Songs That Shape the Heart and Mind
What I would like to do in this message is, first, explain where this series of messages is going in the next six weeks (Lord willing) and why this series matters. Second, we’ll probe into the meaning of Psalm 1. Third, I will try to illustrate one of the ways that this psalm leads to Jesus Christ, our Savior.
The name of this series is “Thinking and Feeling with God.” So I want to try to explain that title and the purpose of the series with three observations about the Psalms in general.
1. The Psalms are instructive about God, man, and life.
First, the Psalms are meant to be instructive about God and man and life. When we read the Psalms, we are meant to learn things about God and about human nature and about how life is to be lived. Some poetry makes no claim to instruct the mind. The Psalms do. They are meant to be instructive about God and man and life.
“The Psalms are meant to be instructive about God and man and life.”
One of the pointers to this (among many, including the doctrinal use made of the Psalms in the New Testament, like Matthew 22:44) is that Psalm 1 introduces the whole book of Psalms. The book begins in Psalm 1:2, “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The word for law is Torah, and the general meaning for Torah is instruction. In other words, it covers the whole range of God’s instruction, not just legal ordinances. So the entire book of Psalms is introduced by a call to meditate on God’s instruction.
Then add to that the way the book of Psalms is structured. It is divided into five books that begin with Psalms 1, 42, 73, 90, and 107, and each collection of psalms ends with a kind of special doxology that marks the end of each book. From the earliest times, these five divisions have been seen as a conscious effort to make the Psalms parallel to the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), which are usually called the “law” books.
It is significant that the Psalter also consists of five books (Psalms 1–41, 42–72, 43–89, 90–106, and 107–150). The editors of the Psalter wanted readers to grasp the analogy between the Torah, God’s “instruction” par excellence, and the Psalter. In short, the Psalter is to be read and heard as God’s instruction to the faithful. Regardless of the fact that the Psalms originated as the response of faithful persons to God, they are now to be understood also as God’s word to the faithful (A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms As Torah, 27).
So when Psalm 1 introduces all five books in the Psalter by saying that the righteous person “meditates on the law of the Lord day and night,” it probably means that these five books of psalms, not just the five books of Moses, are the law of the Lord — the instruction of the Lord — that we should meditate on day and night. So for this and other reasons, my first observation is that the Psalms are meant to be instructive about God and man and life. That explains the word thinking in the title of this series: “Thinking and Feeling with God.”
2. The Psalms are songs or poems.
The second observation is that the Psalms are songs or poems. That’s what the word psalm means. They are meant to be read or sung as poetry or songs. The point of this observation is that poetry or singing is intended to stir up and carry the affections of the heart. That’s where I get the word feeling in the title of this series: “Thinking and Feeling with God.”
If you read the Psalms only for doctrine, you’re not reading them for what they are. They are psalms, songs, poetry. They’re musical, and the reason human beings express truth with music and poetry is to awaken and express emotions that fit the truth.
One of the reasons the Psalms are deeply loved by so many Christians is that they give expression to an amazing array of emotions. Listen to this list of emotions I pulled together:
Loneliness: “I am lonely and afflicted” (Psalms 25:16).
Love: “I love you, O Lord, my strength” (Psalms 18:1).
Awe: “Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him” (Psalms 33:8).
Sorrow: “My life is spent with sorrow” (Psalms 31:10).
Regret: “I am sorry for my sin” (Psalms 38:18).
Contrition: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalms 51:17).
Discouragement and turmoil: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me” (Psalms 42:5)?
Shame: “Shame has covered my face” (Psalms 44:15).
Exultation: “In your salvation how greatly he exults” (Psalms 21:1).
Marveling: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalms 118:23).
Delight: “His delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psalms 1:2).
Joy: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalms 4:7).
Gladness: “I will be glad and exult in you” (Psalms 9:2).
Fear: “Serve the Lord with fear” (Psalms 2:11).
Anger: “Be angry, and do not sin” (Psalms 4:4).
Peace: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep” (Psalms 4:8).
Grief: “My eye wastes away because of grief” (Psalms 6:7).
Desire: “O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted” (Psalms 10:17).
Hope: “Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you” (Psalms 33:22).
Brokenheartedness: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalms 34:18).
Gratitude: “I will thank you in the great congregation” (Psalms 35:18).
Zeal: “Zeal for your house has consumed me” (Psalms 69:9).
Pain: “I am afflicted and in pain” (Psalms 69:29).
Confidence: “Though war arise against me, yet I will be confident” (Psalms 27:3).
More explicitly than all the other books in the Bible, the Psalms are designed to awaken and shape our emotions in line with the instruction they give. What happens when you read and sing the Psalms the way they are intended to be read and sung is that your emotions and your mind are shaped by these psalms.
3. The Psalms are inspired by God.
Now add one more observation about the Psalms in general: The Psalms are inspired by God. They are not merely the word of man, but they are also the word of God. What that means is that God guided what was written and arranged so that the Psalms teach the truth and, when properly understood, they give the right direction to the emotions. One of the reasons we believe that the Psalms are divinely inspired and trustworthy is that Jesus does. In Mark 12:36, Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 and said, “David himself, in [or by] the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’” Jesus believes that David spoke by the Holy Spirit (as 2 Peter 1:21 says). In John 10:35, he quotes Psalm 82:6 and says, “Scripture cannot be broken.” And in John 13:18 he quotes Psalm 41:9 and says, “The Scripture will be fulfilled.” So Jesus has implicit faith in the reliability of the Psalms.
That accounts for the third part of our title for this series: “Thinking and Feeling with God.” With God means that the words of the psalmists are both man’s words and God’s words. What man expresses God is expressing for his purposes. Therefore, when we read and sing the psalms, our minds and hearts — our thinking and feeling — are being shaped by God.
The Shaping Power of Psalms
We just completed a series on the new birth. We learned that in the new birth the Holy Spirit raises the spiritually dead by giving them a new mind and a new heart that believe the gospel and love God and want to be conformed to Christ. And yet born again people are not perfected. They are truly new, truly alive, truly spiritual, but in many ways unformed and immature — just like newborns in our families.
“When we read and sing the psalms, our minds and hearts are being shaped by God.”
So the question for the first Christians — and for us — was this: How does the new mind and the new heart, with all of their imperfect thinking and feeling, pursue the fullness of right-thinking and the fullness of holy affections? One of the main answers of the early church was to immerse themselves in the Psalms. The Psalms is the most often-quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament. It was the songbook and the poetry book and the meditation book of the church. Alongside the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, Psalms was the book that shaped the thinking and the feeling of the believers more than any other.
And that is what I would like it to do for us. For these six weeks, I simply want to help jumpstart that use of the Psalms for some and deepen and advance it for others. The aim is God-centered, Christ-exalting, Psalms-saturated thinking and feeling in our church. I believe this kind of thinking and feeling will bear fruit in the kind of living that cares for people and magnifies Christ.
Two Questions on Psalm 1
As we turn now to Psalm 1, we will see confirmation for much of what we just saw. This psalm is worthy of three sermons at least. I will only make two observations that come from two questions.
Question #1: Why does the psalmist begin the way he does?
Why does the psalmist begin, “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”? Why not just say, “Don’t be wicked, don’t sin, and don’t scoff.” Why draw attention to the wicked, the sinner, the scoffer? Why focus on where we look for influence? “Don’t be influenced by the wicked. Don’t be influenced by the sinner. Don’t be influenced by the scoffer.”
The reason is that the contrast he wants to draw is not wickedness versus righteousness. The contrast he wants to draw is being influenced from one place versus being influenced from another place. Being shaped in one way versus being shaped in another way. Being shaped in our thinking and feeling by the wicked, the sinner, and the scoffer versus being shaped by the law of the Lord — the instruction of the Lord found in the Psalms.
So he sets up verse 1 the way he does to prepare for the contrast in verse 2. Don’t give your attention to the world (the wicked, the sinner, the scoffer) so that you start to delight in their ways. Verse 2: “but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
Nobody walks in the way of the wicked out of duty. Nobody stands in the way of sinners out of duty. Nobody sits in the seat of scoffers out of duty. We walk and stand and sit there because we want to. And we want to because we have been watching them so intently that what they do is now attractive. We have meditated on them (without calling it that). And we now delight in them. That is how worldliness happens.
You just start by looking at the stuff that the world produces. And you look at it and think about it so much that you want it. And so you walk and stand and sit in their counsel and their way and their seat.
That’s why the contrast in verse 2 refers not to duty and obedience, but to delight and meditation. The point is that the only hope against the pleasures of the world is the pleasures of the word. And just like the pleasures of the world are awakened by looking at them long enough, so the pleasures of the word are awakened in the regenerate soul by looking at them long enough — day and night.
Meditate day and night on the instruction of God in the Psalms, and delight will be awakened. That is what the Psalms are designed to do: inform your thinking in a way that delights your heart. Meditating day and night leads to delighting which frees us from the pleasures of the wicked, the sinner, and the scoffer.
So the very first two verses in the book of Psalms confirm what we have seen: this whole book is designed to shape our thinking through meditation and to shape our feeling by becoming our delight.
Question #2: Why does verse 3 read like it does?
Now here’s the second question for Psalm 1 that turns up our second observation about this psalm. Why doesn’t verse 3 say: “And when you meditate on God’s instruction in the Psalms and delight in what you see, then you will not act wickedly and you will not act sinfully, and you will not scoff”? That would have rounded things out nicely with verse 1, wouldn’t it?
The answer is that the psalmist wants us to see that the life of the godly is like a tree bearing fruit, not like a laborer picking fruit. To use Paul’s language, the Christian life is the fruit of the Spirit, not works of the law. Verse 3: “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.”
A Fight Won by Delight
Here’s the picture of the Christian life: there are streams of water. This is the life of God flowing through the word of God, the Psalms. You are planted there by God’s sovereign grace (see Matthew 15:13). Your roots reach the water of life that makes your leaves green during the drought and makes you fruitful when others are barren.
The root system is not mechanical or automatic. The roots work by meditation, that is, by giving attention and thought to the Psalms. Meditation on the Psalms is the way the roots touch the water. The result is delight, spiritual pleasure in what we see of God and man and life. And from this delight comes all kinds of changed attitudes and behaviors.
The battle to avoid the counsel of the wicked and the way of the sinner and the seat of the scoffer — the battle to be righteous and holy and humble — is a fight that is won by delight. And that delight is nourished through meditating on God’s instruction in the Psalms day and night. One commentator says,
The Psalms can and should be part of the constant practice of the presence of God. Regularly read from beginning to end, they lead us again and again to consider aspects of life and of God’s will that we might not otherwise choose to remember or confront — let alone to embody in our living. Memorized in chunks the Psalms can provide ready response to the pressing realities of our days. When I have wakened in a panic in the darkness of the early morning hours — submerged in fear, self-pity, or self-doubt — the Psalms have often provided the assurance that my anxieties are known by God, who enlightens my dark places. So, I encourage you to make the Psalms your constant companion. Keep a copy at hand, and keep their words in your mind and heart and on your lips as you meet the challenges of your days and nights.” (The NIV Application Commentary, Psalms Vol. 1, 104.)
What About Jesus?
Which leaves us very little time to ask our final question: What about Jesus? How does this psalm lead us to Christ? Of the three ways (at least) that I see this psalm leading to Christ, I will only mention one.
“The gospel is the source of our sweetest delight.”
The word righteous in verse 6 presses us forward to Christ as our righteousness. “The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” So only the righteous will survive the judgment in the end. But who is righteous?
Psalm 14:3: “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Psalm 130:3–4: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? [Answer: None.] But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Psalm 32:2: “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity.”
So “the righteous” are the sinful who can somehow be counted as righteous when they are not righteous in themselves. How can this be? How can a holy and righteous God “not mark iniquity”? How can a holy and righteous God not count sin? How can he not require perfect righteousness for his perfect heaven?
Righteousness Performed in Christ
The answer is that God does mark iniquity, and he does count sin, and he does require perfect righteousness. And that is why this psalm, with all of Psalms, leads to Christ who “was wounded for our transgressions; [and] crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). God did count our sin, and he punished it in Christ. He did require righteousness, and he performed it in Christ. Romans 10:3: “The goal of the law [the goal of the Psalms] is Christ for righteousness for all who believe.”
This gospel truth is part of the living water that flows into the roots of our lives. This is part of what we meditate on day and night when we read and sing the Psalms. This is the source of our sweetest delight.
Embrace This Gospel River
So I urge you to embrace this gospel as the river of your life. And I invite you to join me for the next five Sundays as we seek to think with God and feel with God in the Psalms. May God shape our thinking and shape our feelings so that we bear the fruit of Christ-exalting love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). Amen.