The Congregation of the Righteous (Psalm 1)
This morning we’re beginning a fairly brief look at a small portion of Scripture that’s widely appreciated, but I’ve never done much preaching on it. Over the summer, I’m going to be looking at some of the psalms. In particular, I’ll be looking with you at the first few psalms. We’ll probably only have time to look at the first seven or eight if all goes well.
One of the reasons I want to look at the psalms with you is because they’re so important. Abraham Lincoln said of the Psalms: “They are the best. I find something in them for every day of the year.” Martin Luther called it “the Bible in miniature.” It’s the Bible’s longest book. It’s more quoted in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. It’s probably the most popular book in the Old Testament, if not the whole Bible.
But that’s not the only reason I want to look at them with you. Most of the Bible contains teaching about God, or words of God to us. The Psalms are primarily human words to God or about God, rather than God’s words for us. However, they are also God’s word to us. Psalms provide a model for us. They teach us how to praise God, how to relate honestly to him, and how to reflect on what he has done for us. They invite us to enter into the experience of the psalmist. They address the mind through the heart. They cover every sort of experience and emotion we could have: praise, thanksgiving, but also doubt, depression and despair. It’s an incredibly valuable part of the Bible that helps us understand how we can encounter God in the middle of the mess of life. We need to know how to relate to God not just in the good times, but in every type of circumstance. The Psalms are going to help us with this.
Today, in particular, I want to look at Psalm 1. It’s hard to know where to begin with the Psalms because there are 150 of them. You could even break the Psalms down into sections. For instance, there are five books within the book of Psalms. Book one is considered to be Psalms 1 to 41. They’re all on different kinds of topics and themes. You could begin anywhere.
It’s important, though, for us to look at Psalm 1 first, because Psalm 1 is kind of a gateway to the rest of the Psalms. It’s not just randomly selected as Psalm 1; it’s put first because it’s a great introduction to everything that follows. In fact, if you were to open a handwritten medieval manuscript of the Psalms, chances are that you would discover this psalm - the first - written in ink without any number. It’s meant to be an introduction to the whole Psalter rather than just another psalm.
If you go to the airport, you can hang out anywhere you’d like in the concourses. But eventually you will reach a checkpoint. To go any further, you need to have pass through. They check your documentation and make sure that you belong on the other side of that gate. You either have to be traveling, or you need to be an employee of the airport. That’s what the psalmist is doing here. You are invited to join the psalmist on the other side of Psalm 1. But before you get there, you need to pass through the checkpoint here. The psalmist raises a matter of supreme importance. He wants to be as clear as possible before we go any further.
Here’s the message that he’s going to give us in this first psalm: Nothing is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous. Before you can talk about the Lord as your shepherd (Psalm 23), or about forgiveness (Psalm 51), worship (Psalm 100), or the mercies of God (Psalm 103), you need to start here. You need to make sure that you belong to the congregation of the righteous.
And to make his point, the psalmist is going to answer three implied questions in this psalm. So remember his point: Nothing is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous. Here are the implied questions he’s going to answer. One: what does it look like to belong to the congregation of the righteous? Two: what are the results of living this way? Three: what is the final destiny of those who live in the congregation of the righteous?
First question: What does it look like to belong to the congregation of the righteous?
Psalm 1:1-2 says:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
So here we begin with a description of what it looks like to belong to the congregation of the righteous. I want you to notice three things about this description.
The first is the very first word of the psalm: blessed. It’s one of those words you hear mainly in church or when someone sneezes. Part of the problem when you hear a word like blessed is that you don’t really know if it’s something that you want for yourself. We have a church near our house, and sometimes you see men and women wearing black robes walking around the neighborhood. Is that what it means to be blessed - to live in a church and wear black robes all day? It reminds me of the cartoon. Someone asks a man, “Are you a pastor?” and he replies, “No, I just look this way because I’m not feeling well today.” That’s the very thing that most of us would like to avoid. We’re really not sure that we want to be blessed, so right away we’re kind of wondering whether this is a good thing or not.
But we need to understand that this isn’t what the word blessed means here. The word really could be translated, “Oh, the happiness…” It’s about the joy that comes from God-given security and prosperity. It’s happiness that comes from well-being and rightness. He is the man or woman who enjoys God’s blessing. The Psalmist is saying that there is a path to happiness that is unique and that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s found in belonging to the congregation of the righteous, of knowing God’s smile upon your life. When you have this blessedness, you don’t need to go looking anywhere else. You have God’s smile; that is enough. So that’s the first thing you notice here. Joining the congregation of the righteous isn’t sentencing yourself to misery; it’s actually the path to true happiness.
Nobody’s captured this better, by the way, than John Piper. He’s coined a term: “Christian hedonist.” A hedonist is someone who pursues pleasure. You may be surprised by this, but Piper argues that we all should be pleasure-seekers. The only thing is, we need to realize that the true path to pleasure-seeking is to join the congregation of the righteous and to seek the blessing that comes from God. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal put it:
There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these all are inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself.
So the psalmist is going to describe to us the path to true happiness, to true satisfaction and joy. Someone’s said, “The psalmist saith more to the point about true happiness in this short Psalm than any one of the philosophers, or all of them put together; they did but beat the bush, God hath here put the bird into our hand” (John Trapp).
Then notice the negative picture of what those in the congregation of the righteous do not do. They don’t walk in the counsel of the wicked; they don’t stand in the way of sinners; they don’t sit in the seat of scoffers. In other words, the righteous person is different. Many of us, I’m sure, watched the Stanley Cup finals a couple of weeks ago. You noticed the same thing that I did: the teams generally played better on their own ice than they did in the other team’s rink. A 2011 Sports Illustrated article found:
Home field advantage is no myth. Indisputably, it exists …. Across all sports and at all levels, from Japanese baseball to Brazilian soccer to the NFL, the team hosting a game wins more often than not.
You may be surprised why this is true. It’s not just the impact on team performance. The article says it’s the influence of the crowd on the referees:
Officials' bias is the most significant contribution to home field advantage. In short, the refs don't like to get booed. So when the game gets close, they call fewer fouls or penalties against the home team; or they call more strikes against visiting batters. Larger and louder fans really do influence the calls from the officials. The refs naturally (and often unconsciously) respond to the pressure from the crowd. Then they try to please the angry fans and make the calls that will lessen the pain of crowd disapproval. In the end, the refs' people-pleasing response can have an impact on the final result of the game.
Do you notice that? It’s not the cheers of the home crowd that makes a team do better. It’s the boos of the crowd that make a refs afraid to make a bad call. The psalmist notices the same thing. He says that the more we play on the other team’s ice, the worse it’s going to go for us. It’s usually a subtle thing. The more we’re taking our cues from people who don’t know and love God, the more we’ll be playing so that we don’t here their boos. It’s not usually an obvious thing. As Dale Ralph Davis says:
It may come in a rather bump-a-long fashion from teachers or friends or family - our spouses; it simply suggests that if you don’t think this way, you will not be thought sharp; if you don’t act this way, you will not be ‘cool’; if you don’t laugh at what we mock, we don’t want any part of you. Verse 1 is not merely description but warning, a sort of Old Testament Romans 12:2: ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’ (Phillips).
It reminds me of the 106-year-old who was asked what she likes about her age. She replied: no peer pressure. The psalmist acknowledges that we’re all taking our cues from somewhere; he says that if you’re part of the congregation of the righteous, you’re not taking your cues from people who aren’t living for God.
So where are you taking your cues if you belong to the congregation of the righteous? The cue is actually from delight, in verse 3. This is important. It’s not a grin-and-bear-it type of approach. It’s again a delight. You know what it’s like to choose something not out of willpower but delight. I was out the other night with a friend. I hadn’t seen Charlene all day. As I dropped him off, he invited me to come into his house for a while. I had two alternatives: to visit with my friend, which would have been an ok thing to do; or to go home and see my wife and kids, which would have been an awesome thing to do. I made the choice that gave me the most joy: I said thanks, but I’d better get going. I didn’t do it out of obligation; I did it out of joy. That’s what the psalmist is saying here.
What leads him to renounce all the ‘appeals’ of verse 1? To turn and walk away from it all? The pursuit of pleasure! He does it because he cares more for his pleasure than for his pressures! ‘But his delight…’ Note that last word. You are going to take your signals from somewhere, and he takes his from the torah of Yahweh rather than from the counsel of the wicked. (Dale Ralph Davis)
That’s what it means. To belong to the congregation of the righteous involves finding delight and joy in God’s Word. It’s not an obligation; it’s a continual source of delight. It’s a regular and consistent part of our life: we meditate on it day and night. J.I. Packer defines meditation:
Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, thinking over, dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things one knows about the works and ways and purpose and promises of God.
It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communication with God.
Its purpose is to clear one's mental and spiritual vision of God, and to let his truth make its full and proper impact on one's mind and heart.
It is a matter of talking to oneself about God and oneself.
It is, indeed, often a matter of arguing with oneself, reasoning oneself out of moods of doubt and unbelief into a clear apprehension of God's power and grace.
That’s what we do when we belong to the congregation of the righteous. We find our happiness in God; we take our cues from him and from his Word rather than from the wicked; we continually apply his Word to all of our lives.
Second question: What are the results?
What does it look like when we do this? Verses 3-4 say:
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
You know that the best way to communicate something is often through a picture. You can describe something, but it helps to see it. Here the psalmist gives us two pictures. The first picture is of those who belong to the congregation of the righteous. The second picture is of those who belong to the congregation of the wicked.
First: what does it look like to belong to the congregation of the righteous? When the psalmist wrote this, people knew how hard it was to grow a tree. The climate in Israel was dry. The only way that something like a tree could thrive is if it had a constant supply of water. Vegetation flourished around natural streams or canals. So he gives us a picture here of a tree that’s planted close to the banks of a river. The roots reach down and draw nourishment from the water. That is a great picture, the psalmist says, of the person who belongs to the congregation of the righteous. He or she is like that tree, drawing nourishment from God himself. You could capture the picture here in two words: stability and vitality. Stability, because the tree is planted securely. It’s healthy and it’s not going anywhere. We live in an old neighborhood. Some of the trees were there before any houses were around, and some of those trees are probably going to be there after the houses are torn down. That’s stability. But there’s also vitality: fruitfulness, leaves that don’t wither; prosperity. The psalmist says that those in the congregation of the righteous have a stability and a vitality that you can’t find anywhere else.
It’s a contrast, by the way, to what the life of the wicked looks like. The picture there is of chaff. If you had some grain back then, you’d want to separate the lightweight and useless chaff - the husk of grain. You’d put the what on the floor. Horses would tread on it and separate the grain from the husks. You’d then take a fork or shovel and throw the grain into the air. The grain is heavier, so it would fall to the ground. The useless chaff would be blown away with the wind. The psalmist says that this is what it’s like to belong to the congregation of the wicked. If you are part of the wicked, then you’re not characterized by stability and vitality. You’re characterized instead by dry, dusty, windblown impermanence. You could use the words rootlessness and ruin.
You don’t always see this. Sometimes it doesn’t look this way. This, of course, doesn’t mean that those in the congregation of the righteous never have problems. They do. But it means that there’s a stability and vitality in the lives of those who have found their joy in God that you can’t find anywhere else. It reminds me of the book of Ecclesiastes, which we studied earlier this year. Apart from God, there’s impermanence. I can take you to believers who are in their 70s and 80s - some of them are here - and who have been through very trying times, but they are stable and vital because their roots have stayed connected to the source of nourishment that has sustained them their entire lives.
That’s what it looks like to belong to the congregation of the righteous: to take our cues from God rather than the wicked, and to delight in his Word. And that’s what the results are: stability and vitality. There’s one more question.
Third question: What is their destiny?
You may have heard that they came out with a study this week. Harvard University researchers found that the type of foods we choose to eat may have a bigger impact on weight control than portion sizes. They found that if you eat certain types of foods, even in small quantities, you will gain weight over time. For instance, for every additional daily serving of potatoes people ate, they gained more than 1 1/4 pounds over a four-year period. There is a trajectory to these things. Over time, you will see that present decisions lead to long-term results.
Here’s what we see in this passage. There are long-term implications to whether you are part of the congregation of the righteous, or whether you join the wicked. Verses 5 and 6 say:
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
This is why this psalm is so serious. This is not some game we are playing. The psalm asks us to consider what we will do when the end comes.
As you know, William and Kate are in Canada this week. There are all kinds of preparations to get ready for them. You can bet that a host of people right now are working hard to get everything ready so that when the moment comes, every event will be ready.
The psalmist says that some will not be ready for the time when the judgment comes. It’s a scary picture for the wicked. They will have no justification (they won’t stand); they won’t have any communion with those who are righteous; nor will they remain (they will perish). In contrast, God knows the way of the righteous. This is ongoing. It doesn’t mean that God just has some knowledge of the righteous. He continues to know them; he sees every step they take, every twist and turn. It means that God is intimately and personally concerned with the steps that they take.
That is why the psalmist begins here. There is nothing more important than understanding that before you can enter into the rest of the psalter, you know where you stand. There are really only two ways to live. There’s no middle ground. You can choose to be blessed by taking your cues from God and delighting in him; if so you’ll have stability and vitality, and God will know you. Or you can choose the path of the wicked, which is choosing rootlessness and death and judgment. It’s that stark. That’s where the psalms begin.
So let’s close here by asking you to examine your life. There’s nothing more important. Nothing is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous. But then I want to remind you that in all of history there has only ever been one person who has met the ideal of the godly person represented in the psalm. This is good news for us. The reality is that the best among us falls short. The good news is that we have a Savior who can transform us into the type of people we read about in this psalm. He is able to take us regardless of our past and forgive us of our sins, and transform us so that we can be people who delight in God’s Word and who are planted like these trees. I invite you this morning to join the congregation of the righteous - to discover the joy that comes as we enter into the psalter. Nothing, the psalmist says, is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous.