Way to Live

The book of Psalms is a collection of poetry which was originally accompanied by a stringed instrument. There are five different types of Psalms: Laments, Praise, Thanksgiving, Royal Psalms (grounded in life events of King David), Wisdom Psalms.

The book of Psalms begins with wisdom—some advice on how to live. The first word of the psalm is translated as happy or blessed. The Hebrew word relates to “walking or journeying through life.”[1] This first Psalm sets the theme for the collection of Psalms: God in the midst of real life: God in the midst of despair; God in the midst of joy; God in the midst of thanksgiving; God in the midst of life events. God is present in all aspects of life and the Psalms affirm that presence as we walk through everything that life offers us.

Happy or blessed also carries with it a sense of deep joy. This is not a temporary happiness that is based on a fleeting moment where life seems perfect or we receive something we want. Blessed does not refer to the idea that we receive what we want. These translations imperfectly suggest a joy that goes deep within a person and is essence of who they are and how they live.

“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.” In this context the wicked are the ones who resist God’s teachings and the righteous are those who choose to live according to God’s teachings.[2] Who we choose to be around and spend time with can strongly influence how we live and the choices we make. Have you noticed that being around people who are negative or angry can sometimes bring out the same emotions in us? If you are around people who are joy-filled their zest for life can be infectious.

The psalm goes on to give advice about how to determine what is right and good. The psalm suggests that the “law of God” is what should guide our actions and choices. There is a challenge with the translation here as law refers to the guidance, teaching and instruction found in the Torah – the first five books of our Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books provide the grounding for fullness of life. The reader is encouraged to meditate, to pray on this guidance from the teachings. The Hebrew word translated as meditating refers to the practice and sound of chanting the Torah. The law, in this case, is not a set of rules to be followed to the letter but the advice and instruction found in the Torah.

The Torah emphasizes the God-human relationship and the relationships among humans. Provision is made for welcoming strangers and caring for people who can’t support themselves. As well as prescribing a particular model for worship and personal piety, the outlook provided in the Torah is one that benefits the entire community.

The person who meditates, prays over, absorbs the teachings and guidance found in scripture becomes like “trees planted by streams of water.” These trees are “rooted, grounded and nourished by streams of living water.”[3] They are lush and abundant.

And now that the psalm has identified the source of joy as God’s instruction and described the results of being grounded in God’s scripture the psalm brings to light a contrast. This is the contrast with what happens when we are not rooted and grounded in God. During harvest, the grain was tossed into the air. The grain fell back to the earth to be gathered up and kept. The chaff, the husk was blown away on the wind. There is a strong contrast between the tree that is rooted deep and nourished from the source of water and the chaff that simply blows away with a gust of wind.

In this psalm the wicked are those who are unrooted, who have nothing to hold them. The wicked are the ones who deny their source in God and are unable or unwilling to be open to the wisdom of God. When life becomes challenging the wicked, the unrooted ones, are like chaff that get blown away. We need the rootedness and groundedness in God, the source of our life, for our very survival.

This psalm invites the reader to begin by making a simple choice. Do you want to be rooted and grounded in your source like a tree planted by water or will you be like the chaff that simply blows away. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville studied how Americans lived, and he observed, “Each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation a very puny object, namely himself.”[4]

Even 180 years ago there was recognition of how inward looking and individualistic North American culture has become. That individualism cuts us off from our source. If we look at the culture in which we live, we know that church attendance is dropping in many congregations and denominations and yet there are many people who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. Over the last century, North American theology has typically supported this individualism through requiring assent of particular belief systems. These belief systems often focus on me (the individual) and my faith and not on the community. The Torah, that ancient wisdom that the Psalmist is referencing is very much based in a communal theology and culture. This theology requires the individual to participate in a relationship in the Holy which then informs every aspect of an individual’s life. That life is grounded and rooted in God and takes the individual beyond themselves and into many different relationships.

As people of faith we need to root and ground ourselves in the Biblical tradition. One of the ways that the spirit is at work now is that many churches that ground themselves in God, in study of scripture, in regular practices of prayer, of welcoming the stranger—essentially returning to this psalm and the Torah that it references—are thriving. Churches that move beyond the walls of their building, that practice their faith in every aspect of daily life are alive and well.

Whose advice do we choose to follow: the cultural norms of the world or the advice of our Creator? Do we choose to hate our enemies or love them? Do we choose to ignore the diversity among us in favor of closed communities? Do we allow people to live alone in poverty because that’s just how the world is or do we seek to transform lives and communities? These are the basic questions of life that this psalm requires us to respond to by meditating on scripture and by listening for the word of God among us so we can be rooted and grounded in faith like trees planted by the water.

[1] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Psalm 1.

[2] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Psalm 1.

[3] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Psalm 1.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Wahington, DC: Regenery, 2002), 450, quoted in Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms.  (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Psalm 1.

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2 thoughts on “Way to Live

  1. Pingback: Is God Trustworthy? | Twirling Jen

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