The following is adapted from a reflection on Psalm 1 I gave at the Diocesan Youth Commission retreat for Youth Leaders in early November.
All of us need nourishment. We need air, water, food to eat–if we don’t get any one of these things, we die. The same is true of spiritual nourishment. We may not die physically but our souls will surely wither, and if that happens, then we run the risk of truly dying by being apart from God, by failing to live in his presence.
But how do we get this spiritual food and access this strength for our pilgrimage here on earth? I’m certainly no expert in the sense of always being perfect in the time I spend with God–I’m perfect in nothing!–but I am an expert in the sense of striving to strengthen my relationship with our Lord and in the sense of needing to draw strength from God in order to get through the hard times. So it’s as an expert knowledgeable of my own imperfection that I reflect on this need and desire for God.
It seems appropriate when one has a desire for God to go to the place where God has revealed himself to his people, to the words that recount the story of how God has interacted with and acted to protect and save his people. So, in order to feel closer to God, it is appropriate to start with the Holy Scriptures. And, in reflecting on Scripture, I’ve noticed something. It’s an incredibly deep insight, which took me many long years of toil and reflection to arrive at. I hope that you will appreciate the magnitude of what I’m about to share with you and find some meaning in it. Are you ready? Are you prepared? Ok, here it is: Beginnings are important; the beginnings of a book–any book–is important, how much more is this the case with Holy Scripture.
Not only do beginnings set the stage and plot the course for the rest of the text, but they also provide important clues and insights about what will be important in the rest of the work. I’m sure you remember this sort of thing from school… it’s like the first paragraph of a paper—it’s supposed to let your readers know where you are going, to provide a thesis statement so that they’ll know where you are going. You probably know of some pretty important starts if you had to think of it. “In the beginning God created…” or, probably inspired by that, who could forget the first words of John’s gospel “In the beginning was the Word…”
There are some times that I believe it is safe to apply my insights to scripture—now is one of those times. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Psalm 1 is important. Psalm 1 is important because it reveals themes that animate the rest of the Psalter. Additionally, because of their subject matter these Psalms—introduced by the first—are important for life in general, for the spiritual life in particular, for the Christian life especially.
Psalm 1 paints a picture for us, a stark contrast between two manners of life, two ways of living and being. The one path, the undesirable path, is that followed by the wicked. A path that leads away from God, it is a life lived without roots, without sustenance and without God. In the end it is a life that is empty.
I Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
2 Their delight is in the law of the Lord,*
and they meditate on his law day and night.
We have placed before us these two ways of life—the faithful and the impious. In the first two verses we see their “contrasting sources of guidance and values,” and we are led into consideration of the “contrasting similes of the effect” in their lives in verses 3-4.
3 They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;*
everything they do shall prosper.
4 It is not so with the wicked;*
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Finally, in verses 5-6 we see what has been called the “contrasting outcomes of their ways”(Collins). As the Psalmist says:
5 Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when
judgement comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.
What strikes me most as I reflect on this final section is the way the Psalm puts the situation in verse six: “For the Lord KNOWS the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.” To say that God “knows the way of the righteous…” is to indicate that something has been laid out, directed. It indicates that the way of righteousness is the way that God himself travels and when we walk this path it is one wherein God offers us comfort and protection. In contrast, the way of the wicked is doomed because it is not “known” by God–they are on their own and have no where to turn for help or nourishment as long as they continue to walk on their current path.
The other path, the path praised by the psalmist and the one for me and I pray for you, is one that leads to rootedness, nourishment and security. In following the path of righteousness we are choosing to cast our lot, not with out own ability and resourcefulness, but with God himself and in the assurance of his love and protection.
Many of the psalms and innumerable passages of scripture stand as witness to the interplay between those who follow the first path and those who follow the second. Indeed, there is a recognition within the Psalter that any one of us may follow both of these paths are various points of our lives–sometimes we follow hard after God, at other times we neglect him and follow our own wills. So this is not cut and dry–following the path that God would have us walk takes a great deal of effort and prayer.
Leaving aside the question of the first path, the path of the wicked and the scoffer, I want to reflect on the second path, the life-giving path, the nourishing Godly path.
“Happy are those [… whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”
The first question that comes to mind for me is this: what is this “law” the psalmist is talking about? Is it a set of rules or commandments? Is it a way of living or a story about who we are? Is it nature? Is it a revelation of who and what God is?
Recently I was having a conversation with an elderly Priest friend of mine and he was speaking about his time living amongst an orthodox Jewish community, and he noted that he thought Paul may have allowed his own experience to cloud his descriptions of the law. The term translated Law he said, is much more readily understood as “instruction,” and the way these Orthodox Jews lived indicated much more a sense of identity, of story, of something that explains who and what they are—after all he said, there are often times when we don’t feel ourselves, when we don’t act as we know or believe we should.
So the “law” that the psalmist is praising is not a legalism, it is instruction. Certainly, this would include the ceremonial and moral codes contained in scripture, but taking delight in it does not come from any sort of pedantry or other neuroses… instead it comes from the proper delight we as God’s creatures take in reflection upon God’s order.
I know also that some Jews consider the law, instruction, Torah, to have been pre-existent, and to have been a blue-print or tool through which God created the world—hence the Torah, God’s law, his instruction, is revealed in nature as well as the written text. So it could be that the psalmist is talking about seeing God’s hand and purpose in nature. Since the law also refers to the code of life given to the community, the faithful of Israel, then it makes sense that the delight the psalmist mentions would also be taken from reflection upon the interactions of God with his people–in the amazing fact of their survival and the accounts of the miracles he has performed in their midst.
We can learn several things from this:
I. The study of the Law is a delight. It is a delight because when we study God’s word, his revelation to us in the form of Holy Scripture, we learn more about and come into closer relationship with God himself, in whom we delight and without whom we wold not live. For the Psalmist, meditation on God’s law is a delight—delighting in God’s order by being closer to God by virtue of living into his plan.
II. The study of the Law is nourishment: The closer we are to God, the closer we are to life. In the Psalm the pursuit of a relationship with God through the study of his word is compared to being a tree planted near streams of water…
III. The study of the Law as rootedness: In comparing the study of God’s Law to being planted by streams of water the psalmist intentionally evokes imagery similar to that found in Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22.
And again, for us Christians, I can’t escape that section of John I’ve already mentioned once today: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was Gog, ” but we learn from the psalmist that scripture is not only about the beginning, it is also about the end. In particular where we will end up.
Recently my wife came to the realization that it is easier to walk in a straight line when one has a destination in mind. We Christians have been given a destination. Just as Anna found she could not walk straight across our yard without fixing her eyes on some destination, so too must we always keep our final destination ever before us.
We know that the study of scripture results in: delight, nourishment, rootedness and becomes a source of strength for our relationship with Christ. But scripture also serves in this relationship as a means to keep our eyes on the goal, on the end… and to keep us on the straight way. It’s not so much that we study scripture for the details, for the minutia but rather for the story: we internalize the narrative and make it our own, we place the thread of our lives within the tapestry of scripture as the record of God’s interaction with creation. This makes it important that we always keep the appropriate perspective on scripture. As CS Lewis states in his Reflections on the Psalms:
The Human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “The Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its over-all message.
As a good Lutheran might say, the Holy Bible is the Word of God insofar as it points us to the living Word, the incarnated Lord, Jesus Christ. In studying scripture we are brought nearer to Christ, given the goal, the direction we need to keep our relationships with him strong and our foundations firm—the ability to walk through this world and know where we are going. This is the reality the psalmist was revealing to us in poetic form when he chose to echo Ezekiel 47 and talk of the righteous being planted like trees near streams of water, connecting us in our reading of scripture to the trees in paradise. Later we find the same imagery used in Revelation–in each case healing is a property of the leaves of these trees, and this is our promise: if we reflect on God’s word to us we will find ourselves drawn closer to God, to the waters of his Holy Spirit and if this happens, if we are planted firmly in God’s Word, then we will indeed be like those trees planted by the Holy streams of water flowing from the altar and the sanctuary, from the fountain of God and we will find healing for ourselves and perhaps for others as well.
Augustine called Holy Scriptures our “letters from home.” So today, why don’t we take the time to consider where it is that we came from and where it is that we are going: Where is your home? Scripture will help us get there.