By Chuck Griffin
Psalm 1 (NRSV)
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Understand God’s will and live according to it, and you will find joy, prospering in all you do. Ignore God’s will, and life will be misery and loss. It is a classic theme of wisdom literature from the Near East.
On the surface, these are beautiful ideas, concepts that fit our desire for justice. Without further development, though, they can at times seem quite empty.
If Psalm 1 represented the only theme of Scripture, I would have long ago discarded my study of the Bible. The idea being expressed does not consistently match the reality of what we observe.
Too often, seemingly good people suffer. Too often, the wicked flourish. Fortunately, Psalm 1 is just one part of an elaborate picture.
The Book of Job is an equally ancient piece of wisdom literature, and it takes us in a whole different direction. You may remember the story of Job. As it begins, he fits the pattern described in Psalm 1. He is a righteous man, walking with God and prospering mightily in terms of family and wealth.
The problem arises when Satan goes to God and speculates that Job is righteous simply because life is so good for him. Let me strike at him, Satan says, and Job will curse you, God. First, Satan is allowed to strike Job’s possessions and family. Later he’s allowed to strike at Job himself, afflicting him with terrible diseases.
In all of this, Job does not curse God, and he does not relent in his assertion to friends that he has done nothing wrong. He does complain mightily at times, though, and once he begins, he moves beyond his own problems and complains about how the wicked flourish and abuse the righteous, including orphans and widows, and God seems to do nothing.
You reach a story like Job’s in Scripture, and you realize the Bible deals with some very deep subjects. We may not find satisfying answers in Job to these deep questions about evil’s persistence, but at least the questions are asked. (There is a hint in Job 19 regarding the answer to come centuries later.)
This is why it is so important for us to engage with the Bible continually throughout our lives. If we hear what seem like simple stories and lessons as children, but never return to the Bible as we experience more complex lives, we will think Scripture is irrelevant. And in the process, we will miss so much that is useful as we grow older.
When Jesus arrives in the Bible story, his teachings help us wrestle with the deeper questions while simultaneously emphasizing the early truths we have learned.
Parables are a good example. Jesus uses them to perplex us until we ponder for a while, and in pondering we discover powerful new truths. Through Jesus, we learn that God loves us in ways the Jews had scarcely imagined. God pours out on the world what seems, from our perspective, to be a most illogical love, a love unearned and undeserved.
At the same time, Jesus teaches us to never let go of what we learned from the start. We are to come to God with the faith of a child.
Thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, it is possible for us to be placed on God’s holy path simply by believing. That alone is enough to align us with God. We are made righteous and good even though we don’t deserve these labels, and all we have to do is remain firmly planted in the grace God offers. And by the way, in the end, right and wrong will be sorted out.
Psalm 1 is true. It simply needs to be read in the context of the whole Bible story.
Lord, may we rest in a secure understanding that you are the source of righteousness, and then live accordingly. Amen.