Psalm 1 (Part 1)

“….they are blessed who apply their hearts to the pursuit of heavenly wisdom….”

Calvin, Commentary Upon the Book of Psalms)

Shortly before I suffered my first major episode of depression, I was reading the Epistle of James. There were several reasons why I chose that epistle at that time, but the bottom line was that I needed James’ practical and incisive pastoral wisdom. I was all at sea. I had entirely lost my confidence in my abilities as a pastor, especially my ability to lead with that tender care that characterised the Chief Shepherd of the Sheep. Far from being the solution, I had convinced myself that I was the problem. And having studied the epistle some years earlier for a series of Bible Studies, I felt sure that it would be the right place for me to turn so that I could realign my thinking, get my perspective right.

I didn’t get far. I got as far as verses 5-8, and I stumbled on these verses.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord.”

When I say, “stumbled”, I mean that it was as though these words tripped me up and laid me flat on my face. Even though James’ exhortation was so familiar to me, it suddenly became an insurmountable obstacle, stopping me not only from continuing through my devotional reading of the letter, but stopping me, almost dead in my tracks, in my wider discipleship.

James’ encouragement to pray for wisdom had been a significant source of motivation for my prayers for many years. My sense of my desperate need for wisdom had driven me to pray earnestly for it both publicly and privately. I knew how much I needed it!

Or I thought that I knew.

James’ words, “let him ask in faith, with no doubting,” seemed to pin me in my place so that I suddenly found myself unsure what he meant when he wrote, “ask in faith, with no doubting.” On the surface, they seem straightforward. But not to me then, and, if I am honest, not to me now, either.

And James’ words, as he expanded on this point, only seemed to make things harder to understand: a “double-minded man, unstable in all his ways,” has no right to presume that he will receive anything from the Lord. I felt far from stable at the time. I was fighting all manner of battles, and because I had so completely lost my confidence, I found myself second-guessing every decision, every commitment, every plan that I had made. In my growing anxiety, I felt as though I was stumbling around looking for answers and while my head knew all too well that I could only find the answers in Christ, my hands and my feet seemed to be telling me something else. In the heat of the trial, I was desperate to find something to help me. My wisdom, my strength, my perseverance, my works were all failing me. I needed help, something to bolster me and to encourage me in the way. And because I had prayed to God for wisdom so often, and always felt as though I meant that prayer with all my heart, and yet I still felt such poverty in my discernment in my engagement with people, I was suddenly asking myself whether I was a double-minded man. I felt so unstable. And so – and this happened so fast! – I began to doubt that I could ever be truly wise; worse, I doubted that it was even right for me to pray for wisdom.

I have been finding an answer to those doubts in the Psalms, and especially in Psalm 1. Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm. It’s concerned with how we make the right choices, how we live rightly before the Lord. More than anything, it places before us a stark choice: delighting in the Law of the Lord (v2), on the one hand; and being wicked (v4), on the other. To put it another way, it teaches us the difference between what we could call the Way of Righteousness and the Way of Wickedness. This psalm also teaches us about the consequences of our choice: what happens when we choose the Way of Righteousness and what happens when we choose the Way of Wickedness. To put it in Calvin’s terms, “they are blessed who apply their hearts to the pursuit of heavenly wisdom”.

Of course, both the language and the thought of this psalm are mirrored by the Lord Jesus’ teaching, recorded in Matthew 7:24-27 as part of the Sermon on the Mount. In what is perhaps one of Jesus’ most well-known parables, He speaks about the wise man who builds his house upon a solid foundation of rock, and the fool, who builds his house on the sand. When the storm comes, the wise man’s house stands, even against the wind and the flood; but the fool’s house collapses. In the context of the sermon, it should be clear what Jesus meant, but because He knew how careless His listeners often were, and how careless we so often are, He made it clear for us: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them” is wise. To know Christ’s Word and to do it is wisdom, and this wisdom will help us to stand in the storms of life. There is, then, one way to blessing: to walk with Christ. Everything else is folly and loss.

As I write these words, I am reminded of one of Wales’ most famous hymns, Calon Lan, Pure Heart, written by Daniel James. The second verse reads:

Should I cherish earthly treasure
It would fly on speedy wings
The pure heart a plenteous measure
Of true pleasure daily brings.
Oh, pure heart so true and tender
Fairer than the lilies white
The pure heart alone can render
Songs of joy both day and night.

These words capture something of my longing for that pure, undivided heart that finds its resting place in the Word of God. I know that it is only a heart set upon God that can bring joy even in the deepest of trials. The tender heart that shrinks even at the approach of sin is alone able to render praise in both the light and the darkness.

I yearn for that peace and the joy that belongs to it. I confess that I no longer possess it as I once did. I find myself grasping for it all the more so now that I have been separated from my church. And as the trial stretches on, as the waves of anxiety threaten to overwhelm me, I find myself turning more and more to the psalms for refuge, knowing that the psalmists know my weakness and, more importantly, have the cure for it. I know, intellectually at least, that all the treasury of grace that the Holy Spirit has deposited in this collection is available to those who apply their hearts to the pursuit of heavenly wisdom. God favours those who are devoted to His Word, those who are determined not to be distracted by the things of the world or carried away by them.

Many scholars think that Psalms 1 & 2 stand together as the introduction to the Psalter. And the more I have read the Psalms, the more I am inclined to agree with this. If Psalm 1 contrasts the Way of the Righteous with the Way of the Wicked, then Psalm 2 expresses this same contrast, but this time on a cosmic stage, not a human one. In the kings of the earth who take counsel together and set themselves against the LORD and His Anointed, we see the archetypical “wicked” of Psalm 1. And, in the LORDS Anointed, and in all those who take refuge in Him, we see the archetypical “righteous” of Psalm 1.

The New Testament’s use of this psalm leaves us in no doubt that the LORD’s Anointed is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son Incarnate, who came into the world to destroy all the works of the devil. Psalm 2 resounds with the majesty and glory of the One who sits at the right-hand side of the Father in heaven, waiting until all things are put in subjection under His feet. It is a psalm of victory. No, more than that, it is a psalm which reveals God in all His omnipotence: One who laughs at the plots and plans of the wicked before judging them in all his terrible fury. It looks forward to the incarnation, God made flesh in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. It looks beyond the incarnation to the cross, where the Incarnate One took our sins upon himself, and suffered in our behalf. And at the cross, we see the utter folly of those who thought that, in crucifying Jesus, they could set themselves against the Word of the Lord. And it looks beyond the cross to the resurrection, gloriously witnessed by the angel who sat in such casual confidence, in all its radiant glory, on the rolled-away stone, rendering the soldiers helpless in their fear. Christ Jesus, put to death for our transgression, raised for our justification. It’s no wonder, then, that it is this psalm that acts as the cornerstone of the first apostolic sermon, preached by Peter on the Day of Pentecost.

As I wrestle, then, with my weakness, as I struggle still to know what it means to ask in faith, without doubting, I remember that the One who commands us to hear and to do all the things that He has spoken is also the One True Shepherd of the Sheep. He is One who, as He looks upon the Sheep, calls, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” This Wonderful Counsellor and Prince of Peace is no harsh, demanding schoolmaster standing over us threateningly, wielding the rod in anger when we doubt or misstep. No: He is the Son, appointed to be the heir of all things, bearing the very stamp of God’s nature, yet One who was not ashamed to call us brethren. He knows the frailty of our frame, having been tempted in every way even as we are tempted; yet, without sin. He is both willing and able to meet us in our need. And while we are not promised ease in this life, because He has conquered sin and death, we are promised everlasting life in Him, a life of perfect peace.

I must walk in the Way of Righteousness. I must hear and do all the things that He has said. And I must trust Him.

Speak, I pray Thee, gentle Jesus!
O, how passing sweet Thy words,
Breathing o’er my troubled spirit
Peace which never earth affords.
All the world’s distracting voices,
All th’enticing tones of ill,
At Thy accents mild, melodious,
Are subdued, and all is still.

Tell me Thou art mine, O Savior,
Grant me an assurance clear;
Banish all my dark misgivings,
Still my doubting, calm my fear.
O, my soul within me yearneth
Now to hear Thy voice divine;
So shall grief be gone for ever,
And despair no more be mine.

William Williams

S.D.G.

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