Two roads

In the poem, “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost writes of walking through the woods and coming upon a place where the path splits into two. Which way to go? Both paths are inviting, and he’s burdened by the thought that choosing one direction may mean missing out on whatever wonders the other path might hold. In the end, he must choose, knowing that he will not come this way again. The poem ends with these well-known words:

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.

Whether we recognize it or not, life presents us with choices all the time, and choices have consequences. It doesn’t have to be a momentous life decision, as in, He’s just asked me to marry him; should I say yes? It’s often the quick, little choices that trip us up: Wow, what he just said is so wrong! Do I take a deep breath and try to be patient, or let him have it? In both the big things and the little things, we would do well to choose wisely.

Frost’s poem points me of the words of Jesus, near the end of the Sermon on the Mount: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt 7:13, NRSV). Ages hence, we will find that the road less traveled by is the one that has made all the difference.

And as you might have expected me to say, the words of Jesus in turn point me back to the Psalms.

. . .

As we saw in the previous post, Psalm 1 puts before us a vision of blessedness that comes from living the way God wants us to. But there are two paths in life, two roads. One is good, one is evil. The good path is the one associated with Torah, righteousness, wisdom, and a proper reverence of God. The bad one is the way of wickedness, unrighteousness, foolishness, and arrogance. The first path leads to life and blessing, the second to death and destruction.

Right off the bat, then, the psalmist advises that true happiness or blessing comes from avoiding the bad and adhering to the good:

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.
(Ps 1:1-3, CEB)

The happy person is the righteous person. At first, the description is in terms of what the righteous don’t do. The psalmist’s imagery moves from following the wrong path, to standing in it, and finally to sitting. It’s as if the psalmist wants us to see how the seemingly innocent decision to follow the advice, teaching, or example of a sinful person can eventually harden into a more settled disposition. What begins as a tentative stroll becomes membership in a club, a fellowship of “us” bound together by the arrogance of mocking “them.”

What do the righteous do instead? They love “the Lord’s Instruction” and recite it to themselves continually, as if to keep it constantly in mind. The word translated as “Instruction” — with a capital I — is Torah, which is often translated instead as “law.” The word is used in different ways, to refer specifically to the Ten Commandments, or to the five books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy), or to God’s teaching generally. It is, in other words, much broader in meaning than what we typically associate with the English word “law.” Taken that way (as the CEB does), the psalmist is saying that the blessed life is the one that follows God’s way, and God’s way is learned through devotedly following God’s instruction.

What a concept, right?

The way of blessedness is described with the vivid metaphor of a tree deeply rooted next to a flowing stream. It flourishes and prospers, bearing fruit as it should, and staying green and healthy.

Should someone need more motivation than that, however, the psalmist also warns us where the way of wickedness leads:

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.
(Ps 1:4-6)

As we’ll see, the idea of the two roads, of the choice between two ways of living, will come up again and again in the Psalms, as will the idea of devotion to Torah. But before we go further, we need to think together about how the theology of Psalm 1 relates to what we call the prosperity gospel. Is it really the case that there’s a path through life that is all success and no failure, all fruitfulness and no withering dryness?

The answer isn’t simple, but we’ll take a crack at the question in the next post.