When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 14, 2020
The Two Ways
1 Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
This Psalm begins with the word happy (older translations use the word blessed). Words convey a message that is only understood in context. For example, the student is happy to be finished with a school assignment and the wife is happy to see her husband return home from a war. Obviously, the wife’s use of the word carries a deeper and longer lasting meaning. Context conveys the meaning.
The Psalmist describes what the word is not with three negative qualities:
- he does not follow the advice of the wicked
- he does not take the path that sinners tread
- he does not sit in the seat of scoffers
The Psalmist then continues to describe the word with three positive qualities:
- he delights in the law of the Lord
- he meditates on the law day and night
- he is like trees planted by streams of water
Each of the negative qualities is offset by a positive one. Together they represent the summary of our character. The Psalmist is careful to emphasize that the happy person delights in the law of the Lord. Here the law of the Lord refers not only to the Ten Commandments but the entire Bible – we are to delight and meditate on it day and night. When we do we will be like a tree planted by streams of water. When we walk in the woods or a park, we see trees that have survived storms and droughts. Their roots run deep and strong and their leaves are not withered because of drought. The tree is wide enough to conceal the child playing Hide and Seek and tall enough for the child to climb its limbs to scan the horizon for pirates. According to the Psalmist, this tree produces fruit in season and the leaf does not wither. In winter a tree produces oranges. In summer a tree produces apples and peaches. The trees produce the fruit in season because the farmer ensures the tree is properly fed, watered, and protected. In the autumn, we anticipate the leaves changing colors and eventually withering before dropping to the ground. This is part of the seasonal cycle. However, the Psalmist is not referring to a leaf in season but to a leaf affected by a severe drought. This withered leaf is a sign that the tree is not healthy. So with the individual who heeds the wrong counsel, walks the wrong path, and is scornful towards God. This person is an unhealthy individual who is not happy (in the context of our Psalm). It is a progressive withering that begins with disregard and ends with scorn as expressed in apathy, as well as, animosity. The tree with the withered leaf is of little use in a child’s game or in producing fruit in season.
The Psalmist makes another agricultural comparison in the contrast between a happy person and an unhappy one. The farmer who plants wheat knows that chaff will also be harvested. To separate the two, the farmer tosses the harvest in the air to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat will fall to the ground and will, eventually, be milled to be used in baking. The chaff does not have any value and is simply blown away by the wind.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a book entitled The Road to Character. Brooks summarizes resume virtues and character virtues. In the context of the Psalm, the resume virtues are like chaff. They may help you achieve a promotion but they are immanent at best. Character virtues are like the tree. They may actually prevent your promotion because they are the antithesis of what the world values, but they are transcendent and are valued by God.
The prophet Jeremiah conveys a similar message when he writes:
5 Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in •man
and makes flesh his arm,
whose •heart turns away from the Lord.
6 •He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see •any good come.
•He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited •salt land.
7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose •trust is the Lord.
8 •He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
In summary, I would like to make some observations.
1. The tree has no control over where it is planted – so with our planting. God is ultimately in control over where we are planted or transplanted.
2. The tree is unable to provide for its growth; however, we can provide for our growth through the counsel we heed, the company we keep, and our attitude towards God. As we grow, we will encounter storms and droughts; but by God’s grace and strength we will not only survive we will thrive. We also produce different fruit in different seasons. In this context, fruit means different types of service. In one season we might teach Sunday School. In another we might care for a bedridden family member. Different fruit for different seasons.
3. The tree does not exist for its own delight. It exists to bear fruit and can also be used for the play of children. So we exist to glorify God in the world where we work and worship.
If we remember the wise counsel of the Psalmist we will be like the tree planted by the waters bearing fruit in season.