“…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life….” (Deuteronomy 30:19b)
God tries to make it easy for us. Here are two ways, God says:
One way is to love God, obeying God’s commandments and walking in God’s ways. This way leads to life and prosperity.
A second way is to turn away from God, to refuse to listen or obey, to give your heart to other things, idols of your own making. This path leads to adversity and death.
Not a difficult choice, really, and yet not an easy one for most of us either.
These two paths are set before us again and again in Scripture. Take Psalm 1, the psalm appointed for today. There are two kinds of people, the psalmist suggests: the “righteous,” who have chosen the first path, and the “wicked,” who have chosen the second. (Make no mistake: you are not misreading the psalm if you take from it a fairly black-and-white picture of reality. You will also not be incorrect if you see this same pattern popping up over and over again in the rest of the Psalter.) The psalmist is making a very clear distinction between these two types of people, with not much in between by way of spiritual categories. Here’s what he says:
Righteous people do not align themselves with evil. They do not walk with those who are intent on doing evil, nor do they stand with them or sit with them. They refuse to join in their plans. Instead, they have dedicated themselves to God: “their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on [it] day and night” (v. 2).
As a result, they are stable and fruitful. They are strong, steady, deeply-rooted and unshakeable, “like trees planted by streams of water.” (Think of the giant sycamore trees just outside our door.) They draw nourishment from that water which leads to growth, and eventually to substance, depth, and endurability. Their lives are happy; they are not easily shaken.
The wicked, on the other hand, are unstable. They move from one thing to the next, chasing glittering things that will not last. They are like chaff – dead, useless, blown about by the wind. They lack rootedness and stability, and in the end, they are doomed (v. 6). They will not be able to stand when judgment comes (v. 5).
So there it is. A clear choice, with clear consequences. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life….”
It’s not difficult to grasp the contrast in Psalm 1. But it may be more difficult to square it with our experience in real life. Some of us might be wondering, “Is it really that clear? Can it be that black-and-white?” This is a legitimate objection for several reasons:
First, our experience tells us that most people are more of a mixed bag. Sometimes the “righteous” do wicked things, and quite often the “wicked,” those who reject God, do good things. Are any of us totally righteous or totally wicked? Experience tells us we’re more of a mixed bag.
Second, the wicked may be doomed at the final judgment and blown away like chaff before the wind, but right now they seem to be doing quite well. What’s up with that?
And third, not all the righteous are happy or prospering. In fact, plenty of them suffer quite a lot. How do we explain that?
The Bible isn’t silent about these objections. Here, for example, are the words of Job, a “righteous” man who suffered enormously in life:
Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their children are established in their presence, and their offspring before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them.
Their bull breeds without fail; their cow calves and never miscarries.
They send out their little ones like a flock, and their children dance around.
They sing to the tambourine and the lyre, and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.
They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol.
They say to God, ‘Leave us alone! We do not desire to know your ways.
What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?’
(Job 21:7-15; see also Jeremiah 12:1-3)
Job’s lament is echoed in Psalm 73, where the psalmist describes how he, too, wrestled with these questions. He opens the psalm by confessing that he “had almost tripped and fallen because [he] envied the proud and saw the prosperity of the wicked” (v. 2-3). Here’s what he saw that provoked feelings of envy in him toward the “wicked”:
…they suffer no pain, and their bodies are sleek and sound;
In the misfortunes of others they have no share; they are not afflicted as others are;
Therefore they wear their pride like a necklace and wrap their violence about them like a cloak.
Their iniquity comes from gross minds, and their hearts overflow with wicked thoughts…
They say, ‘How should God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?’
So then, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase their wealth.
(Ps. 73:4-7, 11-12)
“They are the ancient equivalent of our ‘new atheists,’” writes Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. “They do not fear God or know God…. They are the untroubled, at ease with wealth that grows and grows – seemingly without limit. They live life surrounded by commodities that they control and possess. Indeed they treat their own bodies as commodities. Eventually they come to regard God like everything else, not as a subject to be obeyed but as yet one more commodity – only this one to be dismissed as of little value.”[i]
In his envy of the wicked who seem always to prosper, the psalmist begins to doubt his own path:
In vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence, he laments. (v. 13)
Can you identify with him? Do you sometimes cast an eye on those who deal unscrupulously and yet prosper, or those who act immorally and yet are rewarded with success and power? Perhaps you’ve thought or said to yourself at some point, “In vain have I kept my heart clean.” The road to wealth and power and success can be tempting, and it’s easy to justify the moral compromises that help us achieve our goal a little faster.
But the psalmist doesn’t follow through on the temptation to leave the path of the righteous. In fact, he has a religious experience that turns things around. Here’s how it happens:
When I tried to understand these things, it was too hard for me, [he admits,]
Until I entered the sanctuary of God and discerned the end of the wicked.
Surely, you set them in slippery places; you cast them down in ruin.
Oh, how suddenly do they come to destruction, come to an end, and perish from terror! (v. 16-19)
As he enters the sanctuary and considers these things before God, he begins to see a bigger picture; he’s able to take a longer view. This insight leaves him with two new learnings, (Brueggemann goes on to observe): First, he sees that “those whom he had previously envied have no staying power! Those who live their lives in pursuit of self-enhancement will make no significant difference in the long run, not even leaving a track in the sand. Those he had earlier envied live a life that has no enduring importance.”[ii]
I’m reminded of words spoken by Mahatma Gandhi, the great spiritual leader of India in the 20th century. “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers,” Gandhi observed, “and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.”[iii]
The psalmist learns something about the emptiness of the lives of the wicked, but he also learns something about himself. He sees how “stupid” he was to have been taken in by envy (“I was stupid and had no understanding,” he confesses, “I was like a brute beast in your presence.” [v. 22]) Brueggemann writes: “He acted like a ‘dumb ass,’ envying an attitude that had nothing to do with his true self. More important, however, he has learned – positively – what really matters in his life and in his faith… The truth of his life, he now recognizes, is that the God of covenant holds him, guides him, and eventually will receive him with honor.”[iv]
To this truth he is willing to commit his whole self:
Whom have I in heaven but you? (he writes), And having you I desire nothing upon earth.
Though my flesh and my heart should waste away, God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (vv. 25-26)
In the final verses of the psalm, he winds up affirming the message of Psalm 1:
Truly, those who forsake you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful.
But it is good for me to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge. (vv. 27-28)
So there we have it: Two ways. Two types of people. And a choice to be made. Which will you choose?
[i]Brueggemann, Walter; From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms; (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014); p. 128.
[ii]Ibid, p. 130.
[iii]Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Gandhi: An Autobiography – The Story of My Experiments with Truth; (First published in 1927; now public domain).
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