Read to Rejoice (Psalm 1:1-3)
While in England in February of 2007, I had the privilege of speaking yet again at the Life in the Spirit conference. During one of his messages, fellow-speaker Dave Smith made passing reference to my book, Pleasures Evermore, and articulated in a most refreshing and poignant way its principal theme. "When it comes to living a successful Christian life," said Dave, "and resisting the power of temptation, simply saying ‘No! No! No!' won't suffice. We must learn to say ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!'"
I like that! His point was that, by itself, fear has limited capacity to deter our hearts from sin. To it must be added fascination. Resisting is empowered by rejoicing! By all means detest the ugly and revolting and destructive elements in life. But by what means? Delight!
Make no mistake: we need to be warned. But we must first be wooed. Fear drives us, but fascination draws. The psalmist's strategy for blessedness is not mere avoidance but allurement. Look with me again at Psalm 1:1-3.
"Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers."
I don't want you to miss this. Delight, not mere duty, should characterize our study of God's Word. Reading the law of God is for the purpose of rejoicing in what is read.
This is a stretch for many Christians. They've grown up thinking and being taught that there is an inescapable tension, if not contradiction, between pleasure and principles, between rejoicing and rules. It comes as nothing short of a jolt to read of delighting in the law of God. God's "law" or "revealed instruction" has often been viewed as oppressive, restrictive, and burdensome, hardly the sort of thing to evoke joy or excitement.
This will always be the case until we understand the motive of the Law-giver. What did God have in mind when he put his word in the mouth of his prophets? To what did God aspire when he moved to inspire the biblical authors? Did he take note of what brings greatest joy to the human heart and then stir Moses, for example, to say No? Off limits! Out of bounds!
Would it surprise you to discover that God's primary agenda in the giving of his law is your optimal and most durable delight? God's strategy in disclosing his will and ways, whether in the form of rules, prohibitions, commandments, or exhortations isn't to muzzle human joy but to maximize it!
The precepts and principles of his Word, even those in the Pentateuch (which is probably what the psalmist had in mind with his use of the word "law"), are designed to guard us from anything that might dull our spiritual senses and thus inhibit us from seeing and savoring the sweetness of God's glory. In other words, when God prohibits or prescribes, dictates or directs, it is always with a view to enhancing our highest and most satisfying enjoyment of him.
God wants nothing more than to heighten and sharpen our sensible awareness of his revelation of himself. And he knows what we don't, namely, that sin anesthetizes our souls and renders us dull and numb to his presence. Every commandment in Scripture, every precept, every prohibition or principle is lovingly designed to lead us away from what otherwise might spoil our appetite for God!
Is it unsettling for you to hear the words of the psalmist: "How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth" (Ps. 119:103)! Sweet, not sour! God's words taste good! If there is any initial pain in embracing the dictates of God's law it is with a view to interminable pleasure. Whatever short-term sacrifice one makes is always with a view to the increase and intensification of long-term, indeed eternal and heavenly, reward.
Be it noted that the psalmist is far from advocating a study of the biblical text as an end in itself. The reason we delight in the law of the Lord is because that is how we get God! We do not worship pen or parchment. Ink on a page is not our aim but the God who inspired it. We read it because it tells us of him! We study words because they show us the Word. When we read the stories and hear the poetry and tremble at his truth, the Spirit awakens us to the beauty of their author and deepens our experience of his love and kindness and power and goodness.
But merely possessing the word of God accomplishes nothing. We must meditate upon it, not momentarily or fitfully, but day and night. The point is that we must "endeavor to increase spiritual appetites by meditating on spiritual objects" (Jonathan Edwards). When we surrender our minds to base and sordid things their grip on our lives is intensified. There's no way to decrease our affinity for sinful pleasure apart from a concentrated fixation on the spiritually sublime.
God's Word is a powerful and life-giving antidote to the spiritual infection caused by sin. But merely affirming that to be true heals no one. More is needed than merely defending God's word as worthy of our affection. We must actually "think" (Phil. 4:8) about it, ponder it, pore over it, and become vulnerable to the power God has invested in his revelation to transform our values and feelings and to energize our wills.
We must "store up" or "treasure" God's Word in our hearts if it is to exert its power in keeping us from sin (Psalm 119:11). When this happens the Holy Spirit enables our souls to believe and behave in conformity with its dictates.
A passing glance at God's Word will hardly suffice. Day and night meditation is called for. We meditate when we slowly read, prayerfully imbibe and humbly rely upon what God has revealed to us in the Scriptures. Meditation, then, is being attentive to God through conscious, continuous engagement of the mind with his revealed Word.
The psalmist has narrowed our options to two. Either we find satisfaction in the truth of God's law, trusting the power of his Word to make known his person, or we heed the counsel of the wicked and walk in their ways. The former yields a fruitful, enduring, and prosperous life (vv. 2-3). The latter suffers the fate of chaff that is blown in the wind (vv. 4-6).
Longing to see wonderful things in his Word (Ps. 119:18),