Moving Beyond Mockery
1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. 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, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. 4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
Our American society revels in its ability to poke fun at itself and others. We have a reputation as a sarcastic, condescending, and sneering culture. From Stephen Colbert to Rush Limbaugh to South Park (with multiple sitcoms, celebrities, pundits, and bloggers wedged in between), we are a society that laughingly embraces mockery as if it was art. But it’s not; far from it.
Following in the genre of Wisdom Literature, Psalm 1 (the “Introduction” to the entire psalter) lays out two opposing choices: Sinfulness versus righteousness. This contrasting between two options occurs often in the the Old Testament and is seen also in the New Testament. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has a very strong Wisdom tone and structure to it as well, as it also begins the same way with “Blessed are…”
Though the Bible often lays out these opposites of sinful -vs- righteous within its stories and lessons, scripture is not naive about the fuller complexity of human nature. Look carefully at the venerated “heroes of the faith” (Heb.11) and you’ll find complicated humans who exemplify a messy mix of both good and bad; Abraham with his lying, Moses with his murder, and David with his adultery prove that obvious point.
But even so, the Bible still sets forth the plumbline of righteousness to guide us. Cue Psalm 1.
In Psalm 1:1, there is a fascinating ramp-up of evil: It’s a threefold layer of sin beginning with a lingering “walk”, followed by stopping for a curious “stand”, and ending with a comfortable “sit”. In that order God warns his people. And then in the verses that follow (vs.2-6), he lays out the good news within the construct of His righteous alternative.
1. PROBLEM: The Man-Centered Life.
Without God’s active intervention, each of us will gravitate towards living a life apart from God, centered on self. We see this negative progression playing out in verse 1, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers”. Notice the use of action verbs in this threefold evolution.
First, walking in the “counsel” (the Hebrew ‘etsah also translates as “advice”) of the wicked; actively listening to, and living according to, the guidance or opinion of those with man-centered philosophies that steer us away from the full life Christ offers. The psalmist continues.
Second, standing (the word ‘amad can have a militant tone; “remain, take a stand”) in the way of sinners. This is the same word used of Ruth who stood firm in fields all day long gleaning grain (Rt 2:7). Within this paradigm, the standing progresses beyond mere listening into joining in the chorus of evil; swaying others away from the pure path of God by our own example. Again, the psalmist continues.
Third, sitting (yashab is also used of stubborn Jonah sitting in the shade; Jon. 4:5) in the seat of mockers. The word for “seat”, mowshab, translates “dwelling place” and is also used in Ezekiel 34 to signify the location where the true good shepherd will bring his sheep (vs.13). The word is used to describe a place of resting and remaining; a parking spot for the soul.
To dig even deeper, we discover that this Hebrew word for mockers (also scoffers), lê·ṣîm, only appears in the Bible one time (here in Psalm 1), but that a variety of forms of the word appear elsewhere, rounding out our understanding: In Job 16:20, Job’s friends are called scoffers and in one of the Proverbs (1:22), Wisdom personified cries out in the street, “How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?”. Even more incriminating is elsewhere in Proverbs (14:9) where it translates, “fools mock at the guilt offering” (NRS & ESV) or “fools mock at making amends for sin” (NIV).
The progression of sin is easy to see. It begins with being open to, listening to, and letting bad advice (contrary to God’s Word and ways) shape our thinking. Then it transitions into more of an active participation. And lastly, it settles comfortably into the place of mocking at righteousness; even mocking at the need for God and the guilt offering that Christ provides on the cross.
2. SOLUTION: The God-Centered Life.
There are many etymological tidbits related to the word roots and usages in this Psalm, but let’s not lose the forest for all those trees. The solution to the problem of verse 1 is found in the verses immediately afterwards and it’s all about prayerfully and humbly letting the Word of Christ (the scriptures) transform us from the inside out, by the power of His Holy Spirit.
Notice the significance that the three-fold problem of verse 1 are all action verbs, yet the righteous alternative that follows are all cognitive or being verbs. This because the solution is not something we do, but something that’s done to us, that we allow to refocus our lives. Not a passive “being”, but an active “being”.
First, one who becomes blessed is one who delights in the law of the LORD (vs.2). Here “law” (elsewhere, “law and prophets”) is a synecdoche, a part standing in for the entire whole, and signifies the entire scriptures. The psalmist here isn’t suggesting a delight or pleasure in the Ten Commandments, per se (though that is part of it), but in the full revelation of God across the entire Old Testament. Also, the strong case can be made to include that which was to be encapsulated in future writings (the coming prophets along with the gospels and epistles, the New Testament).
Second, he/she is also described as one who meditates on the scriptures day and night (vs.2). The Hebrew hagah, translates as “moan, meditate, speak, and imagine”. This isn’t describing brief and shallow morning devotions, but a deep and ongoing relationship with the Word of God. There is a purposeful, vocal, and creative element here; engaging the many senses and the fullness of thought. Much like in Joshua 1:8, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success”. A continuous cognition of and transformation by His Word.
Third, he/she is compared to a “tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (vs.3). The word “planted” (shathal) means to be deliberately transplanted. That the tree is there by the water is not by accident. See also Psalm 92:13, “planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God”. When we are delighting and meditating on the Word, we are like trees that drink in deeply of the streams (notice the plural) of living water, referring forward to Christ himself (John 7:38, Rev 7:17). In and through us He yields His good fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) to bless all of his creation.
That the leaf doesn’t wither (vs.3) speaks to the constancy, consistency, and reliable growth of a garden. If the proper nutrients are present (sun, rain, soil), the plant will organically grow and bear fruit. And there’s an intimation of quietness and longevity as well: We don’t hear or see a tree grow when we are watching it; but rather we see the growth in retrospect over the passing of time. This because the LORD himself (vs.6) is the master gardener who directs the spiritual health and growth of all his plantings.
In case we miss the obvious, the psalmist is ultimately pointing forward to Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is both the complete fulfillment of the “law” of God and He is the living stream(s) of water which flow from God.
As followers of Christ, we too become truly blessed when we allow His Spirit to transform us beyond the progressing paradigm of the default man-centered life (manifested by mockery) and towards the refreshing and refreshed God-centered life which is only found in Jesus Christ.
NOTE: Lectionary Calendar for July 11: “Benedict of Nursia” (Abbot of Monte Cassino c.540)