delight,” and perhaps this is what the psalmist had in mind. That fidelity to God requires paying attention, that it asks us to be mindful of that which delights and keeps joy at the center. Because that is where God is found.
Jesuit Priest Greg Boyle writes, “we have grown accustomed to think that loving as God does is hard. We think it’s about moral strain and obligation. We presume it requires a spiritual muscularity of which we are not capable, a layering of burden on top of sacrifice, with a side order of guilt.” But the truth couldn’t be further from that—following Jesus, obedience to God, these are accomplished in the act of loving. And love has its source not in obligation, but in delight. Love is what happens when we embrace the world in all of its complexity, and rejoice in it.
According to Psalm 1, those who delight in God find themselves to be like trees planted by streams of water. And in a world where water was hard to come by, where desert was the primary geography, a tree standing by water is the one that will thrive. It is the one that will find what it needs not just to thrive, but to bear fruit. Those who delight in God’s world are therefore the ones who have a chance at life.
I want to end with a story from Greg Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart:
The church had been letting the homeless sleep in the building at night, and there was always the faintest evidence that they had. In other words, you could smell it. They tried everything they could to minimize the smell, but the reality was that you couldn’t miss it. And church people started to complain about it. So one day, Greg Boyle stood up for his homily and he asked the congregation: What does the church smell like?
People were mortified. Eye contact ceased. So he asked again, “come on now, what does it smell like?”
Finally, an older man who didn’t care what people thought said loudly, “it smells like feet.”
“Excellent. But why does it smell like feet?”
Another woman answered, “because many homeless men slept here last night?”
Well, why do we let that happen here?”
“Because it was what we committed to do,” says another.
“Well, why would anyone commit to do that?”
“Because it is what Jesus would do.”
“So, then…. What does the church smell like now?”
A man stood and bellowed,” it smells like commitment.”
The place cheered.
Another woman volunteered, “it smells like roses!”
And everyone roared with laughter as the church embraced someone else’s odor as their own.
Delight is what allows a congregation to rejoice in the smell of feet lingering on the pews. Delight makes the difference between obligation and opportunity, between seeing the world as limited or abounding in holiness. Let us be those whose attention is tuned to delight. Let us be trees planted by streams that will not fail. Amen.