1. The instructions David gives are negative – not like the Beatitudes in the New Testament. They are warnings and, sometimes, warnings are exactly what we need even if we do not listen. I’ve thought often that David was speaking to younger men here and, in a sense, asking them questions with his statements.
Statement: Don’t walk in step with the wicked.
Question: Who are you walking with? What direction are they taking you?
I loved Ray Stedman’s teaching on the Old Testament character Enoch.
Twice in that verse it is recorded of Enoch the supremely important thing about this man: he walked with God. But it’s also recorded that he didn’t always walk with God. For the first 65 years of his life, his life was no different than those around him.
For 65 years he went along with the rest of his world, and then suddenly a change occurred. Perhaps you’re thinking it was that he began to draw his social security payments at the age of 65. But I doubt very seriously if that’s what’s involved here, for the scriptures suggest a far more radical and revolutionary change that took place. After the first 65 years of this man’s life there came a circumstance which caused him to turn right around. It was a right about-face, a dramatic change. In the midst of the same world given over to culture and art and mechanics, and so on, this man began to no longer walk with the world, but to walk with God. And for the next 300 years it’s recorded of him, as the supreme value of his life that he walked with God.
We make choices about which direction we walk and the consequences are significant:
“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
It does make all the difference but it’s never too late to change the direction. To go back to where the roads diverged and take the other way.
Statement: Don’t stand with the sinners.
Question: Who are you standing with? Whose values do you share?
Even if it seems we are standing with people who share good values we can be deceived. We may not see them as sinners per se but throwing in with them corrupts us all the same. C.S. Lewis wrote this in his “Meditation on the Third Commandment” on the then popular notion for forming a Christian Party and then aligning itself with an existing party to gain a greater influence.
It is not reasonable to suppose that such a Christian Party will acquire new powers of leavening the infidel organization to which it is attached. Why should it? Whatever it calls itself, it will represent, not Christendom, but a part of Christendom. The principle which divides it from its brethren and unites it to its political allies will not be theological. It will have no authority to speak for Christianity; it will have no more power than the political skill of its members gives it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies. But there will be a real, and most disastrous novelty. It will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time — the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith. The danger of mistaking our merely natural, though perhaps legitimate, enthusiasms for holy zeal, is always great. Can any more fatal expedient be devised for increasing it than that of dubbing a small band of Fascists, Communists, or Democrats `the Christian Party’? The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make-up we can find. And when once the disguise has succeeded, his commands will presently be taken to abrogate all moral laws and to justify whatever the unbelieving allies of the `Christian’ Party wish to do. If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and faked trials, religious persecution and organized hooliganism the lawful means of maintaining it, it will, surely, be by just such a process as this. The history of the late medieval pseudo-Crusaders, of the Covenanters, of the Orangemen, should be remembered. On those who add `Thus said the Lord’ to their merely human utterances descends the doom of a conscience which seems clearer and clearer the more it is loaded with sin.”
Statement: Don’t sit with the mockers.
Question: Who do you spend time with? What kind of people are shaping your attitudes, your humor, your perspectives on the world?
I was reminded just this week when Bill Maher interviewed Senator Ben Sasse. Bill Maher mocks everyone and every belief. However, after a time even that is boring and predictable. A reviewer of his show in England said, “Too often, though, Maher’s performance was hectoring and undignified. There is no doubt that comedy can be a powerful political tool – Maher has illustrated the point many times – but this particular rant amounted to little more than mockery masquerading as intellectualism.”
Whether it is Bill Maher on the Left or Anne Coulter on the Right we are to be careful of mockers and those who enjoy hectoring and masquerading as intellectuals. It colors not just our minds but our spirits.
The power of association is overwhelming. You will be shaped by the people you choose to be with or you fall in with. It’s far better to be intentional. It’s not social climbing. It is character building. I look around my office and I see pictures of me with older men like Peter Drucker, David Hubbard, Max DePree, Lyle Schaller, Dr. Ben Fisch and I realize how much they shaped me and challenged me to live up to their own standards for their lives.
What intentional associations do you have? Are you finding people more competent than you? Who are the wisdom figures in your life? What people in your life have learned from their travel and experiences? Who are the life long learners and the people who will stretch you – not just affirm or coddle you?
It is difficult to make new friends as we get older. In fact, the studies I’ve read report that after the age of 25 our inclination to make new friends declines considerably. “As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.”
We may not be as inclined to make new friends but we can make new influences in our lives. I did not discover John Gardner until my 50’s. I think I am just now far enough along in life to appreciate Shakespeare or Aristotle or G.K. Chesterton. You could say it’s too late to make what they have to teach a part of your life when you are older. After all, isn’t the script pretty much written? I don’t think so. We are always growing and changing. In a sense, we have an obligation to continue growing and stretching.
“The self-renewing man never feels that he has “arrived.” – John Gardner
But age also brings other obligations. Wisdom is an obligation of being older and nothing delights the wise more than watering a young tree as we pass through their lives on our way to the sea.
2. While the first verse is about negative associations, the second verse is about not just the study of Scripture but the operating principles of life and individual responsibility. It is about finding a compass that will offset the power of groups. Law is not just about rules but about core values. How will you establish those for your life? A stream needs banks or it becomes a directionless flood. In the same way, we need boundaries and principles or we spend our lives constantly in motion but never accomplishing anything that produces life in ourselves and others.
The core values should be few and simple and they should, ideally, create delight. Isn’t that interesting? The purpose of values is not to create stern, emotionless stoics but people of delight. People who are secure, kind, compassionate, steady and loyal. People whose lives have been crafted. What are the principles and disciplines in your life that when practiced create delight?
Delight is so much more than simple pleasure or even happiness, isn’t it? In it there are elements of discipline and habit, wonder and genuine enjoyment. What is the delight we are intended to find in God’s law?
First, there is the habit and discipline of meditation and reading. Day and night doesn’t mean 24 hours a day to the exclusion of everything else. It means there is no time in our day when we are not aware of God’s presence in our lives – he is with us when we awake and when we go to sleep. There is no magical time for the habit of meditation. There is no formula for it. It is like practicing our scales on the piano. It is not always delightful but it leads to delight. The scales lead to the music.
Second, there is the acquisition of competence. I don’t think you can have joy at anything without a certain amount of competence. Competence comes with practice and in discovering the pleasure of doing something well.
Third, there is the element of wonder and discovery. Call it surprise. We find new things in Scripture in every stage of life. We see things clearly for the first time in passages we have read for years. The Nobel Prize winning physicist, Edward Purcell, did the work on nuclear magnetic resonance which led to the invention of the MRI. I love what he said about the delight of discovery: “I have not yet lost a feeling of wonder, and of delight, that this delicate motion should reside in all the things around us, revealing itself only to him who looks for it. I remember, in the winter of our first experiments, just seven years ago, looking on snow with new eyes. There the snow lay around my doorstep — great heaps of protons quietly precessing in the earth’s magnetic field. To see the world for a moment as something rich and strange is the private reward of many a discovery.”
Years ago, I taped this in the front of my Bible: “He who has learned in order to teach others, while his own soul loathes instruction and wisdom, will find that his lessons will be but mists of empty wind, and showers of dust and earth upon the ground.” In other words, unless there is continuous delight in my relationship with Scripture, it will be but showers of dust when I come here to teach.
Personally, I have found one that creates more delight than anything else. “Be kind.” I think you could build a life on that one phrase. Not only does it create delight in the life of the one who receives it but the one who practices it. Nothing else works like it in marriage or a relationship of any sort. Read all the books and attend all the seminars you like on building a successful marriage and nothing will be more valuable than that one phrase. Be kind to each other.
Like me, you will find other principles around which you can build your life with certainty.
Work: Focus on what you do best
Relationships: Nothing is more effective than listening.
Children: Respect them. Do not belittle them.
Worship: God is God.
3. David talks about seasons. Of course, there is the annual season when a tree normally bears fruit. It doesn’t do this continually or it would wear out. Fruit takes time but when it comes we celebrate it – at least we did when we all lived in an agricultural society. In fact, the whole year was marked off by celebrations related to planting and harvesting. Today, when we talk about seasons we are referring primarily to fashion, new cars, earnings reports, movies or a television series. We’ve eliminated the relevance of those cycles of life. Now, there are two seasons – summer for vacation and Christmas but they have lost some of their significance because they are not tied to any other part of our lives in the way they once were.
Gordon MacDonald writes about the dominant questions in the decades of our lives. I’ll just give you one for each decade although there are several.
In our twenties we ask: What will I do with my life?
In our thirties we ask: How far can I go in I fulfilling my ambitions?
In our forties we ask: Why are limitations beginning to outnumber options?
In our fifties we ask: Who are these young people who want to replace me?
In our sixties we ask: When do I stop doing the things that have defined me?
In our seventies we ask: Where can I keep growing?
Our lives do have seasons that ebb and flow but our lives remain productive. There is a season for education, for child rearing and for career building. There is a season for enjoying the work of our hands and the extra time we have been given. Today, Carol and I are in a different season of life that has different opportunities, responsibilities and challenges but it is, I am discovering, a time for being productive in ways not possible when I was younger. I can actually produce more “fruit” now in a much shorter time than when I was starting out. Perhaps it is the nature of the work but what used to take weeks now can be done in a phone call or email. I like that part of this season!
That leads to this thought. Sometimes a tree or a plant will produce fruit only once in its lifetime. The entire life is spent preparing for that one moment.
The talipot palm flowers only once and that is between the ages of 30 and 80.
The Madagascar palm flowers only once and that is after it is 100 years old.
This is not the life of a prodigy who accomplishes everything when they are unseasonably young and then fade. It is a contribution that is only possible after a lifetime of preparation. I think about Winston Churchill or Moses or Caleb. They could not have done as young men what they were called to do when they were older. Some people are flowering constantly and others are being invisibly prepared for something else entirely.
4. Finally, David says whatever is done by the one who lives like a tree next to a stream will prosper. Prosperity is something we find hard to talk about. We are reluctant to say we are prosperous because we don’t want to brag or bring attention to ourselves. For some, they don’t want God to notice their prosperity as He might take it away! It’s easier to say we are doing “better than we deserve” or we “can’t complain” or we get close when we say we are “blessed” but we don’t like to say we are prosperous. Of course, we have distorted the use of the word even in the church. There is the “prosperity gospel” and in almost every case prosperity is tied directly to financial success.
But, the biblical perspective is not focused on money alone. First, money was not the primary measure or means of wealth. Biblical prosperity is defined differently. It is more like the way the early Puritans defined it when they came to this country. Prosperity is a life marked by these things:
Peace. Longevity. Family. Wisdom. Generosity.
Prosperity is the result of good choices and the blessing of God. Prosperity is not an easy life but a contented life. A life of trust. A productive and rooted life. A life of delight.
That is the message of Psalm 1 for us.