Studying the Psalms with Our Youth
Ever wonder what theHeart's Youth Group does on a Wednesday night? Well, in addition to lots of fun and games, they also study the Bible together. Right now, students are taking a closer look at the Psalms. Read or listen to the parent guide of what Next Generations Director Ethan Hardin taught about Psalm 1.
Psalm 1 serves as an introduction to the world of the Psalms, where believers throughout the millennia have voiced the full gamut of emotions to God, entering an inspired dialogue between the human and the divine. We will take a closer look at the central image of Psalm 1 as an invitation into a lifestyle of meditation in God's word. We begin our journey here.
I want to embark upon a journey through the Psalms. I want to invite you with me. I want to marvel, weep, and rejoice alongside you as a fellow sojourner through these stirring, sometimes confusing, ancient songs.
The Psalms have been the backbone of spiritual life for millennia. From the songbook of temple-bound Jews in the days of the kings, to the prayerbook of cell-bound monks of the monastic traditions, to the soaring melodies of contemporary worship music, the Psalms have shaped the people of God.
They not only shape the devotional life of believers, but they become a lens through which to see Christ. The Psalms are the most quoted scriptures in the New Testament, as it shaped how Jesus’ early followers saw him. Bonhoeffer even suggests, in his short work on the Psalms, "The Prayerbook of the Bible," that when we pray the Psalms, we pray with and through Jesus. We join Jesus in prayer through the Psalms.
For anyone who has trekked through these 150 songs, you begin to notice some things. These prayers cover the gamut of human emotion. There are laments, wailing to God in pain or fear, asking for forgiveness and rescue. There are complaints, accusing God of sleeping or ignoring the plight of the innocent. There are pleas for vengeance, asking God to destroy the wicked and restore the righteous. There are also songs of praise, inviting all of creation to participate in proclaiming the character of God with joy. There are poems of wisdom, reflecting on God’s ways in the everyday lives of his followers.
These prayers, through the rollercoaster of emotions, are human. And interestingly enough, they are divine. God inspired these words. So what we encounter in the Psalms is a dialogue within the Godhead. God the Son, who took on flesh, gives full voice to the human condition. God the Father, who receives these prayers, inspired them in humanity.
"God is teaching us how to pray, how to commune with him through the ups and downs, and how to reckon with the world around us through the interior strength of faithful prayer." —Ethan Hardin, Next Generations Director
The Psalms are works of poetry. Hebrew poetry, like English poetry, uses images to convey meaning, leading to what William Brown calls “the theology of metaphor.” God can be likened to a rock, a storm, a shepherd, or even a bird. The psalmists can liken themselves to deer, weaned children, lion’s prey, or wineskins. There is imagery of volcanoes, floods, warfare, and ritual worship. There are mixed metaphors, waterfalls turning into anointing oil, valleys of provision against valleys of death, that build composite, artistic pictures through which the psalmists voice their hearts to God.
Sometimes these pictures require some assistance as life today looks a bit different. The material and thought-world of Old Testament believers is made up of instruments we are unfamiliar with, worship practices we don’t use, the very real threat of military invasion which is alien to many of us, and a world of language and metaphors we must investigate for full meaning.
Yet, much of the Psalms seem intuitive. As if we could, with the psalmist, say, “I’ve been there. I’ve felt that.” So with the familiar in hand and a willingness to explore the unfamiliar, we can journey the landscape of the Psalms as wide-eyed adventurers, ascending the heights of conversation with God with these as our guide.
Opening With Wisdom
With all this in mind, let’s look at the first Psalm in the psalter: Psalm 1. Let me reference the NIV:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
This opening Psalm reads like a wisdom psalm, offering for its listeners two disparate ways of life. One leads to blessing, the other to destruction. The psalmist opens by separating these two ways of life through a progressive delineation.
The blessed man is one who does not do as the list progressively outlines. Walk, stand, sit… these verbal images help us see the slow decay of one who goes against the grain of God’s character. Once you walk in step with the wicked, you stand in the way of sinners, then you recline as one of the mockers. Perhaps it is not simply a question of association with shady characters, but, as the next line inserts, a question of one’s delight.
Where God is, There is Delight
Where is your delight? For the blessed one, it is in God’s instruction. This delight spills into meditation. This concept of meditation comes from Jewish prayer practice. A commentator on this Hebrew word defines it, this is “to read in an undertone," the muttering that accompanies meditative reading.
Though the psalmist is speaking here of the Torah of God, traditionally referring to God’s law and instruction in the first five books of the Bible, perhaps this kind of meditation is the kind we can do with all of scripture. Even these Psalms. At any rate, the day and night continual submersion into God’s revealed word is in view here.
"When you delight in God, you want to surround yourself with his words. And there will be fruit." —Ethan Hardin, Next Generations Director
The next image is agrarian. Delight and meditation in God’s word are like rooting into an endless stream of life-giving water. Trees by irrigation canals, likely the image this particular Hebrew word for stream refers to, were resilient, no matter the season. A tree planted near-continuous water supply bear fruits and resists drought. The metaphor returns to the human here, as the one like this is someone whose efforts will stand, they will prosper. Planting your roots into God’s word makes one like this well-watered tree. It is an image of stability, growth, resiliency, and life.
Not so the wicked! The psalmist jars the reader with contrast, reconsidering again the alternative way of life the blessed man avoids. They are like chaff, another simile from the world of plants. According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, this could be the “refuse of winnowed corn” or simply “dried grass or hay.” At any rate, this is the result of rootlessness. The wicked are effected by every wind, every dry spell, and are thus prone to entropy. Grasses in the region would pop up with the rains only to wither the same day under the sun. It is an image of flightiness, decay, fragility, and death.
Therefore, the psalmist makes the case, that the wicked will not stand. The way of the wicked is temporal, leading away from the source of life. The way of the righteous, the blessed way, leads to intimacy with God. There is no end in sight for those rooted in and delighted by God. However, the way of the wicked will come to an end.
This opening Psalm is an invitation to a lifestyle rooted in God’s word, through meditating day and night upon his instruction. Perhaps the editorial priest or whoever organized the Psalms 1 through 150 put this Psalm here for that express purpose. To plant an image in our consciousness, so to speak, of a tree, rooted into life-giving sources, resilient and fruitful.
I think that’s what can happen when we meditate on the Psalms themselves. Let us root into God, the fount of life, and grow into rooted, centered, and fruitful people through a life of prayerful reflection.
Middle- and high-school students are invited to grow toward God, connect with one another, and serve in Christ's Love. Simple. Interested in learning more about what you might expect as a part of theHeart's Youth Ministry?
Check out theheart.us/youth for more details.