Fr. Wilbur David Ellsworth · November 26, 2010
Fr. Wilbur begins his exploration of the Psalms with the well known Psalm 1 - Blessed is the Man.
Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the pestilent.
But his will is rather in the law of the Lord, and in his Law will he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like the tree which is planted by the streams of the waters,
which shall bring forth its fruit in its season and its leaf shall not fall,
and all things whatsoever he may do shall prosper.
Not so are the ungodly, not so: but rather they are like the chaff which the wind doth hurl away from the face of the earth.
For this reason shall the ungodly not stand up in judgment, nor sinners in the council of the righteous.
For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous; and the way of the ungodly shall perish.
The first Psalm is not just an introduction to a body of literature; it is the entrance to a new world. This introduction begins with a promise: “blessed”. And a person: “the man”. To pray we must believe this promise of blessing and then we must trust the person who is able to bring us into the realm where this promise of blessing is fulfilled. “Blessed” is the sign over the entrance to this land; a land Holy Scripture calls the Kingdom of God.
This promise, we believe, is the same sign at the Entrance of the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, as we enter the temple and hear, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages,” intoned by the priest. When we hear “blessed” we know we have gathered as the church and in worship we have now entered into a land where God is uniquely present, pouring out his goodness upon us and drawing us into holy communion with him; Creator and his created children. Loving, praising, seeking, asking, depending, listening, obeying and banqueting together in the great offering of his Son: Christ, our Lord, our God and our Saviour.
He, this Christ, is “the man” of Psalm 1. For no other man has ever fulfilled this life of blessedness. Attempts to imply “this man” refers merely to a general principle or a good way of life or includes anyone who chooses to live the life someone describes, misses the Gospel; for no-one but our Lord Jesus Christ ever fully lived this way. The only way we come into the blessed Kingdom is to enter and to pray in and through this man who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The Orthodox Study Bible summarises this Psalm as a presentation of how Jesus lived his life in this world, contrasting his God-directed life with the life of the ungodly. And we begin the life of prayer when we believe that our Lord Jesus came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation and lived this life and in his great offering crushed the power of sin and death and brings us, through his victory, into the grace to live this life through our union and faith in him.
The saving life and the life of the saved are marked by profound and persistent choices. Choices made in the moral freedom God has given to people made in his image. We choose where we walk, we choose where we are going to go with the flow, where we choose to move with the surrounding culture, where we choose to allow the subtle, casual influences of others to shape us. This man and those who follow him choose not to move through life deluding themselves that we can give ourselves to those who do not give themselves to God. And then we can be free to move on.
Where we walk is where we will soon stand. If we walk in the atmosphere of ungodliness we will soon stand with sinners. We will have deepened our inner commitment and our spiritual location. Where we stand determines our perspective and we will be looking at life, the way to live, as sinners; as people who have lost their orientation. The blessed man says no, both to walking and standing apart from and away from God. Because he knows that this will lead to sitting “in the seat of the pestilent.”
Where we sit is the settled result of our seemingly less binding choices. The little innocent things where we say, “Oh, well, that won’t matter. I’m not going to make a big choice, just a little one for the moment and then I’ll pass on.” But there’s a progression here: where we walk becomes where we stand and soon becomes where we sit. The result is a deep alienation from the blessed life, for now the seated not only have lost their own way but are now a discouragement and trouble to those who are seeking to follow the way of the blessed life. What a strong word: to “sit in the seat of the pestilent”.
Whether it’s overt and violent or subtle, we cause trouble if we follow this path. Whether it is in a friendship, perhaps in a marriage, in a family or even in a church, when we foolishly refuse to say no to this path that ends up a seat for the pestilent, we form an, unintended perhaps, but a very real result of being discouragements, rather than encouragements to the blessed life. We will see in Psalm 2 that these pestilent folks are a great trouble to the people of God, and that is a theme throughout the entire Psalter. The blessed man has chosen carefully where in his life he will walk, where he will stand and where he will sit. It is yes to God and no to anything and anyone else.
The result, this way of the right yeses and the wise nos, discovers truth that leads to life. The image of the tree, deeply rooted near the nourishing water, that sustains life in all its changes and adversities and brings fruit; the blessing of producing what the creator intended this man both to be and to do. And not only does he bear the fruit that is good for others and for reproducing this life. His leaves, those things that on the tree receive the life-giving energies of the sun and heaven, remain strong and do not fall. He maintains this life-giving union with heaven; this life, no matter what storms or losses may come, is blessed and will prosper, not only in this life but unto the ages of ages.
There is, of course, the freedom of the opposite choice. The terse grieved outcome of the life that chooses ungodliness is summed up in two terrible words in Psalm 1: “not so”. While the world tends to find its greatest interest in entertainment and the choices of the ungodly, the wisdom of the blessed man is to look on the end of such a life and sadly realise there is only one thing to say: not so. The choice of turning away from God is a decline from what once was to what might have been to what never will be. The life bearing seed is gone; only the outward shell remains as chaff that is at the mercy of the changing violent wind. And when the wind passes over it the chaff is gone and what once seemed to be home, to be a place to live and a place to stand, a place to be, is gone and there is nothing left of the empty ungodly life.
The destiny of the godly man is found in the reality that the Lord knows this way, the way of union with God. Any other way is just that: other, and anything other than that “shall perish”.
So, how does Psalm 1 shape our prayer? Well, the key is found in these beautiful phrases:
…his will—the will of the blessed man—is rather in the law of the Lord, and in his law will he meditate day and night.
Prayer is the exercise of will to root its life in the law of God. In God’s commands, God’s instructions, God’s wisdom. With the determination of the will; a will redeemed by the obedient human will of “the man” who while fully God was also fully man and made this free choice and focused his will on his Father’s truth and fed his soul all his earthly days in meditating on the light from heaven. That meditation is the root of prayer. The conflicting choice of meditating on empty things will be the theme of Psalm 2.
Until then, may God grant you his mercy to pray:
Let my prayer arise as incense before you;
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.