The Way of True Happiness: A Meditation on the First Psalm (Part 3)
Geoffrey C. Smith
"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.