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New Horizons

The Way of True Happiness: A Meditation on the First Psalm (Part 2)

Geoffrey C. Smith

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!

Mr. Smith is the pastor of Parkwoods OPC in Overland Park, Kans. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 1997.

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