THE BOOK OF PSALMS
The Two Responses to God's Word
In 1973, I had a dramatic encounter with the Lord. Starting from the age of 13 until I was 20, I went through a lot of stress, anxiety, and depression. Not that anybody really knew it because I was careful to conduct myself properly at all times. I remember, though, being about 15 years old in England, lying awake and hearing the clock across the manor green chiming 3, 4 o’clock in the morning. Things regressed rapidly when I went to UT at the age of 18. By the time I was nineteen, I remember burying my head in my pillow at night just wishing that God would take my life.
By God’s grace, He did take my life—the old life and gave me a radically new one. When I was 20, I got involved in a discipleship group called The Navigators. This group got me to go to a Navigator training camp in Dallas over the summer of ’73. There God made a dramatic change in my life. Although there have been rough times in my life since then, that was a turning point in my life. It gave me the assurance that God really was for me and that, no matter the circumstances, He would see me though.
I experienced several changes after that encounter with God. First, the Bible came alive to me. I had been brought up in SS since I’m sure was the first week of my life (I was even at the movies the first week of my life!). I had had some wonderful SS teachers in those 20 years, but after that experience, the Bible became a living, breathing book which God used to address me personally.
The second change was the hymn book. Again, I had grown up singing the hymns and playing them on the piano during my spare time. Yet, the most exciting thing about hymns up to that point was trying to match the lyrics with new melodies—for example, the lyrics of Amazing Grace with the tune of The House of the Rising Sun! After this encounter, though, I quit trying to match the lyrics with strange melodies and began to appreciate the hymns for themselves. Amazing Grace really spoke volumes to me. I remember standing outside the UT tower my junior year thinking about how lost I had been and yet how found I was now, about how blind I had been but now could see. It sent shivers down my spine.
Many of us unfortunately had reduced the hymn book to being nothing more than just a bunch of old songs they sang a long time ago in old-fashioned tent meetings or in stilted worship services. They are more than that. They are the dynamic expressions of faith of these song writers, and when we experience the same kind of encounter they had with God, then we come to appreciate their value and worth. Choruses are good and have a place in the church, but they should never substituted the place of the hymn in our Christian life.
When you look at the hymns, you detect a wide variety of thought. For example, some hymns emphasize theology. Come Thou Almighty King expresses our belief that God is One and yet 3 persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some hymns focus on the impact hat Christ has made upon the life of the believer. Blessed Assurance informs us that Jesus is now mine, that I am now experiencing to a real degree what heaven is going to be like, that I am an heir of salvation, etc. Another type of hymn concentrates on confession and repentance. They hymn begins: “I’ve wander far away from God; now I’m coming home!” Other hymns prophesy Jesus’ second coming—One Day He’s Coming, O Glorious Day!”
Moreover, hymns and singing can accomplish things that other forms of communication cannot. For example, I love to read Rev. 21-22 which describes the new heavens, the new earth, and especially the new Jerusalem which God will create after the Final Judgment. It is going to be a glorious creation. As marvelous as the description is, though, sometimes I feel that singing When We All Get to Heaven gives us a better sense or feeling of what heaven is going to be like. Don’t we all feel exuberant when we sing the words of the chorus: “when we all see Jesus”? That feeling of exuberance gives us a real taste of the sheer unmitigated joy and exuberance we will feel whenever we actually do see Jesus in heaven. Mere descriptive words don’t accomplish this. The hymn does.
Today, we begin a study of Israel’s hymn book, the Book of Psalms. Just like our hymn book, Psalms expresses through worship the faith of the early Israelites. Moreover, like our hymnal, the Psalms features a variety of themes. Some psalms are coronation psalms which the Israelites used during the coronation of the kings (Ps. 2). Others are songs of despair, asking God why His righteous people have to suffer (Ps. 42, 73). Still others are songs of ascent which the Israelites sang as they journeyed UP to Jerusalem (Ps. 121). (The territory surrounding Jerusalem can be extremely harsh. The psalmist asks how he is going to be able to make it to Jerusalem through this threatening environment.) Still others point beyond their own time to a time when One would come and suffer for the sins of the world (Ps. 22).
PSALM 1 AS THE INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK OF PSALMS
Before we look at Psalm 1, we first need to examine its relationship to the rest of the book. Whereas we label it as Ps. 1, the early Christians and Jews labeled Ps. 1 what we today call Ps. 2. What we call Psalm 1 (the psalm before us today) was not numbered because it was considered an introduction to the Book of Psalms. Basically the psalms are about God’s Word speaking to people. Psalm 1 states that there are 2 different responses to God’s Word—a positive response and a negative response. A response of obedience and a response of disobedience. There is no third response; there is no grey area. Either I accept God’s Word and obey it, or I reject God’s Word and disobey it.
The psalm not only states that there are 2 different responses to God’s Word but that each response has its own specific consequence. The positive response has a particular consequence—only one consequence, while the negative response also has just one consequence. Again, there is no grey area here; there is no in-between. Just 2 responses and 2 consequences.
THE POSITIVE RESPONSE TO GOD’S WORD AND ITS CONSEQUENCE (1:1-3)
When you look at Psalm 1, you will see that most versions of the Bible divide it into 2 paragraphs or 2 stanzas. Each paragraph or stanza is about one major idea or theme. The first stanza, 1:1-3 is about a positive response to God’s Word. The psalmist introduces the first stanza of this psalm with the words “How blessed!” In other words, he is going to describe what kind of a person is blessed.
What does the Bible mean by the word “blessed”? First, we need to shed the pop theology which has evolved around this word. Robert Schuller is an incredible pastor and communicator, but he has also trivialized one of the most dynamic words in Scripture. For example, he claims (rightly) that the root of the word “blessed” is “happy.” Therefore, he calls the Beatitudes “the Be Happy Attitudes.” Well, a person can be blessed and not “happy.” In fact, a person can be happy and not be blessed.
Blessed is a word pregnant with meaning. The word occurs for the first major time in Gen. 12 when God promises to bless Abraham if he follows Him. Moreover, God promises to bless those who are spiritual children of Abraham. According to Paul, being saved and receiving the Holy Spirit fulfill God’s promises to Abraham to bless the world. Salvation and experiencing God’s life by means of the Holy Spirit living in me is the blessing of Abraham (Gal. 3:14). When Jesus proclaims from the mountain “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc., He’s not saying that this is the way to be happy. Rather, He is saying that salvation, the blessing promised to Abraham has come to them. Moreover, these are the kinds of people who experience God’s life by means of the Holy Spirit living through them.
What kind of person is blessed? What person experiences the life of God on a consistent basis? Before describing this person in positive terms, the psalmist describes him in negative terms—he tells us what this person does NOT do:
”He does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers.”
Look at the 3 kinds of people the blessed person is supposed to avoid—the wicked, sinners, and scoffers. By wicked, he does not necessarily mean the vile, evil person we normally associate with this term. The root of this word means “unstable.” An unstable person is one who does not operate out of his/her relationship with the Lord but out of their own feelings and desires. Why is that person unstable? Because our feelings and desires are unstable.
I’ve met several people like this. In fact, since I tend to be a people-pleaser, I tend to get drawn to people like this—people who are hard to please. (I’m already set up for failure!) I’ve had several people in my life and in the churches I served whom I tried to please. No matter what you did—even if you followed their instructions to the letter of the law, you could not please them. There were actually 2 instances in my ministry in which I did something a person wanted me to do and then they used it against me. It’s that crazy! (And I was crazy to try to please them!) Were these people evil and malicious? No, they were just unstable, and I had no business at all taking their counsel—the very thing the psalmist here warns us against.
The next 2 terms are more easily understood. The sinner refers to the person who attempts to do good and yet always misses the bulls eye because once more they are not operating out of their relationship to God but out of their own reason and feelings. The scoffer just refers to that person who ridicules the ways of God. To them if it is not humanly logical, then we’re crazy to do it. It’s the Ted Turners of the world who just recently called Christians “stupid” and “losers.” (We are stupid and losers in the eyes of the world but wise and ultimately victorious in the eyes of God.)
How should we relate to these kinds of people? First, the psalmist says: “Don’t walk near them”; second, he informs us not to stand with them; and third, not to sit with them. Notice the progression in these thoughts. In each case, the person is participating more and more in wickedness. I’ve seen people walk by people engaged in conversation in the sanctuary. They are nominally involved with what’s going on in that conversation. From time to time, I’ve seen people standing and talking in the sanctuary; they are more involved in the conversation. Finally, you see people who are so engrossed in the conversation and who want to spend a lot of time in the conversation that they actually sit down. We see in these 3 terms more and more participation in the conversation. Well, God says for us not even to talk by these evil people.
By this does God mean that we’re not to associate with non-Christians? Paul says, “No!” If we completely dissociate ourselves from non-Christians, we will never be able to reach them for Christ (1 Cor. 5:9-13). Rather, we’re not to let them dictate our behavior; they are not to determine us. We need to be alert whenever we’re with people. I know who’s sincere about their relationship with God; those are the people I can let down my guard with. I need to be more careful with others. I need to try to influence their behavior and not vice versa. If I can’t control myself around them, if they are determining me, then I need to break off that association until I can get it under control with the power of the Hoy Spirit.
The psalmist, whom we shall call “David” for convenience sake, next describes in positive terms the person who is blessed, who experiences God’s life:
“But his delight is in the Law of the Lord;
And in His Law he meditates day and night.”
He not only avoids the counsel of the ungodly, he also delights in God’s Word. It’s not that he simply reads or studies God’s Word, he enjoys obeying God’s Word.
Note that whereas David calls it “the Law of the Lord,” I’ve labeled it “the Word of God.” At the time this psalm was written, David had only about 9-11 books of the OT: Genesis thru 1 Samuel plus some proverbs and psalms. Yet he declared that they were wonderful and that God’s people should delight in God’s Word. Today, we have an additional 50+ books, totaling 66. Moreover, we have God’s Word as revealed to us ultimately in Jesus Christ. We even have God’s contemporary Word, that is, the Word He communicates to you and me daily regarding matters not specifically addressed in the Bible. For example, the Bible did not tell me to become a minister at FBC; however, both the church and I felt that the Lord was communicating to us that I should be a minister here. Right now, some men and women are seeking a word from the Lord regarding their future, their families, etc. This Word is not found in the Bible; however, it will be consistent with the Bible and with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Any “Word” which contradicts the Bible of Jesus Christ is not God’s Word. It may be a “word,” but it did not come from God.
The person who delights in God’s Word meditates on it day and night. Whereas this necessarily includes Bible study and Scripture memory, it includes all the other ways that God communicates to us today as well. This is the only positive response to God’s Word! There is no other positive response. The only other response is all the other responses which are not this one. There’s meditating on God’s Word and there’s all the other responses.
Behind the word “meditation” is the image of the cow which chews its cud. The cow doesn’t simply eat; it brings that cud back up and chews on it some more. The same applies to us. We don’t just read the Bible, or hear a sermon or a lesson and drop it; we think on it and ask God to tell us how it applies to our lives. What is God saying to me, Carey Ford, through this communication? That is genuine meditation.
What results from meditating on God’s Word? What kind of person does meditation on God’s Word produce?
“And he will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither,
And in whatever he does, he prosper.”
To appreciate what David is saying, you need to remember that the area around Jerusalem is some of the most barren land in the world. It is totally harsh and unforgiving. When you see pictures of the terrain, you’ll see nothing but barren hills devoid of life. To the east/southeast are sand dunes worthy of the Sahara desert. Then all of a sudden, you see a little waterfall with some green grass extending about a foot on both sides of it. You’ll see a tree in the midst of this barren land. That’s the idea behind the verse.
Note that this tree yields its fruit in its season. It yields fruit when it is supposed to, not before and not after. Sometimes I worry about teaching on Sunday morning or about a presentation my pastor might want me to make. Will I do a good job? Is God going to be with me? Why don’t I feel His strength right now for the task He has for me tomorrow? The reason I don’t feel His strength for tomorrow’s presentation is that it’s not time to bear fruit. God is so faithful that whenever I obey Him, He always “kicks in” at the right moment. When I need Him is when I experience His help. Not before and not after. Christ produces His fruit in us in its season.
Next, the leaves of this tree do not wither. Every now and then you see a Christian who is full of vitality and life. The Christian may be young in years, s/he may be old in years; age, however, is not the factor. They radiate the life of Jesus because they have a dynamic relationship with the Lord. They are obedient to His Word, and, therefore, experience His joyful presence on a consistent basis. Their leaf never withers.
Finally, David claims that this person is prosperous. Before we ask what David meant by “prosperous,” we need to find out what things this person prospers in. Remember that this person is obeying God and His Word. Therefore, what things is s/he doing? The things God wants them to do! Many times we ask God to bless us in the things we desire to do. What we need is to discover what things He wants us to do so that He can prosper us!
Now what is the meaning of the word “prosperous”? It means accomplishing the things God wants us to do in the way He would have me do them. Each of us have areas in our lives in which other people have a lot of expectations. For example, in my own job at church, people have certain expectations of me—how large an enrollment we have in SS, how many attend SS, etc. If I’m not careful, I really get caught in the trap of trying to honor these expectations. They become the driving force in my ministry. The fact, though, is if I am following the Lord and seeking to please Him, He will produce the enrollment and the attendance He wants to produce. Many of us meet certain expectations, but they are not God’s expectations. I want us to produce only what God would have us produce—nothing more and nothing less. A day is coming when we will not stand before other people and answer to their expectations. We will stand before the Lord and answer to His expectations of our lives. Ultimately, it is from Him that I wish to hear the words: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Master!”