Life’s Two Roads.
Except for the anonymously written Psalms 1 and 33, King David authored the 39 others in the first Book of the Hebrew Psalter. As wisdom literature, Psalm 1 sets an uncompromising picture contrasting the righteous and the wicked individual as man’s journey towards a holy God is appraised through song. The righteous is described in the first three verses, while the wicked follows in the next two, and the last verse summarises God’s judgment on these lifestyles.
What does a righteous person look like? Negatively characterised, he does not follow the dubious advice of the wicked. Further, he does not ‘stand in the path of sinners;’ in Hebrew, it implies to stand where the offenders stood. That is, to be a participant in their way of life and to become eventually like them. The sense is distinct, as closely fraternising and collaborating with ungodly companions will undeviatingly colour our subsequent judgment and hence our routines, which inevitably leads into a self-righteousness that scoffs and belittles others (Ps 1:1). The subtlety of a socialisation process is best illustrated by the metaphor of a frog in a kettle, where the slow rising water temperature lulls it into a deadly comfort zone. Likewise, composite group behaviour over time is able to ameliorate our distinct identity in Christ, thereby compromising our testimony to the point where our faith becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the non-believing group. The righteous person is, therefore, one who is careful with the choice of his company and community. Next comes the righteous’ positive characterisation, and here the Psalmist has only a single benchmark that qualifies this person; he delights and meditates on the law of God day and night (Ps 1:2; c.f., Deut 17:14, 18-20; Joshua 1:8; Ps 119:9-16). Perhaps Jewish history would have been very different if the Kings of Israel and Judah were to be found in that mould. Its undoubted emphasis is the intentional study and meditation on the Laws of God – the personification of God Himself in His Word (c.f., Roms 12:1-2). Finally, the righteous is described with a simile as a firmly planted tree by streams of water, healthy and yielding fruit in its season (Ps 1:3). The imagery is related to an individual steeped in God’s Word and transformed by His Holy Spirit, being found in God’s will, and whose fruitful life is totally dependent on and nourished by the Almighty, and despite the vagaries of life swirling around him, he will be blessed (c.f., Jer 17:5-8). By the Holy Spirit, the cultivation of God’s Word in our life goes beyond a purely academic exercise, as it yields a dynamic accountable relationship with God.
Then in a sudden sharply disjunctive note, the Psalmist contrasts the character of the wicked with the righteous (Ps 1:4-5), with the stark disparity of the similes used between dried chaff and the earlier reference to a healthy tree; the references to dead leaves being carried here and there by the wind, and obviously, incapable of fruiting, is glaringly useless in comparison. In his eyes, the individual would be spiritually insensitive to the Holy Spirit, not rooted in God’s Word, and powerless in bearing spiritual fruit. ‘The wicked are not so’ highlighting for us that all that had been portrayed as a righteous person was definitively not so with the wicked; its emphasis is meant as a wake-up call to the Psalmist’s readers. Further, this person will be unable to be justified on Judgment’s final day, and unquestionably will not be among the gathering of the righteous.
In the final stanza, it does not refer to the righteous or the wicked per se, but to their way of life, and there are only two ways, with no ‘greys’ in between: the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked. God’s judgments are explicitly expressed, and He is entirely familiar with the moral ways of a righteous person. In fact, He watches over (translated ‘knows’ in most versions) the righteous one, implying that the wicked are adversed to being watched over by the Almighty! Here, the righteous are distinguished not by any action of their own, but by an action of the Lord’s.
This seeming black-and-white presentation of the righteous and the wicked sets an extremely high bar for a normal Christian! Does that leave any room for inadvertent sinning, given the imperfect predilection of the human heart? In the light of all Biblical wisdom literature, Psalm 1 delivers God’s absolute standard, with no compromises. Being in Christ, sin has no place; the line had been drawn, and it is very clear, sinning is not to be the believers’ forte! Our fear of sinning is always within the perspective and depth of our love relationship with our Lord. When would we ever consciously hurt and grieve someone whom we lovingly cherish? But when we do sin, and confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive and cleanse us of all our sins (1 John 1:5-10; c.f., Heb 4:12-16; James 4:7-10).