The reading and singing of psalms have long been traditions in the Christian Church and in the Judeo-Christian faith, supplying parishioners with liturgies, hymns, psalters, and sermons for their spiritual development and personal relationship with God. It is normal to have one or two favorite Psalms out of the 150 in the Protestant Bible. Perhaps the most recognized and memorized is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” There are other very memorable Psalms that parishioners hold near and dear to their hearts and can recite from memory. Some love a particular psalm or verse so much that they have had it tattooed on their bodies, saved on the screens of their smartphones or written in a place that is a constant reminder of the importance of the words and phrases.
As a boy growing up in church, I remember the deacons reciting Psalm 121 during their devotional time right before the beginning of worship: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.”
As a kid, I had no idea that the words they recited and sang out loud were part of a book in the Bible that one day would mean the world to me, and that book is the Book of Psalms.
As we continue to celebrate Pentecost and press towards Advent and Christmas, Psalm 1 is a fitting reminder of what it means to live a life of faith and to be intentional about developing a relationship with God, like a tree planted by the water, growing and bearing fruit in every season. The imagery in Psalm 1 is striking, and the words used to paint the picture are extremely vivid. Consider interacting with these words apart from reading them in a text; imagine the words elevated in a word cloud: wicked; sinners, company, mockers, delight, meditate, tree, planted, streams, water, fruit, season, leaf, wither, prosper.
Psalm 1 is a song that contrasts the characteristics of the blessed one and the wicked one to help the reader know there is a choice and a path to life. God’s desire is that we would always choose good and not evil, peace and not war, righteousness and not unrighteousness, hope and not fear. One commentary highlighted, “The choice presented by Psalm 1 is always contemporary. We may choose to be self-instructed and self-directed, or we may choose to open ourselves to God’s teaching and to God’s direction.” [J. Clinton McCann, Jr. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol IV. “The Book of Psalms” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 686-687]
The first image: a tree planted. Verse 3 is clear in what it means to be the blessed one or a blessed person, “That person is like a tree planted…” When reading Psalm 1, it isn’t hard to imagine a huge oak tree with broad branches and limbs, green leaves and a trunk firmly planted and rooted in the rich dark soil. When I was growing up as a child in the “Piney Woods” of East Texas, I was always fascinated by trees, in part because of their varying shapes and sizes. I saw trees that grew straight and others that grew with a curve, and trees externally that had varying colors of bark, limbs and leaves. I also noticed that it was almost impossible to uproot a tree, even by the force of strong storms and rain. Even in the midst of storms, wind and rain, the trees were still standing; if the limbs and leaves and trunks were damaged, the root system was still intact and unmoved. The image of a strong tree still standing after a storm is an image of a modern-day disciple who withstands the storms of time and remains rooted and grounded in the soil of faith.
As the world battled in the midst of a pandemic storm, it hasn’t been easy to be like a tree that has been planted, and if we are honest, many of us feel uprooted from time to time and are not quite sure what today or tomorrow will bring, or how we will make it through to the other side. I have heard so many personal testimonies over the past couple of years from individuals, families and organizations that have been in the storms of life, and although difficult, they have stood through the storms, battering winds and the rain. Today, you are blessed because you are still standing like a tree planted by the water.
The second image: to be nurtured. What about those streams of water? The psalmist says that we are to be like, “a tree planted by streams of water.” For trees and plant life to live and thrive, water is essential; without water, they wither and die. The psalmist encouraged believers to “delight and meditate” on the Law of God. In contemporary language, we would say, “delight and meditate” on God’s word, which is the Bible. There is something extremely empowering and nurturing about reading and meditating on God’s word.
When we think about reading and meditating on God’s word, it involves two practices. The first is a devotional life with God and spending quality time reading God’s word daily or on a regular basis. So often, there are obstacles that attempt to take our quality time with God away. Those obstacles seem justifiable, such as work and family, recreation, school; and the list goes on and on. As believers, it is important that we make time for God so that we can be like the tree being nurtured by streams of water.
The second practice is meditating on God’s word. Which means, after we read the Bible, to take the words with us in our mind and spirit and to daily think or meditate on God’s word. Even when trees aren’t planted next to streams with an abundance of water, they can still survive. Whenever it rains, the root system absorbs the water from the soil; and through God’s infinite wisdom, God created trees and plant life with an ability to store water and use the stored water to ensure long life, even in seasons of drought.
When we meditate on God’s word, we are absorbing directions for our lives and, like trees that have an ability to store water and use it over time, that which we have absorbed from God’s word in our minds and spirits is used daily to sustain and restore us. We are restored and nurtured by the words in the psalm: _delight, tree, planted, streams, water, fruit, season, leaf, prosper. Are you making time for your devotional life and meditation life with God?
But then that third image: developing. Verse 3 ends with a powerful phrase, “…which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither - whatever they do prospers.” Perhaps today, these words sound distant and unattainable because we are constantly being battered by the winds and the storms of life, and we aren’t always sure if we are going to make it.
As a pastor, I get an opportunity to celebrate with people during the highest moments of their lives, and I get the opportunity to talk with them during the lowest moments of their lives. Life at best is cyclical, and there are times when we are on top of the world and there are times when it feels like the world is on top of us. Those moments are never amazing or fun. What sense do we make of the psalmist saying, “whatever they do prospers”? Surely the psalmist could not be talking about me or my life. I have friends and colleagues who are prosperous and always get the new career, new car, new home or new opportunity, but I am always one step behind. How can I be prosperous in all seasons, even in the Fall and Winter seasons?
These are questions we ask and wrestle with from time to time. While the answers never seem to come quickly, when the answer finally arrives, it never quite satisfies our longing for joy, peace and happiness. Before you discard the wisdom and direction of the psalmist, let’s pause and examine what the psalmist is really saying.
First, the psalmist is reminding us that we are blessed when we walk in God’s way and that God has planted us by streams of water to nurture and develop us. Even when we are planted in dryer places, our roots and leaves remain nourished. In other words, our lives, although difficult at times, aren’t broken. We are not mistakes. We are loved by almighty God. God blesses and loves us unconditionally. This unconditional love is the story of Jesus who came to earth in human form and gave His life on the cross so that we may have life. John’s gospel calls this Abundant Life.
Second, like evergreens we will flourish in all seasons even when our leaves and stems don’t seem to be blooming or producing the beautiful colors of Spring. I have learned that trees go through cycles in each season. Though we would love for every season to be Spring and colorful, there are Fall and Winter seasons when trees and plants are dormant and dull. Even in these seasons, the trees and plants are flourishing, they are being replenished from the inside out, preparing to bloom the bright colors of Spring and Summer. The same is true for you. When you embrace with faith that even in the Fall and Winter God is up to something, that prospering isn’t only external but is internal, and embrace all of the ways that God gives peace of mind, joy in soul, and heals our bodies, then friends, we will prosper in all seasons.
Finally, Psalm 1 is not a static verse or hymn, but like streams of water illustrated in the powerful imagery, it is evolving, flowing and moving. It is regenerating. Healthy and vital trees don’t exist the same way for all time, but they are dynamic and grow and develop over time. I love seeing trees planted in the early stages, and years later see their growth and development.
The word regeneration is a word for you today as you are living the wisdom of Psalm 1 and hold on to the promises of regeneration that God gives in Psalm 1 and know that God is renewing and refreshing you right now. The power of Psalm 1 is that God is not finished with us and that we are constantly growing and developing. I pray that you dare to allow God to plant you, receive and meditate on God’s word that nurtures you and trust that you are growing in every season, especially the Fall and Winter seasons when it seems as if everything is dead or dying.
Claim your season and know that God is for you. We are blessed. Amen.