Psalm 1 You Have a Choice

1The blessings of people

who have not walked by the strategy of the faithless,

or stood in the path of offenders,

or lived in the company of disdainers!

2Rather, their delight is in Yahweh’s teaching,

and they talk about his teaching day and night.

3They are like a tree planted by channels of water,

which gives its fruit in its season,

and its foliage does not fade;

all that they do succeeds.

4The faithless are not like that,

but rather are like the chaff that the wind blows away.

5Therefore the faithless do not stand at the judgment,

nor offenders in the assembly of the faithful.

6Because Yahweh acknowledges the way of the faithful,

but the way of the faithless perishes.

It’s Independence Day today in the United States, and our visiting preacher on Sunday more than once referred to our freedom to make choices as a reason for rejoicing. I imagine that as well as the freedom not to have one’s destiny shaped by guys the other side of the Atlantic, she was referring to our freedom to choose where to live, where to send our children to school, when to retire, where to go for health care, or what treatment to have when we go to our health-care providers. Of course the other side of this freedom is the burden of responsibility. The more choices you have, the more chances you have to make a bad choice. People are more likely to buy jam when there are three kinds on the supermarket shelf than if there are thirty. Making choices can be confusing.

Psalm 1 believes in the importance of choice, believes that the key choice we have to make is enormously important, but also believes that it is straightforward. There are two ways that open up before us as individuals; Jesus takes up the idea in Matthew 7 when he speaks of the broad and narrow way. We are like people on a journey who face a split in the path and have to decide which way to take. One of these ways involves “walking by” Yahweh’s torah; the image suggests a way to walk that is well signposted. It’s a bit like having GPS or SatNav.

Walking this way is both easy and difficult. The kind of thing that the Torah says is “Bow down only to Yahweh; don’t make any images; keep the Sabbath; don’t commit adultery; tell the truth in court; don’t fancy other people’s belongings.” It’s not rocket science; God doesn’t expect anything very complicated of us. Yet the Torah’s expectations also constitute a narrow way; they go against human instincts. We like to hedge our bets about what we bow down to; we like to worship in ways that are helpful or convenient; we treat the whole week as though it belongs to us; and if another man or woman attracts us—can it be wrong to love and be loved? The psalm calls that the way of the faithless, of the offenders, the people who are prepared to take no notice of what the Torah says.

If you want to avoid that way and stick with the company of the faithful, you need to watch who you walk with, where you stand around, and who your friends are. Further, you need positively to make Yahweh’s teaching what you delight in and talk about. The Hebrew word for “talk about” suggests meditation but not a meditation that happens simply inside our heads—God’s teaching is on our lips. And if you need encouragement to delight in Yahweh’s teaching, then one encouragement is the promise that the route with those signposts that could seem so limiting (don’t you ever get annoyed when GPS keeps telling you what to do?) is the route that leads to blessing. Jesus again takes up the psalm’s perspective when he comments on the blessing that comes to people who hear God’s word and keep it (Luke 11:28). In contrast, the route that looks like the open road with lots of freedom and good company is actually a route that leads nowhere that you would really want to go.

As the parallelism suggests, the “judgment” the psalm refers to is not a final judgment at the end of time. The Old Testament focuses more on the way God’s purpose is worked out in our everyday lives. Any local community has an “assembly of the faithful,” a meeting of its elders that is charged with resolving matters of conflict in the community, with making a judgment or a decision about things that happen. The psalm has a touching faith in the community’s civil processes and invites people who pray the Psalms to trust them for themselves. God will see that life works out fairly. God will thus acknowledge the faithful.

The fact that the Psalter begins with this psalm reminds us that the life of worship and prayer on which the Psalter focuses cannot be separated from living life in light of the Torah; you can’t expect to worship or pray if you are not living by that teaching. Many psalms that constitute a plea for help include a declaration that we have lived a life of faithfulness. They thus declare that our being in a mess does not result from our own faithlessness, but that you can’t pray in that way unless you have lived in light of Psalm 1. If you have lived according to the Torah’s teaching, then your being in a mess implies that God has not fulfilled the promises in Psalm 1. In such circumstances, the Psalter invites you to live with the tension between Psalm 1 and the mess you are in. You don’t deny the mess, but you don’t stop believing in Psalm 1. Indeed, it informs your prayer because when you are in a mess you are in a position to say to God, “Excuse me. What about what you said in Psalm 1?”