Finding balance while hanging out in an echo chamber with the Psalmist
Since I posted on self-selected-echo-chambers, my mind has been pushing Psalm 1 to the surface.
Psalm 1 is part of the Word of God and so when I read it, believing it to be such, you might expect it to act as an echo. You might expect it to reaffirm what I already think.
I don’t find this to be the case; as I noted yesterday, the bible can be read in full or in part. Once can self edit out the bits that make one struggle. I could pick a verse I happen to like, and put it at the bottom of my well of self selection and it could echo reassuringly when I call it out.
Psalm 1 is one such passage. The first half of the Psalm is “nice” and, handily for me, addresses the question (unlikely as that may seem) about whether or not one should self-select one’s echo chamber. If you google Psalm 1, there are plenty of lovely pictures available of the first half, for people to post and share – for encouragement, I suppose. There are far fewer of the second half. As a bible believer, I have to take the less palatable with the lovely and keep my echo chamber on an even kilter. The psalm begins:
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,
The psalmist hits out straight away with the advice I am looking for. If I want to be “blessed” I have not to “walk in step with the wicked”. I have not to go around with them, follow the same direction with them, go at the same pace as them. Similarly, I must not “stand in the way that sinners take”. I have not to put myself in their path, perhaps I shouldn’t get in their way. The third image, I like. To “sit in the company of mockers”, I imagine a thoroughly unwholesome atmosphere with people pouring scorn on other people’s beliefs and ideas.
What would this look like in practice? I think the Psalmist is calling for the believer to be discerning about the company they keep and who they “follow” – be that literally or on social media. It can’t be bad advice to say one should avoid wickedness. I wonder about the second part – the standing in the way. Does it mean one shouldn’t be troublesome and argumentative- obstructive to the “sinners” as they go about their business? The part that resonates most with me is the part about the mockers – and this is where I think the “I don’t want to see this on my timeline” might be justifiable. If you feel “mocked”, if there are “haters” and foul mouthed or racist bigots – I think it is time to disengage. This is entirely different to healthy debate and exchanges of ideas, where people are genuinely trying to explain their view or understand others’ views. When a context gives way and becomes a “seat of mockers” it is time to leave. It makes me wonder whether Twitter is a place to be, really.
The Psalmist then goes on to explain the blessing that comes from using discernment about where one walks, stands and sits in life. “Blessed is the one”:
… whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
Here we have the advice to the believer who hopes to be blessed. He is not oppressed by the law, or hemmed in by its rules. He finds delight there. What I find encouraging here is that there doesn’t seem to be blind submission to the “law of the Lord”, there is meditation. I imagine the believer thinking carefully through the scripture, considering it line by line and, after this consideration through the day and the night – he finds that he can delight in it. It is not simple for him. He needs to think – and it his thoughts are rich and consumed by the “law of the Lord”.
By thinking carefully, by meditating on the “law of the Lord”, finds himself to be blessed:
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.
“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water”. Instead of being corrupted by the poor counsel of the “wicked”, he is planted by a stream of water. He has been positioned in the best possible place to flourish and grow. The “law of the Lord” is the water; the person is the tree. By immersing himself in the “law of the Lord” the person can flourish and grow. The leaves on this tree do not wither – I suppose this means that the person’s spiritual health should be evident to others. I imagine a canopy of healthy green leaves.
I balk at the next line as it mentions prosperity – I don’t think this refers to financial prosperity. I think this points to well-being and doing well.
It is at this point, that the images on google stop. There are many lovely pictures of trees next to streams of living water – but, as I have been thinking – what about the wicked? the sinners? the mockers?
As humans, is this not us? Are we not all sinful, wicked mockers – so some degree or other?
The psalmist continues:
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
The “wicked” miss out on the blessing. They were walking out of step with God. Instead of being like a healthy tree, their simile is to be “like chaff”. Instead of having the life and stability of a well-grounded tree, they are presented as worthless – to be cast aside. They are not rooted in anything lasting – the wind can blow them way. Their advice and beliefs and observations will prove to be empty, in the fullness of time.
As the Psalm draws to its conclusion, the reader is left with a bleak picture, far removed from the tree by the river:
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
The Psalmist states that the “wicked” are ultimately doomed. Their own pronouncements and beliefs will prove to be vacuous in the fullness of time. The “sinners” will find that they are excluded, because they fall short. The Psalm ends:
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
This echoes the beginning of the Psalm – where the reader was warned not to “walk in step with the wicked”, here he is told why – “the way of the wicked leads to destruction”. And where the reader was warned to stay out of “way that sinners take”, he is now reassured that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous”. Finally, where the reader was advised not to “sit in the company of mockers”, likewise the “sinners” are excluded from the “assembly of the righteous”.
We end with what appears to be unfairness. The Lord has some people in his sights and under his protection, planted near the river, near the “law of the Lord” and the “wicked” are doomed to destruction.
You can see why the image makers don’t put the last few verses onto nice backgrounds to “like” and “share”.
So… what to conclude?
I think the Psalmist is encouraging the reader to make their choice. He seems to imply that one can live the Lord’s way, or the way of man. He makes it clear that to immerse oneself in human wisdom and advice is short-sighted and ultimately futile.
While I select this little passage to analyse (or should I say, on which to meditate) I remember that I have taken this out of context. I am reading this thousands of years later. It predates Christianity by quite some way. It functions as an introduction to the whole book of Psalms, so perhaps should not be read in isolation. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to do this to the other 145 of them!…)
Back to my echo chamber…
If I take the advice of the psalmist, I reckon I get my tent, my bible and some snacks and become hermitic and fall into a reverie of meditation for the rest of time, but I’ll do well.
But I think the psalmist doesn’t really mean that. I imagine the psalmist thinking of people going about their daily business, rubbing shoulders with all sort of people with all sorts of practices, codes and beliefs – because this is real life – not a pastoral idyll.
I think the psalmist advises conscious reflection on one’s choices of company, and the weight one gives to the advice and beliefs of others. I think the Psalmist believes that searching for God’s guidance is the wisest course of action. I think the psalmist advises that one’s own beliefs should be carefully considered and should be judged on their practical outworking – do they give life – and life in all its fullness?
So, maybe this reading of Psalm 1 has been no more than an echo of what I already think about wisdom and how to find it. I think, despite the fact that this was written almost inconceivably long ago, it is fascinating to think of the Psalmist having the same Facebook/Twitter issues as I have – he considers what to follow and what to distance himself from in order to get by in the world without being dragged into unedifying mud-slinging.
To walk, to stand, to sit? Or to be rooted and grounded near a life giving stream? Or both…