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“This psalm seems to have been placed first in the collection, because, from its general character and subject, it formed a suitable introduction to the rest. It treats of the blessedness of the righteous, and the misery of the wicked—topics which constantly recur in the psalms, but it treats of them as if all experience pointed only in one direction. The moral problem which in other psalms troubles the ancient poets of Israel, when they see the avil prospering and the good oppressed, has here no place. The poet rests calmly in the truth that it is well with the righteous. He is not vexed with those passionate questionings of heart which meet us in such psalms as the 37th and 73d. Hence we may probably conclude that his lot was cast in happier and more peaceful times.”—Perowne.
THE BLESSED LIFE
I. The secret of the blessed life.
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,” &c. (Psalms 1:1.)
Wherever blessedness is to be found, it is not in these directions. What a direct contradiction is this first verse to the world’s philosophy! To keep the law may be safe, but it is to walk in the common light of day; to follow one’s own counsels is to dwell in the purple light of pleasure. So argues the natural man; and here the Psalmist gives a flat denial to his argument. The world is wrong; the Psalmist is right. Blessed is the man who abstains from ungodly policy, iniquitous action, scornful use of things divine and holy. According to a custom which is generally recognised in Central Africa, whenever a caravan mistakes its way, and is obliged to retrace its steps and return to a road from which it has deviated, a bough is thrown across the wrong path, and a furrow is scratched in the ground by means of the feet, so that no succeeding caravan may fall into the same error. Thus the generations which have gone astray have declared that the ways of ungodliness and sin are ways of bitterness and disappointment, and they have left their emphatic and sorrowful testimonies as boughs and furrows across these false ways, to admonish us to seek another and a truer path.
But a merely negative goodness will not ensure us true blessedness, therefore the Psalmist proceeds to lay down the grand secret of blessedness in profound spiritual words. “But his delight is in the law of the Lord.” How truly profound! How superior to the superficial theories of happiness which human moralists have from time to time put forth! Whichcote truly says: “Duty and happiness are vital acts, and must be put forth from vital principles.” The vital principle is here declared. “The philosophers’ discourses of this subject are but learned dotages. David saith more to the point in this short psalm than any or all of them put together; they did but beat the bush. God hath put the bird into our hands.”—Trapp.
The secret of bliss is the right attitude of the soul to the truth of God.
1. A right relation of the will to the law of God. “But his will is in the law of the Lord.”—Luther. The bias of the will is toward Divine truth. The “ungodly” are self-willed, and walk after their own “counsel;” the “blessed” man consults the Divine will, and is ever longing for the path of God’s commandments. “The ‘will’ which is here signified is that delight of heart, and that certain pleasure, in the law, which does not look at what the law promises, nor at what it threatens, but at this only, that ‘the law is holy, and just, and good.’ Hence it is not only a love of the law, but that loving delight in the law which no prosperity, nor adversity, nor the world, nor the prince of it, can either take away or destroy; for it victoriously bursts its way through poverty, evil report, the cross, death, and hell, and in the midst of adversities shines the brightest.”—Luther, quoted by Spurgeon.
2. A right relation of the affections to the law of God. “His delight.” “The law is more than a mere rule, after which the man is to frame his outward life.”—Perowne. It fills with admiration and delight. But can the law of God thus excite the affections and rejoice the heart? Yes; for, as Festus sings—
“Law is love defined.”
The godly man beholds in the spiritual law the declaration of the Divine nature, which is essential love, and he delights in that law after the inner man.
3. A right relation of the intelligence to the law of God. “He meditates on the law day and night.” We must know the law if we are to perceive its beauty and appreciate its worth, and the more we know of it, the greater shall be our joy in it. Many skim the Bible as a novel, when they should ponder it, and master it, line by line, like a grammar. He who is ignorant of the Divine law, or misconceives it, cannot know true freedom and blessedness; but he whose eyes are opened to the deep things of the law, walks at liberty, and knows peace unspeakable.
Let us not seek bliss in things of time and sense, but let us labour to know the will of God, and to have our hearts harmonised with that will, and we shall find rest to our souls.
II. The picture of the blessed life.
“He shall be like a tree planted,” &c. (Psalms 1:3.)
1. The security of this blessedness. “Planted by the rivers of water.” “Planted” means firmly planted. “Rivers,” indicate unfailing refreshment of spirit; the streams of Divine truth and influence. Carnal joys flourish and wither with changing circumstances, but his joy abides whose life is rooted in God. “His soul, watered by the streams of Paradise, knows not the parched season of the sunburnt heath.”—Sutcliffe. “By the side of the streams in the East may be seen trees, at all seasons covered with luxurious verdure, blossoms, or fruit; whilst at a distance, where no water is, may be seen dwarfish and unhealthy trees, with scarcely a leaf to shake in the winds of heaven.”—Roberts. Thus, drinking supplies from the living streams of God’s truth, our life is ever strong and blessed, whilst we faint and fade where no such water is.
2. The manifestation of this blessedness. The godly man is known by the beneficence of his life. “Bringeth forth his fruit in his season.” The truly blessed life is a life of beneficence; and if we delight in God’s law, it shall perfect our individual character, fit us for the sphere and season in which we live, and make us a blessing to our generation. “As with a palm-tree, all that is in it is profitable—leaves, wood, and fruit—so also with the Christian, all that he does is to redound to the honour of the Divine name and the benefit of his neighbour.”—Starke. The godly man is known by the beauty of his character. “His leaf also shall not wither.” As the foliage of the tree is its beauty and glory, so shall delight in the law of the Lord give grace and majesty to the character. In inner rectitude is the secret of all true and high visible excellence; out of a heart right with God spring all the poetry and utilities of life.
3. The perpetuity of this blessedness. The tree by the watercourses abides in bloom and fruition, and the joy and glory which spring in the heart and life of the lover of God’s Word are perennial and permanent. Our scientific gardeners enthusiastically anticipate the day when, through special culture, all our roses will have evergreen foliage, brilliant and fragrant flowers, and the habit of blooming for a greater part of the year. He whose life is grounded in the Divine truth and goodness, who draws daily vitality from the river of God’s pleasure, is an evergreen, and blooms all the year long, all life long, and death itself cannot blight his glory, or destroy his joy.
4. The universality of this blessedness. “And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” “He shall prosper in whatsoever he doeth.”—Wordsworth. Deference to the law of God secures universal prosperity. God’s blessing is on all the handiwork of the godly, and directs it to blessed and prosperous issues.
“Oh! the blessednesses” of the man who delights in the law of the Lord. As we long for the beatitudes, let us put ourselves in God’s hands. “Planted by the river.” “This is properly used of a transplanted tree. He is not left to the efforts of nature, but taken beneath the gardener’s care, and placed in a favourable soil.”—Kay. “Man is righteous, not by birth or nature, or through his own power, skill, or activity, but by the Divine agency, through the means of grace which Divine mercy has established for us, as a tree planted by an abundant and flowing brook, if he, like the tree, take up into his own life, from the means afforded him by God, that which is necessary to his life and growth.”—Moll.
May God take us from the wilds of nature, graft us into Christ, nourish us by the influence of the Holy Spirit, and thus shall we bear our fruit unto holiness, and in the end everlasting life.
THE PROGRAMME OF EVIL
“A climax is to be noted here in the choice of expressions. Thus we have, first, three degrees of habit, in the verbs ‘walked,’ ‘stood,’ ‘sat;’ next, three degrees of evil in the character, the ‘wicked,’ the ‘sinners,’ and the ‘mockers;’ lastly, three degrees of openness in the evil-doing, ‘counsel,’ ‘way,’ ‘seat.’ ”—Perowne.
We see here:
I. The evil life in its inception.
“Walketh in the counsel of the ungodly.”
The word used in the original for “ungodly” signifies the “loose man, the man loose from God.”—Delitzsch. We see here that ungodliness is the source of all evil; “becoming loose to God,” is the point of departure to positive and universal unrighteousness. This great truth is often forgotten; and where actual sin would be denounced, ungodliness is often regarded with in dulgence. Indeed, that temper of mind which is loose from God is by many considered the most philosophic and desirable condition of the mind; the morality loose from God, the truest morality; the science loose from God, the wisest science; the character loose from God, the most sound and noble character. The Psalmist in this place indicates the profound error of such reasoning. Looseness from God, ungodliness, is the original and fertile source of all transgression. Enmity with God is enmity with righteousness. The Psalmist teaches this same doctrine of the connection of atheism with transgression in Psalms 14:1 : “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” Beware of ungodly thoughts! Beware of a morality not built upon theology! Beware of an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God!
And this ungodliness seeks to justify itself. “The counsel of the ungodly.” Men are anxious that their opinions and conduct should have the sanction of reason, and so they seek to justify their ungodliness to their understanding. “No one sins without making some excuse to himself for sinning. He is obliged to do so: man is not like the brute beasts; he has a Divine gift within him which we call reason, and which constrains him to give an account to it for what he does. He cannot act at random; however he acts, he must act by some kind of rule or some sort of principle, else he is vexed and dissatisfied with himself. Not that he is very particular whether he finds a good reason or a bad, when he is very much straitened for a reason, but a reason of some sort he must have.”—Newman. Reason is never used in a more unnatural, ignoble, hopeless task, than when it is pressed into the service of atheism and irreligion: but it is pressed into such service, tortured and perverted, until the godless theory of life is “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” and looks a very clever and plausible thing. The maxims which are used to justify a godless science and a godless life are essentially stupid and false, yet how frequently they wear a most philosophic air! Here, then, is the beginning of evil—an irreligious, ungodly way of thinking.
II. The evil life in its development.
1. “Standeth in the way of sinners.” By “sinners” are intended those “who pass their lives in sin, especially coarse and manifest sin.”—Delitzsch. “Open and avowed offenders, habitual transgressors.”—Kay. Here sinful thought has passed into conduct, action, life. We cannot hold unbelieving theories with impunity. Ideas rule men, ideas rule the world, and ideas fundamentally false, as are those of atheism, must soon work disaster, both in individual and national life. He who in thought lingers on the forbidden ground of scepticism, next takes his place with actual offenders against the law. Nothing is more evident than that loose thinking and loose living go together.
2. “Sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” “The scornful are the men who deride the thought of religious obligation.”—Kay. They delight in the company of those who scoff at religion. This state, and it is soon reached, argues the most desperate wickedness. There is something so exalted in reverence, that some commentators have expressed a sentiment of respect for Jacob, who buried his false gods with tenderness; but how utterly dead to every noble quality is the man who can blaspheme the true God and His Word! Here the poison-seed of unbelief has opened into the full-blown flower of wickedness. “The beginnings of sin are modest, the issues of it are impudent.”—Whichcote.
III. The evil life in its consummation.
The man is blessed who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly; it follows that he is cursed who does follow ungodly counsels and conduct. “Cursed in his counsels, cursed in his actions, cursed in his end.”—Clarke. The further he goes, the further he is from blessedness.
We are reminded in this verse:
1. Of the insinuating nature of sin. It glides stealthily into the heart—stealthily into the life.
2. Of the prolific nature of sin. One sin leads to another sin; one sin leads to a darker sin; one sin leads to many sins. It is a traveller’s tale which tells that the Indian spiders weave webs so strong that men are sometimes imprisoned by them; but it is no fable that from the gossamer threads of ungodly thoughts, and slender transgressions, come at length dark convictions and habits which hold men in most cruel bondage.
3. Of the accursed nature of sin. It fills with misery; it ends in death. What God curses withers away. Let us pray, then, that we enter not into the path of the wicked.
I. The destinies of men are various.
The godly flourish evermore: “The ungodly are not so.” The pious and the wicked are together in this world, but the text indicates that a separation will be effected. “They are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.” “This allusion describes the instability of the principles of the ungodly, rather than of their fortunes. Their want of principle is opposed to the good man’s steady meditation of Jehovah’s law, which is the foundation of his prosperity. On the other hand, because the ungodly want this principle, therefore they shall not stand in the judgment.”—Horsley. The ungodly have instability of principle, and therefore instability of fortune. “Their glory shall not descend after them.”
II. The destinies of men are decided by their moral character and conduct.
“Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment.” “Because they are like chaff, without root below, without fruit above, without spiritual vitality; therefore, on account of their inner worthlessness and instability, they do not stand.”—Delitzsch. “Although the ungodly are in similar circumstances with the righteous, yet they derive no profit from this favourable circumstance. They are spiritually dead and withered. That which has matured in them has faded prematurely; for they have not appropriated to themselves the nourishment of life, and they have not formed in themselves the faculty for this appropriation. Without root and without sap, they have not attained any vigour, nor brought forth any fruit (Matthew 21:19). Thus they have ripened only for destruction; unsubstantial and worthless as chaff, the sport of the wind until scattered by the storm, they go to destruction, and leave no trace behind.”—Moll. And the righteous stand because they are righteous. Not chance, not social rank, not birth, not intellectual culture, not religious profession, not Divine decrees, shall determine our destiny, but our spirit and course of life.
III. The destinies of men are as widely contrasted as their character.
The righteous bloom for ever in the paradise of God; the wicked are driven away as chaff in the whirlwind of the Divine anger. “Whose fan is in His hand, and He will throughly purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the garner; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). And this teaching of the Scriptures commends itself to reason. “Nothing is more credible than that men’s states shall differ as much as their spirits and tempers do differ.”—Whichcote.
Blessed is the man whose will and life are thoroughly identified with the Divine law; for the law shall stand for ever, and none shall suffer loss who enjoy its shelter!
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 1". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/