Monday, 21 August 2017

Are you happy? (Psalm 1)

Jonathan Edwards, the great American Christian leader in the 1700s, once said, ‘God has made man for nothing but happiness.’  Could that be true?  I asked a friend who is a lecturer in a leading evangelical college and he said that this statement might need a little qualifying.  If you define happiness in terms of the feeling you get when everything goes your way, then no, God does not always work towards our happiness.  Indeed, there are plenty of sorrows in the pages of the Psalms.  However, there is a deeper happiness, more commonly referred to as joy that can exist in the pain.  The apostle Paul speaks of being ‘sorrowful but always rejoicing, and while Jesus was ‘a man of sorrows, familiar with grief’ there was none who had such joy as he.  So, yes, in a real sense, ‘God has made man and woman for nothing but joy.’
This joy is found in the peace that comes in realising that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus—as Psalm 32 begins ‘blessed is the person who knows their sins have been forgiven.’  This joy is found in the comfort of knowing that God is with you, even in the pain—Psalm 34 tells us that the Lord ‘is close to the broken-hearted.  This joy is found in the sure hope of knowing that all will turn out well for us, even if we have to wait until this life is over—in Psalm 23, David ends by dwelling on the fact that he will remain in the house of the Lord for ever.
This Psalm is actually the introduction to the whole book of Psalms.  It’s a gateway psalm—a doorkeeper to everything else that follows.  Fail to understand this psalm and you won’t understand what the rest are about.  Right at the beginning of this book we are presented with two ways to live.  We are being asked, ‘do you belong to the company of the wicked or the congregation of the faithful?’  We’ll see how we can be among the righteous in a few moments.
Happiness is found in going against the flow (1-2)
I have a friend who says that he wants to be a salmon.  You see salmon swim upstream—they go against the flow!  Happiness is found in going against the flow!  Happy is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.  Happy is the person who … does not stand in the way of sinners. Happy is the person who ... does not sit in the seat of scoffers.  The scoffers think the way the world thinks, act the way the world acts and belong amongst those who resist God.
Don’t imagine we are been told simply to stick to our own.  He is not talking about living in a little Christian clique.  Jesus was friendly to all sorts of people.  The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about how to behave when they ate with their unbelieving friends (1 Corinthians 10:27).  But there will always be a sense of not fully belonging.  Indeed, if we are finding that we are being influenced more than we are influencing then we need to take a step back.  The world is not a playground but a battleground (Tozer).
One old lady was asked what the best thing was about being one hundred and four.  She replied, ‘no peer pressure.’  You will meet plenty of peer pressure in life, but if you want to enjoy God’s happiness you will depend on him for the strength to go against the flow.
So how can we stand firm?  One commenter suggests it is ‘the pursuit of pleasure!’ (Dale Ralph Davis).  ‘He does it because he cares more for his pleasure than for his pressures!’  But his delight is in Yahweh’s Torah (‘the Law of the Lord’).  He meditates on that law day and night.
Now I need to point out that how you approach the Bible matters a great deal.  I have often been embarrassed at my lack of Bible knowledge.  In fact, in one church I served at, I had just arrived and the men were having a table quiz.  My team came last in the Bible round.  I am always tempted to read the Bible to simply acquire knowledge and so impress people with what I know.  That will not bless your heart.  You need to read the Bible to see a face, to see God and know him, and to see his Son and love him.
They say that coffee and chocolate taken together have a unique way of combining to stimulate the brain.  Something similar happens with the Bible and prayer.  They are designed to be taken together.  The righteous person meditates on the Torah day and night.  God’s word is his preoccupation.  The verb carries the meaning of muttering to oneself.  The Christian regularly and consistently ponders upon it.  She pushes it down into her heart.  She speaks it out in prayer.  She thinks through its implications.  It makes her happy.
All of us struggle to be disciplined in Bible reading.  I regret that I haven’t spent more time dwelling on God’s Word.  I have found two things helpful recently.  One is a book produced by the Good Book Company called Encounter.  This book is designed for ninety days.  It guides you to a passage, asks leading questions, has a short amount of expert teaching and has a page to write your own notes.  The other thing I have found helpful is the Bible App on my phone.  It actually reads the Bible to me.  So I can listen as I walk or drive.
Dale Ralph Davis speaks of a difficult time in his youth when he was under a great deal of pressure for being a Christian.  So every morning before dragging himself to the bus stop for school he would meditate upon his Bible.  Certain psalms were of particular help to him.  He writes, ‘meditation in those psalms seemed to put me in the shadow of Yahweh’s wings and settle me on the rock of his faithfulness, and faith’s fingernails were able to hang on for another day.  To be sure, God’s Word was sheer necessity, but it was also a delight.’
The happy person is the person who is rooted (3-4)
The third verse is connected to the first two.  And he shall be like a tree.  The person who finds their delight in God’s word is like a tree.  You will be stable (planted), you will have vitality (from streams of living water), you will be productive (bearing fruit), you will be resilient (not withering) and you will be prosperous.  One preacher called this psalm ‘the true prosperity gospel’ (as opposed to that awful misunderstanding of the gospel that says you will never experience sickness, pain and that encourages the love of money).
The picture of a tree is very instructive.  Trees are subject to all sorts of harsh external conditions, but their life comes through their roots.  Trees live through autumn and winter as well as spring and summer.  You will see people facing all sorts of storms in these psalms.  Jesus knew what it was like to be ‘a man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering’ (Isaiah 53:3).  The apostle Paul speaks about being ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing’ (2 Corinthians 6:10).  The apostle Peter says that we greatly rejoice in our future hope, ‘though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief and all kinds of trials’ (1 Peter 1:6).
Tim Keller makes an interesting point about the fruit produced by a tree.  He says that trees don’t bear fruit for themselves.  When we let our roots sink deep into the word of God it will produce a fruit that will bless those around us.  This is the word of God that works within us.  What a contrast this is to the chaff produced by a life apart from God!
There is a happiness that lasts for eternity (5-6)
One last question before we finish.  Who is the righteous person of this psalm?  I don’t feel like the righteous man who experiences God’s blessing, for I see a lot of sin in me.  Yet there was one man who was perfectly righteous, and because of him I am counted as righteous.  Jesus lived the perfect life and died a death for sin, so that I am forgiven and treated as if I had always obeyed.  There is a righteousness from God that is revealed from faith for faith (Romans 1:17).
The end of this psalm puts everything else into perspective.  Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.  This seems to be a reference to what we fall ‘the final judgement’.  Those who continue to ignore God’s offer of righteousness and the transformation that it brings cut themselves off from all hope.  The first word of the psalm is “blessed” but the last is “perish”.  ‘Make sure you are among the congregation of the righteous’ (Dave Ralph Davis).
But look at the righteous.  Yahweh knows the way of the righteous.  ‘God is intimately and personally concerned about every step the righteous man makes’ (Henry Snaith).  The God who cares about every step we take will care for us as we step into the judgement and so we will be preserved at the last and not perish (Davis).  God offers us a happiness that goes beyond this life into all eternity!
So you are left with one final nagging worry: I am a Christian but I don’t delight in the Bible?  Sometimes I find it irrelevant and boring.  I can go days without reading it.  May I suggest three things?  Firstly, don’t read this book simply to find out information read it to know the God who is revealed in it.  Secondly, read it prayerfully (like coffee and chocolate).  Thirdly, join with me in confessing your lack of enthusiasm for the Bible.
We pray words of Tozer:  “O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more.  I am painfully conscious of my need of further grace.  I am ashamed of my lack of desire.  O God… I want to want Thee.  I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made thirstier still.  Give me grace to rise up and follow Thee.”

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