Last Sunday I preached from Psalm 1 and I titled the sermon, ‘The Way of the Righteous Man’. But a dominant theme within this Psalm is that ‘The Lord leads the Righteous Man on his Way’. When you look at the Psalms it is easy to admire the habits and lifestyle of the righteous man while missing the important fact that it is the Lord who leads him on his righteous path. Psalm 1 is a creative way of teaching the truth found in Phil. 2:12-13 that while we have a responsibility to work out our salvation, yet it is God who works in us to both desire it and to carry it out.
The Lord keeps us away from the way of the evil
The righteous man, who is also called ‘Blessed’ in v. 1, not only keeps away from the way of the wicked, the sinners and the scoffers, rather he marches in the opposite direction of making God’s Law, the delight (v. 2) of his life. The word ‘law’ normally refers to the Torah, the Mosaic Law, contained in Genesis to Deuteronomy but here it refers to its more generic meaning i.e. ‘the instructions of God’, found all over the scriptures.
There is a thin line between a ‘legalistic’ interpretation of these verses and an interpretation that is able to see God’s ‘gracious’ provision of the Law in the life of a righteous man. Some might teach that a righteous man leaves the path of the wicked and chooses an alternate lifestyle of delighting and meditating on the Law. The righteous man by his sheer will power gives up his associations and strives to make the Law of God the central focus of his life. That would be a very legalistic way of understanding these verses. Rather, the righteous man’s conviction to stay away from the way of the wicked, the sinners and the scoffers arises out of the conviction birthed in him by the Law of the Lord.
That is why in the book of Proverbs, a God-fearing parent who has received ‘knowledge’ from the Lord (Prov. 1:7) is shown to be instructing his son to stay away from the path of sinners (Prov. 1:10, 15). He also tells his son that it is the Lord who gives wisdom and knowledge and understanding (Prov. 2:6) which can prevent him from walking in the way of evil men (Prov. 2:12-15).
In Psalm 1, the ‘the blessed/ righteous man’ is equated to a ‘tree planted by streams of water’ (v. 3). The Lord like a master-gardener ‘plants’ the righteous in a place where they can receive the nourishment required to flourish. And the nourishment is nothing but the Law of the Lord. Just as the plant continually draws ‘water’ from the stream, the righteous man meditates on the ‘Law’ day and night. And it is the wisdom found in the meditation of the Law of the Lord that prevents him from walking in the way of the wicked and the sinners and the scoffers. So, the righteous task of keeping away from evil is not a product of the human mind but the initiative of God, which the New Testament often calls as the ‘granting of repentance’ (2 Tim. 2:25-26; Acts 11:18).
The Lord produces fruits of righteousness in us
A shadow of the tree metaphor is found in Jeremiah 17:7-8. The only difference being that instead of the tree being equated to the man who ‘delights and meditates on the Law of the Lord’, in Jeremiah it is equated to the man who ‘trusts in the Lord’. But this difference is no difference really. After all, is there any man who does not trust in the Lord and yet makes the Law his delight? Only a man of faith can delight in the Law. Only a man of faith can meditate upon it day and night. In both cases, in the Psalm and in Jeremiah, the plant remains ever-green and bears fruit in its season. In other words, a man of faith will produce acts of faith due to his dependence on God. A righteous man will produce acts of obedience due to his delighting in the Law of the Lord.
But based on the Psalmist’s conclusion in v. 3 that ‘In all that he does, he prospers’, it is often interpreted that such a man will prosper materially, in his health and wealth. But that interpretation is not in line with the trajectory of the metaphor used. Just as it is natural that a material source of nutrition i.e. water, produces fruit in the plant; the spiritual source of nutrition i.e. the Law, will produce spiritual fruits in the one it nourishes. The prospering is primarily in terms of faith or in terms of righteousness, all other forms of prospering being secondary to it. So, our sanctification is one of the primary goals of the Word of God. In Jn. 17:17 Jesus prays to the Father saying, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth”.
That is why, for Paul spiritual fruit looks like ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Gal. 5:22-23). And Paul based on his own life experiences would agree that these fruits are often brought forth in a hostile environment. In Jeremiah, the fruit is brought forth despite adverse situations faced by the tree. For it says that it, ‘does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of the drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit’ (Jer. 17:8). Even in these conditions it remains green and bears fruit because it is confident of the life-giving source that is at work in it. In the same way the man of faith bears fruits even in a hostile environment of poverty or persecution or sickness because he is trusting in the life-giving source that is at work in him i.e. God through His Law.
In fact, for Habakkuk the fruitful life was ‘not in his fig tree blossoming or in his vine producing fruit or in the produce of the olives or in the food in the fields or in his flock or herds’ rather in ‘rejoicing in the Lord or taking joy in the God of his salvation’ because ‘God was his strength’ (Hab. 3:17-19). For a righteous man, the very ability to trust in God and in His Word despite the many challenges of life, is the ‘fruit’ of his labour. Therefore, those who stress on perishable things of this world as the fruit of their spirituality are an affront to God, the very God who produces the better and lasting fruit of sanctification through His Word.
The Lord’s leading gives us great assurance and joy
The ultimate vindication of a righteous man’s path is not even in the spiritual prospering he does here on earth but at the final judgment of God. Towards the end of the Psalm, the Psalmist’s focus is heavily on the final destiny of the wicked and the sinners. Because of their unethical associations and lack of trust in God and disobedience to His Law, “the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (v. 5). They will be blown away by the force of God’s judgment and left with no chance to correct their life-long associations. Their path will end in ‘ultimate destruction’ and therefore the Psalmist says that “the way of the wicked will perish” (v. 6b).
The Psalmist is making a comparison between the judgment of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous. Compared to a flurry of statements describing the destiny of the wicked (v. 4-6), the Psalmist makes only one statement about the righteous i.e. “for the Lord knows the way of the righteous” (v. 6a). Does it mean that the Lord knows the way of the righteous by way of information? No, the Lord knows the way of the righteous by way of relationship with it and by way of experience. He knows every twist and turn on this path because it is His Way and because he has already travelled on it.
It was God who led Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness. Ps. 136:16 says, “(Give thanks) to him who led his people through the wilderness”. For Moses, God leading the people of Israel was the assurance of his favor upon them. In response to Israel making the image of the calf, God decides to not lead them anymore (Ex. 33:3). But Moses insists that God should go with them because only then he will be assured that they are walking on the path of God’s ultimate favor and not just the temporary benefits of the land (Ex. 33:15-16).
In the same way, the people of the New Covenant are led on their way by none other than Jesus. He calls us to walk on the way, which he has already tread i.e. the Way of the Cross (Mk. 8:34). This way is challenging and risky, therefore many people try to preserve their own lives by choosing to walk on an easier path (Matt. 7:13). But Jesus says that those who try to do that will lose out on an opportunity to receive eternal life (Mk. 8:35a). On the other hand, those who walk on this hard way by trusting in Jesus and by obeying his commandments are walking towards eternal life (Mk. 8:35b; Matt. 7:14, 24; Jn. 11:25).
So, in an almost prophetic way the Psalmist also has taught us that the Lord knows the way of the righteous because it is his way on which he has already travelled. He is leading us on a path of faith and obedience that requires us to keep away from evil. Those who walk on this hard path are assured that it will not lead them to eternal destruction because our Lord has already walked on it and reached his destination. Therefore, let us not only be assured about our final destiny in the Lord but also rejoice as we walk on the Way of the Cross.