On my Facebook page I recently posted:
When my friends pop up next to my wall I see lots of rainbows. I am happy about the diversity in my friends list. I am glad when people of diverse opinions are friends.
This was in response to a few conversations about same-sex marriage and the fact that the supreme court had used an open definition of marriage in its rulings on the 14th Amendment last week. I sincerely meant what I wrote. However, there is a difference between the kinds of friends that one has on a friends-list and the kind that one truly does life with. The closer a friend the closer the shared values tend to be. Some of my Christian friends are quite distant and I have shared little of my life with them. One or two of my atheist or agnostic friends have been quite close. For very different reasons we have shared the same values and pursued the same goals. However, the closest possible friends that a person can have will share the essential beliefs of a person and pull toward the same goal. In some parts of the Bible this is explained by describing a yoke on two oxen. The oxen are joined together as they pull the plough. However, if one ox pulls in one direction and one in another, the plough will go nowhere (or at best in circles). When two people of varying beliefs become yoke-fellows the Bible warns against unequal yoking. So, we should choose our community carefully. We should choose wisely who we give access to our lives in ever-deepening ways. As Psalm 1 explains, if we allow people with godless goals to shape how we spend our time and energy, we will find that we stop moving toward Jesus and our life goes in circles or stops moving at all.
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 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 judgement,
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.
The man in the passage is described as walking, standing, and then finally sitting. He goes from being an active person to one who is sedentary. He has stalled in life. The overall psalm is framed by images of walking in a ‘way’ of life. This is how wisdom literature is composed. There are two ways that a person can live. There is a way that leads toward God and a way that leads away. Jesus tells us in The Sermon on the Mount that the way to destruction is broad. Most people are not pursuing God and are therefore unwise by biblical standards. However, the Bible does not present these two ways of living as equal choices, this passage makes that abundantly clear. In wisdom literature the way of folly, sin, wickedness and unrighteousness are all the same. The Bible presents a high view of God. The Bible insists that the greatest commandment is a singular focus on God which results in a lifelong pursuit of him. To pursue anything else is wicked. God is the only good aim in life. Now we can see how those who disagree would scoff. They would make fun of those whose whole life is centered around God as fanatical, judgmental, and even dangerous. This was true in ancient times and it is true now. Verse one restates the kind of life the blessed man rejects in three parallel ways. This is how Hebrew poetry is constructed. However, the use of more sedentary verbs makes the parallelism ‘continuing parallelism’ and the restatement of the character of the bad friends is ‘similar parallelism’. This kind of restatement, three times, shows the completeness of the wayward path which the blessed man avoids.
To understand wisdom, the psalmist says that the blessed man will focus on God’s laws. This is not for slavish obedience, but for something that leads to delight. An ancient person would have been aware that there are spiritual components to life, but would often have seen the actions of nature and life as arbitrary and confusing. Although bad company will lead a man to lose his focus, a godly person first of all seeks to see how God has made the world. The law tells us how the world was designed to operate. It even outlines how the world fails to operate and why. The biblical worldview creates wisdom because it promises to give a complete picture of the way the world is. A wise person doesn’t seek community first, they seek God and his wisdom first and that informs them how to find the best community.
The person who starts their community with intimacy with God finds strength and resilience. This is represented in the passage by a tree. A tree planted by water has a constant source of water and nutrients. This illustrates the constant source of refreshment and health the godly person receives from reading scripture deeply and repetitively. This kind of tree responds well to the changes in the environment and produces what it was meant to produce. The fruit will lead to reproduction and the growth of similar trees planted in a similar position of strength.
In contrast, those who conform to the majority opinion that moves away from God are compared to chaff. Chaff is contrasted to the tree. Where the tree is solid and firm the chaff is light and blown by the wind. The chaff is unstable and finds itself in places which are determined by circumstance. The chaff is the casing of the seed. It is not the seed itself. Therefore, although it looks like it should bear fruit it is barren. It might look like it will produce something healthy and wholesome, however it does not. It is fed to cattle, ploughed back into the soil, or burnt. Having the chaff burned away is often a sign of judgment. That which is not eternal lacks substance and is burned up in judgment.
C.S. Lewis in the Great Divorce has those who are on a day trip to Heaven from Hell lack substance. Those who dwell in heaven have a permanence or stability about their form. Those who choose a way other than God become less than the people they were created to be. When life is evaluated for how it was spent, those who have focused their lives on the pursuit of God stand strong and tall. Those who have focused on self and pleasure will cower away. Jesus frequently reminded the religious that among their number were those who looked like they had been living well, but in the end their lives were chaff or weeds. Their lives were a waste that would be burned up on the compost heap. No-one fools God and God knows what each person is doing with the life they are given. the overall evaluation in the psalm is about a way of life and not a single decision. Many people deceive themselves into believing that they have led a decent life and that if there is a God, they will stand tall before him based on the good that they have done. However, since their acts are not mindful of God, none of the good that we do apart from God is the good that God is looking for.
In today’s world there are many Christians who try and walk two paths. They are mindful of God on Sundays or during a devotional, but the rest of their lives lack the weight and stability of being rooted in God. As a community we do not see God and so we walk mindlessly with those who also do not have a thought for God. We make a stand in the public sphere without connecting our stance with God. We sit in front of the T.V. and soak in a spectrum of evil and godlessness without thought for how the images in our minds will lead our coming weeks. We can not remove ourselves from the evil around us, but the question is whether we are conformed to the pattern of living that is held up by those who have no thought for God. I know that my thoughts are influenced by those by whom I desperately want to be accepted. I know I have adopted godless patterns of thought by walking through life with an agnostic father and an imperfect mother. I know I have desired forbidden fruit during some of my times in the nightclubs and the bars of England and Japan. I have sometimes become more and more like the self-righteous in church because we celebrated the fact that we didn’t practice certain sin, rather than mourn over the sin that still had hold of us.
Psalm 1 stands in line with the wisdom that we have learned from watching those whose lives were ruined by the friends that they made. I have family members who chose close friendships with those who self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. One of them was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell. His body was destroyed by the coping mechanism that he had learned from those who knew no better. I have had friends choose close friendships with those who are cynical about biblical faith whilst cultivating no friendships with those who held to the God of the Bible. It is no surprise that many of them saw things more and more differently than the Bible teaches. Some of them now look with contempt on those who believe the Bible is true. However, the friendships that they made coupled with the friendships they left behind cultivated the stance they now have.
Why would people choose friends whose life choices lead them to where God does not want them to go? A simple answer is the basic desire for acceptance. Many people do not feel accepted by God’s people and they feel more accepted by those who are cynical about God. In a godless community, there may be a code of conduct, but they would not really go so far as to call it holiness or righteousness. Holiness and righteousness are unattainable goals in this life, but they are the life-pursuit of the Christian none-the-less. If these are divorced from a core relationship with Jesus, as they often are, the Christian community becomes a scary group of enforcers in God’s Gestapo. I have been policed, so I know the pain that would cause a person to want to escape. But the escape can lead to another slavery. A slavery to the Zeitgeist or the Spirit-of-the-Times. It often promises a lot but delivers nothing of eternal value. Many former Christ-followers have no problem with this because they now mix in groups whose mottos are YOLO or Carpe Diem. They do not think of tomorrow’s consequences because tonight is the only context they have.
The passage claims the righteous will find prosperity. A community that embraces the values of scripture should love God and live for others. This kind of mutual service in a community leads to mutual prosperity. It is when people become fearful and miserly that they hoard. A tree planted by water does not fear but trusts. The life of faith in a good and immense God allows a community of self-sacrifice which can be free from fear. In reality it rarely exists, but when it does it is powerful.
So who are the wicked or sinners who lead the righteous away? It is those whose lives are working for anything other than God. I have sat with cynics in church. I have been among gossips in church. Sometimes these behaviours are just a flash in the pan. However, the cynic or gossip is marked by the pattern of their life. Their gossip and cynicism is rooted in a consistent lack of desire for God. Our primary community should be marked by the desire for God. This starts with the community of the home, but also should mark our ever-broadening circles of friendship.
I am grateful for all of our friends. Some of them share an interest in sports. With others we love ideas and thrashing them back and forth. Others talk about how they feel and the many emotions that give us pause. Each of these friendships has its value. However, the friend that I want most is the friend who hungers for God. The friend that inspires me the most is the one who sees God in all things. This is the friend that I want to be. I want to pursue God and communicate God’s love and truth to others.
Answer these observation questions about Psalm 1
- What three verbs describe the actions of the man in verse 1?
- With whom is the man in verse one participating?
- How is the condition of the person described?
- Where does the psalm recommend a person focus?
- To what is the person in the psalm compared?
- What happens in the right seasons?
- To what are the wicked compared?
- What are the wicked not able to do?
- With whom can the wicked not stand?
- What does the Lord know?
- What word is repeated in verse 6?
- What will happen to the wicked?
Answer these interpretation questions
- How does verse one show a regression? Describe the regression in your own words?
- What makes a person wicked, sinner or scoffer?
- How does the whole Psalm describe two ways of life?
- How does this passage relate to Matthew 7?
- Are the wicked, sinners and scoffers always easy to spot? Why? Why not?
- How is a tree situated by a river different from a tree growing on the side of a mountain or in a desert?
- What kind of lifestyle do you think the wise person adopts?
- How is community central to the passage?
- How does community influence the life that we choose to lead?
- Why would the wise person be promised prosperity? If prosperity doesn’t mean guaranteed riches, what else might it mean?
- How can people be blown away by the wind?
- How will the path a person chooses in this life be confirmed in eternity?
Answer these application questions
- What stories do you know of a person whose life was ruined because of the friends they chose?
- Why do people choose friends whose way of life will seriously lead them astray?
- How does a person today get stalled in their Christian walk by people with different goals?
- If we all are ‘sinners’ and each heart is ‘wicked’, how do we apply verse 1? Do we just make sure that no-one sits with us?
- When does wrong behavior become a way of life?
- If, as Jesus seems to indicate, the majority are on an immoral road to destruction, how does someone who pursues righteousness avoid coming off as self-righteous?
- When have you known a group whose sole purpose was the constant pursuit of God? How did you fit in?
- How can churches, Christian schools, and Christian camps lead to a false sense of community where people become hypocritical as a way of life?
- Why do some people choose to be authentic in ‘secular’ environments and eventually claim to find more freedom in a bar than the church?
- What kind of friend have you dreamed of? How do your friendships fall short?
- What kind of friend have you dreamed of being? How do you fall short?
- If God loves us enough to accept us just as we are and also loves us enough not to leave us that way, how does that teach us to seek out friendships and how to act in them?