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!
A few thoughts after reading James L. Mays’ Interpretation commentary on Psalm 1.
Mays identifies Psalm 1 as a “beatitude.” Here’s what he says about the difference between a “blessing” and a “beatitude”: “The primary difference is that the blessing invokes God’s beneficent support of life, while the beatitude points to and commends the conduct and character that enjoy it” (p. 41). My paraphrase: A blessing is more of a prayer for God’s goodness applied to us; a beatitude is a description and endorsement of the way of living that embraces and enjoys God’s goodness applied to us.
Mays draws attention to the central piece of this extended and complex beatitude (compared with those short, pithy ones that Jesus gave in Matthew 5:3-12): “Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the Lord” (v1). The rest of the psalm is expanding on that and further making the point. Using Mays’ definition above (and my paraphrase of it), Psalm 1 endorses “reflective meditation” on the law, Mays says. By “law,” he’s not talking only about a set of rules and codes for conduct, although that’s included. The Hebrew word is torah, which means “instruction.” The psalmist sees a blessed life as the result of a God-oreinted way of living that is sustained by meditating on the Lord’s instruction–chewing on it, thinking about it, praying through it, living into it, mulling on it, etc.
For some reason, I think about the character Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon played by Chow Yun-Fat. He’s the martial arts master in the movie. For him, the lessons of martial arts and meditation (in the Zen tradition of course, as this is a Chinese setting), are life-giving teaching/instruction. He remembers with the greatest fondness his time in training at Wudan Mountain among the teachers. This is a very “master-disciple” oriented way of thinking instead of the “entrepenurial” way of thinking that we are used to. The point here is that the instruction (in both martial arts and meditation) is thought of with great reverence because of what it provides to the one who receives and embraces it–sustenance for life.
For Christians, we often affirm the bible as the “Word of God” for us. But do we do so in this torah kind of way, a “faithful & authoritative instruction” kind of way? Is it a rigid legal document, or God-breathed teaching in the way of God that reveals God to us and sets our lives in his direction?
Mays points out that “Psalm 1 teaches that life is a journey through time; living chooses a particular route for existence. It uses the great biblical metaphor of the “way,” a road or path that one follows. …there are ultimately only two ways for the journey to take, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked (v6)” (p. 43). Mays notes that psalms like Psalm 73 wrestle with the prosperity and power of the wicked. So, whatever we say about the prosperity of the righteous in v3, we understand that the bible does not treat “prosperity” as a simple and unambiguous matter, even if religious people of all stripes do.