I want to live the sweet life, a life I can wake up to each day with joy and expectation, a life that calls me further up and further in. But what makes up the good, sweet life? What are its essentials? And what keeps me from it?
Psalm 1 is the doorway to the Psalter. But it’s not a prayer or a song. It’s a brief, six-verse piece of wisdom literature describing the blessed life. This life is imagined to be like a tree with four characteristics.
It’s planted by streams of water. It’s not like the hundreds of tiny pine saplings I pluck from my garden every year, annoying volunteers whose volunteering I’d gladly do without. Rather, this tree is a cultivated tree. It’s been intentionally planted and it’s been put in the best of places, beside a flowing stream, where its roots can drink deep.
It yields its fruit in season. It offers its sweetness to the world, and birds and humans and other creatures live by what it offers them. It isn’t just blessed; it’s a blessing.
Its leaf does not wither. No disease has struck it. No internal rot can be noticed by spotted or curling leaves. It’s not like the pine up the street: Surrounded by other trees with thick green needles, it has gone all brown and would flare up in flames like a torch with a simple spark. No, its life is evident to all.
It prospers in every aspect. It’s beautiful. It’s fertile. It’s strong and straight. It’s healthy. It provides shade and fruit.
The Hebrew word we translate with that limp word “blessed” is all that. To be blessed is to be fruitful, its life leading to new life. It is to have within it the strength necessary for success and so it succeeds. This tree is our best biblical image of the blessed life.
But how does it get that way?
The unnamed psalmist gives us two conditions necessary to the blessed life. One is negative and one is positive. It starts with the negative.
The blessed life avoids bad company.
The psalm illustrates the road to ruin by bad company in three stages. First, you simply walk with them. Then, you stop to stand with them. Finally, you sit in their company, having become one of them. It’s a gradual process that can happen without noticing it.
And it’s the final description of this bad company which surprises me as so much of the Scriptures do until I sit down and consider what is being said.
The wicked are mockers. They don’t create with their words. All they do is tear down. They are all about scorn and the poking of holes. They are the late night talk show hosts like Stephen Colbert who smirk at their cleverness as they make their mockeries. They are Twitter feeds, spewing sarcasm in 140-character rants. Thinking they are profound, they’re a disease. The only fruit they bear is bitter. Yes, they make us laugh, but in a sad way, not in a sweet way. They are not prophets, speaking the hard word as they point us to God and his good way. They are merely mockers.
Then comes the positive. The blessed life arises from an immersion in the Law of the Lord.
Where mockers indulge in derisive laughter that has no true joy, the blessed take real and sustaining delight in God’s Law. They find their souls nourished and the road before them straightened by the words of our God. By it, the world makes sense. The good is embraced. The truth is spoken. The beautiful is rejoiced in. God’s Word gives freedom and substance to life.
Opposite to this is the wicked life. It blows away on a breeze. It’s ephemeral. It has no substance and no future. It’s unremembered, leaving no legacy. It has no place before the throne of the Judge-King or among his people. It is a zero life.
When the psalm comes to its summation, it offers two ways, two paths.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
You have a wise and helpful Watcher looking after you when you walk the way of the righteous. But you’re on your own and down a path heading straight for destruction when you walk the way of the wicked. The practices of the righteous are their own reward. And so too are he practices of the wicked.
What I find interesting in this first psalm is that the way of the righteous is not so much the way of justice and keeping watch over the vulnerable as we’ll see later on in the Psalter. Rather, it is determined by how a person engages with the Law of the Lord — Is it my delight? Do I meditate on it day and night? — and by the company one avoids.
The flourishing life awaits those who avoid bad company while soaking in Scripture. The empty life — empty of God and his people — awaits the wicked. In fact, wickedness is itself emptiness, just like the emptiness of its mocking words.