From: Psalm 1
On: September 15, 2013 evening service
By: Sean Higgins
Or, The Perennial Power of Inspired Lyrics
In Genesis 3, God drew a dividing line between two groups. They have been called by different names throughout history, but these families have always been around and usually within close proximity to each other. Each group has its own way of looking at the world, its own system of values, its own approach to doing things. Sometimes the similarities overlap, but each family comes from a distinct origins: either the seed of the woman or the seed of the serpent. There are only two seeds and they can be identified by their songs.
Talk of two tends to get us into trouble. We are not dualists, or at least we are recovering from the dualistic domination. We do not believe that thinking is godly and that sheet music is going to burn. In fact, bad thinking will burn just as fierce and a good hymnbook will last forever; the Psalter is the foremost example. We are not dualists, but we are antithetical-ists. We identify the dividing line and the battle between sides and the constancy of conflict. We also recognize that songs do more than set the mood back in the camp around the fire after a hard day of fighting; songs are weapons in the heat of the clash.
The Book of Psalms not only provides us with a pattern, it urges us to asses the perennial power of inspired lyrics. The words do matter. Our attempts to argue that they don’t means we’ve been brainwashed by the wrong sorts of songs. In other words, saying that the words don’t matter proves that the wrong lyrics are powerful, too.
Maybe it seems that I’m making too big a deal about music and lyrics and songs and singing. This is supposed to be an expository sermon about Psalm 1 and not one of the six verses refers to a single instrument, choir, or melody. Instead, we read words such as counsel (verse 1), delighting in the law (verse 2), and meditating on the law (verse 2). So, yes, words are important, but does saying that lyrics are important go too far?
It might be except that Psalm 1 introduces 149 more psalms, 149 more songs. A psalm is a song accompanied by instrument(s). The entire book is arranged into five sections and many individual songs have special occasions or performance instructions. Each individual psalm has purpose, and so does the order, flow, and aim of the whole collection. Psalm 1, therefore, has special application for singing Scripture, especially as we remember that the original audience didn’t have their own copy of God’s Word. A melody set to meter would enable meditation and enhance memory. It might even be enjoyable.
The reality that we have our own printed (or digital) Bibles does not, as both observation and experience reveal, tether our unfocused thoughts. We are not better meditators because we have better technology.
However, before we blame ubiquitous technology, modern media channels, the explosion of instant information, and distractions at the speed of light through fiber optic cables, our problem is much more personal. Our problem is lack of delight in the Lord and His Word.
Songs, good songs with the right lyrics, even inspired lyrics, can help. They have perennial power to produce healthy and fruitful people in a world of withered and barren playlists.
Psalm 1 is a manifesto. It sets the tone of antithesis between the two types of persons in Psalms 2-150 and in the world and forever. It distinguishes the associations, the productivity, and the end for each song. Two verses, two seeds, two songs.
Verse 6 summarizes the antithesis between “the way of the righteous” and “the way of the wicked.” The first half of the Psalm introduces us to both characters and offers incentive.
The righteous man is known not only by who he does or doesn’t hang out with, he is known by the source of his decision making. Verses one and two form one sentence with two sides, starting with the negative. If a man wants to be happy, he must choose wisely.
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;
(Psalm 1:1, ESV)
The song and the Psalter begin with an offer of blessing. Blessed means happy, and truly so. The pitch to the entire book is divine promise and favor and life. We’re not learning lines to play our part in God’s global musical production, we’re offered blessing.
The blessed man is known by three “nots”. First, he walks not in the counsel of the wicked. He does not follow advice from the ungodly. He doesn’t listen to their opinions.
I can hardly imagine what the writer of Psalm 1 would have thought about talk radio, cable news, podcasts and vodcasts, or the magazine wall at the airport. Then, if were paying attention, add to those inputs the narrative lessons of so many sitcoms, summer blockbusters, and Spotify playlists. We walk into the road without looking and no wonder we don’t know what unhappy truck hit us.
We may not write letters to Dr. Phil but the presets on our car radios outline our commute thinking. Our earbuds change more than the beat to our step, they change the counsel and course we follow. It’s been said, “Garbage in, garbage out.” But it’s more likely, “Garbage in, garbage dump.”
The blessed man also does not stand in the way of sinners. Stand is not simply stopping, it is taking up a certain perspective. We could say he doesn’t join the gang of those who regularly disobey. Standing with rebels on the wrong side of the lines God draws is no good.
And third, he does not sit in the seat of scoffers. Even if there is not a digression in walk, stand, and sit, the scorner or scoffer is at the boldest stage of disobedience where he mocks righteousness and/or God. Scoffing doesn’t have to be loud or obnoxious. Scoffing in a story looks like laughing at the guy who thinks marriage is only between one man and one woman. The scoffer jokes about it; the blessed man avoids the cynics. He isn’t worried about fitting in. He’s alright standing out.
Taken together, walking, standing, and sitting represent all of life lived apart from God. This man is immersed in a culture, tuned in to a particular worldview channel. The blessed man disassociates with the advice, the approach, and the assembly of the wicked.
A man is known not only by the company he keeps but also by the standards he adjusts to. He knows who to give his attention to.
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
(Psalm 1:2, ESV)
A different channel interests the happy man. Someone else makes him happy. His delight is in the law of the LORD. He doesn’t need or want the approval of the world. His chief desire is the direction of Yahweh. Law includes the Torah but it often included all of God’s teaching, all of His Word. I have no doubt that the arranger of the Psalter saw the Psalms as included in the delight. The law isn’t as much about legislation as about lyrics.
Because the blessed man delights in the law, on his law he meditates day and night. For us, meditate is internal, quiet, and private. The lyric in Psalm 1, though, is onomatopoetic; it sounds like how you say it: hāgāh, a muttering, a moaning (Isaiah 16:7), a growling (Isaiah 31:4). Apparently the Hebrews didn’t read in their head, they made noise. They didn’t have quiet times. For that matter, they didn’t have quiet times; they mulled all day long; there isn’t any other time than day and night. This also indicates that true meditation isn’t clearing the mind, it is redirecting the mind to the right things.
Here is yet another clue that Psalms are for singing. When we sing psalms we are meditating and (hopefully) delighting in God’s Word. When we get a song stuck in our head, is that not part of what it means to mediate day and night? In the introduction message I referred to Psalms as a soundtrack, the music always playing in the background. Put it on Repeat. Memorize, mediate, make melody (Ephesians 5:19). Mutter the Psalms under your breath, it will be alright.
Also, doesn’t this reveal a problem with much of our 7-11 worship songs? Our 7-11 corn dog choruses leave us gnawing at the stick after a couple bites of meditation.
Here is one of the greatest similes in Scripture; the man who delights in deliberating on the law produces fruit and foliage in plentiful quantities. He is prolific.
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.
(Psalm 1:3, ESV)
Consider the word planted. We usually think of roots, deep roots, and that fits. This singing man has stability, a firm foundation. But even more purpose is here. He is like a tree planted, someone planted or even transplanted the tree on purpose by streams of water or maybe irrigation canals. The tree was put in a place to flourish. There are streams of water, an abundance of water for life.
The tree yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither. This tree is always green but not an evergreen. It is a deciduous tree, a leaf-growing fruit-bearing tree. It is bright green. It’s fruit is juicy.
And in all that he does, he prospers. The picture returns to the man, not just the tree. There is a solidity, a sweetness, a sap to his life rooted in God’s Word. He doesn’t feel gypped to be planted in one place.
It is not always greener on the other side of the fence.
This is worse than opposite of the blessed, righteous man. The wicked man’s life is not prolific, it is pointless and useless.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
(Psalm 1:4, ESV)
I was expecting a different sort of tree, maybe a bush. Instead of deep roots near flowing water, shallow roots on the surface in a dusty patch of the field. Instead of fruitfulness, always barren with brittle brown branches rather than leafy green. But in light of verse 4, a brittle, barren tree would be an upgrade.
The wicked are like chaff that the wind drives away. The comparison isn’t between two types of trees or two locations for the same type of tree. The juxtaposition is between a thriving tree and a hollow husk. Dry rather than wet, disconnected rather than rooted, useless rather than prosperous, dead rather than living. A winnowing fork throws the wheat into the air and the chaff is so light, so hollow, that the slightest breeze blows it away. It is good for nothing except illustration, like a lot of pop music.
Hollywood makes a killing on twerking chaff. We are supposed to see the true story and avoid that path, but we can’t because we’re singing their songs.
It’s not good now and it gets worse. Verses 5 and 6 are sentence with three consequences.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
(Psalm 1:5–6, ESV)
When the winnowing fork of judgment comes, the chaff won’t make it. For however many social networks they cultivated, they won’t be welcome with the true community of righteous. Verse 6 puts the two together for final contrast, for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
God is committed to love and strengthen a singer, but the end of the sinner is a dead end with no refrain. Consider the end of the wicked man. He is miserable now and headed to destruction. God will have no problem dealing with him; he’s chaff.
Psalm 1 is a song of exhortation, a song that invites a man to a fruitful and happy life. Two men, one blessed and prosperous and cared for by the Lord, the other unsteady and perishing and judged by the Lord. It is an antithesis in song.
As the opening Psalm it invites us to be fruitful, it invites us to flourish, it invites us to life. We can be watered not withered, alive not dead, firm and fruitful and with a future.
We consume information like no generation before us. Some studies suggest that in one week we consume and process as much information as our grandparents processed in their lifetimes. How much do we allow advertisements to determine our direction? Men spend millions of dollars to advise us in our down moments (many of those commercials include a ditty). How often do we follow their counsel? How many digital scoffers do we follow on Facebook or watch on YouTube? Do we starting moving to their cynical sway? Their fear-based perspective? Are we more informed by the world or the Word? We are in a serious battle for our meditation delights, which is part of the reason that singing Psalms is so important.
We underestimate the power of music for meditation purposes, for shaping our attitudes and shaping our community. How will you mediate day and night on God’s law?