The Psalms are a theologically rich collection of poetry, prayers, and songs. Their intent is to instruct and encourage the people of God. They resonate with us because they are the recorded reflections of the glory of God from a personal perspective. They record praise and lament; calls to worship and exhortation. They have been treasured by the church because they reveal the greatness and faithfulness of our Sovereign Lord and Savior.
The compiler of the Psalter has intentionally positioned what we have as Psalm 1 to open our collection. It is here that we are introduced to a vital contrast between the righteous and the wicked.
The leaders and kings of Israel were instructed to keep the Law of God before them always. The Lord spoke to Joshua and said to him that “this book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8 NASB95). In fact, the kings of Israel were to “write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll…it shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God” (Deuteronomy 17:18-19 NASB). These commands are very similar to what we read in Psalm 1 suggesting that the key to godly living is found in the Word of God, and how important this is when applied to those in leadership.
The writer speaks of the man who is blessed, warning him not to follow the way of the world. We were created to be in community; God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Because of this desire to be around others, it is easy to get sucked into and infected by the society of the ungodly. The issue is that, since the fall of humanity in the garden, sin and corruption appears to prevail in the world. I say “appears” because we know that, through the work of Jesus, sin has been defeated! However, we will continue to encounter and struggle with sin until the Lord returns or calls us home. As we wrestle with sin, our hope is found in God alone. The world cannot offer anything to combat sin. In fact, the world will try to convince you that your sin is not real. The writer of this psalm understands the sinfulness of sin, and opens the Psalter with this warning.
Calvin commented on the corrupting power of sin in our lives stating that “the general character of men’s lives is nothing else but a continual departure from the law of God.”* God spoke of the conditions of our hearts in Genesis 6 stating: “that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (v5). Our hearts are prone to wander due to our natural inclination to sin. Augustine said that “our heart is restless, until it rests in thee.” Our restless hearts will continue to wander until they find satisfaction. True satisfaction is found in the Lord alone, we must set our hearts on something other than what the world offers, we must set it on the Lord.
Consider the contrast again. The blessed do not live or behave in a manner (counsel) that accords with the wicked. They do not maintain a position or conduct themselves (stand) in the manner of sinners. They do not remain (sit) among those known to be scoffers. Notice the progression from counsel to path to seat. This movement is rooted in a worldview that influences their manner of life and results in a habitually sinful lifestyle. There is an important truth here: what you believe matters. The way you understand creation and the people you follow will naturally lead to specific ends. Scripture calls us to separate from those who are continually evil. This does not mean that we isolate ourselves like hermits, never interacting with the broken and fallen world. As we are in Christ, we have a missionary mandate to be salt and light in the world, and this calls for a balance. This call of God means that we will be in the world, yet we are to be distinct from the world (see John 17:13-18). We are not to be so comfortable with the world that we begin to look just like the world, rather, we are to be in the world to bring the word of God to them.
The psalmist explains how we are to be distinct. He says that we are to delight in the law of the LORD. That is, we are to find joy and satisfaction in the instruction of the LORD, so much that we continually reflect on it deeply (meditate day and night). The Word of God presents for us the worldview that we are to be conformed to. We are “not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2 NASB). We can see the same progression for the godly that we see with the wicked. The more we spend time in Scripture, the more we are being conformed and transformed day by day to reflect the will of God. This influences our manner of life which leads to a progressively more godly lifestyle. The more we are in the Word, the more we become like Christ, which means the more our witness will reflect His will.
Notice another important point: The world creates their own view of life that is rooted in sinfulness. They frame their own system where they are the judge. They create their own standard of “godliness.” This is not so for those who follow Christ. Our standard comes from the Word of God; He is the judge. We seek to be conformed to His will, which is holy, just, and righteous. The psalmist likens those who delight in the Word of God to a tree firmly planted. Just as a tree that is rooted securely in the ground can withstand severe storms; those who find their delight in God will likewise stand when the storms of life come. Our delight and blessing is rooted in God, not in some empty system invented by the world. This results in our flourishing, not because of anything of us, but because we are planted and drinking of the true living water, the word of God that is transforming us. The word prosper carries the sense of a steady favorable progress, and this progress comes solely from the transforming power of God.
The wicked are not so. Despite what they do, regardless of their judgment, they are like chaff driven away. The wicked are here likened to the worthless part of a seed from a tree that will be scattered. They think they are secure, yet they will not stand in judgment. The wicked stand on an invented, subjective worldview where all are free to make up what they want as they go. Each person stands as judged from their own sinful vantage point. The wicked are not a plant or the seed, they are chaff that is tossed about in the wind; no root for support, no flourishing. In other words, they have no security when they face judgment. Calvin reminds us that “although the ungodly now live prosperously, yet by and by they shall be like chaff; for when the Lord has brought them low, he shall drive them hither and thither with the blast of his wrath.”*
At times we may observe the world and wonder the age-old question: “why do the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer?” At times it may seem that way, but the psalmist tells us of the true destiny of the wicked. The sinner has only a false sense of security at the present time. They scoff because they foolishly think things will continue the way they currently are (see 2 Peter 3:3-4). They fail to see that the Lord judges between the righteous and wicked. There will be a day of final judgment, and the wicked will not stand; they will in fact perish.
The good news is that the LORD knows the way of the righteous. The challenge for God’s people is to meditate on the Scriptures which will lead us to trust in the Lord more and more. Scripture is what forms our worldview, it is our final rule of faith and practice. This is why kings, leaders, priests, and all the people of God are instructed to continually read Scripture. As we submit to the will of God as revealed in Scripture, we are formed into His image. This leads to blessing and the life of the righteous. To reject this is to go down the path of sinners that ultimately ends in judgment.
*From Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 1, John Calvin and James Anderson