We are living in what potentially could be very discouraging times for Christians seeking to live lives that glorify the Lord. But as I pointed out last week, the book of Psalms has been structured to help us endure through these very kinds of times. Much of the book focuses on dark times of discouragement and then through its structure and poetry forms us into people who can praise the Lord in the midst of wickedness around us and sin within us.
Psalm 1 introduces this idea and forecasts the trajectory of the entire book. The first word of the psalm captures well our desire: blessedness. To be blessed literally means “a state of well-being”; to flourish; to prosper. It’s what we might call “the good life.” That’s what we want, isn’t it? That’s what everyone wants. We want to flourish. When we do what’s right, we want the result to be prosperity. And it’s not prosperity apart from God, no, we recognize that this prosperity comes from him, and we want to praise him for it—that’s truly our goal isn’t it? We want to be able to freely praise God with our lips and our lives because of the rich and full and blessed life he’s given us.
In fact the psalm paints a picturesque image of this sort of blessedness in verse 3:
He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
And clearly, this introductory psalm is going to help us understand how to attain this sort of blessedness: “Blessed is the man who…” The psalm is going to tell us the way to blessedness; the way to a state of well-being. And, in fact, Psalm 1 introduces the fact that the entire Psalter is designed to unfold that way to blessedness. The entire Psalter is designed to teach us what traveling along the way to blessedness will be like for a righteous person.
Interestingly, this instruction for how to be blessed begins with three negatives, but based on what we have seen already, this should not surprise us, because the negatives are directly related to the reality of wicked people around us: don’t walk in the counsel of people like that, don’t stand in the way of sinners, don’t sit in the seat of scoffers. In other words, if you choose to walk down the way of the righteous, you’re going to very quickly encounter opposition. You’re going to find people who counsel you to go the other way, who have a different idea of the right way toward blessedness.
And it’s not like, you come to a fork in the road, and one way is the true way to blessedness, and the other way is a false way, and you’ve got wicked people counseling you to take the wrong way, and as long as you take the right way, you’ll leave those wicked people behind and never have to deal with them again.
No, that’s the wrong picture. It’s actually like this: you’re walking down the way toward destruction with hundreds of other wicked people going the same direction, and if you choose the righteous path, you have to turn completely around and push against the current along the way toward blessedness.
In fact, this contrast between the blessed person and the wicked person is a structural framework that continues through the entire Psalter because it is a reality that will always exist throughout the history of humankind: there have been and always will be between the fall and the Coming of Christ two groups of people: the righteous and the wicked. They’re here in this Psalm, and they’re present in most of the Psalter—if you pay attention as you read through any psalm, the wicked are there.
I mean, just the basic root of the Hebrew word for “wicked” appears 90 times in the psalms, and that doesn’t even include other synonyms like sinners and scoffers and enemies and foes and evil and on and on. In fact, fewer than 30 psalms don’t mentioned these kinds of people. They are everywhere!
And not only that, they’re prospering! You see that kind of thing over and over again in the psalms, and we experience it all the time. In fact, look with me for a moment in Psalm 10:
For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul, and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord. 4 In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” 5 His ways prosper at all times; your judgments are on high, out of his sight; as for all his foes, he puffs at them.
What do we make of that? Psalm one says that righteous people will prosper, but here the wicked are prospering. And this is what we are experiencing, isn’t it? The wicked are gaining all the influence, the wicked control the entertainment industry and the media, the wicked rise to prominence in government. The wicked are everywhere, they are prospering, and the Book of Psalms is structured to portray that because it is unavoidable reality.
And so we should not be surprised when wicked people do wicked things around us—they’ve been here since Cain and they will be here until the end. We often try to avoid that reality; we try to escape it, to ignore it. We pretend the wicked aren’t here. We tend to skip over those passages about the wicked in the psalms; those are just David’s enemies. I mean this is what Isaac Watts essentially did. I love Watts’s hymns, and I love his psalm paraphrases like “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “Jesus Shall Reign,” and “Joy to the World.” But when he paraphrased the psalms, Watts typically just glossed over any references to the wicked as if they don’t really have any relevance for Christians today.
But the prevalence of the wicked in the psalms is deliberate. The Psalter is structured so that as you progress through the Book, you never get away from these people. If you choose to walk on the path of righteousness toward blessing, these people will always be with you. When you see people twisting facts to promote their own evil agenda, you should just recognize, there they are. There’s the wicked. When you see murder and injustice and immorality and literally unspeakable forms of filth right there out in the public where everyone can see them, you should recognize, there they are. There’s the reality Psalm 1 painted, and there’s the reality that is present in the entire Book.
However, the psalms don’t just present the reality of the wicked, they also show us how to praise in the midst of the wicked. We’ll explore how psalms do this next week.