Wednesday, March 5, 2014

God's Ideal

Ash Wednesday 2014
Psalm 1    Joel 2:12-17    Matthew 6:16-21
The Ideal King
The Book of Psalms as we know it probably reached its final canonical form sometime during or after the Babylonian Exile. It may be that the five divisions were intended to mirror the five books of the Law and it is possible that they were organized in such a way as to lead the believer to meditate on the promises surrounding the Davidic Monarchy. If this is so, then the themes of each division (or Books as they are called) could possibly be as follows: Book I deals with the rise of the Davidic Monarchy and ends with the death of King David. Books II and III address the demise of the kingdom which led to the Babylonian Exile, reaching a climax in Psalm 89 that speaks directly to the failure of the Davidic line. Book IV seems to  point to the theme of the hope of a new Exodus out of the Babylonian Exile and Book V wraps it all up with the resounding call to praise God for the restoration of all of creation through the reemergence of the Davidic Kingdom that includes, not only the nation of Israel, but also all other nations.

This series of Lenten meditations will examine each one of these themes in the light of this proposed structure, the focal point of which will be the eternal fulfillment of the Davidic Monarchy in the Person of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

It is the opinion of many, going back at least as far as the post-Nicene Father St. Jerome, that Psalms 1 and 2 form an introductory unit to the whole Psalter, thus setting the tone for the entire collection. Psalm 1 starts with a ‘recipe’ for blessing and Psalm 2 ends with a ‘recipe’ for blessing. Both Psalms also share certain key words such as ‘sit’ (1:1; 2:4) and ‘perish’ (1:6; 2:11) and share a common theme, namely the clear-cut distinction between the righteous and the ungodly. There may be an echo of the categories of blessings and curses pronounced in the Law (especially in the book of Deuteronomy) and perhaps a shadow of our Lord’s later teaching on the two ways, one broad and leading to destruction and the other one narrow and leading to life (Matthew 7:13-14).

Psalm 1 itself can be neatly divided into two sections with a summary statement in the final verse. The first section deals with the prosperity of the righteous (verses 1 through 4) while the second deals with the destruction of the ungodly (verse 5 though 6) with verse 7 dealing with both.

The Psalm begins with a triple parallel negative definition of the righteous. The righteous do not walk in the counsel of the ungodly; they do not stand in the path of sinners; nor do they sit in the seat of the scornful. It is possible that a downward progression is implied in which the inevitable spiraling begins with mobility (walking), but ends with immobility (sitting), perhaps a warning to the wise not to allow even the slightest brush with the wicked as the gravitational pull might prove to be too much for the individual. An example would be an alcoholic’s reluctance to expose himself to temptation by refusing to go into a liquor store to buy alcohol for a friend. In essence the message is simply this: do not even walk into the room as you might end up standing around long enough to want to sit down and stay.

The Psalmist then defines the righteous in positive terms by firstly stating that the righteous delights in the Law of God and secondly by using the image of perenniality – a tree planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in a timely fashion and which never loses its leaves. The first definition indicates that the righteous view all Divine revelation as a proper guide for life. The Law was given to be a guide, not a means for salvation. The Law was given to Israel because they were a saved and a delivered people. God chose Israel, not because they observed the Law and were thus better than other nations, but because He simply loved them (Cf. Deuteronomy 7). Grace and mercy were not invented in the New Testament. No, Israel was to observe the Law because they were loved and because they belonged to the God who loved them first. The righteous love the Law as the Law is the expression of the character and the revelation of the will of the holy One who loves and who is love. Thus, together with the rest of God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures, the Law is to be constantly read, studied, meditated on, and applied.

In a strikingly similar passage, the prophet Jeremiah contrasts the blessedness of those who trust in the Law of God with the cursedness of those who trust in man and whose hearts have departed from the Lord (cf. Jeremiah 17). Unlike the righteous who is likened to an evergreen tree rooted in an abundance of water, Jeremiah describes the cursed as a shrub in a desert, a startling image of the result of removing oneself from the blessed presence of God who is the only true source of life.

The mention of a tree planted by streams of water as the second positive definition of the righteous immediately conjures up images of Eden where the rivers were said to flow out from the midst of the garden, where the Tree of Life was situated, into the world. There may also be a foreshadowing of the garden yet to come as it is described in the book of the Revelation, with the Tree on either side of the river that flows from the midst of the throne of God himself, the leaves of which are said to be for the healing of the nations. 

It is also interesting to note that Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church are both portrayed as trees in Scripture (as a Vine, a Fig Tree, and an Olive Tree), watered, fed, and pruned by the Master Husbandman. And we ought not to forget that Paul deliberately used the word for ‘tree’ rather than ‘cross’ to describe the crucifixion of our Lord (that He was hung on a tree) and that Jesus Himself said that if anyone would eat of the ‘fruit’ of His Body – if anyone would eat of His flesh and drink of His blood – they would have eternal life and, as such, Jesus is seen to be the reality of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Jesus also said that if anyone believed in Him, rivers of living water would flow from their midst. Is it then a stretch to say that the Psalmist is perhaps painting a portrait of God’s ideal for man?

In the ancient world, when the kings wanted to make themselves known to their far away subjects, they had an image of themselves erected throughout the kingdom. This is something similar to what God did when He created the first humans who were made in the image or likeness of the King. The primary reason for this is so that humans could rule over God’s Kingdom (God’s Creation) as God’s vice-regents; as God’s representative rulers; as God’s image through whom He would reign over the world wisely and lovingly. However, the first humans rebelled against their King thereby distorting and marring the image. It is in this light that Psalm 1 may very well be an attempt to present the believer with a picture of that image as it should be; a portrait of the ideal human, in fact, a portrait of the ideal king or ruler of God’s world.

It is interesting to note that the Law clearly stated that the one who was to rule Israel as God’s representative king should, in a word, delight in the Law. In Deuteronomy 17 Moses said: “When (the king) sits on the throne of his kingdom…he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes.”

After the death of Moses, God spoke very similar words to his successor, Joshua, saying: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” (Joshua 1) Is there perhaps an echo once again of this in our Lord’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5) As the Messianic and Davidic King, Jesus was to be obedient to the Law and the Prophets and so we see, in the words of Paul, that when our Lord found Himself “in appearance as a Man (in this case the Second Adam, the express image of the Person of God), He humbled Himself and became obedient (in stark contrast with the 1st Adam) to the point of death, even death on the cross.” (Philippians 2)

Surely the portrait of the ideal human, the ideal king, is incarnate in the Man Christ Jesus. He who was born under the Law to redeem those under the Law, was obedient to the Law in all respects, and therefore matches this Psalm’s description of the righteous man perfectly.

The contrast with the ungodly is revealed in the second section. Like the prophet Jeremiah, the Psalmist describes the wicked in opposite terms to that of the righteous. Unlike a living and productive tree - the image of perenniality and of stability - the ungodly are portrayed as dry useless chaff driven by the wind wherever it may blow. Their very instability is the reason they are unable to stand, either in the company of the righteous or in the future final judgment. They are not rooted in anything save themselves and so they miss the mark of the ideal image and remain in the dust of death.

The image of the desert brings to mind Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness due to rebellion and a lack of trust in God’s Word. But it also brings up the image of Exile; of being thrust out of the garden of Eden into the wilderness of thorns and thistles; of being thrust out of the Promised Land into the wilderness of Babylon; of being removed from the source of sustenance and growth. Thus the prophet Joel cries out for fasting and repentance; for a return from the wilderness of sin to the Paradise of God’s Presence. Our Lord too promises a reward for those who seek the Father in prayer and fasting; for those who turn away from the dry and dusty treasures of the wildernesses of this world to lay up treasures before Him instead; for those who choose light above darkness and who choose God as their only Master and King.

Then the final verse of Psalm 1 wraps it all up in a simple yet profound statement. The way of the righteous – the narrow way – is known to the Lord. Indeed, our Ideal King Jesus describes Himself as the only Way by which anyone may come to (or be known by) the Father.

The way of the ungodly, on the other hand – the broad way – anticipates those awful words spoken from the throne: “I never knew you, depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matthew 7) Or, to use the words of the Psalmist you who do not delight in the law of the Lord – you who do not meditate on it day and night…

It seems safe to say that Psalm 1 clearly defines the ideal human. Perhaps it defines the ideal King as well, or perhaps it does not, but this much is sure: only one man ever fit this description and that is the Man Christ Jesus, the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

Each time we partake of the symbols of His obedient fulfillment of the Law, let us meditate on Him who alone fit the portrait painted so vividly in Psalm 1 and let us cry out to Him who hung on the tree – to Him who is the Tree and who feeds us with the fruit of His Body – to Him who pours out the Spirit as Streams of Living Water – to Him in whose counsel we walk, in whose path we stand, and on whose seat we are seated in heavenly places. (Ephesians 2) And let us ask Him to root us firmly in Him so that we too may bring forth fruit, especially as we fast and pray during this season of Lent, so that our evergreen leaves may indeed be used for the healing of the nations – those who are yet wandering in the wildernesses of this world – those who are still dead in their trespasses and sins.

© Johann W. Vanderbijl III Lent 2014

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