The Way of the Righteous: The Hope of the Righteous
Psalm 1:4–6 4 The wicked are not so, But they are like chaff which the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the wicked will perish.
Scripture speaks with one voice. This is no less true for the subject of God’s eschatological hope of the righteous and the misery of the wicked. The psalmist imparts the wisdom that leads to eternal life by contrasting the ultimate state and outcome of the righteous and the wicked he reminds us that only one path leads to knowledge of God. Unlike so much of what passes for Christianity today, true wisdom includes meditating on the dreadful outcome of the wicked as well as the glorious hope of the righteous.
The Hopeless Condition Of The Wicked
To really understand our hope we could begin by focusing on the hopeless state of the wicked. The contrast between the blessed life of the righteous and the miserable condition of the wicked could not be more clear than what the psalmist declares here. This contrast begins by insisting that the wicked are to be set in opposition to the righteous. Unlike the life of the righteous the wicked are unstable, guilty and excluded from the blessings that come from God. The overall picture that is given here is one of hopelessness. A life of wickedness is in reality a life of hopelessness. There is no hope for the person who has chosen to live in violation of God’s law (cf. Ps. 73.16-20). That is the emphasis here. Of course this was the condition of the righteous prior to faith. Prior to repentance and faith, we all followed in the same course of lawlessness to one degree or another and because of that we found ourselves without hope:
Ephesians 2:12–13 12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
That same blood is set forth, preached and offered to every and any person who will hear it because it is the only hope mankind has for salvation (cf. John 1.29; 1 Tim. 4.10). The psalmist also wants to remind us and impart wisdom to us as we consider the depraved hopelessness of the state of the wicked. Note the following characteristic of this hopelessness.
The Instability Of The Wicked
First, we are told that the wicked are unstable, “The wicked are not so, But they are like chaff which the wind drives away” (1.4). This is another way of saying that the wicked have no foundation and no value as it were. The metaphor of “chaff” (מֹץ) emphasizes that the wicked are on the brink of being discarded in judgment. This is the opposite of the righteous who are like a “tree firmly planted by the streams of water” (1.3). The wicked have no such foundation, they are like those that Jesus spoke about, who have built their house on a faulty foundation, a foundation of sand that will not withstand the fierceness of God’s judgment (cf. Mt. 7.24-27). This reminds us of just how terrible the judgment of God will be:
Revelation 6:15–17 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16 and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
The instability here is really the ultimate kind of insecurity. Worse than a mere instability in family, finances or relationships; the instability here is the instability of the soul. It is the lack of security and the constant dread of judgment. That is the opposite of the blessed life of the righteous. While we have safety, satisfaction and productivity in Christ, the wicked have hostility (cf. Rom. 8.7), emptiness (cf. John 4.13), hopelessness and lives of vanity and a chasing after the wind (cf. Eccles. 1.14). Being devoid of hope and a life of real meaning the wicked weary themselves in chasing things that have no meaning and do not satisfy (cf. Eph. 4.19).
The Guilt Of The Wicked
Second, there is also the matter of their legal standing before God. Because of their transgression and disregard of God’s law, “the wicked will not stand in the judgment” (1.5a). The state of the wicked is ever more hopeless as we begin to consider the forensic angle of the condition. When the psalmist says, “the wicked will not stand in the judgment”, he is talking about their inability to “stand” (יָקֻ֣מוּ) by their own goodness and righteousness. They will not stand and thus will crumble in fear and dread. The wicked will recoil in judgment. They will have no argument their conscience bearing witness with God’s justice and judgment, they will have no defense being fully aware of their guilt and moral pollution, they will have no justification being complete devoid of merit, they will have courage to contend with God being stripped of their ability to stroke their pride. They cannot stand in the judgment speaks of the wicked’s everlasting shame and contempt. Because they mocked and scorned the hope of heaven, they will be eternal put to shame:
Psalm 31:17 17 Let me not be put to shame, O Lord, for I call upon You; Let the wicked be put to shame, let them be silent in Sheol.
Psalm 129:5 5 May all who hate Zion Be put to shame and turned backward;
The Exclusion Of The Wicked
Finally, today we invite people to church in the hope that by hearing God’s word they might come to embrace the Christian faith, but in the judgment, the psalmist tells us that “sinners” will not “stand” in “the assembly of the righteous” (1.5b). There is a symmetrical exclusion here. Just as the blessed man does not “stand in the path of sinners” (1.1b), so too, the wicked will not “stand in the judgment.” We could say that the final judgment will entail one final great eschatological excommunication— one final act of church discipline where the sheep and the goats will finally be separated forever (cf. Mt. 25.32). What we are looking at here is the total “collapse and expulsion” of sinful humanity before the Lord in judgment. Isaiah prophesied about this great apocalyptic crisis that all of fallen humanity faces outside of Christ:
Isaiah 2:10–12 10 Enter the rock and hide in the dust From the terror of the Lord and from the splendor of His majesty. 11 The proud look of man will be abased And the loftiness of man will be humbled, And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. 12 For the Lord of hosts will have a day of reckoning Against everyone who is proud and lofty And against everyone who is lifted up, That he may be abased.
While on earth, fallen sinful humanity spend their time seeking popularity and notoriety— whether by celebrities, the wealthy elites, the snobs in academic circles, or the high school clique motivated by peer pressure and pretentiousness— people long for some sort of identity, notoriety and belonging but in the end all of that will come to an end. In reality, when everything is said and done, there will only be one society worth belonging to— the Church. The community that is so hated, oppressed and misunderstood today will be totally vindicated, purified and set apart in heaven so that nothing wicked, filthy, immoral, profane and abominable will be allowed to enter. John the revelator gives us the final picture:
Revelation 22:10–15 10 And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. 11 Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy.” 12 “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” 14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.
The gravity and the finality of this purifying judgment carries and ‘double edge sword.’ It is no doubt a grave warning to the wicked of the awful nature of the judgment to come but it is also sobering reminder of our evangelistic mission in this world.
The Covenantal Hope Of The Righteous
As we should expect, the way of the “righteous” (צַדִּיקִ֑ים) is the complete opposite. While the covenant-LORD Yahweh has no regard for the wicked who are like “chaff”, the psalmist tells us that “the Lord knows the way of the righteous” (1.6a). The reason we are thinking about our hope along covenantal lines is because for God to “know” (ידע) you is a covenantal concept through and through. It is a salvific knowledge because it is set in antithesis to the concept of perishing (1.6b). It is a benevolent knowledge because it involves God’s preservation where He cares for and protects His people spiritually. It is the knowledge of communion because it involves God’s intimate knowledge of His people where He knows them and they know Him. This covenantal language emerges in an important parallel passage in the NT:
John 10:14–15 14 I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, 15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.
Of course, John 10 is expanding Ps. 23 where Yahweh is the Good Shepherd of the sheep keeps His people to the end until at last they are brought into the epicenter of all covenant life, the temple (Ps. 23.6). Like Jesus, the psalmist is thinking eschatologically about God’s elect, His remnant, true Israel, God’s people, the bride of Christ, the Church of the living God. The author of Hebrews calls them, “the church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12.23). Because God has a covenantal regard for the righteous we are safe in His everlasting arms. This is why the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep can say, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10.27-28).
The Condemnation Of The Wicked
This final phrase is meant to round off the entire Psalm which began with a warning not to listen to “the counsel of the wicked.” Now the psalmist makes the prohibition abundantly clear. We do not follow the counsel of the wicked because that course leads us to perdition (cf. Eph. 2.2; 1 Cor. 7.29-31; 1 John 2.15-17). The “way of the wicked will perish.” Of course, the wicked themselves will perish but the text also says, “the way of the wicked” (וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים) will perish. It is the psalmist’ way of imparting wisdom to the righteous on the righteous path. It reminds us that the path of wickedness will run its ruinous course. The psalms everywhere remind us of this:
Psalm 112:10 10 The wicked will see it and be vexed, He will gnash his teeth and melt away; The desire of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 37:18–20 18 The Lord knows the days of the blameless, And their inheritance will be forever. 19 They will not be ashamed in the time of evil, And in the days of famine they will have abundance. 20 But the wicked will perish; And the enemies of the Lord will be like the glory of the pastures, They vanish—like smoke they vanish away.
Seeing that the very path of the wicked only lead to ruin, we should endeavor to take serious stock about the company we keep, the acquaintances we make, and the partnerships we enter into (cf. 1 Cor. 6.14ff.). Scripture is replete with the matter of separation from the world (cf. Jam. 5.4; 1 John 2.15-17). Any relationship that has the ability corrupt or compromise our morals should be cut off or at the very least approached with caution and wisdom. Jesus set the NT foundation for this principle:
Matthew 10:34–39 34 “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. 37 “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.
The apostles followed in their Master’s steps and reiterated this notion of being careful how we walk with those who do not know the Lord:
2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1 14 Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? 16 Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 17 “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. 18 “And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” Says the Lord Almighty. 1 Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
Ephesians 5:11–17 11 Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; 12 for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. 13 But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. 14 For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.” 15 Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of your time, because the days are evil. 17 So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
1 Peter 4:1–5 1 Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. 3 For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. 4 In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
CONNECT TO CHRIST
1. Jesus Will Judge The Living And The Dead
Today as we think about the sobering reality of judgment and the two very different outcomes set forth by Psalm one with respect to the righteous and the wicked; progressive revelation has given a name to God’s Son-Judge of all the earth— Jesus. Jesus is not just a Son, He is not just a Savior either, He is Judge (cf. Acts 10.42; 17.31; Rom. 2.16; 2 Tim. 4.1; Rev. 19.11):
John 5:21–23 21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes. 22 For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, 23 so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.
As the Son arrived on the stage of world history, He came with the winnowing fork in His hand ready to burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mt. 3.12; Lk. 3.17). Few today will appreciate such a vision of Jesus Christ. We have domesticated the Son-Judge of God with our seeker-sensitive messages of a man-centered Christ who is more concerned with our social struggles than His infinite glory. This view of Jesus however simply will not do and is totally foreign to world of the Psalms (e.g. Ps. 2) just as it is the rest of the sacred Scriptures.
2. Jesus Is Our Hope
We have the same hope that the psalmist had, the hope that God would not allow his soul to go down into Sheol and undergo decay (cf. Ps. 16.8-11). In reality this was the hope of the resurrection. But the hope of resurrection is not rooted in the believer. Our resurrection is in fact a response to the resurrection of God’s Son. He is the first fruits of the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15.20, 23). It is not simply that someone rose from the dead that gives us hope as if to say, ‘there may be life beyond the grave’ (as so many merely speculate about today), our hope is rooted in a resurrection that is in fact the capstone of a life lived and a death died in our place. This is what made the resurrection of Jesus unique and this is why the apostles were empowered by the gospel of the resurrection and went forth to turn the world upside down. Peter made this the central concern of his Spirit-filled preaching in Acts:
Acts 2:24–28 24 But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. 25 For David says of Him, ‘I saw the Lord always in my presence; For He is at my right hand, so that I will not be shaken. 26 ‘Therefore my heart was glad and my tongue exulted; Moreover my flesh also will live in hope; 27 Because You will not abandon my soul to Hades, Nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. 28 ‘You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of gladness with Your presence.’
3. Jesus Knows His People
Finally, Jesus disclosed the intimate relationship He has with His people from the moment He begins interacting with His disciples. He told Nathanael, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1.48). Jesus knew the hearts and thoughts of His disciples because He was omniscient (cf. John 2.25), but He also chose to enter into personal communion with His people as their Shepherd (John 10.11ff.). Jesus forged a covenant bond with His people in order to have a sacred bond of communion with His bride, the Church (cf. Lk. 22.28; Mk. 14.24; Eph. 5.32). Like a wedding, we should celebrate the arrival of the bridegroom and long for His return (cf. Mt. 9.15). Jesus knows the way of the righteous and in keeping with the teaching of the psalmist that means that Jesus has regard for His people. He cares for them, protects them and enters into fellowship with them (cf. 1 Cor. 1.9). Of course to know God is to be in covenant with God (cf. Jer. 31.34), and to know Jesus Christ is not only to be in covenant with Him but to be in vital union with Him (cf. Eph. 1.3-4). The apostle Paul reminds us that this union is also practical and that we should seek to increase in our knowledge of Jesus Christ (cf. Phil. 3.10; also 2 Pet. 3.18).