preaching study: psalm 1:1-6, pt 2

In “preaching study” posts, I share study & reflection as I prepare the Sunday message . I welcome interaction in this process, so feel free to share your thoughts. All Scripture quotes are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted. Thanks!
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Here’s Psalm 1:1-6 in the NRSV, RSV, and NIV translations. Here’s part one.

The psalm definitely assigns a positive quality to the person’s life who delights in God and is righteous. Most English translations (including the RSV and NIV) seem to translate that concept “blessed,” as in, “Blessed is the one who…”. The NRSV translates it, “happy,” and the NLT translates it, “joy.” “Blessedness” is probably the more apt concept. But from a preaching standpoint, perhaps “happiness” is a good place to begin. After all, most of us want to be happy. In fact, we want happiness pretty badly. And we think, if only thus-and-such were the case, I would be happy. We certainly treat happiness as one of our primary goals or ends, and not as a means for something else. As Peter Kreeft has noted, “Nobody says, ‘What good is happiness, it can’t buy you money,’ though some people say, ‘What good is money, it can’t buy you happiness?’ and others don’t say that.”

If we think about the qualities of happiness, joy, and blessedness, over time they seem to overlap in meaning, though today we often distinguish them: Happiness is a feeling that comes and goes. Joy is more deep-seated, but still, in essence, a feeling–just a stronger, more reliable one. We perceive joy as being less blown about by the winds of our current condition, as opposed to happiness, which is. But we’re not always sure what to do with “blessedness.” Off the top of my head, I can think of two possible reasons. One, we may confuse “blessedness” with the stuff of prosperity preachers, holding up faith as the path to success materially, financially, relationally and anything else we’d like to tack on. Who wants blessedness if you’ve got to mail a check to a screaming, grinning guy on TV in a bad suit with a not-so-artfully hairsprayed comb-over? No, thank you very much. If that’s blessedness, then I’ll look for something else.

A second reason may be that we simply don’t live a world, culturally speaking that is, in which the concept of blessedness (other than the kind mentioned above) makes sense. Perhaps we’re not sure what it looks like to be blessed and have that refer to our moral character and our relationship standing before God. The psalmist may refer to outward prosperity plainly at the end of v3, but the overall tone and theme is this other kind of blessedness. This, of course, assumes that being in good standing before God and developing a moral character is a part, if not the most part, of the point of life. This also assumes that it’s possible to be in poor standing before God–another concept that seems nonsensical to modern Western soceity. We preach God’s love as unconditional without carefully distinguishing God loving us from God being pleased with us and approving of what we do.

The psalmist is making a claim that is radical for us today–that blessedness is more about knowing God and having good character than it is about feeling good about ourselves and having an affluent lifestyle.

More could be said, but I’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

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6 thoughts on “preaching study: psalm 1:1-6, pt 2

  1. I’ve never cared much for the NRSV translation “happy” for the Hebrew ashrey. Happiness, as you point out, connotes an emotional state which may or may not accompany what is meant by the term. Take Job 5.17 as an example: Eliphaz says, “How happy is the one whom God reproves…” (NRSV). Surely he’s not suggesting that one God reproves is grinning from ear to ear.

    The LXX uses makarios here, the same word Luke uses in “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man” (6.22). I would certainly not use the term “happy” here.

    Happiness comes and goes, and it is connected to our fickle emotional shifts. I think blessedness (despite some problems you identify) is a more appropriate understanding. It is a state of being, a standing in the sight of God, entirely disconnected from any emotion–or lack thereof–of pleasure.

    The poor, the hungry, the excluded, etc. may not be happy, but Jesus pronounces them blessed anyway. Likewise, Psalm 1 speaks of standing before God which may or may not correspond to “happiness.”

  2. Thanks for the comments, Chris. It would seem that one opportunity this psalm presents nowadays to a preacher is the opportunity to speak about blessedness, presenting a more ancient and biblical picture. To be an apologist (of sorts) for true blessedness and in doing so, for finding one’s life in God instead of in anything else.

    What intrigues me (as an aside to preparing a particular sermon) is the morphing nature of language. Did not “happiness” connote “blessedness” when Hannah Whitall Smith wrote The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life? While we’ve got to use words and deal with them according to their meanings today, but I’m thinking about lamenting the fact that happiness once meant something better than it does today.

    As for grinning at God’s reproval of us, I agree that it’s not a terribly happy occasion. But a happy grin with a little hindsight? Maybe.

  3. You may be right that HWS is using the “happy” in a manner consistent with Heb. ‘ashrey. However, I would contend that, at least in current usage, “happy”=”blessed” would be a peripheral definition rather than a central one.

    But you are also right, I think, that the whole notion of what it means to be “blessed” must be recovered. We don’t often use the term in everyday parlance, which is why I suspect the NRSV opted for the more common term “happy,” despite some real issues in doing so.

    Since I watch televangelists only for entertainment, this activity hasn’t altered the semantic content of the term “blessed” for me (my semantic content for the term is most influenced by the beatitudes, which the televangelists don’t seem to get). But since outside scripture they seem to be the only ones using the word, some teaching on our part is necessary.

  4. Chris: I’m with you. Thanks for your thoughts. Recovering the ancient and biblical concept of “blessedness” is vital to recovering, well, our image-of-God humanity. Also, brilliant use of the terms “televangelist” and “semantic content” in the same sentence–I enjoyed that! ;-)

    DT: Glad to hear it, congrats!

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