Introduction to the Psalms – Psalm 1
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When I was in college, I spent my summers working as a cabin counselor at Stony Lake Lutheran Camp in West Michigan. Every year, in late May, the staff would gather from all over the state (or in some years from across the country and around the world) to spend two weeks getting ourselves prepared for the task of carrying out that summer’s programming. One of the most important aspects of that preparation was immersing ourselves in that summer’s theme, the set of big ideas that would tie the week together and provide the structure for each day’s activities. One particular summer, I remember struggling mightily with the theme that had been selected for us by our leadership staff: Life Is Good!
On the one hand, it was a great theme for a summer camp, right? I mean, we were out in the woods of West Michigan, in a place that we as staff loved more than pretty much any other place on the planet, and we were working with people that we loved and respected and doing work that was meaningful and joy-filled and life-changing. Most days, when someone else on staff called out the question – How’s life? – it wasn’t difficult to give the standard response with enthusiasm: Life is good! On the other hand, of course, there were those days when the campers had kept me up late, or the weather had been particularly awful, or we staff people were getting on each others’ nerves after being together for seven weeks with very little break, or I’d gotten bad news from home, and it was really hard to hear that question – How’s life? – and even harder to respond, Life is good!
As we begin today’s six-week series on the Book of Psalms, I have some similar feelings. Psalm 1, which most commentators believe is placed at the head of the book of Psalms because it summarizes the outlook of the whole collection, is a sort of Life is good psalm, isn’t it?
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful.
Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on God’s teaching day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes,
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked shall be destroyed.
(Psalm 1, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)
Psalm 1 represents the conviction that God has ordered the world well, and that God has given God’s people a great gift in Holy Scripture, specifically in the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah. For the psalmist, those who heed the teaching of Scripture will be happy, fortunate, joyful, because they have committed themselves to a life of beauty and peace and wisdom and self-control, a life that accords with God’s desire for us and the whole creation. Conversely, those who refuse to adopt this way of thinking – the wicked – can expect to receive the logical consequence of their choice.
As with the whole life is good focus above, there are times when we can look at our lives and see in them the truth of this psalm: God presents a way of life that is good and pleasant and beautiful, and we can acknowledge God as the source of the happiness and joy that we are experiencing. We may indeed feel like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. But the opposite is also true. We have all experienced times in which we feel like trees planted in the middle of a desert, dried and withered, with leaves that rustle and crack in the wind, times in which nothing seems to go right, times in which the next person to ask you “How’s life?” is liable to get more than he or she bargained for.
So why start the book with this psalm? And why begin a series on the psalms with a passage whose truth might be perfectly clear one day and shadowed by pain and struggle and confusion the next? I think we start here because there’s something important in casting a vision of how the world should be. That’s precisely what’s happening here; the psalmist is encouraging those who sing these songs to orient themselves to a particular way of life, and to recognize that when things are going well, it is because of the gracious gift of instruction that aligns us and our lives with God’s purposes.* Alongside Psalm 1, of course, are the psalms of praise, songs that give us words to honor and glorify God for being holy and majestic, for creating a world of order and beauty, for choosing to dwell with us and bless us with the promise of grace. Next week, we’ll look more in depth at one of these psalms of praise, and consider how it helps us to see the world with eyes wide open to the power and presence of God being displayed throughout the earth.
Obviously, we can’t stop there, though many people would like to do so. I’ve mentioned many times before that we suffer from a spiritual malady in this country. We have a problem with how we look at (or refuse to look at) the reality of suffering. On the one hand, we have this tendency to take the logic of Psalm 1 and employ it in ways the psalmist never would. So, for example, when things go wrong for others, we assume that they haven’t been faithful, that there’s something about them that has brought God’s disfavor upon them. Similarly, when bad things happen to us, we are often overcome with guilt and shame, wondering what we’ve done to deserve it. If I had just had more faith… if I had just prayed more… if I hadn’t been so weak… none of this would have happened. When we do this to ourselves or others, we fail to recognize that we live in a world that is broken, and that good and faithful people often find themselves suffering just as much as the wicked. The psalms of lament give us language for expressing our despair, for bringing our lives in all their brokenness and pain and longing to the one who has promised to be with us. If Psalms 1 and 113 serve to orient us to a particular way of looking at the world, then the psalms of lament and trust – like Psalm 69 and 27 – serve to help us when we get thrown off balance, when suffering and pain disorient us and make us question whether or not God really has our backs.
After things fall apart, we also need handles to help us put our worlds back together. I feel confident in saying that all of us have come through suffering at one time or another and found ourselves drawn to new understandings of what it means to live with God. In some of the psalms of thanksgiving and praise – like Psalms 40 and 146 – we find language that speaks to a reoriented life of faith, a faith that knows the reality of suffering and loss and can speak with a new-found confidence in God’s power and presence in our lives.
These stages – orientation, disorientation, and new orientation – are not linear. We go through them in different times and places in our lives, and there’s no guarantee that we will move easily from one to another. But they do represent authentic expressions of what life with God looks like, and so the psalms help us to express our joys, our sorrows, our longings, and our gratitude amid all the peaks and valleys of our existence. Wherever you find yourself, it is my prayer that in the Psalms you will find language that speaks to you, that gives you comfort and hope, and that draws you into deeper relationship the God who has been revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Welcome to the journey. May we be nourished by the honesty of these songs as they echo through our lives in the days and weeks to come. Amen.
*This way of looking at the Psalms through the lenses of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation was treated at length in Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, part of the Augsburg Old Testament Studies series. I am indebted to Dr. Brueggemann for his insight into the psalms and their relevance to our lived experience of faith in God.