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)
Such is the ideal picture we get from Psalm 1 of how the righteous are supposed to prosper. They are like lush green trees, flourishing by a stream, and “whatever they do succeeds.”
But how well does such a picture fit with life as we know it? Tell it to the prophet Jeremiah. Tell it to the apostle Paul. Tell it to any of those who were martyred for the faith through the centuries. For that matter, tell it to any believer who has struggled to understand why bad things happen to seemingly good and faithful people.
This is why we have to be careful not to let Psalm 1 be turned into a manifesto for the prosperity gospel. To take these verses as a simplistic promise of a painless and failure-free life only invites further pain, as those who seem to suffer needlessly are blamed for their suffering and accused of secret sin.
With only six verses to work with, Psalm 1 can’t give us much nuance in its ideal vision. But it doesn’t need to, not if we hold the whole of the Psalter together theologically, letting the Psalms interpret each other. And thankfully, Psalm 119, weighing in at 176 verses, has plenty of room for nuance.
. . .
As we have seen, we can think of Psalm 119 as a sequel to Psalm 1; the themes of the shorter psalm are amply echoed in the longer. But one would have a difficult time trying to build a prosperity theology out of the psalm as a whole. There is language throughout the psalm that gives us anything but the image of a flourishing tree. Here is a sampling:
- My life is stuck in the dirt (vs. 25).
- My spirit sags because of grief (vs. 28).
- Remove the insults that I dread… (vs. 39).
- The arrogant make fun of me to no end… (vs. 51).
- The arrogant cover me with their lies… (vs. 69).
- I have been suffering so much… (vs. 107).
Indeed, in the middle of this psalm of Torah is a stanza that could be read as a full psalm of lament in its own right:
My whole being yearns for your saving help!
I wait for your promise.
My eyes are worn out looking for your word.
“When will you comfort me?” I ask,
because I’ve become like a bottle dried up by smoke,
though I haven’t forgotten your statutes.
How much more time does your servant have?
When will you bring my oppressors to justice?
The arrogant have dug pits for me—
those people who act against your Instruction.
All your commandments are true,
but people harass me for no reason.
They’ve almost wiped me off the face of the earth!
Meanwhile, I haven’t abandoned your precepts!
Make me live again according to your faithful love
so I can keep the law you’ve given! (vss. 81-88)
The psalmist clings to God’s instruction, even in the midst of severe persecution. And please note: the psalmist claims to be harassed “for no reason.” This is not God’s judgment upon the psalmist for unconfessed sin; it is what Jesus described in the Beatitudes as being harassed for the sake of righteousness (Matt 5:10).
Here is the realism that qualifies the idealism of Psalm 1. Yes: there is a path of righteousness, a way of living that aligns with God’s character and what God created us to be. This is the path of a proper fear of God and devotion to God’s instruction. Yes: there is another path, the way of wickedness that follows from not fearing God, a way characterized by arrogance and deceit and violence. And yes: ideally, the righteous should never do wrong and always prosper, in accordance with God’s justice.
But the reality is that the psalmist both strays and suffers, and the latter is not always the result of the former. And still the psalmist clings to God’s word. Still the psalmist reaches out in trust and hope, calling upon God’s justice and steadfast love. In the end, it’s not that the psalmist finds any particular magic in Torah itself; rather, the psalmist marvels at and worships the God who deigns to speak through it.
We are centuries removed from the psalmist. But the realism of Psalm 119 still fits our reality, and we worship the same unchanging, eternally righteous and loving God. May the psalmist’s hope and trust be ours as well, as we await the day in which the ideal becomes real.