When I was a kid, going to the movies was a big deal, a special occasion. There were no multiplexes — there weren’t that many different movies playing at the same time. And of course, there was no Netflix, no streaming, no binge watching. You went to the theater where there was a single large screen, and sat in a room that looked like it was ripped out of time. The seats were squeaky and upholstered in gaudy red velvet; the floor was sticky with spilled soda.
And we absolutely loved it. We were shrouded in darkness, and the images on the screen reached out and drew us in. It was like escaping to another world, at least for an hour or two, until we were forced to emerge, squinting, into the sunlight.
One of the first movies I saw was The Sound of Music. Though that was over 50 years ago, I still have vague memories of sitting in the balcony of a theater in the town where my grandparents lived. I was surprised when the lights came up at intermission, thinking, Wait, there’s more? The movie was so long it was like going on a mini-vacation to Austria.
I’ve watched the movie several times since then, and like so many others, I know the songs by heart. One of my favorites is Do-Re-Mi (okay, I dare you to read this without singing the song in your head!), in which Fraulein Maria (Julie Andrews) teaches her young charges to sing. “Let’s start at the very beginning,” she instructs, “a very good place to start.”
So it is. If we’re going to study the songbook known as the Psalms, it would be good to start at the beginning, with Psalm 1. And since we’re still in the first week of the year, it seems doubly appropriate.
. . .
Well, okay, yes, I’ve already started in previous posts with Psalm 30. Guilty as charged.
I did that to suggest the possibility of entering into the psalmist’s story as one might enter into a movie, even if we don’t have all the dramatic and biographical details. It’s important that we not try to boil these songs and poems down to intellectual principles: taken as a whole, the Psalter gives us a multifaceted look at all the complexities of life with God, the God whom we still worship today. That story goes on, and we are part of it.
With that in mind, we properly begin our journey through the Psalter with Psalm 1. There’s a reason it stands at the head of the collection. Its worldview and theology are shot through the rest of the psalms. When you learn to see it, you see it everywhere.
Here’s how the psalm begins:
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night. (Ps 1:1-2, NRSV)
That very first word is an important one: “happy.” Personally, I prefer the word “blessed,” but both translations leave something to be desired. The problem with the first is that we live in a world in which the word “happiness” has been severed from its original meaning of “good fortune,” and has come to mean something like “a temporary state of positive emotion.” The problem with “blessed” is that it’s not a word we use much in everyday English, and thus sounds outdated and doesn’t land well.
But either way, it’s important that we grab hold of what the psalmist is saying. Consider, for example, the Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. If it matters what psalm is chosen for the beginning of the Psalter, it matters how Jesus begins what some consider to be the greatest sermon in history. Depending on your translation, Jesus’ first words are either “Blessed are…” or “Happy are…” (Matt 5:3 ff). (Note: statements like these are known as “macarisms,” because the Greek word that is translated as “blessed” or “happy” is makarios.)
This already points us to something I will probably say again and again: the worldview of the Psalms is in the background of Jesus’ own teaching. He would embody and complete that worldview in ways that the psalmist might never have imagined, but there is continuity between the Psalms and Jesus.
And one key part of that continuity is this: there is a right and godly way to live. The psalmist teaches repeatedly that we learn that way through the love and study of Torah (translated as “law” in Ps 1:2 above). We will need to circle back to this idea when we look at Psalm 119 as a thematic “sequel” to Psalm 1; our challenge will be to overcome some ingrained Christian stereotypes of the nature of “law” and legalism.
But overall, this is a central theme of the Psalms: we are blessed if we live the way God wants us to. Moreover, as the psalmist already implies, if there’s a right way to live, there’s a wrong way as well, and those who are wise and righteous must make the right choice. We’ll turn to that idea in the next post.