Happiness is for the just only
1. How blest is he who does not loosely tread
With straying steps by his own planning led;
Nor walks the ways of those who live to eat,
Nor mocks the gospel in the scorner’s seat.
But on God’s law his heart and life do bind,
Which, night and day, restores his weary mind.
2. He shall be like a freshly planted tree,
Whose roots by springs of water nourish’d be;
Whose branches fail not timely fruit to bear,
Whose leaf shall never wither in despair.
So all the things to which that man does bend
Shall prosper still with well-succeeding end.
3. Not so the wicked, but like chaff they fly
Before the winds of trouble which draw nigh;
Their finest works in Judgment cannot stand;
Imperfect and unfit to join God’s band.
For good men’s ways by God are known and traced,
But those who stray shall perish in disgrace.
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Just as the first prophecy in the Bible (Genesis 3:14-19) is the seed and pattern of all prophecies to follow, so the first Psalm in the book of Psalms is a microcosm of the whole struggle between sin and righteousness in this world. It defines the difference between the righteous and unrighteous man, and predicts their final ends.
In each age of this world’s history, sin manifests itself in slightly different ways, yet it is the same at heart. The particular issues of the past may not be the issues we face today, but greed, self-love, hypocrisy, and self-satisfaction are still there, and those who would leave this downward current, must stand against the practices by which they are manifested, and in the strength of the new life from Christ, develop contrary habits and traits.
I will make a few comments on some of the lines in the text, to show how they particularly apply to our times:
- “by his own planning led” – Due to the large amount of scientific discoveries in the last hundred years, man’s confidence in his own ability to chart his course, and solve all his problems himself, has swelled to large proportions. With this swell, atheism has become quite popular. “We don’t need God,” “God is just a myth for those who don’t understand the laws of nature,” “We’ve evolved beyond the superstitions of a god.” These and similar statements are now popular. Yet, in spite of all the scientific investigations into the laws of nature, there never was a time in which nature’s laws were more violated or exploited! God’s answer to all this is to call us back to obedience to His laws, both moral and physical. In particular, the Sabbath commandment has been despised, even by churches professing to believe the Bible. Yet this very commandment points to God as the Creator, Provider, and Sustainer: it calls upon us to listen to His voice again, and shut out all the other voices that want to take His place; it calls upon us to rest in Him, and in His plans for our lives; it reminds us of His creative power, by which He is able to free us from the power of sin and evil habits that bind us. In all of the Bible there is one harmonious truth: whenever men followed their own plans, disaster eventually was the result; whenever they followed God’s plans, eventual success of the highest order was the result. The righteous man will let God plan his life.
- “nor walks the ways of those who live to eat” – The discovery of the power of oil has brought on a period of unusual prosperity and wealth. But instead of using this power for good—to minister to the poorer nations, most of this wealth has been turned into channels of self-indulgence and pleasure-seeking. In particular, the manufacture of food for profit has unleashed upon society a whole range of foods that are mostly designed to cater to perverted appetite, and which destroy the health of the people, while tickling their taste buds. Those who would be righteous in this time will leave such foods behind, and strive to obtain and prepare food that is in harmony with what the Lord provided by nature—food that is nourishing and healthful.
- “nor mocks the gospel in the scorner’s seat” – to understand this line, you must distinguish between the true and false gospel. The true gospel is the one that frees men from sin; it encourages faith to believe in the impossible: that God can make a man fully righteous in his thoughts, habits, and practices; the true gospel makes no excuses nor allowances for sin—every sin may and must be overcome by the power of Christ. This kind of gospel is mocked and scorned at, it is derided as “perfectionism,” “legalism,” “bondage,” and so forth. So was Christ treated in His day by the professedly religious, and so will His gospel be treated in the same way by the same class. It is pictured in the mocking that Ishmael, the child of the flesh, made towards Isaac, the child of promise (Genesis 21:9,10).
- “whose roots by springs of water nourish’d be” – The “springs of water” are the streams of present truth. There are many messengers and ministers who claim that God has given them a message, but only a few of these are really God-appointed. Those who are of divine appointment will build up in their congregation a living, conquering faith. They will call attention to the hidden sins and hypocrisy of the times, will provide God’s solution of full deliverance and freedom, will build upon the past truths, and will give clear insight into the struggles of the future. They will lead the people to Christ, and not to themselves.
- “whose leaf shall never wither in despair” – The righteous man will not be discouraged by trials, or when God does not work the way he expected. Like Job, he will say, “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be His name.” The world is now heading into a time of great disaster, when the systems built upon temporal prosperity will start to fall apart. This will be a time of great confusion and despair. But God will equip everyone who seeks Him now, to be calm and trustful even in this time of great suffering.
- “like chaff they fly before the winds of trouble which draw nigh” – The time of great suffering, which is coming upon our world, will catch most people completely unready. There will be great confusion, despair, and fear. In their desperation, crimes of every sort will be committed in order to solve their problems, yet there will be no solution. There will be no boasting at that time, about the greatness of man’s ability to solve his own problems.
- “their finest works in Judgment cannot stand, imperfect and unfit to join God’s band” – As the history of this world closes, Christ is completing His work in heaven as High Priest. His ministry there is to purify His church, in order to give the final evidence before the universe that righteousness is stronger than sin, that the gospel has power to save to the uttermost, that God’s ways are the best ways, that the saints follow Him because they love His ways. Those who oppose and refuse this ministry are left with their imperfections of character, are not ready to face the judgment of the Almighty, and are therefore unable to take their place among the overcomers, who stand upon the sea of glass in heaven.
About the tune:
Like the tune for Psalm 2, this one was taken from Calvin’s first Psalter, published while he was in Strasbourg, Germany. The author of the tunes in this Psalter was not credited, but it may have been either borrowed from the German congregation, who were using tunes composed by Wolfgang Dachstein or Matthias Greiter. There is a very simple construction to the tune, which fits well to the construction of the Psalm. It has a happy tone for the first two phrases, followed by two darker, more serious strains, and then completed with two more happy, uplifting phrases. The metrical Psalm text fits roughly into that same mold, so they work well together.
About the text:
The text for this Psalm was taken from Sir Philip Sydney’s Psalter:
“Among the most accomplished lyrics of the English Renaissance, The Sidney Psalter influenced poets from Donne and Herbert to Milton and beyond. It turned the well-known biblical psalms into sophisticated verse, selecting or inventing a different stanza form for each one. This variety of forms matches the appeal of their content—making them suitable for every occasion, for public worship and private devotion—and their lyrical virtuosity appeals to any poetry lover.” – from a book description on amazon.com
Nevertheless, the language of Sidney was middle to late 1500’s English, and needed some work to make it more readable for our time. I’ve also re-interpreted some of the Psalm phrases to make them more relevant to the present truth. For those who want to compare, here are the original verses:
1. He blessed is who neither loosely treads
The straying steps as wicked counsel leads;
Nor for bad mates in way of sinning waiteth,
Nor yet himself with idle scorners seateth;
But on God’s law his heart’s delight doth bind,
Which, night and day, he calls to marking mind.
2. He shall be like a freshly planted tree,
To which sweet springs of waters neighbors be;
Whose branches fails not timely fruit to nourish,
Nor with’red leaf shall make it fail to flourish:
So all the things whereto that man doth bend
Shall prosper still with well-succeeding end.
3. Such blessings shall not wicked wretches see,
But like vile chaff with wind shall scatt’red be;
For neither shall the men in sin delighted
Consist, when they to highest doom are cited,
Nor yet shall suff’red be a place to take
Where godly men do their assembly make.
4. For God doth know, and knowing doth approve,
The trade of them that just proceedings love;
But they that sin in sinful breast do cherish,
The way they go shall be their way to perish.