Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Blessed Worldview

How did this end up as the first verse of the very first Psalm anyway? Think about that for a while.

“Blessed is the man who walks not
 in the counsel of the wicked,
 nor stands in the way of sinners,
 nor sits in the seat of scoffers.”

A warning about testimony, perhaps? Agreed, it doesn’t look good when a child of God associates with wicked people, or sinners, or scoffers. He or she might be thought to be one of them.

Only problem is, the Lord did, right? Sinners, at least.

The Lord’s Example and Christian Testimony

The accusation leveled against Jesus of Nazareth was that he was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners”. And if we think maybe that was something the Lord could safely engage in — you know, being God and all — but not something in which we should follow his example, remember that Paul says, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world”.

Since leaving the world is not an option, it’s unlikely what the psalmist is recommending. He’s not just saying “Steer clear of bad people”, which, while it might make the Christian life easier in some respects, would also render it unproductive.

No, I don’t think he’s concerned primarily about mere appearances, but about something more fundamental to who we are as children of God. I suspect he is thinking about where we get our worldview, our perspective, our attitude to those around us and to this life. He’s concerned with how we arrive at the default assumptions that make us who we are.

The Counsel of the Wicked

The psalmist says the man who does not “walk in the counsel of the wicked” is happy.

The wicked — and here the word means not just people who lack knowledge of God, but people who are actively bad — are always happy to give advice. They recommend courses of action, the way Ahithophel did, a man to whom both King David and his son Absalom went for opinions on matters of state. We are not to pay attention to the advice they offer, even if we are obliged to be around them because of work or witness. To accept the counsel they offer us is a mistake for the believer, as their counsel is almost always premised on false assumptions about the world, human nature, God and judgment.

Here, the psalmist warns about listening to wrong WORDS.

The Way of Sinners

He goes on to add that the man who does not “stand in the way of sinners” is happy.

The word “sinner” here denotes one who has been counted culpable. He’s not just actively bad: he’s been caught at it. He is sufficiently incompetent at lawbreaking to be publicly known as a bad guy. He has a reputation for going astray.

Sinners have a “way”, and there’s nothing subtle about it. The word means more than just a path or a road that one might walk down (although red light districts in major cities remind us that sinners do tend to have particular places where they gather). But figuratively, a “way” in Hebrew is a course of life, a set of habits. Taken together with the knowledge that we cannot as believers remove ourselves from the presence of bad influences, I believe what the psalmist is suggesting here is that we make sure not to organize our lives according to the same principles as the societies around us.

Our habits are not to be the habits of the world. The psalmist’s second warning is about imitating wrong ACTIONS.

The Seat of Scoffers

The psalmist continues: a man is happy who does not sit in the seat of scoffers.

Scoffers (or the “scornful”, as the KJV puts it) are just what they sound like: people characteristically given to belittling others. The Hebrew word for “scoffer” is often translated “interpreter” in the Old Testament because it signifies attempting to speaking in a foreign language; imitating something one is not, presumably to humourous effect. Thus a scoffer derides something not because it lacks merit, but because he lacks any real understanding of it.

Sound familiar?

Scoffers take a seat, though that seat is metaphorical, I think. They have a place in which they may habitually be found and with which they are associated, usually above everybody else (at least in their own thinking). Proverbs associates scorn with pride and haughtiness.

In scripture, scoffing is always a bad thing, but it means something a little different from mere mockery or making fun. Elijah was not scoffing when he poked fun at the prophets of Baal — his God was genuinely superior in every respect, and the failure of idolaters to recognize it was laughable. Likewise, when “He who sits in the heavens laughs” at the raging heathen, God is not being a “scoffer” in the Psalm 1 sense: it is his enemies whose perspective is skewed.

The essence of scoffing, as the word is used in scripture, is that it comes out of a false sense of superiority, a mistaken belief that you or what you represent is somehow better than what you are criticizing. When you actually ARE superior ... well, different story.

Believers are not to be characterized by a false sense of superiority, but by humility and lowliness of spirit. We have something to be proud about, but it is not ourselves — even our redeemed selves.

So the psalmist’s third warning is about learning to think wrong THOUGHTS.

Set in Contrast

Set in contrast to walking in the counsel of the wicked or standing in the way of sinners or sitting in the seat of scoffers is a delight in the law of the Lord (“on his law he meditates day and night”). The man or woman whose pleasure is in engagement with the written word of God for the purpose of knowing its Author is in no danger of absorbing the influences of the society in which he or she lives.

The advice of wicked people has no appeal to one who already has a firm set of standards to live by, standards in which he or she finds genuine pleasure. The example of degenerates may entice a dilettante, but not one whose habits are those of an obedient servant: servants have a Master to please and must be on their way. The attitudes of those who are both proud and foolish do not rub off on those whose minds are set on things above.

Such a person’s own worldview is well established. And blessed.

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