What Psalm 1 Teaches Us about the Pursuit of Happiness

The pursuit of happiness.

It’s in our Declaration of Independence. It’s an ideal enshrined in many of our laws. It’s why we work so hard. Why we marry. Why we go on diets, choose to live in certain areas, have children, and save money for retirement. Most of us are pursuing happiness one way or another.

The first Psalm offers a different path to happiness.

The Psalm begins with a ‘blessed’ man—‘blessed’ being a biblical term that corresponds to our secular idea of happiness. The Psalm envisions this happy man in idyllic terms as a ‘tree planted near streams of water’ yielding fruit in season, never withering but always prospering (verse 3). The image is one that connotes peace, refreshment, and fruitfulness—what many would consider elements of happiness.

How does one become like such a fruit stream by streams of water? Here’s the answer Psalm 1 gives: “[T]he law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night” (verse 2)

At first, this might seem the very opposite of joy. When one thinks of joyful reading, law books of any kind don’t even make the list. And, in a biblical context, Leviticus doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being riveting reading. The Psalm, however, goes all in on this point, further suggesting that the happy man even meditates on the law. One wonders whether even the most devoted of law student does this.

But a closer look at this verse reveals that much more is going on here than meets the eye.

First, a clarification. ‘Law’ as used here means more than just simple laws—although those are certainly included. Instead, the word for law in Hebrew is the Torah, which in its broader sense referred to all five books of the Pentateuch—that includes Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers, along with Leviticus. And, in the time of David, this would have been extended to include such books as Judges and Job.

(Of course, this is not to say that the actual laws could not be a source of meditation. One thinks especially of the Ten Commandments. For an example illustration of deep reflection on the Ten Commandments I recommend Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.)

The creation. The delights of Eden. God’s continuing presence despite sin. The exodus. All are indeed sources of ‘joy.’ The Hebrew word for joy here (chephets, pronounced khā’·fets) is rich in meaning. It refers to one’s desire, something precious (like a precious stone), and also pursuit.

Is the ‘law’ of the Lord our deepest desire? Is it something precious to us? Is it something we pursue?

Psalm 1 says it is for the happy man. And it is from such joy that unceasingly meditation proceeds.

Notice that the Psalm actually begins with the negative: with what the happy man does not do. It lists three activities with the company of sinners: walking, standing, and sitting.

Walking is fittingly first. In the Old Testament, a healthy relationship with God is depicted this way. Enoch ‘walked’ with God in Genesis 5:24 and was likely assumed into heaven. For Abraham ‘walking’ became a way of life: our forefather in faith was called to wander from his home city Ur. For most of his life, Abraham always seemed on the move with his tents, never quite settling in cities, even shunning them. (Think of the stories of Abraham greeting the angels from his tent and of Lot in Sodom.)

This is what we know life in Christ to be: a journey, a walk with God, a pilgrim’s progress to paradise.

But notice how the initial image of the Psalm appears to contrast with the later one. The happy man does not ‘walk’ with sinners. In the context of the Old Testament, the reader would naturally conclude that the happy man thus walks with the righteous—most importantly, the Righteous One.

But that’s not quite the image the Psalm gives us when it positively depicts the happy man. Instead, he is like a ‘tree planted near streams of water.’ This seems to be the very picture of stability, i.e. not walking.

Have we misread the beginning of the Psalm?

I don’t think so. The idea seems to be that in walking with God we find true stability, true rest. What a contrast this is with the unhappy man—constantly changing, first walking, then standing, then sitting with the sinners at the beginning of the Psalm.

Rest. A tree of life. Flowing waters. Sound familiar? Some interpreters see hints of the Garden of Eden here. (Two examples I found are here and here.) It is perhaps not terribly too surprising that the first Psalm is seeking to depict the happy man by hearkening back to the terrestrial paradise. What is surprising is that this Psalm points to a clear path back to Eden: meditation on the law of God.

A note on sources: The author is particularly grateful to his father, biblical scholar G.K. Beale, for initially pointing out the predominant theme of happiness in this Psalm.

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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