How to Get Started Right in the New Year
December 30, 2001
Each January our church chooses a theme for the New Year. After much prayer we settled on “God’s Word: Our Unshakable Foundation” as the theme for 2002. We have two theme verses. The first comes from Isaiah 40:8, “The word of our God stands forever.” The second comes from Matthew 24:35, “My words will never pass away.” In the coming year we want to go back to the basics at Calvary by stressing once again our total commitment to God’s Word. This isn’t anything new for us, but in light of recent events in America and around the world, we felt like this was the right time to lay again the foundation for what we believe. Many years ago, over 40 years ago, Calvary Memorial Church used to be called Madison Street Bible Church. I’ve always liked the “Bible Church” part of our old name because it left no doubt about what we believe. Although I’m not proposing a name change, I do think this is a good year to remind ourselves that we really do mean it when we say we believe the Bible.
In just two days 2001 will be history and 2002 will be upon us. Like it or not, time marches on and the calendar changes. But the Word of God remains the same. Would you like to be blessed by God in 2002? Who wouldn’t? I hope and pray to be blessed in the New Year. All of us feel that way, which is why we wish each other a “blessed” new year. We mean by that, “May the favor of God rest upon you all year long.” That’s a wonderful thought. No one (at least no healthy person) gets up and says, “I want to be miserable today. I hope I have a rotten day.” We all want to be blessed. We all want to be happy. We all want to find fulfillment in what we do every day.
Psalm 1 tells us how we can be continually blessed every day. In just six short verses we learn the secret of the life God blesses. And it’s not related to New Year’s resolutions. Every January most of us make of list of things we want to change. But the blessing Psalm 1 talks about goes much deeper. “Blessed is the man.” Happy is the man. This is God’s prescription for happiness.
As we study this psalm, we will discover that blessedness relates to the way we live and the choices we make. It depends on the kind of people we are. From God’s point of view, there are two ways and only two ways to live because there are two kinds of people in the world and only two kinds. There are the righteous and then there are the wicked. Everyone in the world falls into those two categories. There is no “in-between” category. Psalm 1 shows us how the righteous live and why they are blessed. It also shows us the end result of both ways of life.
If we want to be blessed by God in 2002, we need to pay attention to this psalm.
I. The Way of the Righteous
“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. 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, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1:1-3).
We can summarize the message of these verses in five simple statements:
A. It is possible for a person to have a truly blessed and happy life.
Verse 1 begins with a Hebrew phrase that means something like, “O, the blessedness of the man.” “How happy is the man who …” Many of us have read The Prayer of Jabez in the last year because we want the blessed life that Jabez asked for. In biblical terms to be blessed means to be rightly related to God so that your life is fulfilled and you experience deep personal satisfaction. It’s important to know that this sort of happiness is not related to our circumstances. And it doesn’t come simply by seeking for it. You find happiness not by seeking it but by doing certain things (and not doing other things). The blessing comes as a side benefit of the choices we make. A wise man said that happiness is like a cat. Seek it and it will run from you. But go about your business steadily day by day and soon it comes and curls up at your feet. How true. The most miserable people on New Year’s Eve are those who seek happiness by hopping from one party to another and from one bar to another. True happiness and lasting contentment simply cannot be found that way.
Many people doubt we can ever find happiness in this world. In the last few months our nation has experienced so much pain, confusion, doubt and sadness. No one knows what the future holds. If you are on a plane and your seatmate bends down to tie his shoe, you’ve got to watch to make sure he isn’t lighting an explosive. And in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, the police will have devices to detect nuclear bombs and nerve gas. Why? Because something has gone badly wrong in the world and no one knows quite what to do about it.
Psalm 1 assures us that it is possible to live a blessed and happy life, but only on God’s terms. The world offers entertainment, cheap thrills and momentary pleasure, but true happiness, authentic joy and true peace are found only in the Lord.
B. That blessedness begins with the negative, not the positive.
Psalm 1 surprises many people because it begins not with the positive, but with a negative. The blessing begins with what the righteous person does not do.
He does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.
He does not stand in the way of sinners.
He does not sit in the seat of mockers.
Consider the progression involved: Walk … Stand … Sit. First, the man is walking down the road. Then he stops to hang out with the sinners. Eventually they prove to be such good company that he sits down and has intimate fellowship with them. What started as casual contact in the end becomes a declaration of personal allegiance.
The “counsel of the wicked” means the advice of the morally unstable. It’s a general term that describes the worldview of those who do not know the Lord. The “way of sinners” involves a series of lifestyle choices. The “seat of mockers” means to have close, intimate, long-term fellowship with those who openly reject the Lord. The progression goes like this:
Thinking … Behaving … Belonging.
Worldly wisdom leads to
Worldly action, which results in
Let us be clear on this point. Blessings come not only from what we do, but also from what we don’t do. Blessed people avoid certain things. And they avoid certain people and certain situations. They don’t hang out just anywhere and they don’t quickly buy into every line of thinking. And they are very careful not to join themselves to the company of those who do not love the Lord.
This word is much needed at the beginning of a new year. If you decided to seek God in 2002, the devil will oppose you at every turn. One of his strategies will be to surround you with people who will lead you astray. The tricky part is, those people won’t seem to be bad people at first. They are nice enough and seem to be decent enough. They are just not godly, that’s all. They don’t share your personal faith in Christ. It’s not like they wear a T-shirt that says, “I’m working for the devil” or “Let’s go to hell together.” It doesn’t happen like that.
Sin never stands still. It always moves to control us. What starts as casual contact leads on to increasing closeness and permanence of association. Eventually, there is increasing boldness of evil accompanied by a lowering of our own inhibitions. We laugh at jokes that once would have seemed crude to us. We compromise our values in ways we never would have thought possible. We consent to things that would have greatly troubled us in the past.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me make myself clear: If you sleep with the pigs, eat with the pigs, run with the pigs, hang out with the pigs, talk like the pigs, walk like the pigs, laugh like the pigs, and dress like the pigs, in short, if you basically do what the pigs do, you shouldn’t be surprised that you end up smelling like the pigs, sounding like the pigs, and looking like the pigs. In the end, you will be indistinguishable from the pigs. You’re going to become like the people around you. This is true whether they are good or evil.
Now as soon as I put it that way, I can hear someone object: “But how are we going to reach the lost if we don’t spend time with them?” Good question. The answer goes like this. You do not win the lost by living like the lost. You win the lost by loving the lost and living like the saved. If you adopt the lifestyle of those who don’t know the Lord, why would they want what you have? If your life is just the same as theirs, why should they want your Jesus?
A hundred years ago our evangelical ancestors gave us the proper formula. They said we are to be “in the world but not of the world.” That means we are to live among the lost, loving them, befriending them, caring for them, and at the same time we are to live by an entirely different value system. That powerful combination of truth backed up by love is an irresistible force in the world. We can’t reach people by lowering our standards or compromising our values. It’s a good thing when the boat is in the water; it’s a bad thing when the water is in the boat.
C. That blessedness comes from building your life on the Word of God.
Now we come to the positive side of the ledger. Having refused to walk in the way of evildoers, we instead focus on knowing God’s Word. We do this because the true way to float rubbish out is to pour water in. You can’t get rid of the garbage in your life simply by mental effort. You must replace the negative with something positive. The psalmist tells us that the godly person “delights” in the law of the Lord. That means he loves the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, the Bible. The word “delight” means to take great pleasure in. It has the idea of a consuming passion that controls your life. Everyone “delights” in something. Some people delight in food. Others delight in a job or a hobby or a career. Some delight in a particular friendship. Many people delight in money or the things money can buy. And many delight in evil pleasures and wrong desires. Mark this well. Your “delight” determines your direction.
What do you delight in? What gets your motor running? What gets you excited in the morning and keeps you awake at night? What do you daydream about?
Tell me the answers to those questions and I’ll tell you something crucial about who you are. To delight is to be so excited about something that you just can’t wait. Watch a young couple in love and you’ll know what “delight” means. Or take a young man who has fallen in love for the first time. Ask his friends and they’ll say, “He’s not the same guy he used to be.” They mean he has radically changed. He doesn’t want to hang around with them anymore. All he does is talk about “that girl.” Just look at him. He’s got this goofy grin on his face. He’s in love. Now apply that principle to the Word of God. We are to delight in God’s Word as a lover delights in a letter from his beloved.
Those who are blessed by God love his law and they meditate in it day and night. The word translated “meditate” has the idea of digesting something thoroughly. It means to ruminate on a truth, to “chew the cud” by considering a verse or a passage or a truth from the Word from various angles. The Hebrew word can mean to mumble under your breath. I was glad to discover that because I talk to myself all the time. Some people think that’s a bad habit, especially if you do it in public, which I occasionally do. From time to time someone will tell me they saw me walking down the street and I was talking to myself as I walked, and even gesturing with my hands. When we lived in Texas, I used to practice my sermons that way early on Sunday morning. I’m glad to know that this habit of mine is loosely covered under the category of meditation. However, the blessing is promised not to just any sort of mumbling or talking to yourself, but to the patient, protracted brooding over God’s Word. On my trips to the Holy Land, I have seen Orthodox Jews standing in front of the Western Wall, chanting the words of the Old Testament as they rocked back and forth. They were so intent on what they were doing that they hardly seemed to notice passersby.
The psalmist even specifies that we should meditate “day and night.” On one hand, that simply means “all the time.” When should we meditate? Any time is a good time. There is no “wrong” time to meditate on the Word of God. But perhaps we should take the text quite literally. It is a very good practice to begin and end the day with the Bible. That way we get started right and we end right. That way we discipline our minds to think biblically all the time. Recently a husband in our church told me that his wife gets up every morning and works out on the exercise bicycle for an hour. While she is on the bicycle, she listens to Christian music and props her Bible open so she can read it at the same time. “She knows a ton of Scripture,” her husband said. “And she’s one of the most godly women in this church,” he added. I had to agree with his assessment. The daily discipline has paid huge dividends in her life.
If we are serious about this, we will find the time to meditate. And we will have some sort of regular reading program. Perhaps we’ll read through the Bible in a year. Or perhaps we’ll use one of the many Bible study guides that are available. And certainly we will try to memorize Scripture. This has become something of a lost art today. In an earlier generation, it was commonplace for Christians to emphasize Scripture memory. Today we have more or less relegated that practice to the Awana program. That’s a pity because when we hide the Word of God in our hearts, we are protected from sin and given strength to obey God. I know that many people, men especially, like to say, “I just can’t memorize. I’m too busy. My brain’s too fried. I can barely remember my phone number.” Women seem to do better at this, but we men have a thousand excuses. The truth is, we lack motivation. Suppose that Bill Gates came into the sanctuary with a 50-gallon drum filled with crisp, clean $100 bills. And suppose he offered $100 for each verse anyone memorized by next Sunday. That would change things, wouldn’t it? I’m sure we’ve got men who would figure out a way to memorize 100 verses by next Sunday because they need the money. But God’s Word is more precious than gold or silver. If we delight in the Word, we will find a way to read it, to meditate on it, and even to memorize it.
D. That blessedness is marked by stability and fruitfulness.
The person who builds his life on the Word of God is like a tree planted by streams of water. His life is marked by the twin virtues of stability and fruitfulness.
The idea of a “tree planted” by streams of water speaks of a mighty tree with large branches and deep roots that go far down into the soil. Scientists tell us that when you see a large tree that has been growing for many years, you can be certain that it has a vast unseen root system. Many times the root system will equal or exceed the part of the tree above ground. This is how the mighty sequoias last for centuries. Their unseen root system gives them stability against the changing forces of nature. In times of winter storms or summer drought, the roots hold the tree in place and ensure that it has enough moisture and nutrients to stay alive.
About seven years ago we cut down a large elm tree on our church property that had been growing for over 100 years. At the time I was told that it was a Chinese elm tree that had been attacked by Japanese beetles carrying Dutch elm disease. We had an international incident in the tree and that’s why we had to cut it down! When the men cut into it, 80 gallons of water gushed out. They later discovered that its root system reached under our west parking lot all the way to Lake Street, a distance of over 100 feet. No wonder the tree lasted for more than a century.
That’s what a good root system will do for you. How do you know when a tree has good roots? Answer: When the storms come. All the trees look pretty much alike when the sun is shining or a gentle rain is falling, but let a mighty storm with fierce rain and howling winds pass through. Then the true difference is apparent. The trees with few roots are blown over, but the trees with deep roots are still standing when the storm has passed. So it is for the child of God. You won’t know how good your root system is until the storms of life crash against you. Only then will you discover the strength of your spiritual foundation. The only way to be ready for the storm is to spend time now delighting in God’s Word day by day, meditating on its truth, and building a foundation deep and strong for whatever may come your way.
To speak of “fruit in its season” means that the tree produces fruit that expresses its true inner character. How do you spot an orange tree? By the oranges it produces. And how do you spot an apple tree? Look for the apples. Whatever is on the inside must eventually be seen on the outside. Applied to the spiritual life, this means that when our roots are deep in the Word, we will be given whatever we need, whenever we need it. If we need love, from the Word of God will come the strength to produce the fruit of love. If we need a forgiving spirit, from the Word of God will come the strength to forgive. If we need courage, we will produce the fruit of courage. If we need patience and perseverance, the Word of God will produce it in us. This sort of supernatural life is available to every believer, but it will only be fully realized over time as we continue to walk with the Lord and to delight in his Word.
E. That blessedness prospers in all situations.
The last two phrases of verse 3 offer wonderful promises to those who delight in God’s Word. First, their “leaf does not wither.” The phrase pictures a leafy tree that seems like an evergreen because its leaves are in season all year round. People like this are constantly refreshed by the Word of God, constantly renewed, constantly drawing on new strength for new situations. They are never boring, never dull, never living off yesterday’s blessings, but living each day in the strength of the Lord whose mercies are new every morning.
Second, they prosper in all that they do. Don’t jump to the conclusion that prosperity refers only or mainly to material success (though that is not excluded). They prosper in the sense that no matter what happens, they find strength for the day and hope in the midst of the hardest difficulties. They bring forth godly fruit in good times and bad times. Why? Because they are planted deep in the good soil and their roots reach out to the water of the Word of God. Finding constant nourishment therein, they can face whatever life throws at them. The thought here is similar to Romans 8:37 where in the midst of struggles, sorrow, persecution, famine, distress, nakedness and the sword, those who know Jesus are “more than conquerors” through his divine power. And that triumphant deliverance comes to us in large part through the Word of God. In this world we may face disappointment, sorrow, rejection, failure, sickness, abandonment, and discouragement. We may hear things about our children we prayed to God never to hear, our dearest friends may desert us, our spouse may leave us, and we may face an unremitting series of earthly tragedies. Illness, physical weakness, and death itself may visit our door time and again. Even then, we prosper, we thrive, we survive, we are not destroyed. Sometimes when I ask friends going through hard times how they are doing, the answer comes back, “I’m surviving.” Years ago I foolishly thought that was a wimpy response. Now I see that it is a powerful statement of faith. Sometimes surviving is the same as thriving. Some days to survive is to prosper. That, too, is a kind of prosperity for the people of God.
II. The Way of the Wicked
“Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous” (Psalm 1:4-5).
The whole truth about the human race is found in just two words: “Not so.” Not so the wicked. They are not like the righteous and therefore have no part in the promised blessing. Because they do not follow God’s Word, but have chosen a different path, God’s estimation of them is entirely different.
A. The wicked are ultimately insubstantial.
Chaff refers to the husk or hull that surrounds a nut or a kernel. It seems quite strong, but once the nut has been removed, it is light and insubstantial. Take a peanut in the shell and crack it open. After you eat the peanut, what do you do with the shell? If you are at a ballgame, you toss the shells on the ground where they are pulverized into dust. That’s what the wicked are like in the eyes of the Lord. They look so powerful on earth, but to God they are like dust that is quickly blown away. And their “wisdom” is like chaff, changing every day, new theories, new ideas, new beliefs. Nothing solid, nothing definite. Because the wicked live for themselves, they don’t know right from wrong or good from bad.
Learn from this that life without God is useless, empty, trivial, and worthless. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. If a man lives for a hundred years and yet does not know God, he is just a piece of useless chaff! Blown away and forgotten!
B. Their true character will be revealed in the Day of Judgment.
When the time for judgment comes, the wicked will not stand because they have no roots. Everything about them is blow and show, froth and worldly pomp, bluster and brag, and ego. But there is nothing of lasting value. With one breath, the Lord will blow all the wicked into hell.
Meanwhile, the righteous will stand because they are like trees by the stream, with deep roots in the Word of God. The tree stands, the chaff disappears. That’s why sinners won’t be in the assembly of the righteous. They won’t be there because the winds of judgment will already have removed them.
III. The End of Both Ways
“For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6).
This verse describes what happens to the righteous and to the wicked in the end. The righteous are preserved by God despite the trials of life on earth. The wicked will finally and utterly perish in hell.
A. The righteous will endure because they are known by God.
The Hebrew text literally says that the Lord “knows” the way of the righteous. He “knows” the righteous the way a father “knows” his children. I have personal knowledge of many people, but I “know” my three sons in a very personal, direct and intimate way. I watch over them, think of them constantly, and do whatever I can to help them. But what I do in my small way, limited as I am, God does continually and forever and with absolute perfection for all his children. It is because of his loving kindness that his children are preserved through their trials and brought safely home to heaven.
B. The wicked and their wicked ways will ultimately perish.
Here is the sobering reality for the wicked. In the end, their “way” will perish. All that they have lived for will disappear like mist in the morning sun. And they themselves will perish along with the works of their hands. Their “way” comes to a “dead end,” their life ends in destruction as they rush over the edge of a cliff only to find themselves not annihilated but in eternal hell forever.
I freely admit that things don’t always appear to work out this way. Several of the psalms—notably Psalm 73—deal with the anomaly of the prosperity of the wicked versus the suffering of the righteous. The answer goes like this: What we see in this life is not God’s final verdict. Things today may seem quite inverted from the moral perspective of Psalm 1 when the wicked sometimes quite literally get away with murder. But God will have the final word because this life is not the final judgment.
One of my favorite illustrations of this truth comes from the time when the Apostle Paul, in chains as a prisoner in Rome, came face to face with Nero, one of the most sadistic, brutal, evil, and perverted men ever to serve as Roman emperor. The stories of his pathological evil are well known. Suffice it to say, he was a pervert’s pervert and a world-class sadist. At one point he ordered that Christians should be arrested, dipped in some sort of flammable substance, lit on fire and then used as torches at night. He was also the ruler of the empire and, if not loved, greatly feared. One day Paul was brought to him for examination. The evidence suggests that he knew little about Paul and cared even less. Why should he pay attention to an unimpressive, bow-legged, bald Jew whose claim to fame was that he was a follower of Jesus? Eventually, he had Paul put to death, most likely by beheading. Later Nero died. At his death, he was far more famous that Paul. But 2,000 years later, we name our sons Paul and our dogs Nero. Truly, the Lord watches over the righteous but the way of the wicked will perish forever.
Four Contemporary Conclusions
Let’s wrap up this study of Psalm 1 with four conclusions that bring the truth home to the 21st-century.
1) Casual flirtation with sinners soon leads to total domination by evildoers.
We cannot escape the reality of this truth. If you run with the pigs, you’re going to smell like the pigs. And pretty soon, you’ll look and act and dress like the pigs. When that happens, don’t be surprised if others mistake you for a pig. What seems small to you today may lead to total domination by sin tomorrow. Be warned. Be alert. Don’t play with fire if you don’t want to get burned.
2) As long as the world is what it is, godliness must largely be negative.
At the very least, godliness in a sinful world will always involve separation from evil. How that works out in your personal life is an issue between you and the Lord. I cannot make rules that will fit every situation but we dare not ignore the overall principle. Godliness involves much more than staying away from evil influences, but it is not less than that. If we ignore the negative, we’ll never get to the positive.
3) Many people who seem successful by worldly standards will be judged total failures by God.
Some of us will live in the shadow of these “successful” people for many years, and we may be compared with them in an unfavorable way. There isn’t much we can do about that except to remind ourselves that the only evaluation that counts is God’s. If we are faithful to him, everything will come out alright in the end.
4) The happiest people in the world are those whose lives are built on the Word of God.
I think we can state that in a more forceful manner. The only truly happy people in the world are those who follow the prescription of Psalm 1. Others may be happy in a temporary or worldly sense, but they do not know the joy and deep satisfaction that comes from living with God’s approval. That is reserved for the true children of God.
In light of this psalm, what does the church need? The answer is clear. The church needs the Bible. What should pastors be preaching? Pastors should preach the Bible. And what should elders be teaching? They should teach the Bible. What should church members be studying? Let them study the Bible. When we are doing what God has commanded, every church will truly be a “Bible church” and every Christian will be a “Bible Christian.” This is what we need, this is what we must have, this is the basis for all that we do and all that we say. Apart from God’s Word, we have nothing to offer to a hurting world. There is a blessing waiting for those who build their lives upon this ancient book. May that blessing be ours so that we, having been blessed, may be a blessing to others in the year to come.
Lord, we cannot read this psalm without asking ourselves, “What are we living for?” In these momentous days, when the world shakes beneath our feet, as one year fades and another year comes before us, your Word stops us in our tracks and shows us the truth. Have we discovered the blessedness that comes from a God-centered life? Or are we still chasing the chaff, the wind, the dust that rises from a collapsing world system?
Lord Jesus, you came to show us a better way. Help us to be people of the Word, delighting in what you have given us. May we say No to every form of evil, even the casual friendships that pull us in small ways away from you. Grant us the strength and resolve to say “Yes” to you and to your Word. Help us to live so that in the Day of Judgment, having built on the unshakeable foundation of your Word, we will not be blown away, but we will stand because you have made us to stand for eternity. Amen.