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How the Psalms Instruct Us

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, 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 shall be 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. (Psalm 1)

Do you think of the psalms as divine instruction that you must respond to by faith? Or do you typically view the psalms as a conglomeration of songs and prayers? When you read the psalms, do you get the sense that you must respond?

Our temptation is probably to view the songbook of the Bible as supplemental material to the more weighty portions of Scripture. It is obvious in the way that people talk about the psalms and in the way in which they are used. We resonate with the psalms because they encourage us and make us feel a sense of nearness to God. But I think Psalm 1 offers another perspective too, one in which the psalms have a deeper, richer significance in the lives of believers.

Psalm 1 makes plain that we should view the songbook of the Bible—the Book of Psalms—as divine guidance for our lives. This is clear in its place among the 150 psalms. Its prominence as the first psalm is significant. It bears no title or superscription like so many other psalms because it functions as the title of the whole book. And, unlike many other psalms that focus on singing and offering praise, it is filled with language about what a blessed person does and does not do.

If you don’t think of the psalms as divine guidance, you should. Psalm 1 provides the paradigm for thinking this way. In fact, Psalm 1 opens the door for how the entire psalter is to be understood. These six short verses invite us to consider how the rest of the psalter—whether sung or prayed or read—is the divine instruction (or law, torah) of the Lord. And what are we to do when we encounter the instruction of the Lord? We should delight in it.

The main point of Psalm 1 is nonnegotiable: your destiny is determined by how you respond to the divine revelation of God in the Bible. You must know and be known by the Bible. You must desire it! And so you must know the psalms. The way to know the psalms is to receive the exhortation of Psalm 1, showing that the right approach to the Word of God involves continual, life-long mediation and immersion in our sovereign Lord. This leads to true success, or blessedness as the first verse says.

Consider also the implication of this psalm: what we become reflects what we desire. Our desires have consequences. According to this psalm, they affect us either positively or negatively and shape the direction of our lives. What do you meditate on? What are you giving your thoughts to? Do you contemplate the Word of God? Do you delight in it? These are important questions to consider, and Psalm 1 shows that you either delight in God’s law or you don’t. Your response places you on one of two paths. The blessed man is like a tree planted in good soil beside a good river because he delights in the instruction of the Lord. The wicked man is like chaff because he does not.

This choice is much like the one Jesus presented near the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7). There is the way of righteousness or the way of wickedness, two roads or ways that a person can take. One way – the way of the wicked – is broad and leads to destruction, and another – the way of the righteous – is narrow and leads to life (7:13-14). Unfortunately, our sinfulness leads us naturally to the broad road. But for those who find themselves on the broad road there is a way to get on the path of the righteous: ”Behold, the man!" (John 19:5). Choosing the “way of the righteous” in Psalm 1 means choosing the way of Christ. We must look to him. He is the law of the Lord incarnate. And choosing to delight in God’s instruction means choosing to delight in Jesus.

The psalms aren’t simply songs or prayers or fillers to your worship outlines, but are God’s Word to us and the divine revelation of his will. And when we master these texts, they shape us to the will of God and give voice to our praise. The idea that you can succeed without meditation as described in Psalm 1 is absurd. Do not skimp on the Word of God. Set your heart to know it.

Read the psalms. Meditate on them and treasure them. Sing them, pray them, and memorize them, and use them in your worship services. And don’t skip over Psalm 1 when you open your Bible to read the psalms. Hear and do. Delight in the instruction of the Lord. And fix your life on the truth of God’s Word so that you delight in it. Plant yourself into the sure footing of Jesus. There is a river of life flowing from Christ. Will you plant yourself firmly beside it?

Josh Philpot (@joshphilpot) is the Pastor for Worship and Administration at Founders Baptist Church in Houston, Texas.

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