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Dr. James Boice on How We Can Find Fulfillment and Happiness in Life

07 Jul

The sermon below “The Fast Lane or the Right Path” was excerpted from James Boice. Psalms 1-41: An Exposition of the Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker, Grand Rapids, 2003. Today, July 7th is Dr. Boice’s birthday in Heaven!

“The Fast Lane or the Right Path” – A Sermon on Psalm 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.

But his delight is in the law of the Lordand 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. – Psalm 1:1-6

The first psalm is among the best known, if not the best known, psalm in the entire Psalter, and rightly so, for it stands as a magnificent gateway to this extraordinary ancient collection of Hebrew religious verse. To use another image, it is a text of which the remaining psalms are essentially exposition. Psalm 1 is a practical psalm. Since it leads the collection, we are taught at once that study of the Psalter must have practical effects if the psalms are to achieve the purpose for which God gave them to us. Psalm 1 introduces us to the way in which we may find happiness and fulfillment in life. It is by meditation on and delight in the law of God. The psalm also warns us of sure, eventual, and eternal ruin if we do not.

Divergent Ways

Psalm 1 introduces us to the doctrine of the two ways, which is a very common concept. Most Americans are acquainted with Robert Frost’s use of the idea in the poem “The Road Not Taken.”

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Those who know literature a bit more thoroughly are aware that the idea of paths diverging in a wood is also found in Dante Alighieri, the Florentine poet of the Middle Ages, whose Divine Comedy begins,

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

But there are biblical examples too. The most important is the use of the idea by Jesus toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew. The last section of the sermon lists a series of contrasts, between which choices must be made: two gates and two roads, two trees and their two types of fruit, two houses and two foundations. The part regarding the two ways says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt. 7:13–14). Psalm 1 is the clearest, most carefully developed, and first full expression of this idea in the Bible.

But let me back up slightly.

The psalms have been classified in a variety of types or genres, about seven of them, and one of them is “wisdom psalm,” which is what this is. It portrays the way the wise man chooses. But Psalm 1 is more than this. It is the father of all the wisdom psalms. Saint Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate, calls Psalm 1 “the preface of the Holy Spirit” to the Psalter. The great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who also calls Psalm 1 a “Preface Psalm,” adds, “It is the psalmist’s desire to teach us the way to blessedness, and to warn us of the sure destruction of sinners. This then, is the matter of the first psalm, which may be looked upon in some respects, as the text upon which the whole of the psalms make up a divine sermon.”

In his helpful introduction to the psalms Tremper Longman III, an associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, writes, “Psalm 1 deliberately [draws] two portraits in our minds: the portrait of the wicked man and the portrait of the wise man. The question then is posed: Which are we? As we enter the sanctuary of the psalms to worship and petition the Lord, whose side are we on?”

The Two Ways Described

The first verse of Psalm 1, and therefore also the first verse of the Psalter, begins with the word blessed. This is important certainly, for it is a way of saying that the psalms (as well as all Scripture) have been given to us by God to do us good. Blessed means supremely happy or fulfilled. In fact, in Hebrew the word is actually a plural, which denotes either a multiplicity of blessings or an intensification of them. The verse might correctly be translated, “O the blessednesses of the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.”

At first glance it might seem surprising that the idea of the blessed or the happy man is followed immediately by a description of the wicked man, particularly since a description of the way of the wicked also appears later in verses 4 and 5. But it is actually an excellent device. By starting in this way the poet achieves three important things.

First, he begins where we are. None of us automatically starts out being righteous. We start out being sinners, and if we do eventually enter by the straight gate upon the narrow road that leads to life, it is by God’s grace. No one, either in the Old Testament or in the New Testament period, was saved in any other way.

Second, the poet is able to introduce the doctrine of the two ways from the start. We do not have to wait until verse 4 to read that there is a way other than the way of the godly.

Third and finally, the author says something important about godliness. He is going to present godliness positively as the way of the one who delights in the law of the Lord. But any positive affirmation, to have meaning, must have a negative to go with it. Thus, in order to say what the way of the godly man is, we must also be able to say what it is not, and that is what the first verse of the first psalm accomplishes.

How beautifully it does it! The most striking feature of Hebrew poetry is what is known as parallelism, that is, saying the same thing or a variety of the same thing, in two linked lines. That is what we have here, only in this verse there are three linked lines and there are three parallel terms in each line: set 1, “walk, stand, sit”; set 2, “counsel, way, seat”; and set 3, “wicked, sinners, mockers.”

Because of this common feature of Hebrew poetry, a number of writers are reluctant to see any special progression in these terms. But it is hard to believe that the phrases are not saying that the way of the wicked is downhill and that sinners always go from bad to worse. Certainly Spurgeon thought so. He said, “When men are living in sin they go from bad to worse. At first they merely walk in the counsel of the careless and ungodly, who forget God—the evil is rather practical than habitual—but after that, they become habituated to evil, and they stand in the way of open sinners who willfully violate God’s commandments; and if let alone, they go one step further, and become themselves pestilent teachers and tempters of others, and thus they sit in the seat of the scornful. They have taken their degree in vice, and as true Doctors of Damnation they are installed.”

This interpretation is built into the psalm. The psalm does not merely describe the lifestyle of the wicked; it shows the fruit of that way of life and its end. To the unsaved, “the way of sinners” may seem wonderful and exciting. It is the track they want to be on. But the psalmist warns that it is actually a fast track to emptiness and frustration here as well as judgment in the life to come.

What about the other way, the way of the righteous? We might expect, since the wicked man has been described in terms of his associations, that the godly man will now be described in terms of his associations too, that is, as a person who associates with the godly. But that is not the case. Instead, he is described as one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” on which “he meditates day and night” (v. 2).

That is a powerful expression: to “delight” in the law of the Lord. But it is also somewhat puzzling, at least at first glance. The British scholar and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis found it to be so. In Reflections on the Psalms he describes how at first he found the psalmist’s delight in God’s law “utterly bewildering” and “mysterious.” Lewis said he could understand how one could delight in God’s mercies, visitations, and attributes, but not how one could delight in God’s law. You do not delight in law, not really. Rather law is something you respect and (one hopes) obey.

I would argue that it is possible to delight in a good law, one that is both well written and effective in promoting righteousness. But I think Lewis is also right when he suggests that more than this is involved. He finds the clue to the psalmist’s meaning in the idea of meditation on God’s law. This makes the law a subject of the righteous man’s study. So, for the ancient Jew, saying that he delights in the law is much like what we might mean if we said that we love history or physics or archaeology. But, of course, it is even more than that. For when we study the Bible—the word law is used to refer to the whole of God’s inscripturated revelation—we are really learning, not about human beings or nature primarily (which is what the other disciplines teach us), but about God. And, as Lewis says, “The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful.” The language of the poet is “not priggery nor even scrupulosity; it is the language of a man ravished by a moral beauty.”

John R. W. Stott adds wisely that this delight “is an indication of the new birth, for ‘… the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so’ (Rom. 8:7). As a result of the inward, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, however, the godly find that they love the law of God simply because it conveys to them the will of their God. They do not rebel against its exacting demands; their whole being approves and endorses it. … Delighting in it, the godly will meditate in it, or pore over it, constantly, day and night.”

The contrast between the two ways may be put like this. It is the difference between those who are in love with sin and those who love God. The first class love sin’s ways and follow it. The second love God and seek him in Scripture, where he may be found.

Flourishing or Fruitless

When most people think of the results of upright or godly living they think of rewards. That is, they think that if they do what God tells them to do, he will reward them, but that if they do not, they will be punished. There is an element of truth in this; it is what is involved in the doctrine of the final judgment. But what the psalmist actually says here is quite different. He is talking about “blessedness,” the blessedness of the man “who does not stand in the way of sinners” but whose “delight is in the law of the Lord.” His point is that this is not a reward but rather “the result of a particular type of life.”

The poet uses two images to show the result of these two ways. The first is a fruitful tree. It describes the man who delights in the law of God and draws his spiritual nourishment from it as a tree that draws its nourishment from an abundantly flowing stream. The land about might be quite dry and barren. The winds might be hot. But if the tree is planted by the stream, so that it can sink its roots down and draw nourishment, it will prosper and yield fruit. This is the godly man.

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.

Years ago a couple who had gone to China as missionaries used this image to describe their life there after the communists had taken over China at the end of the Second World War. Their name was Matthews, and they were the last missionaries of the China Inland Mission to escape from that country. They were under communism for two years, during which time they lived with their young daughter Lilah in a small room. Their only furniture was a stool. They could not contact their Christian friends for fear of getting them into trouble. Except for the smallest trickle, their funds were cut off by the government. Heat came from a small stove which they lit once a day to boil rice for dinner. The only fuel they had was dried animal refuse that Art Matthews collected from the streets. These were indeed dry times. But afterward, when they wrote their testimony to God’s grace in the midst of such privations, they called their book Green Leaf in Drought Time, because they found that those who delight in the Word of God do not wither but instead produce the Holy Spirit’s fruit.

The second illustration the psalmist uses is chaff, to which he compares the wicked. The picture here is of a threshing floor at the time of the grain harvest. The threshing floors of Palestine are on hills that catch the best breezes. Grain is brought to them, is crushed by animals or by threshing instruments that are drawn over it, then is pitched high into the air where the wind blows the chaff away. The heavier grain falls back to the threshing floor and is collected. The chaff is scattered or burned, and it is what the psalmist says those who live wickedly are like.

The wicked are like chaff in two senses. Chaff is worthless, and chaff is burned. This pictures the futile, empty, worthless life of the godless, as well as their inevitable judgment.

If only those who are running away from God could see this! But they cannot, because they will not listen to God and the world is shouting the exact opposite of the Bible’s teaching. The world says that to be religious is foolishness. Religious people never have any fun or accomplish anything, the wicked say. If you want to amount to something and enjoy yourself doing it, get on the fast track of sin, reach out for whatever you want, and take it. Be happy. That is what the world teaches. But it is all a lie, which is exactly what Paul calls it in Romans 1 where he analyzes this fast downward spiral (v. 25).

In Eden, the devil told Eve that if she disobeyed God by eating of the forbidden tree, her eyes would be “opened” and she would be “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). But she did not become like God; she became like Satan. And her eyes were not opened; they had been open. Now she (and her husband) became blind to spiritual realities.

Do not believe the devil’s lie. Do not follow the world when it tries to draw you from righteous living by beguiling falsehoods.

Two Final Ends

Verse 6 is a fitting end to the psalm and a proper thematic statement from which to proceed on into the Psalter. It distinguishes between the final end of the righteous and the final end of the wicked, saying,

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

The verse describes the destiny of these two groups of people. Wise King Solomon wrote,

There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (Prov. 14:12).

That is the way of the wicked. The way of the righteous is the way of the Lord Jesus Christ, who described himself as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) and promised to keep those who follow him (Matt. 28:20).

I do not want to read too much prophecy into the psalms, though there is some, and I do not want to suggest that the author of this psalm, whoever he may have been, was looking forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ when he wrote it. I do not believe he was. Nevertheless, it is hard not to notice, as Arno C. Gaebelein, an excellent devotional writer on the psalms, has said, that “the perfect man portrayed in the opening verses … is … the Lord Jesus.” He is the only one who was really like this.

Let me close with this story. Harry Ironside, the Bible teacher, told of a visit to Palestine years ago by a man named Joseph Flacks. He had an opportunity to address a gathering of Jews and Arabs and took for the subject of his address the first psalm. He read it and then asked the question: “Who is this blessed man of whom the psalmist speaks? This man never walked in the counsel of the wicked or stood in the way of sinners or sat in the seat of mockers. He was an absolutely sinless man.”

Nobody spoke. So Flacks said: “Was he our great father Abraham?”

One old man said, “No, it cannot be Abraham. He denied his wife and told a lie about her.”

“Well, how about the lawgiver Moses?”

“No,” someone said. “It cannot be Moses. He killed a man, and he lost his temper by the waters of Meribah.”

Flacks suggested David. It was not David.

There was silence for a long while. Then an elderly Jew arose and said, “My brothers, I have a little book here; it is called the New Testament. I have been reading it; and if I could believe this book, if I could be sure that it is true, I would say that the man of the first Psalm was Jesus of Nazareth.”

Jesus is that man, of course. He is the only perfect man who ever lived, and he is the sinner’s Savior. It is he who stands at the portal of this book to show us the way to live and help us do it.

Author: James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He is the author of numerous Bible expositions and one of my favorite Systematic Theologies called Foundations of the Christian Faith.

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