Wisdom for the Soul
November 3, 2019
Today we are concluding our sermon series on the Psalms as a mirror for our souls. The past few weeks we have seen how the Psalms express the full range of emotions that we experience in our lives – including joy, anger, sadness – and they show us how to come to God, no matter what we are feeling. Anger compels us to pray for God’s justice. Joy can turn to praise for God’s blessings in our life. Sadness and pain can be opportunities to express our longing for God’s healing. But these psalms not only teach us how to pray, but they reveal to us what lies at the depths of our human souls. They show us how to be authentically human and to not be ashamed of any of our emotions, but to let them be occasions to respond to God.
But if we were raised in America or have been baptized in American culture, most of us are taught to have the emotional range of a teaspoon. Happiness is the primary emotion we are conditioned to strive after; all other emotions are less than. We all want to be happy. Billboards, commercials, salesmen will try to sell us anything and everything under the sun to aid us in our quest for that type of happiness that seems to be oh so elusive. Buy this weight-loss pill, get this new car, you need this new Iphone, take this vacation. We take the bait and we buy that new thing or that new experience, which makes us happy for a time, but only for a time.
Eventually we’re right back where we started, unhappy, unfulfilled, looking for that next thing, that next fix that will make us happy again, that will fill the hole we sense in our souls. Most of us I think understand that you can’t buy happiness, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. How much of our time and money is spent pursuing that fleeting emotion of happiness? What is the point of life if not to be happy? Doesn’t God want us to be happy?
Our passage today is the very first psalm in the book of Psalms. It is the preamble, the introduction to the whole book; it sets the stage for the next 149 psalms that follow. And the very first word of this introduction is “happy”. “Happy is the person who…”. And then it tells us how to be a happy person. It seems that not much has changed over the last 2500 years since this psalm was written. Even the Hebrews in 5th century BCE needed instruction on the pursuit of happiness.
And straight from the pen of the psalmist, we read: “Happy is the person who bought a new boat. Happy is the person who binge watches Netflix in their free time. Happy is the person who got that Lego set they always wanted for Christmas.” Huh, your Bibles don’t say that? Must be a translation error (sarcasm). Unfortunately for many of us, that is not what we read in this psalm. What we do read though, is “Happy is the person who delights in the law of the Lord. Happy is the person who meditates on God’s law day and night. Happy is the person who lives a righteous life.” …Now, I don’t know about you, but none of that sounds like much fun to me. Meditating on God’s law day and night is not exactly the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about doing something that will make me happy.
So what’s going on here? Does this psalm hold any promise of guiding us in a happy life, or is it too ancient, too far-removed from our 21st century American context to hold any wisdom for us? As you can probably already guess based on the fact that I’m preaching on this psalm, I do think it carries more wisdom for us in our contemporary context than we may think at first glance.
Psalm 1 begins with happiness. But this type of happiness that our psalmist has in mind is a little different than what comes to our mind when we hear the word happiness. Our understandings of happiness are often warm, fuzzy and without complications. Almost like a state of nirvana where everything is just right and there is no pain, no anxiety, no troubles. But in Hebrew, the word happy, ‘ashre, comes from the same root word that means to walk or to journey through life. Happiness then, in the Hebrew mind is connected to moving forward, to advancing and growing in life.
Happiness isn’t a fleeting emotion of warm and fuzzy feelings, but it is a deeper expression of joy at the fruitfulness of one’s life. Such an understanding of the emotion evoked by the psalmist suggests that following the instruction of God allows the individual to move forward, to develop, to grow in life, and thus produce happiness. This type of person who is happy, who is growing and journeying forward in a life with God is described as one who is righteous, in contrast to one who is wicked – someone who is not growing or moving forward in life, but has stagnated.
What this psalm is doing then is offering wisdom on what the life of a happy person looks like, what the life of a righteous person entails. It may be strange for these ideas of happiness and righteousness to be connected, because to some of us righteousness is boring and takes work. Being righteous means doing the right thing even when we don’t want to, it means taking up our cross and following Jesus, which does not sound like a happy walk in the park. But in the Hebrew mind, happiness and righteousness were deeply connected.
Our psalmist wants to show us what the life of a righteous person looks like, because happiness is found where righteousness is pursued. Now righteousness is one of those Christianese words we throw around a lot at church, but that we don’t necessarily know what it means. Righteousness literally means to be in right relationship with God, others and self; it means to act rightly or justly. Our psalmist takes this notion and expands it, showing us in rich terms what the life of a righteous person entails. And here in Psalm 1, the life of a righteous person is characterized by three attributes.
First, the life of a righteous person is active. Passages such as this one are commonly read by contemporary Christians as a call to live in quiet contemplation of Scripture and solitary prayer. Makes sense how we get there, right: the psalmist states that for the righteous, “their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” The law here refers to God’s guidance for God’s creation about how best to live both individually and communally. The righteous meditate upon this life-giving guidance day and night.
However, here, the Hebrew word, hagah, which is often translated as “meditate”, can also be translated as to “groan, to utter, to speak or to plot.” As Hebrew Bible professor Yolanda Norton writes: “The spiritual practice commonly outlined by Psalm 1 has commonly been read as a kind of silent, solitude practice of meditation. However, for this to be true of the author’s context it would presume that the author’s audience had someone else tending to their basic needs for survival…Very few people in the ancient world, or today, have the luxury of sitting in solitude with [their Bible] all day.
“However, reading [hagah] as plotting, moaning, and speaking suggests that rather than passive reception of God’s word, our call is to act meaningfully and intentionally towards God’s guidance. In this context, our relationship with [God’s guidance] should be to read, question, discuss, engage the text in ways that impact our daily living. Meditation then becomes active participation in the world in ways that demonstrate God’s presence in the world.” To meditate on God’s guidance day and night then means to actively engage God in our relationships, our jobs, our homes, our trips to the store. It means to wrestle with what it means for God to be present in every part of our lives; it means to struggle to see glimpses of God’s fingerprints everywhere, even and especially in the places we don’t expect them to be.
Meditation then isn’t a sedentary or solitary act we perform in our bedrooms with the door closed, but it is performed in the everydayness of our lives. We meditate on God’s life-giving guidance as we drive our car, as we interact with the cashier at Safeway, as we serve at Feed Cheney, as we stand in line at the DMV. We groan, utter, speak about, plot and struggle to understand what it is God is doing right now, in this interaction, in this relationship, in this place. So the life of the righteous is active in its pursuit to engage God in every nook and cranny of life.
Second, our psalmist insists that the life of the righteous person is fruitful. Happy is the righteous person who meditates on God’s law day and night, because they will be like a tree, planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season, whose leaf does not wither and in all that they do they prosper. Happiness is found in a life that is fruitful, that bears something of substance and significance. This is contrasted with the wicked, whose life bears only chaff. Chaff is the unusable material separated from wheat during the threshing process. It has no weight to it and is easily swept away by the wind. The life of the wicked has no substance, no meaning, no significance to it; the legacy of their life is easily blown away by the winds of time. But the life of the righteous has a substance and a weightiness to it. It has purpose and direction, and bears fruit for others to eat of and enjoy.
Wisdom psalms such as this one are meant to evoke self-reflection. When you examine your life, or better yet, if someone else were to examine your life, would they characterize you as a tree, bearing fruit of substance and weight; or would they characterize your life as chaff, an inconsequential pursuit of things that do not matter. Are your communities better off because you are a part of them? Is God’s love and grace more evident in a place after you’ve been there? Do you live for yourself or do you live to bear fruit that can give nourishment and life to others? These are questions we would all do well to ponder.
Finally, and most importantly, according to our psalmist the life of the righteous person is connected. It is connected to the Source and Giver of life. The tree can only grow and bear fruit because it is planted by the stream of water – its life source. A tree will die eventually without a water source. So too, a righteous person will die spiritually without the Source of True Life. We are the tree that must dig our roots deep into the stream of water; our lives must be deeply connected to God, the Giver and Sustainer of Life. Apart from water a tree cannot bear fruit. Apart from God, a righteous person cannot live a fruitful life of any substance and weight.
A tree that bears fruit is also deeply connected to its ecosystem. It is not solitary and it does not stand alone. It is intricately connected to the other trees, the plants, the animals, the insects, the weather of its particular environment. The life of trees is tied to the life all around them. The same is true of the righteous person. The righteous person is deeply and intimately connected to their ecosystem. They put down roots in relationships, they give and receive nourishment with the life around them. The righteous person is in community, giving life and receiving life. Apart from community, there is no righteousness, no happiness, no life. Trees were created to bear fruit. We were created to live in right relationship with one another. To try to live any other way will only slowly kill us.
I’ve thrown a lot of concepts at us today that I think need to be tied together. Psalm 1 is the introduction to the whole book of psalms. It gives wisdom as to what constitutes a happy life. A happy life is equated with a righteous life. A righteous life is one that is active – it engages God out in the world, in the everydayness of life; it does not passively receive God’s guidance, but it wrestles with it, struggles to understand it and seeks to incorporate it in ordinary life. A righteous life is also one that is fruitful – it is a life that has substance and purpose to it; it doesn’t exist for itself, but it bears fruit to nourish and give life to others. Finally, a righteous life is deeply connected to the Source of all life, God.
These are great bits of wisdom, but how do they relate to the rest of the psalms? That’s a great question, engaged listener. Psalm 1 lays out a picture of the righteous life; the rest of the psalms show us how to live that righteous life. The content and emotions in the psalms are messy, just as our lives are. They are full of every emotion and experience under the sun: sadness, joy, thirst for vengeance, doubt, feelings of betrayal, dealings with trauma, fear of God’s abandonment. It’s all there. John Calvin rightly called the Psalms “the anatomy of all the parts of the human soul.” In the Psalms we find what it means to be truly human; we find what it looks like to respond to God out of every experience, every emotion we have. The psalmist’s call to meditate on God’s life-giving guidance day and night is a call first and foremost to speak the human words of each psalm to God, that is, to lament, petition, give thanks, and to praise God day and night.
This is what truly characterizes a happy and righteous life. It is a life that brings every emotion, every part of the human soul into contact with God; it doesn’t hide anything. The righteous person does not have everything figured out, they do not have their life cleaned up and mess-free, they do not always do the right thing, but they actively seek to plant themselves by the Stream of Water, by God the True Source of All Life, they seek to drink deeply of its life-giving nourishment, and they seek to journey forward in a life connected with God. Happiness is found not in the fleeting pursuit of meaningless things and experiences, but happiness is found in a soul that is deeply connected to God and to others. God alone gives us the nourishment needed for a fruit-bearing life. Happy is the one who meditates day and night on the life-giving guidance of the Lord. Happy is the soul that is intimately known and loved by God.