The Front Porch of the Psalms

Sermon by David Felker on Jul 7

Psalm 1

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Please turn with me in your Bible to Psalm chapter 1. Psalm chapter 1; it’s on page 448 in the church Bible in front of you. And before we jump in and read, something to orient us to our text tonight. The New York Times bestseller, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, is the story of the rowing team at the University of Washington in Seattle and their quest for gold at the 1936 Olympics, which took place in Berlin, Germany. And it’s these college guys from working and middle-class families, the sons of loggers, the sons of farmers, these college guys who beat the odds in the most desperate of times, on the heels of the Great Depression and just before WWII. It’s the story of how they beat the odds. And they rowed their way into Berlin, into the Olympics; they raced in front of Hitler and the Nazis and 75,000 Germans. And after the Germans dominated on the water winning five gold medals and one silver in the six races preceding the 8-oar final, the 8-man competition at the end, these college guys beat the favorites. They beat the Germans on their home turf and they won gold.

It is a book about a long journey. It’s a long journey from Washington to Germany. It’s a story about a long journey and about all that goes into something like rowing in the Olympics, all the blood, sweat and tears, and in particular the preparation. Their coach, Al Ulbrickson, made them train in the kind of weather - in the snow, in the temperatures in the 20s and 30s - he made them train in the kind of weather that could have killed them if the boat tipped. He calculated that over a four year period, so from 1933 to 1936, these nine college students rowed 4,344 miles. Forty-three hundred miles. And he estimated that each man, each college student, that they took 469,000 strokes. That is a long journey. Forty-three hundred miles; 469,000 strokes.

And it’s the kind of journey you have to give yourself to. If you want to do something like that, you have to give yourself to it. If you want to pursue this path, if you want to go on this journey, if you want to do it, it’s not cheap; it’s expensive. It’s not cheap. You have to leave a part of yourself, in a sense, in the boat. And that is an illustration, I think, of the Christian faith, and in particular the Psalms. The Psalms are prayers. The Psalms are songs where you have to leave a part of your heart with God, in a sense. It’s not cheap; it’s expensive. If you really enter into the Psalms with your heart, with your affections, where you hold nothing back and really give yourself to the Lord.

This month in the evenings we’re going to develop a new series looking at different psalms in the first book of Psalms, Psalms 1 to 41. If you look at the top of Psalm 1 it says, “Book One.” That’s because the Psalms are divided into five sections, five books, probably to imitate the Torah or the first five books of the Bible. And the Psalms function as a kind of school. The Psalms function as a kind of laboratory for the emotions, for the affections, for the heart. They’re designed to have the most formative influence on the affections. They teach us the language of the heart. They teach us, as John Calvin famously said, “an anatomy of all parts, all the parts of the soul.”

And the Psalms have sustained me spiritually so much over the years. They have taught me how to pray. The Psalms have taught me how to sing, how to sing and how to fight for joy. And so Psalm 130, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me. Bless His holy name.” They’ve taught me how to sing my longing, even my disappointment. Psalm 16, “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup. You hold my lot.” They’ve taught me how to sing my fear. I can be afraid. They’ve taught me how to sing my anxieties. “Return, soul, to your rest.” I love that. “Return, O my soul, to your rest,” Psalm 116, “for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. Return to rest, soul.” They’ve taught me to sing even in the valley. “For this God is our God, forever and ever. He will be our guide even unto death,” Psalm 48. And so as we look at them, as we look at the 150 of them like a mirror, they mirror the human soul. And so as we look at the Psalms, we see ourselves. And so the Psalms are inviting you to bring all of you. The Psalms are inviting you to bring all of you. Not the Sunday you, not the dressed up you, not the you that has maybe been on cruise control at a heart level for far too long, but the Psalms are inviting you to bring all of you - every emotion, every experience. And it’s not cheap; it’s expensive. To hold nothing back and to really give yourself to the Lord.

And so tonight we’re going to look at Psalm 1, “The Front Porch of the Psalms,” this invitation. And so let me pray for us before we jump in and read. Let’s pray together.

God of all grace, we pray that You would help us this evening. We have already sung that “weak is the effort of our heart” and “cold is our warmest thought.” And so we come here from all different places - some of us are anxious; some of us are doubting. Some of us have wandered off; some of us can remember maybe what it used to be like in communion with You. And so for all of us, may Your Word not just be heard tonight with the ear but with the heart. And we pray this in Jesus' name, amen.

Psalm chapter 1. This is God’s Word:

"Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law, he meditates day and night.

 

He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

 

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

Amen. This is God’s Word.

Psalm 1 is more than a psalm. For example, it’s actually not a psalm. It’s not a prayer. It’s not a song. It’s not praise. It’s not confession. It’s not lament. Psalm 1 is wisdom. Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm. In other words, Psalm 1 is an invitation. Most commentators actually look at the first two psalms as the gateway, as the front porch to the rest of the psalms. I want you to look in your Bibles. I want you to notice how Psalm 1 begins - “Blessed is the man.” And then look at how Psalm 2 ends - “Blessed is the man,” Psalm 1, and Psalm 2 ends with, “Blessed are all those who take refuge in him.” They are this gateway forming a nice bookend. One commentator says, “Psalms 1 and 2 are a pair, working together to put our feet on a path that goes from the non-praying world, in which we are habitually distracted and intimidated, into the praying world, where we come to attention and practice adoration. But it’s not easy because we are used to anxieties, egoes, and problems. We are not used to wonder, God and mystery.”

So if you think about the Psalter as this big house, if the Psalter is this big house and there are a bunch of rooms, hundreds of rooms, each of the psalms being one of those different rooms, think of Psalms 1 and 2 which were intentionally placed at the very beginning, think of Psalms 1 and 2 as we said earlier as the front porch. And as you go into the Psalms, there are going to be twists and turns. You might even get lost along the way, but when you arrive at the backdoor - turn to Psalm 150 - when you arrive at the backdoor, the climactic place, Psalm 150, you see the word “praise” is used twelve times in six verses. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” Psalm 150:6. And so Psalm 1 is this invitation for us, it’s this invitation to come. Psalms 1 and 2, this invitation to come and be heard by Him, to bring every emotion, every experience, come and be heard by Him and be fortified by Him, to be known by Him, and to be safe in Him. And they will take you to that place, Psalm 150, to the place of joy - twelve times in six verses the word “praise” we see.

And so Psalm 1 is broken down into three contrasts. The first contrast is in verses 1 and 2 contrasting roads. The second, verses 3 and 4, contrasting images. And then the third, the crowning touch, verses 5 and 6, contrasting promises. And so contrasting roads, contrasting images, and contrasting promises.

Contrasting Roads

And so let’s first look at the contrasting roads. I want you to notice there’s a lot of parallelism here. This psalm has two main characters - the righteous and the wicked. And the psalmist is talking about people. The psalmist is talking about all people. And he puts them in these two categories. And these are not moral performance categories. These are categories of status. So these are not moral performance categories, and so the righteous are not those who had a good week of quiet times but they are those who have embraced God’s grace. They are those who have been loved by God. They are those unsnatchable from God’s hand. And the wicked, the wicked are those who are guided by, they’re instructed by and they delight in the things of this world.

Look with me at the text in verse 1. The very first word in this psalm is the word, “blessed.” Most commentators will say the best translation of this word is “happy.” “Happy is the man.” A word that occurs 26 times in the Psalms; a word that when translated into Greek, a word that structures Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. He begins in the beatitudes when He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” He’s using this word. And then notice as verse 1 famously goes on to give this three-fold description of this happiness in negative terms. And so “Happy is the man, happy is the man who walks not.”

I want you to notice there are three sets of three. And so there’s walking and standing and sitting. Walking, standing, sitting. And then there’s the counsel, the way, and the seat. And then the wicked, sinners, and scoffers. These three sets of three. And for time’s sake we can’t go into detail in each one, but what I want you to see is this progression of departure. There’s this progression of departure away from God and away from God’s Word. As commentator Derek Kidner put it, “The blessed man is someone who does not get lured into ways of thinking, ways of behaving, or ways of belonging of this world.” And so ways of thinking - “the counsel of the wicked,” that first one. Ways of behaving - “stands in the way.” A way of life; a way of living. Or ways of belonging - “who sits in the seat.”

And so the blessed man does not get lured into that, but happy is the man who refuses to anchor his life, happy is the man who refuses to root his life in anything other than God’s ways of thinking, behaving and belonging. That’s the three-fold description for us in negative terms, this progression of departure. This way that sin works in our lives - that we come to it and we think that we are the master and the sin is the servant. And over time, those roles are reversed and it becomes the master and we become the servant and we listen to it. We take instruction from it. We belong to it and we can’t take our eyes off of it. And so that is the description in negative terms.

Then there’s this positive description in verse 2 - “Blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” And so the happy man is listening to and meditating on the law of the Lord, the Torah, the instruction of the Lord day and night. And so just as verse 1 was the progression, this road, verse 2 is as well. Verse 2 is also a path. Verse 2 is a practice that helps you create the reality of verse 1, happiness. It’s also this road. And I want you to notice the way of the righteous is characterized - what’s the word? Delight. Joy. There’s music in it. And it’s an entire way of life, this day and night meditation. And so there are these contrasting roads.

Contrasting Images

Let’s go a little bit deeper. Let’s look at the contrasting images; these images that are intended to capture our imagination. Look with me first in verse 4. “The wicked are like chaff.” So the wicked “are like chaff that the wind drives away.” And so agriculturally speaking, chaff is the weightless part of the harvest. And so when the wheat is harvested and winnowed and thrown into the air, the weightier part, the substantial part falls to the ground and the wind drives everything else away. In other words, the wicked are like chaff. The reality of the wicked, like chaff, is that they are ungrounded. That’s what the image is teaching us - that the wicked are ungrounded; they have no substance. They have no stability; they’re not rooted. They’re not anchored. They are dust in the wind, tossed to and fro, so that when the wind comes they’re tossed away, they’re blown away. And so it’s a startling picture. That is who we are apart from God and His Word.

And then this startling contrast to verse 3. This other image - the blessed man who delights in the law of the Lord is “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season. Its leaf does not wither, and all that he does he prospers.” And so the psalmist is imagining an arid climate. And I think that’s important. Verse 3 does not mean that life gets easy, but it’s an arid climate and there is a tree. There is a tree that’s by the riverbed and it’s rooted and anchored to this water source. And it has a constant supply of water. And so something outside of it, streams of living water, something outside of it gives it life; something outside of it gives it strength and gives it stability. It’s a well-grounded tree. The roots go down deep and tap into the riches of this flowing stream, so that when the wind blows - and the wind is going to blow - when the wind blows, I love this phrase, “it’s leaf does not wither.”

I think we all know someone that we could say fits that description. There’s someone that comes to our mind or our heart - their leaf doesn’t wither. When the wind blows, their leaf does not wither; it’s not shaken. It’s this picture of perseverance. Its leaf does not wither. Even though of course the tree is not immune to the wear and tear of life in a broken world, it’s not immune to the wear and tear of the seasons. It knows the bitter cold of winter. It knows the heat of summer. It can withstand dry seasons. It can survive droughts and it still has beauty. Verse 3 is beauty. That is a beautiful verse - this image. This tree is not just for itself; it’s a tree that yields its fruit in its season so it’s a tree that bears fruit for others. It can actually be a place of shade for others. It can be a place of refuge and rest for others. It’s this beautiful image. There is so much beauty in verse 3.

And wherever you find yourself tonight, if you have come up against something in your life that is big, if you have come up against something that is scary, and you’re here tonight and you’re afraid; if death and disease and darkness is closing in on you, if you feel like you are all alone, if you don’t know how much longer you can hang on and the wind is blowing and beating and the hard rain is coming down upon you, wherever you find yourself tonight this psalm is talking about your life. This is talking about your real life. And verse 3 is not a challenge to you, believer. Verse 3 is a promise. This is not a threat. This is good news for you, Christian, that in a world like ours where there is a great deal of sadness and there’s a lot that is hard, the living waters of Jesus Christ and the power of His Word is what will sustain you so that your leaf does not wither. Not because of you, not because of you but because of the One who has planted you and is tending you and is nourishing you and is making you like this beautiful tree. So there are these contrasting roads, these contrasting images.

Contrasting Promises

But last and very briefly, these contrasting promises in verses 5 and 6. These verses, they’re somber, the contrasting promises are laid out for us, but they’re also gifts here in verses 5 and 6. There are these great gifts to be found for God's people. And for time's sake, we'll look at two.

The Wicked Will Not Stand

First, look in verse 5. Verse 5, "Therefore the wicked will not stand. The wicked will not stand in the judgment.” How can anyone stand before God? You and I, apart from Him and left to ourselves, we are chaff. We are blown away. In and of ourselves, we cannot stand before God. The only one that can stand before God is Jesus. He has stood in our place. And the only way that we can stand is because of Him. He has stood in our place to be the truly righteous one for us. He is the happy man of Psalm 1 for us. The one who has fully and completely and perfectly not walked in the counsel of the wicked for us. The one who has fully and completely and perfectly delighted in God’s law and meditated on it day and night. He is the one who said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

You see, Jesus alone is the Psalm 1:3 man. He is like a tree. Jesus Christ, He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields it’s fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither. In all that He does, He prospers. And so you can stand in God’s presence because of Jesus. You have His record. You can receive His welcome and never be cast out. Remember what Paul says in Romans 5? That through whom - through Jesus - “we have also obtained access by faith into this grace.” How does Paul end that? “Into this grace in which we now stand.” That’s the first gift in these verses.

The Lord Knows the Way of the Righteous

The second one that we see in verse 6 when the psalmist says, “The Lord knows the way of the righteous. The Lord knows the way of the righteous.” The psalm is saying to you, “God knows.

God knows you.” It’s an intimate term. It’s a term used to describe marital intimacy elsewhere in the Bible - that God knows you. God knows your life. He knows your going out. He knows your coming in. He knows the burdens of your heart. And this is a promise - not only that God will walk with you, not only that He is informed about you, but as one commentator said, it also includes to care; to care about and to own or to identify oneself with - that God knows the way of the righteous.

Just by way of application, I can’t speak for you, but I am fickle and I am flakey when it comes to the rhythms and the patterns and the habits that verse 2 describes. I’m fickle and I’m flakey; those rhythms and habits that end up shaping us as people. That there are some seasons in my life when I am on the mountain and I’m delighting in the law of the Lord and I’m meditating day and night. And there is delight in my heart; there is delight in my soul. And there are other seasons where I am cast down in a valley. Why don’t I read the Bible more? Why don’t I read the Bible more? I’m busy. I’m tired. I think because I love, I delight, I listen to my heart is given to the wrong things, and so there are times when I open up the Bible and it does not seem to my affections to be honey, sweeter than honey, richer than gold. Why don’t I read the Bible more?

I think those are some of the reasons, those are part of the problem, but why don’t I read the Bible more? This is something that I am learning. Matthew chapter 11 verse 25, Jesus says, “I thank You, Father,” He says, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things” - the truths of scripture - “that You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding, and You have revealed them to little children.” In other words, what does a little child have to offer? Beautiful weakness and need.

Beloved in Christ, knowing your weakness helps you learn where to place your strength. Why don’t I read the Bible more? Knowing your lack of strength teaches you not to depend on your own strength, on your own hands, on your own stubborn self-sufficiency. But knowing your lack of strength teaches you to sing, “The Lord is my strength. The Lord is my strength,” as you run to the one who knows you as a little child; as you run to Him and as you run to His Word.

A few weeks ago, we were able to get away on vacation to a lake house with my dad and my brothers and their families. And I have a daughter named Finley who is almost three. And Finley, in our house, we like to say that Finley is our bucket of joy. She is just a deep well of fun. And so this was her second summer to get on a tube. This was Finley’s second summer to go tubing, and she’s crazy about it. And she would, as I would be kind of chest-down on the tube, she would sit by me until the tube got a little bit of speed, until the boat got going. And every time, she would stand up on the tube, she would stand up and often she would sing the VBS song, “Waves of mercy, waves of grace! Waves of mercy, waves of grace!” She would do that every time until it got a little bit choppy, until some waves came, until the boat picked up some speed. And every single time she would jump back down on her chest and she would say, “Daddy, hold me, hold me, hold me!” A little child.

 I want to invite you to let this month be an opportunity for you, or maybe literally you can unplug a little bit and recalibrate where the input is coming from and to give yourself to the Psalms. Let this month be an opportunity to begin again. Your choices, your habits, this summer your choices and your habits and your rhythms will affect your experience of God’s love for you. They will affect your experience of that. And so come, come as a little child. Come with empty hands. Come with nothing to offer but need. Hold me, hold me, hold me. And let the Psalms wash over you. And delight in this - the Lord knows the way of the righteous.

Let me close with this. Some of you have seen the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? There’s a scene in that documentary where Mr. Rogers is giving a commencement speech at Middlebury College in Vermont. And he’s talking to these graduating seniors and he’s asking them to consider, “Who is it that has helped you get here?” And he’s saying, you know, you can’t do something like graduate from college, you can’t achieve anything great or sustain any good work without someone who has impacted you. And I love how he said it. He said, “All of you, from the time that you were very little, you had people that smiled you into smiling. People who have talked you into talking. People who sung you into singing. People who loved you into loving.”

And again, the Psalms function as a kind of school, as a teacher for the heart, for the affections. They are God’s Word to us and they are God’s Word for us - to teach us how to pray. They teach us how to sing, how to sing our longings and even our disappointments; our anxieties, our fears. And even how to sing in the valley. But ultimately, they teach us how to sing praises; they teach us how to sing praises to the Lord who knows our way. And so that is an invitation. Amen. Let me pray for us.

Father, we pray that You would help us. We have heard Your promise. You know our way. We pray that we would be like this tree, planted by streams of water, that yields it’s fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither. In all that we do, we pray that You would help us to prosper. Give us great delight. Help us not to grow weary in coming to You and coming to Your Word with empty hands as little children. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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