Good and bad. Light and dark. Young and old. Rich and poor. Our lives are full of contrasts. It almost seems that we cannot define a thing except by its opposite. Rather than explaining what it is, we explain what it is not.
Apparently this is not new. Jewish poetry is characterized by just this idea. It does not rhyme, like English (and some other countries’) poetry. Instead one of the distinguishing characteristics of Jewish poetry is the couplet. Two lines next to each other either say the same thing in a slightly different way, or say a thing and then its opposite. This may be most obvious in the Proverbs or in Psalm 119. Other poems make these contrasts on an even larger scale. Such a poem is Psalm 1.
His delight is in the law of the Lord
The first two verses of the psalm include several contrasts. The obvious one is between the man who delights in God and the one who denies God. There is also the idea of day and night. But there is also a contrast between different aspects or locations of the ungodly.
The blessing is on the man who does not do three contrasting things. First, he does not walk in the counsel of sinners. Walking is a common metaphor for our journey in life. One of the apostles of Jesus, perhaps thinking of this psalm, wrote “If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the bloodBlessed is the man who does not sit in that chair, because all the scornful man gets in return is contempt. of Jesus the Messiah his son continues to cleanse us of all sin.” (1 John 1:7) Walking is a continual action. Walking in the light, or in the counsel of sinners, implies that it is not part of a short-lived association. One did not just cross the path of the sinner; he or she walked in his counsel. That person sought, listened to, and followed the advice of one who had already established that he did not pay any attention to God. The man of God, then, is one who does not follow bad advice.
The blessing is also on the man who “does not stand in the way of sinners.” This does not mean that he is standing in such a way as to block a sinner from continuing in his sinful way. He is standing in the sinner’s way, but not to impede his progress. There may be many reasons that he is standing, and not walking, but he is still in the pathway of the sinner. “Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction.” (Matt 7:13) This is contrasted with the narrow way that leads to life. Whatever his reason for standing in the sinner’s path, such a man is still standing in the wrong path. Perhaps he is standing there to cheer on the sinner who is running toward destruction. Maybe he is standing because he does not want to travel alone. By standing in that path, such a person has made a choice to associate with those who can only lead him in the wrong way. That is why a blessing is placed on the man who does not stand in that way. He is blessed because he is on God’s path. He is also blessed because those who run down that other path are likely to heap on him curses and imprecations, rather than blessings. If he were to stand in the way of sinners, and especially to stand as a witting or unwitting hindrance, all he would bring on himself would be abuse and not blessing.
The first sinner walks; the second stands. The third has sat himself down in the seat of the scornful. He is settled and comfortable. Worse, he is taking the chair of one who is not just rejecting God, as bad as that may be, or one who is a willing, but perhaps passive, sinner. He sits in the seat of the scornful. This is the braggart. This is the one who puts others down. This is the one who makes fun of those who would try to follow God’s path. Blessed is the man who does not sit in that chair, because scorn breeds scorn. All that the scornful man gets in return is contempt. “The thought of foolishness is sin: and the scorner is an abomination to men.” (Prov 24:9) Moreover, he receives the just punishment for his reproaches. “Judgments are prepared for scorners, and stripes for the back of fools.” (Prov 19:29) The man who refuses to sit in this person’s chair is blessed, because he will not receive the stripes. Instead he gains wisdom. “When the scorner is punished, the simple is made wise: and when the wise is instructed, he receiveth knowledge.” (Prov 21:11) (Do you get the idea that Solomon, like his father, had little use for the scornful person?)
In contrast to walking/standing/sitting among the sinners, the man who will be blest delights in the word of God. The immediate implication is that the one who has been previously described shows contempt for God’s word. He delights instead in sin. A second implication is that the one who meditates on the word of God will not delight in sin, and that also is a reason he is blessed.
What is the distinguishing characteristic of the person whose delight is in the law of the Lord? It is that he meditates on it day and night. This is one example of where Hebrew poetry uses a couplet to say the same thing rather than a contrast. It is almost axiomatic that what one spends his free time doing is that which holds his interest. If a person spends all his free time looking at pornography it is a foregone conclusion that his real interest is not fine literature. When a person spends every waking moment playing video games, his interest is not gourmet dining. One whose delight is the law of the Lord spends his time, day and night, meditating on that law. It is what he is interested in. It is what controls his life. He may do other things, but it all comes back to whether it complies with God’s law. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with spending some time in other pursuits. Clearly we sometimes have to spend a lot of time in providing for our families, or school work, or other important activities. Sometimes those things take up most of our time. But the blessed man is one who, even in those activities is thinking about God’s word. When watching television programs that are about other things, he still keeps God’s word in mind. And he takes opportunities to actually read the word of God, individually or with family (or both).
The tree and the straw
The next contrast between the righteous and the ungodly relates to farming. Essentially it says the former is living and the latter is dead.
In the American southwest we know the value of water, and trees. In 1902 it was said that the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico had more trees in the city limits than any city west of the Mississippi river, including San Francisco. That was because the town was on a river and had an excellent irrigation system. In Albuquerque one can trace the path of the Rio Grande by the number of trees along its banks. In a region where drought is a fact of life, a tree planted by the water is blessed more than one planted a few feet away. Such a tree is nourished and strengthened at all times. When other trees get blown over, the cottonwoods along the river stand firm. This is the man of God. In times of trouble he stands firm.
In contrast, the unrighteous man is dead and dry. When wheat is harvested, the time-honored way of keeping the good stuff is to beat the plants with a flail. Then one waits for a good breeze and throws everything up in the air. The grain is heavy enough to fall to the floor. The chaff or straw is light, and is blown away. The unrighteous man is “here today and gone tomorrow.” Worse, when the storms of life come, he has no root. He has nothing to help him through the hard times. That is not a blessed way to live.
Earlier the psalmist said the blessed man did not stand in the way of the sinner. Now he says the sinner will not stand in the judgement. He will certainly face the judge, but to stand here is in contrast to falling. The sinner, in the judgement, will not be able to stand tall and confident. Instead he will fall on his face to beg for mercy.
And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand? (Rev 6:15-17)
Sinners will not stand in the congregation of the righteous. Sinners will not walk or sit in the congregation of the righteous, either. The problem there is that it is pretty hard to find someone who has not sinned. But there is a difference between one who has sinned and one whoHe has nothing to help him through hard times. This is not a blessed way to live. continues as a sinner. Anyone that God forgives is not a sinner, unless he subsequently chooses to walk in his old ways. Anyone who can stand in the congregation of the righteous, and stand proudly, is not a sinner, because they follow God.
The psalmist says that God knows way of the righteous. He not only knows the path the righteous should walk, because he made that path; he also knows those who are walking in the path. What an awesome thought. The God of the universe can know my name. Not only know my name, but know me. After all, a lot of people may know my name but never know me. But God chooses to know the path of the righteous. Of course, there is the contrast. “The way of the ungodly shall perish.” And if God’s knowing the way of the righteous includes those on it, then the perishing of the way of the ungodly includes those on that way.
Why does that way perish? What is involved in this destruction? The fact that this line is coupled with “the Lord knows the way of the righteous” may give a hint. The way of the ungodly will perish because God does not know that way. To be out of the mind of God is destruction. The ultimate punishment is separation from God.
Good and bad. Righteous and unrighteous. Godly and ungodly. Yes, the psalm makes contrasts. Every one of them shows the righteous favorably and the ungodly in danger. They are opposites, but the psalmist makes it clear which extreme is the best.