Bringing the Happy
Psalm 1 starts with a portrait of a happy person. In Hebrew, the word is ashrei, meaning enriched or blessed.
In the New Testament, Jesus' famous "Beattitudes" from the
begins the same way.
Pic by Andreas Krappweis
It's not just a good idea.
Psalm 1.2 describes the people of God as lovers of God's law, meditating on it, murmering it day and night. The word here in Hebrew is Torah.
Because it's often translated "law" in English, Christians in particular may be at a disadvantage in understanding what Torah is. For some of us, the "law" means strict rules-- legal regulations you'll be in deep trouble for breaking. Law enforcement officers may be armed with weapons, forming in our imaginations an atmosphere of fear.
God's Torah is different than that.
For the people of ancient Israel and Jewish people today, God's law means life, a sacred Way to live.
Though Torah can refer the first five books of the Older Testament called the Pentateuch, we hear it most often in the Psalms as God's entire matrix of instruction for the people of God.
Call it God's Way and we resonate with a central metaphor for faithfulness in the Hebrew scriptures: walking the path.
As Psalm 1 begins, we read the first word ashrei: blessed, happy and enriched. It's root is ashur, to move or proceed forward. The pun helps us understand the enriched life as a path of guidance and joy, as well as a Way dedicated to movement and change.
There are lots of Psalms dedicated to the love of Torah, including 19 and 119.
"Way" in the Newer Testament
Eugene Peterson writes:
“Way” is a stock metaphor in both our scriptures and the traditions that have developed from them...
The Psalms in their extensive exploration of a life lived attentively and responsibly before God are conspicuous in their use of the metaphor, employing it ninety-seven times (twenty-one of these uses in the elaborately intricate Psalm 119)...
It is significant that the primary term for identifying the followers of Jesus in the early church was “the Way.” Luke in writing the story of the first Christian community uses it six times (Acts 9.2; 19.8, 23; 22.4; 24.14, 22), most famously, perhaps, recording Paul in his sermonic defense before Felix: “this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors...” (14.14). “Christian,” used in Antioch to refer to these people, is used only once (Acts 11.26).
Peterson, Eugene H. The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007. p22-23.
Who are the "Wicked" and are they after my little dog?
Parallel to the thriving tree of the faith-full people is the story of the "wicked". Some translations read "ungodly" or "evil." In contrast to the thriving, green trees, these are likened to "chaff that the wind drives away."
It sounds terribly judgmental, doesn't it?
Such language seems polarizing, making an "us" and "them" mentality that is rarely helpful for cultivating compassion in the world.
Maybe there's a different way to look at it.
We might read the contrast between the "righteous" and the "wicked" as two different mind-sets, two unique lenses through which to view life.
One is grounded in the Holy One, thriving, giving him or herself to God's Way, completely dependent on the Source of Life that is Torah.
The other lives independently, taking advice and following ways that in the end provide no anchoring (wind-blown chaff).
The big difference between them? Those dependent on God are naturally oriented toward this thriving Way, while those who have pried themselves away from the Source naturally aren't tapped into what brings life.
Pic by Jesse Therrien
The Two Ways
Barbara Green writes:
The Psalm specifies that the tree has been planted-- is not simply a volunteer-- and that it is responding, cooperating, sustained by something with which it is busy interacting. It sends out its roots to the water, draws water back to itself through those roots, distributes nutrients throughout its own miles-long system. The tree puts out foliage for animal habitations, stabilizes soil in which countless others live and on whom many depend; it produces fruit for hungry people like us-- no matter what, the psalmist underlines. Far from inactive, it is fertile, fruitful, productive; first planted, it is now rooted.
The opposite image is the chaff: dry, separated, tiny, sterile, blown apart, disintegrating. It will not win in court, will lose its footing, will fly off unrooted until it is no more. Anyone who suffers from hay fever knows what chaff is.
So the tree metaphor actually offers us two extremes of insight about how we choose to be active, tells us about spending our busy time in two different ways. So we toggle our vision in two directions: the thrumming tree, the scuttling chaff.
Choose, the psalmist invites us: do we want to be a tree or chaff? Which describes us best? We know, undoubtedly, what the right answer is; but it is not so easy!
As we look again and reassess, the chaff seems more mobile, flexible, busy, involved, participatory: walking, standing, sitting are the things that seem most to count, the actions that help us feel productive.
The tree, on the other hand, is absorbed in Torah or God’s instruction: ruminating on it, murmuring over it, humming the bars of it, whistling and singing it, tuned in to the channel or station of Torah as it goes leafily and fruitfully on about its life...
The choice... is not between action and inaction, between splendid isolation and contaminating collaboration, but is rather a question of: Absorbed in what? Chewing on what? Ruminating on what? Planted where? Producing what?
It is important to note here that the psalmist does not say that God zaps or gets even with the one who chooses something else, but simply that such a choice is eventually, inevitably, persistently self-destructive for the chooser.
Green, Barbara, O.P. Like a Tree Planted: An Exploration of Psalms and Parables Through Metaphor. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1997. p. 29-30.
Pic by Paollo Zannonni
Pic by Andreas Krappweis
The image of a thriving tree near water is also found in Jeremiah 17.8.
Pic by Alfred Borchard
Going Deeper Yet
The Emergent Psalter: Issac Everett's juicy interview with Dr. Alan Cooper about Psalm 1.
The Text This Week: A generous bank of links to commentaries, sermons, fine art, songs, films, books, articles and liturgy.
Tree as icon: Some somewhat interesting scripture references
Discover one of the strongest cross-testamental allegories in Judeo-Christian scripture
Genesis 2.9 The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, tree of life
Judges 9 Fable of Jotham involving trees
Job 14.7 Trees and humans
Job 24.20 Wickedness broken like a tree
Psalm 1 Faithful like trees planted by streams of water
Psalm 52 Like a trusting, flourishing olive tree
Psalm 92.12-14 The righteous are like a palm tree.
Psalm 44.1-2 You planted our ancestors.
Psalm 80.8-11 Vine and branches are in trouble.
Psalm 144.12 So our sons grow like plants
Proverbs 3.18 She is a tree of life.
Proverbs 11.30 The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life
Proverbs 13.12 Desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
Proverbs 15.4 A gentle tongue is a tree of life.
Song of Songs: A variety of potent images around trees.
Isaiah 44.14 Destroyong trees and planting a tree
Isaiah 65.22 My people will be like the days of a tree
Jeremiah 8.13 Withered fig tree
Jeremiah 11.16 The Lord once called you a green olive tree
Jeremiah 17.8 Nearly identical to the tree of Psalm 1
Ezekiel 17.24 God destoying or saving trees
Ezekiel 20.47 God devouring every tree
Ezekiel 31.4-18 Major analogy with trees
Daniel 4.10-26 Daniel's vision of a tree at the center of the earth
Hosea 14.6 His beauty like an olive tree
Joel 1-2 Allegory using trees
Amos 4.9 Catastrophe with trees
Nahum 3.12 Your fortresses are like fig trees
Zechariah 4 Zechariah's vision of a lampstand and olive trees
Matthew 12.33 Know a tree by its fruit
Matthew 13.32 Jesus' parable of the seed
Luke 13.6-9 Jesus' Parable of the fig tree
Romans 11 Grafted into an olive tree
Revelation 2 Eating of the tree of life
Revelation 11 Two olive trees and two lampstands
Revelation 22 The tree of life vision
Pic by Christine Valters Paintner