On the Blessed Life
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;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
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.
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 knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1 (ESV)
In the Bible, to be “blessed” is to be approved and therefore deeply joyful, under God’s grace. It refers to a fulfillment grounded in a deep goodness not earned but bestowed. It is a broad concept that speaks of a life worth living, what we might call “the good life” in the best sense of that phrase. This life is meaningful, purposeful, hopeful, rooted in excellent moral quality, and therefore fruitful and stable, a benefit to itself and to others. Wow! Who doesn’t want a life like that? (Sadly, it seems there are many who do not want a life like that, which is why the psalm refers to chaff-people)
Blessedness is the experience we crave. But how do we come into it? This psalm tells us forthrightly. It is the opening chapter in the inspired prayer and praise book of the Old Testament, the very book that our Lord Jesus had practically memorized. So, a meditation on the blessed life and how to enter it is apparently foundational to the life of prayer reflected in the rest of the psalter. A decision to desire the blessed life is essential to effective and authentic prayer and worship. We must be pointed in the right direction.
So, how does one begin? Well, somewhat oddly, we start not with what we should do, but with what we should not do. There is apparently a tendency in the human mind to submit itself to malign influences, to pernicious voices. We do not start our pursuit of the blessed life with a clean slate, an innocent desire, a morally un-cluttered conscience. We start with a fallen Self, one easily drawn into an un-blessed condition. The psalmist starts by warning us of who not to listen to in this world.
This is so counterintuitive to our western minds, marinated as we are in the pickling brine of enlightenment rationalism, where our own unaided thoughts are the ultimate arbiter, the autonomous and trustworthy guide for goodness and knowledge. To be told right up front that we are easily deceived, gullible to the point of danger, is insulting to us. We think we should be able to take in any sort of “education” or “wisdom” or “information” no matter the source, and unerringly navigate it for our own benefit. This is not true, and the thought that it is true is evidence of God’s rightness in warning us about it. We think we are a lot smarter than we are. What does the warning look like?
He tells us not to put our minds or actions at the service of wicked, sinning, scoffing people. Are there such people in the world? Uh…yes…And we will be one of them if we do not vet the value and sources of our thoughts. “Wicked” means evil, guilty, morally wrong-headed. “Sinners” refers to those who deliberately disregard what God says about things, especially moral and ethical things, and who therefore “miss the mark” of real goodness. They apparently do this on purpose. Our culture hates this notion with a passion because it smacks of religious self-righteousness (which is a bad thing of course, but not worse than the currently rampant secular self-righteousness). Yet, it is a serious category, whatever vocabulary one uses to describe it. A “sinner” is one who rejects God’s will and ways in favor of their own, and who therefore exists outside God’s covenant blessing. “Scoffer” (ESV), also translated “Mocker” (NIV), refers to people who take pride in rebelling against God. They use disdain, slander, ridicule, and cultural arrogance to put down obedience to the Lord. They make fun of moral goodness.
When we put these poetic thoughts together, we see that a blessed person is one who ruthlessly vets all knowledge sources, all moral influences, religious or secular (many bad people are religious). The “walk, stand, sit” ideas are about being influenced by Worldthink. This happens by virtue of being voluntarily immersed in the cognitive, intuitive, and volitional ethos of a world that has rejected God’s Word as the foundational source of moral knowledge. These are people who have exchanged God’s Word for their own words, which is to say they have traded fruit for chaff.
By contrast, the psalm tells us that a blessed life, having rejected Worldthink outright, meditates on God’s instruction to the point of delight. The Law of the Lord, in this context means instruction within and regarding the covenant relationship we have with God as revealed in His written word. The psalmist is thinking of what we refer to as the Old Covenant, but the principle holds for the New Covenant as well.
“Meditation” means to mull, to think deeply and repeatedly, to mumble to one’s self and recite. It may involve memorization and regular repetition, but not mindless repetition. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking process.
“Delight” means to take great pleasure in something. We understand the feeling (it is a feeling) of delight when we think of beauty, be it human beauty, art, music or nature. The same is true in many human relationships. Think of the delight of a first-time mother and father in their newborn, the delight of young lovers in each other, the intense pleasure of a rich and long friendship, a shared joy (or a shared grief), a deep fraternal bond between family members, brothers and sisters, a good marriage. These are delightful in the best sense and we know it.
So, is God’s word a delight as well? Yes, and delighting in it nourishes the blessed soul profoundly, in ways that the world cannot understand, through subterranean spiritual streams refreshing deep roots in God, bearing fruit even when outward conditions are desert-arid. The blessed life craves the fellowship with God that his word offers. It may come in various ways, not always by reading specific passages. Sometimes it emerges through someone else’s exposition of a biblical text that deepens the understanding or application of its truths. Sometimes it arrives through music grounded in the Scriptures and glorifying the Lord. Perhaps the Spirit uses a sermon or devotional, or even a gentle reminder from a friend about something from God’s word that then draws our mind into the “great pleasure” of his voice.
Meditation on God’s word takes many forms, but it is always covenant-grounded, word-driven, Spirit enlivened, and personally motivated. That is, it is delighting in the New Covenant in Christ, by reason of letting the words of that covenant deeply enrich our souls through his Spirit who has penned them, so that we become more intimately acquainted with God himself as our one and only heavenly Father. He is delighted with this as well. He insists that we meditate regularly on the cross of Christ, the victory and promise of the New Covenant, and the union that we have with him through Christ. This is why we come regularly to the Lord’s table (See Romans 8, John 10:27-30, 15:1-7; 1 Cor.11:23-26)
We have not plumbed the depths of this amazing psalm, but let me stop here and ask a couple of questions. In light of the stresses in our culture today, the Covid crisis, the national angst, the political polarization, what do you meditate on? Is it the tsunami of blogs, tweets, posts, podcasts, and video clips, many of which originate in Worldthink? I have an app on my smartphone that tells me how much time I have spent this week looking at this little screen. I’m going to delete that app. It’s disturbing. When I contrast that with the time I have been able to spend letting God’s word calm me and “restore my soul” (Ps.23:1-3), I immediately see why my leaves over the last few days may have withered. The heat of summer is certainly there, and the surface water of cultural blessing has dried up like a Kalahari watering hole in August.
But beneath the baked and cracked earth, far below the bleached bones of human efforts and expectations, there flows, steady and eternal, a stream…
Just a thought,