The fork in the road

(The first of two posts on Psalm 1.)  I only know one Robert Frost poem, though it may be his most famous.  “The Road Not Taken” describes a traveler (perhaps Frost himself) who, walking through a forest, has come to the proverbial fork in the road.  Two ways beckon before him.  Of necessity, he chooses one path, but with lingering ambivalence that he will never know what adventures the other path might have held.  The poem ends:

I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.  (Read the full poem here.)

It’s not that he regrets the decision he made.  Far from it.  But he can’t quite let go, it seems, of the What if?  What if I had taken the other road?  Would the way have been smoother?  Where would that have taken me?  Have I missed something?

Life is full of choices, and choices have consequences.  Our vision is limited; we can only see so far down the path before we must choose.  And like Frost’s traveler, we may wonder about the choices not made, the roads not taken.

Psalm 1 deposits us at the fork in the road, putting before us the choice that is implied throughout the entire collection: God’s way, or some other?  Here is the psalm in its entirety, as rendered in the Common English Bible:

The truly happy person doesn’t follow wicked advice, doesn’t stand on the road of sinners, and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.  Instead of doing those things, these persons love the Lord’s Instruction, and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!  They are like a tree replanted by streams of water, which bears fruit at just the right time and whose leaves don’t fade.  Whatever they do succeeds.  That’s not true for the wicked!  They are like dust that the wind blows away.  And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of justice—neither will sinners in the assembly of the righteous.  The Lord is intimately acquainted with the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is destroyed.

The psalmist uses multiple metaphors, but begins with the path trodden by the wicked, whose end is destruction.  The way of the righteous, by contrast, is one of blessedness, characterized as a thriving fruitfulness in intimacy with God.

Two roads diverge, leading to different destinations–on the one hand, destruction, and on the other, life, as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount:

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, NIV)

This is not, of course, a popular idea.  In a society where consumer ideals rule, we want–we expect!–an endless choice between relative goods, even in the realm of the spirit.  There are no right choices, only preferences.  There are no wrong choices, just those that yield less favorable outcomes.

Psalm 1 puts a choice before us.  And it’s not just about which road to choose, whether we go left or right.  It’s about whether we even believe that such a choice exists and must be made.  Is there really such a thing as a road to destruction?  Can anyone be so arrogant as to suggest that there is such a thing as “God’s way”?

To be sure, we need to recognize our own sin-soaked fallibility in daring to ask or answer such questions.  We can afford neither blindness nor naiveté regarding the ways in which personal and cultural experiences shape the stances we take.

And yet, if we are to accept the spiritual tutelage of the Psalms, we have to face the choice with which the collection begins.  There is such a thing as “the way of the righteous,” and it is different from other ways.

Do we want to learn it?