Two Ways to Live
In 1963, Jimmy Soul recorded a song titled If You Want to Be Happy. Here’s how the chorus goes:
“If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life
Never make a pretty woman your wife
So from my personal point of view
Get an ugly girl to marry you.”
I share this with you, not because I think the song has great wisdom, but as an example of how the world is constantly sending messages to us on how we can be happy. Buy our gadget, and your life will be so much better. Don’t sweat the hard labor; hire us to come do it for you. But it isn’t just advertising. It’s perhaps even more pervasive in subtle cultural messages. Follow your heart. Don’t let anyone or anything stand in the way of your dreams. You can achieve anything if you work hard enough. You’ve worked hard; you deserve it. If that’s the way they’re going to treat you, leave them; you deserve better.
But these are not the only voices telling us how to be happy for the rest of our lives. If we have ears to hear, the God who created us and designed us and knows us intimately and loves us has something to say about how we can be happy. Turn with me to Psalm 1, and let’s listen to what God has to say.
“1 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;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 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.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.”
This Psalm presents to us two ways to live: like the righteous man or like the wicked, and it calls us to righteousness as the way to happiness. Verses 1–3 focus on the righteous man, and verses 4–6 focus on the wicked. With each, the Psalm presents a description, a comparison, and their end.
The righteous man
Let’s begin with the righteous man. “Blessed is the man.” You may be thinking, “You were talking about the pursuit of happiness.” I don’t see the word happy in this Psalm. This word translated “blessed” also means “happy;” in fact numerous translations use the word “happy” instead of “blessed.” The message is clear: You want to be happy? Be like this man.
The Psalmist begins his description of the happy man by noting three things he does not do. 1) He does not walk in the counsel of the wicked. 2) He does not stand in the way of sinners. 3) He does not sit in the seat of scoffers.
Why this threefold description? Wouldn’t one be sufficient? I don’t think the Psalmist is repeating himself unnecessarily. And I don’t think this list of three is a bullet point list that would give the same message if the order was switched. Rather, I think it’s more like a numbered list that indicates a progression from the first point to the second to the third. This progression represents an increased hardness of heart.
- The first, walking in the counsel of the wicked, focuses on who we listen to, who is influencing us.
- The second, standing in the way of sinners, focuses on our actions.
- The third, sitting in the seat of scoffers, focuses on a proud heart.
The progression of a hardened heart goes like this: We first listen to the world. We take in it’s way of thinking, its values, its way of life. Before long we begin to think like the world. We begin to value what the world values. And it’s just a matter of time before we start living like the world. And after that, it’s but a short step before we are so deep into the world’s ways that our behavior becomes a lifestyle, and we begin to look down on those who don’t live according to our standards. Old Testament Scholar Derek Kidner describes it this way:
Counsel, way and seat (or ‘assembly’, or ‘dwelling’) draw attention to the realms of thinking, behaving and belonging, in which a person’s fundamental choice of allegiance is made and carried through…the three complete phrases show three aspects, indeed three degrees, of departure from God, by portraying conformity to this world at three different levels: accepting its advice, being party to its ways, and adopting the most fatal of its attitudes – for the scoffers, if not the most scandalous of sinners, are the farthest from repentance.
So these three descriptions are not three separate groups of people; they represent a threefold description of a person growing increasingly comfortable with the world. And notice it begins with who and what influences our thinking.
The problem is that it’s difficult to detect when the world’s subtle messages infiltrate our thinking. We need to think differently; we need renewed minds. That’s why Paul writes in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). And the best way to renew our minds, to correct our thinking, is by spending time in God’s word. And that’s exactly where the Psalmist goes next.
In verse 2, the Psalmist flips the coin over. Instead of focusing on what the happy man does not do, the Psalmist presents a twofold description of the way he lives. And just like with the other side of the coin, the Psalmist begins with what influences his thinking. Instead of being influenced by the counsel of the wicked and following through that progression, the righteous man 1) delights in God’s law and 2) meditates on it day and night.
Now the passage does not specifically say anything about the man’s behavior or attitude, but I think it’s implied that God’s law shapes his behavior and attitudes. The focus, however, is on what influences him because behavior and attitude are downstream from there.
So first, he delights in the Law of the Lord. Delight is a matter of the heart. It’s an inner disposition. And what’s the object of his delight? God’s law, or God’s instruction. As Americans, or, more accurately, as sinful humans, we tend to view rules as guidelines. “Rules were made to be broken,” right? Not God’s rules. They were designed for our good, our joy.
We also tend to think of rules as a burden, not something to celebrate. But the happy person delights in God’s law. It’s his source of joy. It’s not difficult to imagine the smile on his face as he reads line after line of God’s law. God’s law is no burden to him. It’s his source of life. It feeds his soul. He delights in God’s law.
Let me ask you, “Do you delight in God’s law?” When you wake in the morning, are you excited to open up your Bible? Are you as hungry to hear from God in his word as you are for breakfast? Consider that God has given us food to point us to his word. That’s why he says in Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
Second, he meditates on God’s law. Now when you hear the word meditate, you may imagine someone sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed and their hands resting palms-up. That’s not what the Psalmist means here. This meditation is not a reference to a popular form of meditation today where people try to empty their minds. That’s not what the Psalmist means. Rather he uses the word meditation to refer to thinking deeply about something, in this case God’s law. To meditate on God’s law is to ponder it, to simmer in it, to savor it. It would be like taking a bite of rich, delicious food, closing our eyes, and focusing our attention on the wonderful flavors and textures of what is in our mouth.
Now again I think there is a significant connection between these two descriptions: delighting in and meditating on. How do these two verbs relate to one another? The first causes the latter. Delighting causes meditating. We think deeply about things we love. Our minds naturally wander in the direction of the things we delight in. You don’t have to command an engaged woman to read the letters from her fiancé; she pours over them again and again, relishing every word because she delights in them.
But I think there’s a second relationship between these two words, delight and meditate. Certainly we think about what we delight in. But it’s also true that the more we meditate on God’s word, the more we will begin to see its beauty and delight in it. So these two relationships form a cycle. The more we delight in God’s word, the more we will naturally meditate on it. And the more we meditate on it, the more we will delight in it.
Now I want us to notice what the Psalmist does not say here. He does not say, “Meditate on God’s law; then you’ll be happy.” This is not a command. No, the Psalmist is doing something beautiful here. If he simply gave a command, there would be a danger for us to make meditating on God’s word a duty, something to check off our to-do list before we go on to doing things we really want to do. That’s not what he’s after. Instead, he’s painting a beautiful picture that draws us in to delight in God’s word, he makes us hungry and thirsty for God’s law. He wants us to see it as beautiful.
And why does he take this approach? Because he knows that if we truly delight in God’s word, we will naturally meditate on it. We won’t have to be told to meditate on it.
I want to share a man’s writing that has encouraged me in this idea of meditating on God’s word more than any other. His name is George Müller, and he pastored a church in the 19th century. He writes:
I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord…Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing to give myself to prayer, after having dressed myself in the morning. Now, I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the word of God, and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, by means of the word of God, whilst meditating on it, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord.
I began therefore to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning, early in the morning. The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon his precious word, was, to begin to meditate on the word of God, searching as it were into every verse, to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the word, not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon, but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that, though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer. When thus I have been for a while making confession, or intercession, or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the word may lead to it, but still continually keeping before me that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is, that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart.
Oh, the richness of meditation on God’s word! What a blessed means of grace it is for us!
Now if verse 2 isn’t enough to draw you into the beauty of God’s word, the Psalmist continues to draw us in. He goes on in verse 3 to paint a picture of what the righteous man’s life is like. He compares the righteous man who delights in and meditates on God’s law to a tree planted by streams of water. The idea here is that this tree always has a fresh water source. It can withstand any drought. And so, it’s always green and growing; it never fails to produce fruit. Now, doesn’t that sound like a truly happy life? No matter what circumstances, the righteous man who delights in God’s law and meditates on it day and night thrives.
Why is this? Why is he able to thrive when the trials and troubles of this life hit? Because he’s grounded in God’s word. God’s word shapes the way he thinks and feels and behaves. Even in the midst of the worst of circumstances, he stands firm because he communes with God in his word. He stands firm because God’s word reminds him that God is sovereign, even over incredibly painful or troubling circumstances. He stands firm because God’s word enables him to place his hope in God and to trust in him. Even when the circumstances of life might tempt him to shrivel up, he is fed by the food of God’s word, and his soul is nourished and sustained.
Let me share a couple examples so you can see what I mean.
- When you’re feeling overwhelmed by the trials of life, imagine how helpful it would be to meditate upon Isaiah 43:1–3, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
- Or when we’re struggling with bitterness toward someone, consider Ephesians 4:31–32, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Taking some time to think deeply about God’s forgiveness of my sin would go a long way toward opening up my heart to forgive a brother who sinned against me.
So we’ve seen the description of the righteous man in verses 1–2. We’ve seen the comparison in verse 3. The last sentence in verse 3 summarizes this man’s end: He prospers in everything he does. His is a life of fruitfulness and stability.
Isn’t this the life you want? Don’t you want to be like a tree planted by streams of water? Isn’t this the life you want for your children? We must delight in God’s law. We must see it as a treasure. It is the very words of God to us. He makes himself known to us through it.
The second half of this Psalm focuses on the wicked, in contrast with the righteous man. We see a very brief description of the wicked in verse 4. They are “not so.” That’s it. Everything the righteous man is, the wicked are not. The wicked listen to the counsel of other wicked people, they live like sinners, and their hearts grow proud such that they scoff at others. They do not delight in God’s law, and they do not meditate on it for one second, let alone day and night. They are the polar opposite of the righteous man.
Just like with the righteous man, the Psalmist paints a picture of the wicked through the use of a comparison. Instead of being like a tree planted by streams of water, the wicked are like chaff that the wind drives away. They are like the dried out, worthless, basically weightless part of the plant that blows away in the wind during the threshing process. Their hearts are shriveled up, and their lives are hollow and empty. They are void of substance.
After a very brief description of the wicked and a brief comparison, the Psalmist spends the bulk of his time on the wicked focusing on their end in verses 5–6. They will not stand in the judgment. When Jesus returns to this earth and sits on his glorious throne, he will separate people as one separates the sheep from the goats. And the wicked are certainly the goats. They have no leg to stand upon before holy God. They will not be among the congregation of the righteous.
Why not? Because the Lord never knew them. He knows the way of the righteous. They are his. But he knows not the wicked. They will perish. Their end is destruction.
Beloved, this Psalm presents to us two ways to live: like the righteous man or the wicked people. It presents no middle ground, and neither does the rest of the Bible. The root difference between the righteous man and the wicked people in Psalm 1 is a matter of delight. I like the way Pastor Jason Meyer puts it, “Delight determines destiny.” This Psalm calls us to consider our own end. And the place to begin considering it is by asking ourselves, “What is the source of my delight?” Do I find my ultimate source of happiness in God and his word, or have I become so enamored by the things of this world that God and his word have become more duty than delight? Do I plow through my Bible reading so that I can get to what I really want to do that day? If so, then I would be wise to prayerfully take an honest inventory of my heart, turn from any sinful root that might be there, plead with God to give me a genuine heart-desire for him and his word, and begin meditating on God’s word.
Pointing to Jesus
Now I want to close by looking at one final observation in Psalm 1. Did you notice that verses 1–3 focus on the righteous man (singular)? This singular reference to a righteous man contrasts with the wicked, sinners, and scoffers, all of which are plural.
Who is this righteous man? Certainly Psalm 1 calls us to live like the righteous man. But do any of us live like him all the time? Do any of us always delight in God’s law and meditate on it day and night? Do any of us never walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of scoffers? Psalm 14 answers these questions:
There is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:1–3)
The reality is that this righteous man does not refer to you or me. None of us live up to God’s standard of righteousness. Though Psalm 1 calls us to live like the righteous man, we are not the righteous man. But there is one who is righteous, who never walks in the counsel of the wicked or stands in the way of sinners or sits in the seat of scoffers. There is one who always delights in God’s law and meditates on it day and night. Pastor James Montgomery Boice tells a story that unpacks who this man was:
Harry Ironside, the Bible teacher, told of a visit to Palestine years ago by a man named Joseph Flacks. He had an opportunity to address a gathering of Jews and Arabs and took for the subject of his address the first psalm. He read it and then asked the question: “Who is this blessed man of whom the psalmist speaks? This man never walked in the counsel of the wicked or stood in the way of sinners or sat in the seat of mockers. He was an absolutely sinless man.”
Nobody spoke. So Flacks said: “Was he our great father Abraham?”
One old man said, “No, it cannot be Abraham. He denied his wife and told a lie about her.”
“Well, how about the lawgiver Moses?”
“No,” someone said. “It cannot be Moses. He killed a man, and he lost his temper by the waters of Meribah.”
Flacks suggested David. It was not David.
There was silence for a long while. Then an elderly Jew arose and said,
“My brothers, I have a little book here; it is called the New Testament. I have been reading it; and if I could believe this book, if I could be sure that it is true, I would say that the man of the first Psalm was Jesus of Nazareth.”
That’s it. Jesus is the righteous man. Without him, Psalm 1 condemns me. It gives me categories for my rebellion against God. I have so completely failed to live up to God’s standard of righteousness, and I have so blatantly sinned against an infinitely holy and righteous God, I have no hope of securing my own salvation from God’s wrath toward my sin. I need someone to save me.
And Jesus is that person. Jesus is the righteous man. I have hope because I can take refuge in him as Psalm 2:12 calls me to. He bore my sin and rebellion when he died on the cross. And through God’s grace, he is my righteousness. And because he is my righteousness, there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). We are now free to enjoy him and find satisfaction for our souls in him. We are free to live like him, not out of obligation but because we delight in his law and his ways. What a glorious gospel!