I suspect that few of us have given much thought to the order of the psalms, but it seems obvious that Psalm 1 is placed at the beginning for a reason. It sets the tone for the psalter and introduces a worldview that will be repeated again and again in the psalms that follow: namely, that the righteous prosper and the wicked do not. The distinction is made with very little nuance in Psalm 1: The righteous are depicted as strong and stable, like trees whose roots go deep into the soil. “Everything they do shall prosper,” claims the psalmist. On the other hand, the wicked are ungrounded and are tossed about like chaff before the wind.
Several of the psalms that follow in the psalter will object to this claim. They will wonder openly why the wicked often prosper and why the righteous sometimes fail, when this psalm seems to promise otherwise. More than one psalmist voices the lament, “Why? Why do the wicked prosper?”
It’s a fair question and a reasonable objection. But modern-day readers may also object to this psalm because we dislike sorting people into such polarized categories. Many of us know people who, though they may not be ‘religious,’ are nevertheless very fine people. Many of us also know people who, though they identify as religious, are not as righteous as they pretend to be. Someone once said, “I would rather make a business deal with a good unbeliever than with a bad Christian.”
So, if Psalm 1 is a tone-setting psalm, what are we to do with its overly simplistic worldview? If we recognize that not all of the “righteous” are flourishing like trees planted by streams and not all of the “wicked” are being blown away like chaff, what do we have to say about this psalm?
One possible response is to take a long view. For now, we can agree that life is more nuanced than what this “good vs. bad” worldview allows. But perhaps we could say that in the long run and from the perspective of eternity, this will be how it all turns out. The righteous will triumph in the end, while the wicked will be condemned.
But even this feels less than satisfying. It may be true, but it seems like a too-easy escape from the difficulties posed by a straightforward reading of Psalm 1.
Here’s another option: Perhaps we could set aside the simplistic distinction between ‘righteous’ people and ‘wicked’ people and agree at least that in this world there are lifestyles, there are choices, there are patterns of being that can either contribute to the life and flourishing of others or detract from it. There are ways of living that nurture shalom and there are ways that vandalize shalom.
A person can live primarily for him- or herself, consistently choosing to feather their own nest, doing whatever it takes to achieve the kind of “success” they desire, even when it means stepping over or stepping on others to get there. But then there are others who choose service over self, sacrifice over greedy acquisition of the world’s glittering prizes. One of these kinds of people is living into the patterns that God wove into the creation from the beginning, while the other is tearing things up for the sake of self alone. Both in the short term and in the long term, one lifestyle is life-giving and honorable, while the other is harmful and despicable.
There are plenty of people who do not qualify outwardly (that is, from a religious perspective) as being “righteous” but who are living lives of self-sacrifice and service; just as there are others who wear the badge of righteousness proudly but are mean and self-serving. It may be that when we observe all this, we see what the poet of Psalm 1 saw after all: patterns of flourishing and patterns of diminishing; patterns that are life-giving and patterns of decay.
In the end, God can sort out who is finally ‘righteous’ and who is finally ‘wicked,’ who gains entrance into the eternal kingdom and who does not – (and probably there will be surprises all around when that happens) – but the notion that there is such an order to the universe is surely correct. And that may be what Psalm 1 is telling us.
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