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The Way of True Happiness: A Meditation on Psalm 1

Geoffrey C. Smith

Psalm 1
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.

All rational people, at the heart of their being, desire to be happy. This desire quietly shapes our thinking, our decision making, and our overall approach to our world. Our own happiness is often the most influential factor in the choices we make throughout life, whether small or great.

True, we may not consciously articulate this desire moment by moment. Yet it is there within us, directing us to those things we believe will make us happy and away from those things we believe will not. Really, is there anyone who does not wish to be happy? Is there anyone who would intentionally seek out misery instead of happiness?

In speaking of happiness, I am not necessarily referring to the ephemeral sort of happiness that bewitches our culture—the temporary feelings of euphoria that accompany a relaxing vacation, the winning of an award, a big promotion at work, or even a wedding. Those who pursue this type of happiness may be compared to a swimmer making his way across a great ocean by swimming from island to island. He leaves one island and, after a marathon swim, makes it to the next, where he finds a small measure of rest and refreshment. At the end of his stay, he once again dives into the ocean for another test of his endurance. His only ambition is to arrive at the next island (wherever that is!), where he will once again enjoy a few moments of relaxation before returning to the water. The islands represent those fleeting moments of pleasure which, according to the prevailing view of happiness in our culture, make the extended periods of emptiness, frustration, and disappointment bearable.

It is one of the great spiritual scandals of our day that many Christians have this very worldly view of happiness. Yet what sort of happiness is revealed to God's people in the Scriptures? Well, it is certainly a deeper and far more meaningful sort of happiness, for it is the "blessedness" of those who have been saved by Jesus Christ.

Therefore, it is an enduring sort of happiness that reaches the Christian in every part of his being. It provides him with a sense of wholeness and inner harmony, because he has been reconciled to his Creator. It provides him with a sense of value and self-worth, because he has been loved by his Redeemer. A Christian isn't cynical or sour about life, because he knows it is worthwhile; he has an abiding sense of purpose and usefulness (even in hardship) because his steps are directed by a caring Providence.

Woven into and through this happiness is an ever-increasing desire for heaven, where Christ is seated in all of his splendor and glory. This is true happiness, and it is the unique possession of the Christian, who has been raised up to new life by the Holy Spirit from the grave of spiritual death. It then becomes the task of the saints to cultivate this happiness by all the means God has provided, and to pursue godly happiness vigorously with all the effort and planning we would normally invest in any endeavor we consider to be important.

In the First Psalm, our heavenly Father wisely instructs us in the pursuit of happiness and spiritual contentment. It is a wisdom psalm; its purpose is to train and instruct the saints. It employs a teaching method common in the Scriptures (think of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16): one individual is set before us as a positive example, in order that we might imitate him; then a second individual is set before us as a warning, that we might not imitate this one.

In other words, if anyone desires true happiness, he must begin by carefully observing the life of this happy man!

As we have already observed, the blessed man is the happy man. Psalm 1 teaches us that his happiness is directly related to—and to a large degree dependent upon—his manner of life. The first notable feature of the happy man is revealed by a contrast between godly and ungodly influences (vss. 1-2). The contrast is not between two forms of companionship. If it were, the second verse would parallel the first with a threefold list of righteous associates.

As it is, Christians who live in a world opposed to God cannot help but come into varying levels of contact with sinners and scoffers (see 1 Cor. 5:9-10). In spite of this, they can still resist the influence of the ungodly by shutting their ears to the prevailing philosophies, moral standards, and general values of the culture. The happy man, therefore, is careful to protect himself from ungodly influences.

In other words, the true Christian refuses to permit the cultural consensus to shape his thinking. "If the wicked continually offend God while the scoffers mock his holy law, why should I adopt their worldview or their ethics?" he asks. So he avoids like a contagious disease the predominate beliefs of the world and turns all of his attention to God, who has made himself known in his Word.

Significantly, the happy man doesn't devote himself to God's Word out of slavish duty or superstitious fear. The study of God's Word is not a miserable burden to him, but the source of great delight. He finds pleasure in God's Word, so much so that he cannot get enough of it (making it perhaps the only addiction the Lord permits!). Therefore, he meditates on it during all of his waking hours.

Now for some, the very word meditation conjures up the imagery of an Eastern religion: while spicy incense fills the air, the mysterious word om is monotonously chanted. The more secular practitioners of this form of meditation attempt to achieve a high level of relaxation by suspending their mental processes ("Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream," was John Lennon's description).

But the Old Testament version of meditation is entirely different: the mind is fully engaged as a believer considers, ponders, wrestles with, mulls over, and generally occupies his thoughts with God's Word. To put it another way, with attention properly focused and the heart ready for scrutiny, the Christian talks to himself about the Scriptures.

The Christian practice of meditating on Scripture, though somewhat rare in our day, was considered by earlier generations of Christians to be a primary means of spiritual growth and edification. One minister compared it to a cow chewing her cud!

Recently, J. I. Packer has attempted to promote a revival of this "holy habit." In his book entitled A Quest for Godliness (Crossway Books, 1990), he describes how the practice of meditation was modeled on the sermon. Privately, alone with God's Word and Spirit, the meditating Christian would attempt: (1) to search and challenge his own heart, (2) to stir up his affections to hate sin and love righteousness, and (3) to encourage himself with God's promises (p. 24).

Packer correctly notes: "The healthy Christian is not necessarily the extrovert, ebullient Christian, but the Christian who has a sense of God's presence stamped deep on his soul, who trembles at God's Word, who lets it dwell in him richly by constant meditation upon it, and who tests and reforms his life daily in response to it" (p. 116).

The Christian must not stop here, content with the superior moral system revealed in Scripture. The happy man meditates on Scripture day and night because he discovers God himself in it! Christian meditation is not simply pondering a code of ethics (however valuable this might be). It is much more! In fact, it is vital communion with God himself. In other words, the truly happy man is happy in God! As the Psalms elsewhere say,

Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways (Ps. 119:1-3).

I desire to do your will, 0 my God; your law is within my heart (Ps. 40:8). (The Hebrew verb for "desire" is related to the noun "delight" in Psalm 1:2. How appropriate it is that these words are, ultimately, the words of Jesus Christ, who always did what was pleasing to his Father [see Heb. 10:3-10; John 8:29].)

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, 0 God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Ps. 42:1-2).

Meditation, therefore, is valuable for two reasons. First, it promotes genuine piety in a believer by providing God's rule for living his life (Ps. 119:11). Second, meditation on God's Word enriches a believer's love affair with God! In fact, the former (obedience to commands) has no meaning apart from the latter (love for God). We must not stumble over this: law-keeping, no matter how careful and exact it is, never pleases God if it does not proceed from a heart of love for God. If we forget this, we may begin treating the Bible superstitiously, as if a bare knowledge of its words were sufficient for our happiness and contentment.

The happy man loves the Scripture and meditates on it because, for the duration of his sojourn in this world, it is his only reliable source of the true knowledge of God himself. Authentic meditation, then, is not a mere religious ritual. Rather, it is an expression of intimate fellowship with the living God.

Part 2

God's people are always surrounded by wicked influences. The psalmist, aware of this danger, devotes himself day and night to meditation on God's Word as his sturdy defense. He knows that through the Word, the Holy Spirit draws near to his people with words of solace, guidance, encouragement, rebuke, and promise, protecting and reassuring them as they dwell in the midst of unrighteousness. So why has meditation become a lost art? Are there mightier fortresses than our God? Is there a safer refuge for the saints than the protective wings of Jesus Christ?

Jesus' instruction in Matthew 7:24-27 is very much to the point: "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."

The distinguishing quality of the blessed or happy man—in this case, the man who built his house on a solid foundation—is that his entire life is dedicated to carefully obeying God's Word. The happy man is not simply the one who believes that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, or who has a genuine leather Geneva Study Bible with his name engraved on the cover, or who attends a church where the Bible is read from the pulpit and found in the pews. Rather, he so cherishes every jot and tittle of Scripture and so delights in obeying it, that he must have God's Word as his food and drink or he will shrivel up and die.

Therefore, all Christians must ask themselves, "Where do I find my delight? What do I think of when I am asked to describe 'true happiness'?" The Lord, in Psalm 1, has taken away our own vain ideas and replaced them with his inspired truth: genuine happiness exists only for those who know and love God and dedicate themselves to cultivating that relationship. If someone were to say, "I want to be happy," Scripture would respond, "Imitate this happy and blessed man."

Now, this does not simply mean that we need to read our Bible more, as if happiness were proportional to the sheer number of hours spent in Bible reading. Rather, contained within the example of the happy man is this exhortation: pursue true happiness, which is to be found only in an intimate, growing, and maturing relationship with God through his Word. Wherever such a relationship exists, a Christian may be heard praying, "You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand" (Psalm 16:11).

In 1 Timothy, the apostle Paul gives this exhortation to Timothy, his true son in the faith: "Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (4:7-8). He might as well have said, "Follow the pattern of the happy man in Psalm 1," because Paul is saying the same thing that the happy man "says" through his way of life. His devotion to God's Word holds promise for the present life—it provides stability and security, even during seasons of hardship. This is made clear to us in the second contrast, where the happy man, who is compared to a sturdy tree, is set over against the wicked, who are likened to worthless chaff.

This particular tree (vs. 3), which represents the happy man, is not endangered by dry seasons because it grows near a constant supply of water from which it may always drink. Its roots dig deep into the earth to reach this reliable source of nourishment and refreshment, so that even during severe drought the tree continues to thrive and grow. The imagery of the tree pictures the happy man's stamina, his ability to endure severe adversity and even persecution. The Word of God becomes his constant supply; like Samson's hair, it is the secret of his strength. His lifelong habit of meditation has buried the Word in the deepest recesses of his heart. From there, as if from a well, he draws wisdom and consolation, to be strengthened by God's presence. Not surprisingly, prosperity follows him wherever he goes.

Now for some people, the word prosperity denotes nothing higher than material comfort and freedom from pain. The Scriptures, however, offer no support for that point of view. On the contrary, Scripture reveals that we are so steeped in our lust for ease and worldly pleasure that the Lord must afflict us and deprive us of many good things in order to draw our attention upward to Christ in heaven. Only those who are willfully blind cannot see that one of the distinguishing traits of the godly throughout the ages is suffering. So, then, how can the happy man's prosperity be reconciled with the suffering of the righteous? To answer this, we must turn to the life of Joseph.

Genesis 39:2-3 describes Joseph's miserable condition as a slave in Potiphar's house. Yet even after he was betrayed and sold into wretched servitude in Egypt, the Scripture says, "The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered" (vs. 2). In spite of the cruel injustice he had suffered, which resulted in his cruel expulsion from the Promised Land, Joseph prospered. Then his trials became even worse.

His new master's wife approached him in order to seduce him. We would not be too bold with the text if we imagined Joseph, weighed down by constant loneliness, in an emotionally vulnerable state, especially susceptible to her alluring words (compare Proverbs 7). Nevertheless, according to verse 9, he remained spiritually strong. The Word of God stood like a sentry over his heart, so that what might have been, in one sense, carnally desirable, was in fact morally unthinkable.

There is a school of thought that is popular among many charismatics that interprets any sickness, struggle, or setback in a believer's life as evidence of secret sin. How odd, then, must Joseph's turn for the worse appear, because the Scriptures relate it directly to his obedience to God. His descent into the Egyptian dungeon was the result of his determination not to offend God ("How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"—Genesis 39:9). Though his principles cost him dearly in material terms, under the sure hand of God's providence his prosperity continued even in prison ("the Lord was with Joseph"—verse 23).

In light of Joseph's story—and, of course, in light of the One whom Joseph prefigured—we are on firm ground if we conclude that the happy man's prosperity does not necessarily consist in protection from suffering and hardship, nor is it the provision of all of life's comforts and goods. His prosperity may be merely a small measure of blessing in the midst of severe deprivation. And the best sort of prosperity is the deep satisfaction that one has maintained a high level of integrity before God (no matter how terrible the cost).

0h, how desperately the church needs such "happy men" in our day! We need people of exceptional moral courage and godly integrity, who will persevere in doing what is right because their hearts are brimming over with a love for God's Word. We need men like John Bunyan, of whom it was said, "Prick him and he will bleed the Bible." How steadfast he was in godliness! Yet his godliness came at an almost unbearable cost, which included imprisonment and the resulting destitution of his dear family. But three hundred years later believers throughout the world continue to enjoy his legacy (his prosperity!) whenever they read his magnificent Pilgrim's Progress.

Again, we need men like Martin Luther, who almost single-handedly returned the gospel of Jesus Christ to God's people when they were groaning in their "Babylonian captivity" to the Roman Church. When called to appear before the Diet (a deliberative assembly) at Worms, where he would be confronted by the imperial and ecclesiastical powers of his day, his sympathizers tried to dissuade him from going. But he replied that he would go, even though there would be as many devils at Worms as tiles on the roofs. Luther knew all too well the usual fate of "heretics" who challenged the Pope: the stake! Yet he went anyway.

And when he was ordered by the Diet to recant his teaching and to repudiate his writings, he responded: "Since, then, Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. [Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.] God help me." (The famous words in brackets were probably added at a later date.)

Neither right nor safe? Here was one lone monk standing all by himself against the Church, against the Emperor, and against the Catholic armies of Europe. Had Luther gone mad? What could be more dangerous? How can we explain his strength in the face of such enormous adversity?

The Gates of Paradise had opened for Martin Luther. Once he had personally discovered the gospel—the Word of God properly understood—he at last experienced relief for his afflicted conscience, which had been tormented by the guilt of sin. Captive now to the Scriptures and no longer to the Pope, he could not betray his Savior, nor forsake the extraordinary happiness that accompanied his salvation.

This is the prosperity of the blessed and happy man!

Part 3

"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. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. 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. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish" (Ps. 1).

The focus of the first two installments of this meditation was on the blessed or happy man. We considered his way of life, how he avoids all evil influences and devotes his mind to constant meditation on what he delights in the most: God's Word. This, in turn, leads to a unique prosperity, which is evident even when he is bereft of ordinary comforts and pleasures. It is, of course, God who stands behind this prosperity. The happy man of Psalm 1 delights in God's Word because that is where God himself is to be found!

We must now turn to the other side of the contrast. The happy man is like a tree: sturdy, permanent, and successful in all that he does. By contrast, the wicked are like chaff: unstable, transient, and ultimately useless.

Here the psalm presents the image of a farmer winnowing his wheat. He tosses the wheat into the air, in order to separate the meat of the grain, which falls back down, from the lighter chaff (dry hulls), which gets blown away by the wind. The chaff is worthless; similarly, then, the life of the wicked man is meaningless.

This evaluation of the life of the ungodly may sound harsh, but it pales by comparison to what awaits them at the end of their life. "Therefore" (i.e., as the consequence of their useless, self-centered lives), the psalmist writes in verse 5, "the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous."

At this point, we must consider something that is disturbing and unpleasant, yet no less true. The Scripture here teaches that the life of the wicked man is a useless life-he is like chaff. Although created to honor God by dedicating himself to God's glory, he instead hates God and his law and steadfastly refuses to glorify him. His life is not simply unfruitful (having an absence of active good), but corrupt, for it is impossible for a man to hold a morally neutral position. A man is either for God or against him. Thus, the wicked man willfully and arrogantly spreads his corruption wherever he goes. And as he piles up his own guilt before God, layer upon layer, he contaminates others with the same foul disease.

Ironically, the Lord will finally make use of such men and their insignificant lives. The wicked will ultimately, albeit tragically, give God glory. They will do so when God reveals himself to be gloriously just and righteous in their awful destruction at the end of the age-a revelation that will be praiseworthy among the company of his saints and angels.

Isaiah declares what happens as a result of persistent sin:

"Therefore the grave enlarges its appetite and opens its mouth without limit; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers. So man will be brought low and mankind humbled, the eyes of the arrogant humbled. But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness. Then sheep will graze as in their own pasture; lambs will feed among the ruins of the rich" (Isa. 5:14-17; cf. Rev. 19:1-4).

Jonathan Edwards strongly argued this very point in his sermon, "The Wicked Useful in Their Destruction Only" (see The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988], 2:125-28). He warned that "unfruitful persons" are of use to God for the glory of his justice and to glorify his majesty upon them. He went on to contend that judgment upon the wicked is useful "to give the saints a greater sense of their happiness, and of God's grace to them." He explained:

When the saints in heaven shall look upon the damned in hell, it will serve to give them a greater sense of their own happiness. When they shall see how dreadful the anger of God is, it will make them the more prize his love. They will rejoice the more, that they are not the objects of God's anger, but of his favour; that they are not the subjects of his dreadful wrath, but are treated as his children, to dwell in the everlasting embraces of his love. The misery of the damned will give them a greater sense of the distinguishing grace and love of God to them, that he should from all eternity set his love on them, and make so great a difference between them and others who are of the same species, and have deserved no worse of God then they. What a great sense will this give them of the wonderful grace of God to them! and how will it heighten their praises! with how much greater admiration and exultation of soul will they sing of the free and sovereign grace of God to them!

Sadly, terribly, the wicked will be useful at last.

The contrast reaches a climax in verse 6. The psalmist, having described the way of the happy man and the way of the wicked man, sets them both before us as representatives of two distinct ways of life, so that we might choose one over the other. He unabashedly promotes the way of the happy man! God wants us to desire that man's happiness, so that we will apply ourselves to pattern our own life after his. In other words, if we aspire to gain the happy man's spiritual prosperity, then we must discern his method of obtaining it and follow his example.

"Godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come," wrote Paul to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:8). In the final analysis, only a genuine Christian is able to be truly and eternally happy, because a Christian is a person who has been born again to a living hope by God's Spirit (1 Pet. 1:3). He enjoys the forgiveness of sins and has within himself new desires and spiritual affections. He delights in God's Word because in it he finds God himself, who is the only source of true happiness. He is now free to live for the purpose for which he was created: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. The remainder of his life on earth is devoted to cultivating this wonderful relationship, which will be finally consummated at the resurrection. And all the while he has this assurance: the Lord knows his way, watches over him, and, as he did with Joseph, directs him by his tender providence.

The psalmist has also set before us the end of the wicked, in order that, by observing it, we might fear God, be dissuaded from sin, and remain very close to Jesus Christ. We should not envy the appearance of prosperity and "happiness" which often attends their lives, because the reality is revealed in this warning: their way will certainly perish. The wicked long for happiness as much as any believer, but they refuse to consider the opportunity for happiness offered to them in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And this is the tragic irony, that only those who bear fruit in spiritual service to God can be happy. So Edwards wrote (p. 129, italics added):

Although you are under a natural obligation to bring forth fruit to God, yet he will richly reward you for it. In requiring you to bring forth fruit to him, he doth but require you to bring forth fruit to your own happiness. You will taste the sweetness of your own fruit. It will be most profitable for you in this world, and the pleasure will be beyond the labour. Beside this, God hath promised to such a life, everlasting rewards, unspeakable, infinite benefits. So that by it you will infinitely advance your own interest.

Psalm 1 instructs us clearly concerning the way of true happiness. Do you believe it? Or will you continue to search everywhere else for your happiness, while paying only meager attention to God and his Word? If so, then resign yourself to frustration and disappointment, for no matter how much you may protest and bellow, you will remain unhappy.

Therefore, I exhort anyone who may read this article: put your energies to good use and imitate the happy man. Seek your happiness in the Lord your God as he has revealed himself in his Word. If you are not a Christian, begin by repenting of your useless way of life and turning to Jesus Christ for salvation. If you are a Christian, do not be timid about cultivating true happiness. Imitate the happy man-and you will be satisfied!

Mr. Smith is the pastor of Parkwoods OPC in Overland Park, Kans. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 1998.

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