The book of Psalms was not haphazardly put together. In particular, the first Psalm was put here in the first place, not because it was the first psalm written, but because its content matter is meant to be a fitting introduction to the psalter and provide the context in which worship and praise and lament and prayer can truly happen. With that in mind, there are three things highlighted in this psalm that I think are worth noting at the outset.
First, this is a psalm about what it means to be truly blessed. Note how the psalm begins: “Blessed is the man” (1). Isn’t it interesting that in the first recorded sermon of our Lord, his message also begins with the same word (the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 5:3-12)? This is important because, as the author of Hebrews puts it, we will not come to God in any meaningful sense if we don’t believe that he is and that is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). No one is going to want to worship God and sing and pray to him if they think all that God wants to do is to take away our happiness. True religion, expressed in the kind of public worship which the psalms are meant to inspire, is in fact the overflow of hearts that have found true and lasting happiness in the Lord. The apostle John writes, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full” (1 Jn. 1:3-4). According to the Bible, knowing and worshiping God is not about losing your joy, it means replacing false joys with fulness of joy.
And this has been duplicated in the experience of the saints throughout history. You see this repeatedly expressed in the book of Psalms. For example, in Ps. 4 we read, “There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us. Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased” (4:6-7). Ps. 116 opens with a glad-hearted expression of love to God: “I love the LORD, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications” (116:1). In his first epistle, the apostle Peter appeals to the experience of his audience by saying this: “Whom [referring to Jesus] having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8).
Of course, it is important to remember two things about this blessedness, and which will become clearer as we look at this psalm. First, the blessedness spoken of here is a state that does not depend on our emotions; it is something which depends upon God. God is the one who pronounces by his word who are blessed and who are not. We may not always feel blessed, but this psalm assures us that the blessedness of the righteous is in no way dependent upon their fickle emotional status. Second, the blessedness spoken of here can only be properly evaluated in light of the future. You see in the contrast between the righteous and the wicked that is sustained throughout this passage. But the contrast is not between the earthly goods of the righteous and the lack of earthly goods of the wicked. Rather, the contrast is focused on the end of the righteous and the wicked. You can see this especially in verses 4-6. You don’t decide the blessedness of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) by looking at the rich man in his palace and Lazarus begging on his doorstep. You evaluate who is or is not blessed by looking at their ends: the rich man in hell and Lazarus in heaven. This is the same way we ought to evaluate the blessedness of our lives. That does not mean, of course, that God does not bless his people now. Of course he does. But he also blesses the wicked this side of eternity – he sends rain (earthly blessing) on the just and on the unjust (Mt. 5:45). We have to take the long view when looking at what it means to be truly blessed.
Second, this is a psalm about God’s word. Does it surprise you that a book which was essentially meant to be the hymnal for the Old Testament community of God’s people starts off with God’s word? It shouldn’t. And it shouldn’t because unless our worship is informed and shaped and bounded by God’s word, it cannot be true worship. God is not only worshipped in Spirit, but also in truth (Jn. 4:24). We must have both: light as well as heat. It is truth which causes us to grow spiritually. We grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18). If we don’t want our worship to become a kind of syrupy emotionalism, we need to have our minds informed by the truth of God’s word and our affections enflamed by the truth of God’s word.
Finally, in the way of general observations, this is a psalm about the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. There are three contrasts presented throughout this psalm that underline the blessing of the righteous and the blight of the wicked: Law vs. lawlessness; tree vs chaff; justification vs. judgment. In the first two verses, the lawlessness of the wicked is contrasted with the love of God’s law by the righteous. Then, in the next two verses, the fruitlessness of the wicked is contrasted with the fruitfulness of the righteous (3-4). Third, in verses 5-6, the condemnation of the wicked is contrasted with the acceptance of the righteous by God.
One of the really important things we should take from this is the simple observation that there are only two types of people in the world, the righteous and the wicked. You are either one or the other. And what puts you in the category of the wicked is not that you are like Hitler. Rather, it is that you despise God’s law and instruction. We need to remember that as we hear what this Psalm says about the wicked. Also, although it is a good thing to emphasize that our acceptance with God does not in the final analysis depend upon our works (for we are saved by grace), yet neither must we say that works play no part in the life of the righteous or that the righteousness considered here is only positional. No, my friend, the righteous man is a man who lives in righteousness. He does not walk in the way of the wicked (1). The implication of verse 2 is that he walks in the ways of God’s law. Is he perfect? No, and the book of Psalms bear this out. There are plenty of Psalms (32 and 51, for example) that magnify the grace of God in forgiving repentant sinners. But we must not go to the other extreme and think for a moment that if you are living in sin in despite of God’s word you are okay. You are not. This is not just an OT teaching, it is very NT also: “If ye know that he [God] is righteous, ye know that everyone that doeth righteousness is born of him” (1 Jn. 2:29). And, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother” (1 Jn. 3:10).
That’s the big picture. But let’s now take a closer look at the first psalm. I take the first word of the psalm as the key to the whole: “blessed.” The meaning of this word can escape us if we only associate it with steeples and stain glass windows. To be blessed simply means to be happy. It’s also the meaning of the word our Lord uses in the Beatitudes. What I want to do now is to look at how this psalm approaches this whole idea of blessedness or happiness by asking three questions: (1) What does this psalm teach us about how to be happy? (2) What happens when a person delights in God’s word? What does a happy/blessed person look like? (3) Are there any other ways a person can obtain this happiness?
What does this psalm teach us about how to be happy?
Everyone is seeking happiness. It is universal. No one wants to be unhappy. But at this point the Biblical instruction regarding how to find it diverges from what most folks in the world are doing to find happiness. But if we want to be truly blessed and happy, doesn’t it make sense to seek direction from the one who made us? And we have this sort of direction in the psalm before us. To see this look at the first two verses. Here we have something to avoid and something to embrace. This in itself is worth some consideration: happiness in the sense that the psalmist is speaking is not something you are just going to stumble over, like your couch in the middle of the night. No, there are some things we must do. It is not just automatic; I must do something. Let us beware of a fatalistic mentality. The fact that God works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure does not mean that we are not supposed to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13). It is true in this case as well. If you want to be blessed, then pursue it. But you must pursue it in the way that God has ordained it to be found. “The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it” (Prov. 10:22). That’s the kind of blessing that I want. So how do we get it? By attending to two things.
There is something to avoid.
First, we see that the blessed, or happy, person is a person who avoids the wicked. In particular, he or she avoids the advice of the wicked, the avenue of the wicked, and the assembly of the wicked. They avoid the advice of the wicked, for the righteous man is the man “that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.” This does not mean that the righteous man only reads the Bible, or that he is unwilling to look at a book written by a non-Christian. But it does mean that he or she is discerning. They know when what is being said is contrary to God’s word, and they avoid it. They know that it is wrong and that they should not follow it. Our Lord likens himself to a good shepherd who cares for his sheep. But there are also false shepherds out there, who want “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy” (Jn. 10:10). However, “when he [the good shepherd, our Lord] putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (Jn. 10:4-5). The blessed man or woman knows that the word of Christ is good for them, and they therefore reject everything that conflicts with it.
They also avoid the avenue of the wicked: “nor standeth in the way of sinners.” They do not follow a multitude to do evil. They do not go through the wide gate or walk along the broad path that leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13-14). They way of sinners can be very tempting because it is often the path of least resistance. It is the most popular way. It is the way most sympathetic to our carnal lusts. But it is a way of death. The righteous man knows this and avoids it.
They also avoid the assembly of the wicked: “nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” Now this does not mean that the Christian must not participate in the world, or that we must adopt a self-righteous attitude and go about as if we were better than those who are not followers of Christ. We are not. We are saved by grace: we have no right to look down our noses at anyone. The fact that we ourselves are followers of Christ is owing to nothing in ourselves, but only to the grace of God. So we don’t shun ungodly company for that reason. Also, we are commanded to be light and salt, and how can we do that if we are not shining in the darkness and salt among the putrefying elements of the world? We are in the world, but not of it (Jn. 17:15-19). We witness to the world, but we do not join the world in the enjoyment of evil. In particular, we do not adopt with them an attitude that makes light of the things of God. The world mocks because they are blind; but the saint sees. We know the reality and the relevance of eternal things. There is a rejoicing with trembling (Ps. 2:11).
So those are three things we avoid. But there is not only something to avoid; we must not only put off, but we must also put on (cf. Eph. 4:22-24). In particular:
There is something to adopt.
What is that? Well, we see it in verse 2: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.” The godly man and the godly woman avoid the way of the wicked by adopting an attitude of delight in and obedience toward God’s word. How do we know when the counsel of the ungodly is ungodly? It’s not that ungodly men and women can’t say anything good. The unbeliever has contributed many good and useful things to society. The only way to have the discernment is to weigh it by God’s word. Or how do we know when behavior is bad (the way of sinners)? It is by looking at it in the light of God’s word. How do we avoid the attitude of the mocker? By bathing ourselves in the truths of God’s word. In other words, the way to walk not in the counsel of the ungodly, and the way to avoid the way of sinners, and the way to avoid sitting the seat of scoffers, is to know and love and obey God’s word.
It is God’s word that is being highlighted here under the term “law.” We shouldn’t think this just refers to the five books of Moses. Law, torah, means “instruction.” In that sense, the entire Bible is torah, both Old and New Testaments. The godly person delights in the instruction of the Lord. They have the attitude, not of the scoffer, but of Samuel, who was instructed to say when God called out to him, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth” (1 Sam. 3:9-10). The blessed man does not chafe at God’s word because he knows it is good for him. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 Jn. 5:3).
But I do want to point out that we shouldn’t minimize the fact that God’s word here is referred to as law. Some people think that law always means legalism, but it doesn’t. Freedom and joy aren’t found by abandoning God’s law but by obeying it. It is when we know the truth – truth which is comprehended in both doctrine and duty – that we are made free (Jn. 8:31-32). Christ calls us to take his yoke and to become his disciples, but his yoke is easy, and his burden is light (Mt. 11:28-30). I recognize that some boundaries are superficial and artificially imposed and therefore are not necessary and can in fact hinder true freedom. But God’s boundaries, boundaries which are dictated by his word and law, are never arbitrary and are always for our good. I love how God’s word is referred to in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus: they are “sound words” or “healthful words” (cf. 2 Tim. 1:13; Tit. 2:1). God’s instruction, his torah, is always for our good and make us spiritually healthy.
The godly man does two things with God’s law. First, he delights in it. Like the prophet Jeremiah, who said, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O LORD God of hosts” (Jer. 15:16). Or like the psalmist: “How sweet are thy words unto my taste! Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). And, “I love thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold” (119:127). To see the truthfulness of God’s word is to see its beauty, and to see its beauty must inevitably lead to delight.
And this is so important. It’s important because if you don’t find God’s word a delight, it will become a heavy chain about your neck and an imposition upon your life. Those who delight in God’s law will seek to keep it, will seek to conform their lives to it. It’s what keeps them from being deceived by the advice and avenue and assembly of the wicked. Delight will lead to doing, whereas to grumble at God’s word will always lead to disobedience.
Then he meditates upon it day and night. You have to remember that in ancient times, people didn’t have household copies of the Bible in their homes. But they heard it from the priests, and they were to keep it in memory and were to ruminate upon it at all times. This is what God is getting at when he gave these instructions to Moses: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:6-7). God’s word was to be a constant companion. In other words, this is not just a command to memorize God’s word and to meditate upon it during a discrete “quiet time,” but it is a description of the man or woman who takes God’s word with them into every aspect of life. We are not talking about something you do and then forget about; we are talking about the discipline of applying God’s word to every task that we give ourselves to. This is a very practical thing. Delighting, of course, will lead to meditating. What we delight in, we think about. And what we think about, we do.
Which means that if we are stuck in a certain pattern of disobedience, the place we need to focus on is the place of God’s word in our affections. Do we find it more desirable, more truthful, more amiable, more wonderful than the deceits of sin? We need often to pray, “Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight. Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness” (Ps. 119:35-36).
Do you want to be truly happy? Do you want to blessed with God’s blessing? We cannot have it apart from avoiding the way of the wicked and by adopting a heart that delights in God’s word. “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Mt. 5:6).
What happens when a person delights in God’s word? What does a happy/blessed person look like?
At this point, the psalmist gives us an analogy. He has told us what the godly man does, now he tells us what he is like. And he does this by painting a picture for us: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water” (3). It is the picture of a tree planted by what were probably irrigation canals. There are therefore two significant things about this tree. First, it was intentionally put where it was: it was planted. And second, it was planted in a place that would guarantee lots of water all throughout the year. There were plenty of “rivers” in Israel that were only full some of the time, during the rainy season, but during the rest of the year would have been dry. Not so the irrigation canal. Here was a tree that was sustained with a sufficiency of water at all times. It is this to which the righteous are likened. But what in particular is true of the righteous? Three things.
What is it about this tree that makes it different from so many others? Well, first of all, it is a fruitful tree: “that bringeth forth his fruit in his season” (3). In the book of Jude, we are told what apostates from the faith are like. They are like clouds without water, and “trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots” (Jude 12). Our Lord uses a similar analogy, but with a vine and branches. He tells us that fruitless branches are taken away and thrown away and cast into the fire (Jn. 15:2, 6). However, “He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (15:5). Fruit here is a metaphor for good works, for a life that brings glory to God and good to people. So the analogy of the tree here in the first psalm tells us that the godly are people who bring forth fruit unto God. And this is not a sporadic thing; it is characteristic of their lives.
But that is not the only thing. They are also beautiful: “his leaf also shall not wither” (3). They are made so, not in physical appearance, but in their spirit. The fruit of the Spirit, which is produced in their lives, makes them beautiful: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23). When Paul says, “against such there is no law” he is saying that everyone recognizes that these virtues are good. It’s why Paul will exhort Titus to tell servants to show “all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Tit. 2:10). To “adorn” means to make beautiful and attractive. That is what the fruit of the Spirit does to the Christian.
Of course this is a lifelong process. Thank God that we are a work in progress! That even though our outward man is perishing and getting older and more decrepit, out inner man is being renewed day by day. The outward beauty of the Christian may and will diminish, but their inward beauty grows day by day.
The world only knows how to adorn the outward man. But makeup will not make up for the lack of inner godliness. My friends, let us advertise the goodness of Christ by displaying the fruits of the Spirit in our lives.
Next the psalmist writes, “and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (3). Let us be careful that we don’t interpret “prosper” here in a modern American sense. This does not necessarily mean a big house and a nice car and lots of comfort. In fact, it could involve tremendous suffering. Think of our greatest example, Jesus Christ, who said, “Verily, verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be” (Jn. 12:24-26). To be fruitful at least means dying to yourself. It may even mean martyrdom. But death is followed by life. Those who overcome will be crowned (cf. Rev. 2-3).
Again, we must view success, not from the standpoint of a Donald Trump, but from the standpoint of God. My friends, you can be the most successful businessman or woman and go to hell. What good then was all your “success”? But even the lowliest Christian will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your lord” (Mt. 25:21). Can any amount of earthly comfort replace the joy of hearing those words? That is success.
In fact, even our trials can often be the source of our greatest fruitfulness. Spurgeon put it this way: “Our worst things are often our best things. As there is a curse wrapped up in the wicked man’s mercies, so there is a blessing concealed in the righteous man’s crosses, losses, and sorrows. The trials of the saint are a divine husbandry, by which he grows and brings forth abundant fruit.” It is why the apostle Paul would say, “we glory in tribulations also” (Rom. 5:3).
Are there any other ways a person can obtain this happiness?
The answer is no, and you see this especially in verses 4-6: “The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the wicked will perish.”
Scripture recognizes that the wicked will often prosper in this world (cf. Ps. 73:3; 17:14). But ultimately, they will face the judgment from the God they have rejected and whose word they mocked (cf. Ps. 73:16-19). Note the comparison here: the psalmist doesn’t compare a healthy tree with a dead tree, but he compares a tree with chaff. Chaff is completely useless, something which can only be burned. And chaff has no real rootedness; it is thrown up into the wind by the winnower and the wind blows it away. In contrast, the tree of verse 3 has roots. It is secure, it is unmoved and unmovable. This is like the saint; we have real security because of who God is and what he has done, is doing, and will do for us.
The final contrast is so important: “for the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous” (6). We should not interpret this merely in terms of bare knowledge, for in that sense God knows everything, including the wicked. This is knowledge in the Biblical sense of love and care and concern. God knows and cares about the needs and the weaknesses of his people. No matter how great the wicked become, no matter how famous they are, no matter how much power they accrue, God’s people are always in a better position because they are the friends of God. God is for them in the truest sense.
How so? Because of who Christ is and what he has done. How is God for us? Paul answers: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom. 8:32-34). Let us not think that we can become the righteous man or woman of Psalm 1 apart from Christ, for it is in him that we receive righteousness and are justified, and it is by his Spirit that we are made righteous and sanctified. It is in Christ that we are known by God in the sense of Ps. 1:6. To be outside of Christ is to be in the way of the ungodly who will perish. So come to Christ, trust in him, rest in him, for it is only in him that you will find that God is for you in the truest and highest sense.
 Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms [EBC] (Zondervan, 2008), p. 82.