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Is Psalm 1 Misleading?

            Psalm 1:3 declares that the righteous who meditate on God’s word prosper in all that they do, whereas the wicked are blown away like chaff.  This sounds wonderful, but reality often contradicts it.  The wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.  Does Psalm 1 mislead us?  Is God’s word false?

            Psalm 1 does mislead us, if we make the mistake of isolating it from the rest of Scripture.  We need to look at the whole of Scripture and not absolutize individual passages.  The Bible is at its most profound when it critiques simplistic answers to the often seemingly contradictory nature of human existence. 

            Biblical wisdom literature critiques its own misuse.  A false universal application of “No ill befalls the righteous” (Proverbs 12:21) leads to the conclusion that suffering must be due to a person’s sin.  The Book of Job contradicts this naïve explanation of suffering.

            The Psalms do the same.  Psalm 1’s very affirmation of a blessed life for the righteous leads to godly questioning of God in the face of the reality of the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked.  The Psalms are full of great “Why?” passages.  “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?  Why do you hide yourself” (10:1)?  “Why do you hide your face?  Why do you forget our affliction and oppression” (44:24)?  “O God, why do you cast us off for ever?  Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture” (74:1)?  “O Lord, why do you cast me off?  Why do you hide your face from me” (88:14)?

            Such honest questions lead us to a deeper spiritual life based upon hope.  In Psalm 73 Asaph raises these very questions, questions that nearly lead him to abandon God because of his envy of the wicked’s prosperity.  Finally, as he enters God’s sanctuary (73:17), he perceives the end of the wicked in judgment (73:18-20, 27) and that the righteous will be received in glory (73:24).  Asaph exclaims, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever” (73:26).  His greatest good is to be near God (73:28).

            Frank and painful reflection that does not ignore or gloss over unjust suffering eventually comforts our soul and we learn to hope in God in a profounder way (See Psalms 42 and 43).   This hope is based upon a final judgment in which the wicked are punished and the righteous are saved.  Psalm 1:5 sees this truth when it affirms that the wicked will not stand in the judgment.

            Yet, even the whole Psalter does not give us God’s complete answer.  However, Psalm 22:1’s “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” points us in the right direction.  In his agony our Lord quotes it from the cross (Matthew 27:46).  He bore God’s righteous judgment for us and, trusting God, he asked his heavenly Father to forgive his persecutors and committed his spirit to God (Luke 23:34, 46).

            Contemporary Christianity downplays these themes.  In general, we are uncomfortable with the judgment of God, do not look to our eternal hope for consolation in suffering, and do not find our identity in the crucified Lord.  (For the theologians, we are not eschatologically motivated and christologically based.)  We have opted either for a prosperity gospel of physical health and wealth or a therapeutic gospel of psychological healing.  Both offer inadequate answers to the mystery of suffering.  They leave the world unimpressed and the soul thirsting for the living God.

            It is the crucified and risen Lord, promising that he will return one day, who sends his Spirit upon his people to bear witness to him (Acts 1:1-11).  This gospel nurtures spiritual depth and draws the world to Christ.  It was the crucified, questioning and yet trusting Christ that led the centurion to say, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).  The world awaits a church that follows in his steps.

2 thoughts on “Is Psalm 1 Misleading?

  1. Bill,
    Excellent exegesis.
    Nothing in God’s Holy Word is misleading. Men are not deceived by God, they deceive themselves.
    Psalm 1.3 has been especially misappropriated by the prosperity/Word faith preachers to such an extent that I believe some lose their faith because they haven’t received a ’20 fold return on their seed’!
    I happen to spend much spare time studying eschatology, because I believe the Lord Jesus Christ WILL return after the darkest night in Israel’s apostate history. Yet it would appear that the default position in Christianity is a hope for an ‘any moment secret rapture’, which is nowhere taught in the Bible.
    Many isolate Scriptures out of context and they become a pretext.
    Deception abounds in so-called professing Christianity that there are different gospels and untruths being taught.
    If it were not so, I would think the Bible wasn’t true; 2 Timothy 4.1.
    The wheat and the tares are still growing together.

    God bless you

    1. Thanks, Colin. It is a shame when such a wonderful Psalm as the first one is misused. In Latin America I often saw the negative consequences of the prosperity gospel. I do think, however, that here in the States the therapeutic trend is more prevalent and more subtle, probably because it contains more truth.

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