The first word of Psalm 1 tells us what the goal of the whole collection of psalms is: blessedness.
Interestingly, the instruction for how to be blessed in the first psalm begins with three negatives: do not walk in the counsel of wicked people, do not stand in the path of sinners, and do not sit in the seat of the scornful. In other words, if you choose to walk down the way of the righteous, you’re going to very quickly encounter opposition. Just like Adam and Eve experienced after God promised blessing to them if they submit to his rule, you are going to find tempters who counsel you to go the other way, whose conception of blessedness involves rebelling against the rule of God. Right in the first few introductory verses, Psalm 1 is setting up a contrast between two different approaches to pursuing the good life.
In fact, this contrast between the righteous person and the ungodly person is a structural framework that continues through the entire Psalter because it is a reality that will always exist throughout the history of humankind: there have been and always will be between the Fall and the Coming of Christ two groups of people: the righteous and the wicked. They’re here in this Psalm, they’re in Psalm 2—if you pay attention as you read through any psalm, the wicked are there. Just the basic root of the Hebrew word for “ungodly” appears ninety times in the psalms, and that doesn’t even include other synonyms like sinners, scornful, enemies, foes, wicked, etc. In fact, fewer than thirty psalms don’t mentioned these kinds of people.
The wicked are everywhere, they are prospering, and the Book of Psalms is structured to portray that because it is unavoidable reality for those desiring to pursue the kind of true blessedness God promised in Genesis 1:28. And so we should not be surprised when wicked people do wicked things around us—they’ve been here since Cain and they will be here until the end. We often try to avoid that reality; we try to escape it, to ignore it. We pretend the wicked aren’t here. We tend to skip over those passages about the wicked in the psalms; perhaps we assume those are just David’s enemies and they have no relevance for us today. This is what Isaac Watts essentially did; when he paraphrased the psalms, Watts typically glossed over any references to the wicked as if they do not really have any relevance for Christians today.
But this focus on the ungodly is deliberate. The Psalter is structured so that as you progress through the Book, you never get away from these people.
Blessedness in the Midst of Wickedness
You see, a lot of Christians have the wrong image when they read Psalm 1. They think if they just choose the righteous path, then everything will be carefree, without any trouble or adversity. We often conceive of blessedness as freedom from any difficulty or opposition. But the psalter is here to show us what that blessed tree actually looks like and what the nature of growing will actually be.
But we don’t just recognize the reality of wickedness around us and move on. The Book is structured this way so that we will know how to be blessed in the midst of that reality. God doesn’t want us to escape from reality or ignore reality; he wants us to be blessed through that reality. He wants us to praise him, not because he will whisk us away into a bubble completely separately from the wicked, but because of what he will do for us as we live right there in the middle of them.
Indeed, the prosperity that is promised for those who choose righteousness is not an easy prosperity; it is not prosperity apart from wickedness and adversity and hardship, it is prosperity through hardship, in the midst of adversity, in side-by-side contrast with ungodliness. It is a tree planted by a river, but a tree attacked by insects and choked by vines and infected by disease—and in spite of all of that, it’s still flourishing. Our Shepherd prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies, and it is there that he restores our soul.
Forming our Conception of Blessedness
Here is another important reality that is developed through the psalms: the difference between a righteous person and a wicked person is not that a righteous person wants to prosper and a wicked person does not; all people want to prosper. The fundamental difference between the two, as verses 1 and 2 explain, is our conception of what blessedness will look like, and in particular, what forms that conception. Verse 1 describes this like a path—something we walk along that shapes our journey—notice “walks not . . . .” Or the verse pictures it as a sort of counsel—advice that shapes your conception. These are all pictures of influences that shape a person’s life, that shape his conception of what it means to be prosperous.
Psalm 1:1 says that the life of a righteous person is not going to be shaped by the way wicked people conceive of prosperity. The verse is not just talking about avoiding overtly sinful influences, like don’t listen to people who say murder is acceptable. The reality is that ungodly counsel doesn’t always appear on its face to be wicked. The path of sinners, especially if their way is prospering, doesn’t always appear to be sinful. Sometimes it looks like blessedness. Sometimes it looks like power, wealth, influence, fame, and fortune. Wickedness even in the psalms is not always presented as sort of notorious evil like murder or adultery. The psalms use this language to describe anyone who does not submit to God and live like he is in control. The very nature of wickedness, and the very nature of wicked counsel, is that the wicked conceive of blessedness and prosperity as a life apart from any acknowledgement of God. Their very image of what it means to flourish is prosperity apart from God.
In other words, the contrast in the psalms is not necessarily between you, a righteous person seeking a blessed life in the Lord, contrasted with the violent criminals, looting cities and murdering innocent civilians. No, the contrast is between you and your next-door neighbor who is a good citizen, raises his children to be kind and helpful, and is living a pretty good life apart from God. Really, which counsel is more tempting for you—the counsel of violent rioters who say, “Hey, come with us and burn things down and harm people,” or the counsel of a neighbor who says, “Wouldn’t it be nice to just sleep in on Sunday morning and have a relaxing day out on the lake? Who needs God? I’m successful, I’m prosperous, I’m living a good like without God. Join me.”
A righteous person will not walk in that sort of counsel, and a righteous person will not allow his life—his path—to be shaped and formed by that way, that image of a good life, that image of a prosperous life apart from submission to God and obedience to God.
Take Refuge in the Lord
Blessed is the man, Psalm 1 tells us, whose imagination is shaped by delighting in the Torah rather than wicked counsel. And consider the final phrase of Psalm 2. This is put here intentionally by the editors of the Psalter to form a bookend with Psalm 1:1: “Blessed are all those who put their trust in him.”
Here is a fundamental truth that you will find over and over in the Book of Psalms: take refuge in him. If you imagine God correctly, as formed within you by his Word, then you will fly to him for refuge, you will see him as the source of true blessedness and as the one who will provide safety, comfort, and protection in the midst of a wicked world.
Do you want to know what hope there is in a dark and wicked world? Take refuge in him. How can we praise God when we are being attacked by enemies from without and our own sinful flesh within? Take refuge in him. Do you want to have a truly good life? Take refuge in him.