On the Wicked 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)
This wonderful psalm outlines the path to a blessed life. In our last article on this passage (which see), I emphasized the importance of meditating on God’s word, the nourishing, refreshing, life-giving, soul-building dynamic that God’s voice brings into the hearts of people who know him. But there is a dark backdrop in this psalm as well, and it is important. The theme of wickedness and judgment runs through the psalm from the first verse to the last.
A brief review of the previous article reminds us that the psalmist tells us what not to do if we want a life of blessing in God. He says not to put our minds or actions at the service of wicked, sinning, scoffing people. “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 do this on purpose. Our culture hates the term sin 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, sin 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 God’s word and moral goodness. Why does this psalm open a meditation on the blessed life with a warning like this? Well, because deep in the fallen human soul (all of our souls) there festers a nature bent away from God and toward evil (John 3:18-19; Rom.3:23). We all must face this fact squarely or we will not grasp the meaning of the blessed life as a contrast to it.
It is quite politically incorrect these days to seriously consider and discuss the fact that humans by nature may be (indeed are) truly wicked, evil (sinners), and contemptuous of genuine virtue (scoffers). There is an underlying presupposition in the modern west, rooted in the seedbed of the 18th century Enlightenment, nourished by old liberal theology and evolutionary philosophy, and promoted heavily today under the heading of “secular society,” that humans are not really all that bad. The innate goodness of human nature is a dogma pumped regularly into the intellectual bloodstream of our youth through our systems of public education, entertainment (some), and politics. The assumption is that what causes injustice, violence, crime, and chaos in our world is lack of education, shortage of money, and the presence of unjust social structures. People are not the problem, society is. People are noble and good; social institutions are oppressive and corrupting. This notion traces to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), an Enlightenment philosopher who profoundly influenced western thought. A man deeply committed to himself, Rousseau persuaded his girlfriend (whom he finally married a few years before his death) to abandon their five children, one at a time, to the hellish orphanages of 18th century Europe.
Scripture sheds a bright light on our culture’s rosy notions of human goodness, revealing fatally deep cracks in them (Read Romans chapters 1-3 for a synopsis). From Genesis through Revelation, from the time of humanity’s rebellion against God to the time of God’s final destruction of all evil, the evidence indicates that humans left to themselves degenerate into murder and mayhem. An honest look at recorded history, both in the Bible and outside it, agrees completely with this sobering assessment, even in religious and supposedly “Christian” environments. Our massive penal and legal system, with all its laws and enforcement, bears constant and eloquent witness to the clear reality that we need forceful protection from each other. Why would that be the case if humans were noble and good by nature (Rousseau’s idea)? War has ravaged us regularly and with increasing severity from ancient times to the present day. The previous century (the 20th) was the most violent in a long and deepening historical blood bath. Man’s attempts at utopia (perfect society without God) in that one era alone cost millions of lives. Think of Communism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, Emperor worship in Japan, Marxism in Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia (all atheist regimes by the way) and more. David Berlinski (not a Christian), in his controversial 2009 book, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, records almost 200 million deaths from at least 63 wars and genocides in the previous 100 years. And that’s just the big ones (casualties in excess of 100,000). The sluggish and broad crimson river of torture, mass murder, violence, and an almost endless variety of injustices finds its headwaters in the distant misty highlands of antiquity. One observer pointed out that the brief eras of peace in world history are represented by the few blank pages between chapters in the history books.
Note, too, that Psalm 1 refers to a final judgment, a permanent decision in the court of God against all humans who perpetrate unrepentant evil. It is not just “evil” as an abstract concept, but “evil, wicked people” that receive this condemnation (Matt.7:21-23). This is another subject conspicuous by its absence in education, entertainment, politics, and public discourse. Can you imagine the Nightly News outlining the traumas of the day and ending the broadcast with, “…and so, folks, that’s our world today. God sees it all and will certainly and permanently judge it, so we should repent and pursue righteousness, goodness, and justice before that fearful day.” Don’t hold your breath.
Nobody today wants to think about hell. But the blessed life of Psalm 1 wisely takes it into account. One reason for this in the New Covenant is that the Lord Jesus warned about final judgment regularly and taught his apostles to do the same (see Matt.10:26-28; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 13:1-5; Acts 17:30-31; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; Rev.20:11-15). The whole idea of “being saved” refers to a supernatural rescue from the judgment of God against humanity’s sin (see Romans 1:16-32; 3:23; 6:23). A central tenet of the mythology of atheism/secularism is that when we die, we simply cease to exist. This is good news indeed for those who have rejected God and lived the “chaff life” described in Psalm 1. It means that no matter what we do here and now, when we die we simply disappear. Poof! Gone! I wonder if the thinkers who affirm this notion and yet insist that we all should live morally good lives have thought through the fact that if their view is true (that we are here by accident, coming from nothing and disappearing into nothing) then people like Hitler (and there are many) essentially get away with all their evil. No judgment in the next life means that after killing millions and plunging the western world into the inferno that was WWII, he could simply marry (!?) his long-time girlfriend Eva in their honeymoon/suicide bunker deep under Berlin, share a cyanide snack with his bride, shoot himself and slip painlessly into nothingness. Where’s the justice in that? Even Immanuel Kant, the massively important Enlightenment philosopher who taught (mistakenly) that we can’t know anything certain about God or the noumenal realm, nevertheless insisted that there must be a God who judges in the next life. He realized that some sort of eternal accounting is crucial to maintaining justice in this world. However one wishes to define or describe hell, it must be there, or justice in this age loses all backbone. People need to consider this.
So…is there any good news? Of course! Once we realize that we are all chaff to begin with, dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph.2:1-3; Rom.3:23), we can reach out to the Lord who will bring us to life (Eph.2:4-10; Rom.6:23), and transform us into healthy trees with roots, leaves and fruit. Chaff is botanical, like a tree, but it is not alive. Chaff is the husk. It blows away in the winnowing process because it has no life in itself. The gospel is the good news that any of us “chaff people” can be brought to life, miraculously given God’s own DNA in Christ, re-birthed as it were, by the eternal seed of the gospel of grace (1 Pet.1:22-25).
Just a thought,