Experiencing the Good Life, the Blessed Life
Glenda Simpkins Hoffman 6/9/20
Want this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to the blog at the bottom of this page.
Last summer and fall were tough seasons for me as a pastor, parent, and person due to grief, added responsibilities, illness, and personal crisis. There was so much going on, and there was more to come with the transition of our senior pastor and getting my oldest son ready to graduate high school and start college in 2021. Some seasons are like that, and I know many of you know what I’m talking about. I felt like I was blowing in the wind. What I didn’t know then was we would all be reeling from the threat and isolation due to COVID-19 and being confronted (again) with the reality of racial injustice.
Psalm 1 came to mind: “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.”
This psalm is a message of hope. I wanted to be that tree. I needed to experience being that tree firmly planted near streams of water. I believed I could be that tree, I could experience the “blessed” life, no matter what was happening in my life or the world. But I knew It doesn’t just happen. It’s intentional.
The first question that arises from this passage is what does it mean to be “blessed”? It carries a sense of well-being or wholeness. Some translate it as ¨happiness.” This is the person who really believes that God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world. The nation of Israel believed they were blessed because they were chosen by God to be his people, were given land and the promise they would be a great nation.
But here’s the thing: at the time the Book of Psalms was compiled, they were no longer a great nation but one in ruins with their great city Jerusalem and temple destroyed. They were living as aliens in a foreign land under the oppression of the Babylonian Empire. Undoubtedly, they were struggling with the idea of whether they were blessed. Had God abandoned them?
Psalm 1, which is an introduction to all the psalms, makes clear there are two ways to go in life, two paths to travel —the way of the wicked or the way of the righteous. Those who walk, stand, or sit with the wicked listen to those who would tell them who they should be, what they have to do to be happy. They look for the approval of others and are willing to do what it takes to get ahead in this life according to the world’s standards.
But the truth is, they live dried up shriveled lives, often without even realizing it. They are like the plants I forget to water or, worse, like the landscape during a drought. A plant with no water dies. A crop with no rain is destroyed. A person who listens to the wrong people and lives by the wrong standards sadly comes to the same end.
But there is another way. The righteous listen to a different drummer. Frankly, Israel did not expect to experience the good life, the blessed life on enemy soil. They had no power, no position in the world. They were living in Babylon. Though everything had been taken from them, the one thing they still had was Torah, the law and wisdom of the Lord.
To their surprise and delight, they learned that they could still experience the blessed life even far from their home land because the person who is blessed in the one “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” This is the one who listens to God, who listens to the revelation of God in Scripture and Jesus, the Word made flesh. This is the one who is interested in a relationship, an interactive friendship with the God who makes it possible to experience the fullness of life wherever we are, whatever our experience.
The way we take delight in this revelation of God, this Scripture and Jesus, is meditation. The Hebrew word has to do with slow eating, literally to slowly chew or masticate. In our age of fast food, we often don’t even sit down or even stop. We eat on the run. And some times that is how we encounter scripture too. In fact, I would go so far as to say that is the way we have to learned to read in our day. We are taught to read quickly for information. We may have our quick morning quiet time, and then we’re off for the day, perhaps not thinking any more about God. Meditating on God’s word shows us another way that is slow, deliberate, and delightful.
I remember some years ago visiting a friend who had a small dog. She gave the dog a good-sized bone to keep it busy for some time while we had a long talk. I don’t know where he went, but when he returned some time later, I was shocked to see how much of the bone was gone. That dog had “meditated” on that bone chewing, gnawing, eating it, savoring, enjoying it, taking it in. Dogs are great teachers showing what it means to spend longer periods of time chewing on God’s word, and going back to it again and again to it enjoy it some more. That’s what it means to meditate on God’s word.
I love the metaphors used in this psalm. The image of the tree planted by streams of water is an important one in scripture as it draws us back to the Garden of Eden—the place where God’s newly created people enjoyed a relationship with him. The garden not only had the tree of life but a river running through it.
This imagery of nature was also part of the decorations of the tabernacle and later the temple, reminding Israel that their God is creator of all things, the ruler of the world, the source of all life and goodness. And that same tree is present in Revelation in the city-garden of the new creation with the river running through it and the tree of life bearing fruit in every season.
During their captivity in Babylon with its two great rivers, the nation of Israel was surprised to discover that they could experience God’s nearness and presence there. Even in Babylon, God could soak their parched souls and feed their hungry hearts. More than that, they came to see that even in enemy territory under the worst of circumstances, they could experience God’s presence and bear fruit. As they trusted in God and meditated on his life-giving words, they could experience the good life, the blessed life.
Jesus knew the psalms well, and he picks up on the use of the blessed life in The Beatitudes, which begin his great Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). Whatever our circumstances (poverty, grief, hunger and thirst for righteousness), we are blessed because we belong to Jesus. We are living in his kingdom even now, and he is with us always. He is present through the person and power of the Spirit bearing fruit in our lives (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control).
We can’t stop the winds from blowing. We can’t control many of the circumstances in our lives and in our world. But we can choose to believe we are blessed. And an important means of grace that helps us experience our blessedness is meditation on God’s life-giving words.