“Happy is the Man”

(Advent 2018: Psalm 1)

Jason Procopio

Today we’re going to begin our annual Advent series, where we take the month of December to reflect on and anticipate the coming of Christ.

Psalms 1 and 2 serve together as a kind of introduction to the whole book of Psalms. The book of Psalms is a collection of songs that the people of Israel sang when they gathered together for worship. 

And they both answer the same implicit question, in different and complementary ways. Psalm 1 begins by saying,  

Blessed [literally, “happy”] 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; 

but his delight is in the law of the Lord, 

and on his law he meditates day and night. 

And Psalm 2 ends by saying,  

Blessed [happy] are all who take refuge in him. 

So the overarching question of both of these psalms is, “How can we be happy?” 

That seems like a strange place to start a series on Advent, but it’s the perfect place to start, because that question of how to be happy is one of the fundamental questions humanity has been asking since the dawn of time. Hard-wired into us is an overwhelming desire to be happy. We can’t escape it, and even if we’re suicidal, we’re still, and always, looking for a way to escape misery and be content.

There’s a reason the desire to be happy is inescapable: because God built that desire into us. That’s why we have this overwhelming number of commandments in the Bible to rejoice: because God made us to be joyful. 

But here’s the problem: very early on, mankind rebelled against God. Man wanted to be his own master, to be his own god; he didn’t want to submit to the rule of anyone but himself. And because of this rebellion, he was separated from God—he and everyone who came after him. God made us to rejoice, but rejoicing became problematic—if not impossible—because suddenly we were surrounded by suffering and pain and death and disease and violence and selfishness. At every step the world fights against our happiness, and the force of our will is never enough to beat it.

That’s where this Psalm comes in.  

Happy Is the Man… (v. 1-2)

Blessed [literally, “happy”] 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...

The psalmist (probably King David) describes the “happy man”, and the first thing he does is to describe what the happy man doesn’t do.

He doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked. Now, “wicked” here is probably not what we naturally have in mind when we hear that word. He’s not talking about people who are as bad as they could possibly be. In the context of the Bible, anyone is “wicked” who does not live according to God’s will.

So when the psalmist talks about “the wicked” here, he’s being pretty all-encompassing—he’s talking about the world as a whole, because left to ourselves, everyone is naturally “wicked.” 

So David says that the happy man doesn’t walk in the counsel of the world: he doesn’t listen to and accept the advice of the world around him.

Just out of curiosity, I Googled “how to be happy” and got a slew of results which were all basically riffs on the same thing. The first article I saw gave twenty-three steps to achieving happiness—for example: 

• Learn to feel better about yourself.

• Create balance and overcome burnout.

• Take breaks from social media. (Perceptive, that one.)

• Find clarity.

• Find your purpose.

And so on.

Now some of the advice you’ll find online for achieving happiness is actually pretty good advice. The problem isn’t that it’s bad, but rather that it’s simply not enough. Assuming that following this advice will somehow fill the void and make us happy is simply untrue, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that. 

So sometimes the world’s advice is decent, but inadequate; and sometimes it’s openly and blatantly false.

For example, modern relativism says that there is no objective truth, no objective right or wrong, and that what each individual person decides is good for them is actually good. The world is constantly selling us a picture of what “the good life” is, and what it’s telling us is (and I’m paraphrasing), “If you want to be happy, do what you want to do, when you want to do it.” 

I get the appeal of that argument—I really do—but the problem is, I could literally eat birthday cake for breakfast every morning. That sounds good to me; nearly every morning, that’s the kind of thing I want.

Or, to use a more current example: giving in to our every whim is what brings on what we saw this weekend and last. Some of the “gilets jaunes” protesters are sincerely motivated by concerns they have (and helped shopkeepers shore up their stores before the protests). But there were many people in the crowd who clearly wanted nothing except to loot and burn.

All that to say that the things we want are often terrible for us: they twist us into something sub-human.

So the happy man doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked—he does not accept the advice of the world as an antidote for unhappiness.

Secondly, he doesn’t stand in the way of sinners. This one goes a little bit farther: it’s not just a question of believing what the world says; it’s a question of living like the rest of the world lives. The happy man sees how the world seeks happiness, and doesn’t buy into it. He doesn’t live the same way as everyone else. He doesn’t spend his money in the same way. He doesn’t build relationships in the same way. He doesn’t place value in the same things.

Thirdly, he doesn’t sit in the seat of scoffers. Scoffers are those who think like the world and live like the world, and who ridicule and despises those who don’t live like he does. 

Most Christians have experienced what it is to tell someone you’re a Christian and see that look on their face—Really... You’re a Christian? Well, THAT’S crazy. Most people aren’t that openly mean about it, but you can always tell when that’s what they’re thinking. 

And the psalmist says that despite all appearances, those people are not as “happy” as they think they are; the man who doesn’t scoff like that is the one who is truly happy.

Now I think it’s important to say at this point that he’s using a bit of hyperbole here—he’s not saying that those who don’t do God’s will, or even those who mock God’s will, are always depressed. Everyone in this world has at least some moments of happiness, and often it seems like those who reject God’s will are happier than the ones who live by it. 

So what does that mean? It means that the happiness he’s speaking of here is of a different sort, and a better sort, than the happiness most everyone experiences. 

Let me give you an example. If you know me, you know I love Star Wars. I grew up watching Star Wars (I knew the original trilogy by heart before most of you were even born); I waited for years for them to make more of them, and no matter how many more they make, I always get really, almost embarrassingly, excited when a new one comes out. (Even now that Disney has bought Star Wars—sorry, SW snobs: The Last Jedi was fantastic.)

But no matter how happy sitting in a dark theater and watching that opening crawl makes me every time, that happiness doesn’t even come close to how I felt the day I got married. Or the day my children were born. Or watching Perrine and Abdias get married a couple weeks ago.

Everyone knows not all happiness is equal: there are different degrees, and different kinds, of happiness available to us.

So the psalmist isn’t saying there is no happiness in the world outside of God; he’s saying there’s a completely different sort of happiness in him that is infinitely better.

And after telling us what the happy man doesn’t do, he tells us what he does. V. 2: 

…but his delight is in the law of the Lord, 

and on his law he meditates day and night. 

Now this sounds really strange. The “law” in this context referred to the Law of Moses—the written law God gave to his people in the desert. It’s basically a long list of rules and regulations the people had to follow to maintain social order and remain ceremonially pure. In the wider context of the rest of Scripture, “the law of the Lord” refers to God’s will, as he has revealed it to his people. In other words, “the law of the Lord” is synonymous with the whole of Scripture (which do contain a great number of commandments).

Who delights in “law”? Who loves rules? And even more, who enjoys meditating on RULES day and night? Most everyone understands and accepts the usefulness of having laws, but who delights in them? 

Laws are necessarily restrictive. They tell you what you can’t do, and they make you do things you don’t necessarily want to do. They say you have to pay taxes; they say you have to follow certain codes of conduct; they say you can’t simply indulge your basest desires. They keep you reigned in—some would even say, they keep you from being free.

There is one thing that sets the “law” David’s talking about apart from other laws—it is the law of the LORD. It is the law of the Creator. It is the law God gave us in order to reveal his character to us, to show us what it truly means to be “righteous.”

It is the law of the One who knows us far better than we know ourselves, and who created us all to function in a certain way.

I had a buddy who drove a stick shift, and he used to put the car in gear, then beat out the rhythm of whatever music he was listening to on the gear shift. Without pushing down the clutch. So he’d be driving, and there’d be a steady crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch as he drove. 

Of course, eventually he wore out his transmission and very nearly killed himself getting the car off the road when the gears finally snapped.

Why? Because a gear shift is not made for percussion. It’s made for shifting gears.

In the same way, we were made to live according to God’s will, and when we don’t, things break down. Chaos ensues. Our lives don’t go the way they should. And even when they do, we don’t react to our lives as we should. Not living according to God’s will is called sin, and all of our unhappiness comes from sin. 

So it makes sense that we would delight in God’s law, when we know what it is. We delight in what makes us happy, and God’s law, when we follow it, makes us happy.

That alone should be enough. But the psalmist goes even further than that. In the next verses, he gives us even more reasons why delighting in God’s law, meditating on God’s law, actually makes us happy. 

Like a Tree (v. 3-4)

He [the happy man who delights in God’s law] is 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. 

Simply put, for the happy man of Psalm 1, delighting in God’s law and meditating on it day and night actually changes his life. It’s not just a question of the way he feels on the inside; it actually works itself out in practice.

And that’s why the psalmist doesn’t just talk about meditating on God’s law, but delighting in it: it’s absolutely possible to think about something very intensely without it ever changing us. And every time that happens, it’s because the element of delight is missing.

When we truly delight in something, we find it’s not enough to think about what we know; we have to do something with that knowledge. 

A man can understand, and even spend a good deal of time thinking about, the fact that being married comes with certain moral obligations toward his wife. He may understand that his wife needs a certain number of things from him, and that it’s his responsibility to be for her what she needs. 

But here’s the thing: that understanding won’t necessarily keep him from being a lazy, negligent, unfaithful husband, who shirks all of those responsibilities. 

But if he loves his wife, if he delights in his wife, if he takes pleasure in his wife, not only will he not neglect her; he’ll actually want to be for her what she needs him to be. He’ll be happy to treat her the way he should—not because he’s supposed to, but because he delights in her. 

The man who meditates on the law of the Lord, and delights himself in it, will live according to the law in which he delights. It’s inevitable, and happens with no effort on our part: no one has to convince us to do what we love. If we love it, we’ll do it, just like we do everything else we love.

If we delight in the will of God, revealed to us in Scripture, then we will live according to God’s will. No one will have to force us to do it, because we’ll simply be doing what we enjoy.

And that working out into practice of the will of God will have inevitable consequences on our lives. 

The psalmist says that the one who delights in God’s law is strengthened. 

He is like a tree planted by streams of water... 

A tree planted by streams of water is strong, because it is constantly nourished by what it needs to grow. Same thing here—this man is strong because he always finds in God’s law exactly what he needs to flourish.

The one who delights in God’s law is productive.

He is like a tree...that yields its fruit in its season...

This man not only knows what to do; he gains in wisdom from God’s law; he’s able to discern when and how to do what he needs to do. And he does it, because he delights in it

The one who delights in God’s law endures.

He is like a true…[whose] leaf does not wither.

Strengthened by the knowledge of God’s will, and encouraged by the working out of that will in practice, he is able to persevere, no matter the trial, no matter the situation.

The one who delights in God’s law and meditates on it prospers

In all that he does, he prospers. 

That doesn’t mean everything he does will happen perfectly; it means it will go the way it should go for his good. 

For the one who delights in God’s law, and meditates on it day and night, his life will prove that God was right. That the Creator knows what he’s talking about when he tells his creatures how to live. And he is happy, because he’s doing what he was created to do.

Then in v. 4, we see this frightening contrast:

The wicked are not so, 

but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 

All of the assurance, all the strength, all the durability, of the man who delights in God’s law is gone here. The image is that of threshing wheat. Threshers would beat the wheat stalks on the ground, then throw the grain up in the air, into the wind. The grain husks, which are lighter than the grain, would blow away, and the heavier grains would fall to the ground where they could be picked up.

It’s a sobering image—the wicked (those who reject God’s will) are, in the end, as inconsequential as grain husks on a wheat stalk. They are unable to contribute anything lasting. 

Why? We see the answer in v. 5.

The Way of the Righteous (v. 5-6)

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, 

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous...

The Bible tells us that a day is coming when every human being who has ever lived will be judged. (That may sound archaic, but it’s really not, and I’ll explain why in a minute.) 

The wicked, who reject God’s will, will not stand in the judgment. They will have no defense, no excuses to fall back on. They will be condemned. 

Sinners, who reject God’s will, will not stand in the congregation of the righteous. They will look around at all those who are considered “righteous” and will be crushed by the weight of their regard. They won’t be able to stand those eyes on them.

Why? V. 6:  

...for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, 

but the way of the wicked will perish. 

The righteous are all those who accept God’s will and live according to it. And v. 6 says that the Lord KNOWS the way of the righteous. 

We saw this last week. When the Bible talks about God knowing something, it’s not just talking about information; it’s talking about approval. When God “knows” something, that means he cares about it, that he takes ownership of it, that he defends it and protects it.

The wicked will not be able to stand on the day of judgment because their way is not under God’s care. While the righteous are protected and accepted by God, the wicked are exposed and vulnerable to the danger of his wrath against their rebellion, and they will receive his wrath in full force.

The Happy Man of Psalm 1

This psalm is beautiful, and it’s a wonderful introduction to the psalter as a whole.

But it puts us before a fundamental problem. If the “way of the righteous”  is known by God—approved by him, protected by him—then we’re in trouble, because NONE of us is righteous. 

We read in Psalm 14.2-3:  

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, 

to see if there are any who understand, 

who seek after God. 

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; 

there is none who does good, 

not even one. 

Every single one of us, without exception, has rebelled against God. Every one of us has followed in the steps of our father Adam. Every one of us has wanted to be our own master, our own god, our own sovereign. 

And even in those times when part of us has wanted to delight in God’s law, we’ve found other delights in our hearts pulling us in the other direction. The apostle Paul paraphrases Psalm 1 to describe this struggle. He says (in Romans 7.22-25, 8.1):  

22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 

That’s the problem—every person alive has that same war waging within him. And in the next verse, Paul gives the solution to the problem.

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!…  8.1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

How could anyone sing Psalm 1 with any confidence, much less with celebration? 

Because Psalm 1 isn’t first and foremost about us. 

One thing that people are often surprised about when they start reading the Bible for the first time is the realization that the Bible is not two separate stories. In the Bible we have the Old Testament (which makes up about the first two-thirds and tells the story of the people of Israel), and we have the New Testament (which makes up the last third or so and tells the story of Jesus and the beginning of the Christian church).

But in reality, all of the various books and letters in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, make up a single, coherent story. 

In Luke 24, after Jesus’s resurrection, we see Jesus appear to a couple of disciples walking down the road. He begins to speak to them, but clearly there’s something they’re not getting. So we see what Jesus does in v. 27: 

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 

That is, Jesus gives them an overview of the Old Testament (that’s all they had at the time), and shows them that although his name is never mentioned, all the Scriptures were in some way anticipating or describing him. 

Jesus is the “happy man” of Psalm 1. This psalm finds its fulfillment in Jesus, the One God sent to become a man, to live the perfect life this psalm calls for. Jesus never walked in the counsel of the wicked, never stood in the way of sinners, never sat in the seat of scoffers, but his delight was in the law of the Lord, and he meditated on his law day and night. 

Jesus remained strong where others were weak; he produced good results where others were ineffective; he persevered where others fled; he did exactly what we needed to become righteous.

He lived the perfect life we should have lived, and suffered the wrath of God in our place. He took our sins on himself and gave us his perfect life, and because of that perfect life he gave for us, what does God say of us now, if we have faith in him?

He declares us righteous.

Paul continues in Romans 8.3-4:  

By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us...

None of us could ever live the way Psalm 1 tells us to live. So Jesus did it for us; he freed us from that obligation.

Because we are no longer under the weight of the burden of perfectly obeying the law, we are now free to delight in the law—not as an obligation to be saved, but as an expression of God’s gracious will to us. And when we delight in the law, we’re finally able to live it out in practice, in the joy of seeing our God help us become what he created us to be: righteous, like his Son Jesus.

I said this was the perfect place to begin the Advent season, and I meant it—because Advent is the time of year when we anticipate the coming of the One who made our eternal and fullest happiness possible for us. 

So let’s go back to the implicit question of this psalm: Do you want to be happy?

If you do—and we all do—then there is one place to find it: in the man who fulfilled the law for us. We find our fullest and eternal happiness in Christ, because he lived our life and died our death and was raised to declare us righteous; because in him, we are finally free to love God’s revealed will for what it is; because in him, we are finally free to work out God’s will in practice. Imperfectly, sure—but our salvation no longer depends on our perfection. 

So if you want to be happy, you only have one choice: run to the One who delights in the law, and fulfilled the law, for you. And as you do, rejoice in the fact that if you have faith in him, God declares you righteous. 

Which means he knows your way. He approves of you. He protects you. Because he declares you righteous, you are now free to live righteous, according to his will. And he will make you able to persevere, to live as Jesus lived, and to live the benefits of that perseverance, along with him.