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I Didn't Do Nuthin'—and That's Just the Problem: Psalm 1 and the Dog That Didn't Bark

Michael is a teacher, writer, poet, sometime philosopher, observer and commentator on the human circus, all-around wise-guy and know-it-all.

i-didnt-do-nuthin-and-thats-just-the-problem

There’s a Sherlock Holmes mystery in which nobody can figure out who committed the murder until the great detective lends his perspicuity and powers of deduction to uncover the guilty party. He deduces the mystery from a clue that everybody else overlooked. You see, there was a dog who barked most terribly at everyone. But on the night of the murder, it was silent. That was the clue that pointed to the owner of the dog as the killer. You see, the clue was “the dog that didn’t bark.”[1]

"like a tree planted by streams of water"

"like a tree planted by streams of water"

The First Psalm

The first Psalm presents us with this same sort of conundrum when it talks about those who delight in the law of the Lord on the one hand and the “wicked” on the other. One of the things we will consider is just what is meant by “wickedness.”

But first, we might review it:

Psalm 1

1 Blessed is the one

who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take

or sit in the company of mockers,

2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,

and who meditates on his law day and night.

3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither—

whatever they do prospers.

4 Not so the wicked!

They are like chaff

that the wind blows away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.[1]


[1] Psalm 1: 1-6 NIV

Just What Is "Wickedness"?

We should look briefly at the language employed by the Psalm. In contrasting the wicked with the righteous, the truths are conveyed in poetic imagery. The righteous are “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit,” which sounds inviting, as I believe we would all want our lives to “yield fruit”; while on the other hand, the wicked are just the opposite: they “are like chaff that the wind blows away.”

And for those who haven’t threshed grain recently, chaff are the coverings on wheat seeds that have to be broken and discarded before the nut -- the kernel of the seed -- on the inside can be processed into bread to be eaten. Typically, the chaff is broken and meant to be blown away by the wind, because it is inedible, worthless. This is a metaphor that describes the relative “happiness” of those who follow the Law of the Lord and those who don’t.

The Psalm says that “blessed” is this person who follows the law of the Lord -- using a word that is sometimes translated as “happy,”[1] although not “happy” in the sense that we would use the word today. The original Hebrew, which we have here as “Blessed is the man” has been translated as “forward strides the man”[2]; in other words, not just somebody who is “happy,” or “blessed,” or “righteous,” in the contemporary static, passive sense, but a person of action, somebody who does righteousness. “Blessed is not a state of being, then, but a journey toward becoming, a ‘doing in the making.’ The blessed do not stay in place but walk on a ‘way’ that demands repeated choice and steadfast perseverance.”[3]

This underlying emphasis on behavior, on what we do, is reflected in the phrase, the “way that sinners take.” We should look at this as the “way” something is done, or the “pathway” that is taken, as which “way” do we go from here?” For instance, consider the “way” or the path that such saints as Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa took.

Lastly, “wicked” and “wickedness” - not specified here as to what kind of behavior is being talked about. (More about that later.) But the word does refer to those who are “ungodly” (as in the King James translation), which is pertinent, because in the original Hebrew, the word refers to those who violate the will and the law of God.[4]

We know we are supposed to avoid wickedness and people who traffic in it, but what is wickedness? What specific meanings might we draw from scriptural sources? The kind of wickedness that is easiest to see is that which is performed before our eyes (either literally or figuratively), in other words, that which is overtly performed. We find it easier to mark something we can see than something we can’t -- or, phrased another way, it is easier to notice something which is there, than something which is not.

Let’s make a list ... well, not literally. At least, not now, but I’m sure we could come up with a list that would include various types of behavior -- that would vary according to selection and interpretation of scripture, even our own personal proclivities. We all have our favorite wickednesses -- if that’s a word -- sometimes great, sometimes small.

But are we just winging it? How can we be sure that what we add to the “list” is truly according to scripture? In addition, how can we be sure we aren’t letting our own biases slant our selection? You know, pulling something out of context -- such as the Leviticus injunction against wearing textiles of different sorts. (Look it up - Lev 19:19). But, I doubt any one of us would feel inclined to throw stones at somebody wearing a cotton-polyester blend.

But as we’re sorting out our list -- trying to be as fair minded and as objective as possible, observant of and obedient to God’s will, I think that for most of us, when we think of “wickedness,” we most often think of things that we do that are bad -- or more likely, that other people do, for the favorite hobby of many of us is picking the speck out of our neighbor’s eye and quite overlooking the log in our own (Matthew 7:5, if you’re paying attention). So often we end up congratulating ourselves on the wicked things that we don’t do as we compile our favorite list of ‘thou shalt nots’; these are called the sins of commission.

According to these, what is wickedness according to scripture? What are some of the ‘bad’ things that a person could do that might be contrary to the will of God? Contrary to the teachings of God and our Lord Jesus? We’re all aware of the penalties for wickedness and sinning. So, we’d better be clear what it is that we could do that is “wicked” and be sure not to do it. Scripture mentions many instances of people who commit evil acts: for instance, from the New Testament:

  • the money changers in the temple;[5]
  • those who narrowly and legalistically read the Law;[6]
  • those who “harden” their hearts (which prevents understanding);[7]

and going back to the old testament:

  • the oppression of the weak, the poor, the needy.[8]

So, many of us -- or all of us -- may feel that we could identify an act of wickedness that took place before our eyes. These are, if you will, the dog that barked. You can see them -- or not to mix metaphors, you can “hear” them. These are the sins of commission. That is, the sins that are overtly committed.


[1] e.g., Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Eds. The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford, England. 2004.

[2] Raymond Apple, "The happy man of Psalm 1." Jewish Bible Quarterly (40, no. 3 (July 2012): 179-182. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2017). 180

[3] Kathleen A. Harmon, 2011. "From the beginning to the end: Psalm 1, walking the way toward praise of God." Liturgical Ministry 20, no. 4: 181-183. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2017). 181

[4] Stephen D. Renn, Ed, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 2006.) 1041-2

[5] Matthew 21:12

[6] Luke 11:37-54

[7] e.g, Mark 8:17, Matthew 13:14-5

[8] Isaiah 10:1-3

Whatever You Did Not Do for Him . . .

Something that I happened to observe recently called this lesson to me. During the shopping rush that preceded Christmas this past year, I was driving out of the Costco shopping lot. The stream of traffic was heavy -- as you might expect; the cars all around me were packed tightly with Christmas ornaments and decorations (Costco had a great deal on an elaborate creche) and food -- turkeys, hams, cakes, pies, and the like -- for extensive Christmas feasts.

I was in the middle lane, and at the corner, I saw, standing a young woman and beside her, a toddler stuffed into an inexpensive (actually pretty flimsy) stroller, hardly your top-of-the-line variety. She was holding up a sign that said something to the effect that he had lost her job and was in need of money. In the whole stream of cars, amongst all the people rushing from their Christmas shopping, their cars stuffed to the ceiling with foods and goods -- the newest video game consoles, the new wide-screen TVs to replace the wide-screen TVs they had bought just the year before -- amongst all the frantic moms and dads rushing to their Christmas celebrations where they would partake in their various pageants and contemplate with wonder the entire world bestowing its love on the effigy of the little plastic Savior in its plywood manger, as the old song goes:


We three kings of Orient are

Bearing gifts we travel afar

Field and fountain, moor and mountain

Following yonder star

O Star of wonder, star of night

Star with royal beauty bright

Westward leading, still proceeding

Guide us to thy Perfect Light.[1]


Amongst all that rush, apparently no one noticed this woman standing on the street corner or her infant in its cradle. Or, if they did, they hurried on by, perhaps averting their eyes, pretending they had not seen her. Perhaps, they were embarrassed by their having so much while she had so little. Perhaps they were afraid she would take something from them.

I couldn’t help myself. Upon a moment’s reflection, I realized that if I did not act, I would regret it for a long time. So, I pulled across three lanes of traffic to honking and Christmas-spirit swearing. After fumbling for my wallet and fishing out a few bills, I thrust them at her. As I drove away, I was overcome with a wave of feeling that what I had given her was not enough. But there was no going back. But at least, I thought, I had done something. I hadn’t done nothing.

Now there are those who might argue that I should not have given her anything -- that she would probably just spend the money on drugs, or alcohol; or, it was all a con -- she might even have borrowed the baby -- and she was really making out like a bandit from fleecing gullible, good-hearted suckers. But as our Lord said, “Give to everyone who asks you.”[2] I continue to believe that the most profound experience of spirituality was described by Jesus when he said,

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. ... Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’’ [3]

I am reminded of a poem I read once -- it was in the Gaelic, and remembering that when one translates poetry, the only thing that is lost is the poetry, my own inadequate translation goes thusly:


blessing

I have stood in church

listening to the priest

blessing the congregation

and i have made confession

and been washed clean of my wrongs

and cleansed of my mortal sins,

but i have never felt

so blessed

as i did

when a beggar kissed

my hand.[4]


Because as Jesus told us -- he is that beggar that kissed the poet’s hand. That’s why it was such a blessing. I would argue that the bliss and blessedness that the poet felt is part of God’s gift -- He “programmed” us to feel good when we do something good. That is why following the divine will in loving one another and in treating each other with love is not only a good way to behave, but it feels good, too.

Now, I would hope that I would not have to remind members of any congregation about Christmas charity. I would hope, for instance, that the participation of the church in charitable outreach at that time of year (at least) would be a source of pride (albeit, humble) and joy. But what Jesus’ story of Lazarus should remind us of is that toddler in the cradle by the roadside -- that was the baby Jesus. Indeed, that’s what our Lord told us: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”[5]

And just as we need to remember, I would say, that those acts of love are commendable, we also need to remember the lesson in the parable of Lazarus at the gate of the rich man: because the rich man did not do anything inherently evil -- he just failed to do good. “Whatever you did not do for [him], you did not do for me,”[6] as our Lord said.

And that failure -- that sin of omission -- that failure to do enough, earned him a most terrible reward. In contemplating this along with my parishioners, I would hope that we would come to the joint realization that we don’t do enough to fulfill His teachings, and that even though we are tested every day -- sadly, we always fall short. But in this, we’re not irredeemable. We’re in good company, for it was Peter who denied our Lord three times in a single evening: “I do not know him ... I do not know what you are talking about,”[7] only ultimately to be redeemed, as we all are.


[1] John Henry Hopkins, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” (accessed https://www.carols.org.uk/we_three_kings_of_orient_are.htm, 1857).

[2] Luke 6:30 NIV

[3] Matthew 25:35-40 NIV

[4] mìcheal mac an t-saoir, an t-amadan mòr aig an loch [the great fool at the lake] (Reading Girl) 78

[5] Matthew 25:40 NIV

[6] Matthew 25:45 NIV

[7] Luke 22:56-60 NIV

But I Love My Neighbor!

What is the “law of the Lord”[1] that is referenced in the Psalm? “Love your neighbor as yourself,”[2] as Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:39 (drawing from Leviticus 19:18). It’s not enough to say to yourself, Jesus told me to love my neighbor and my enemies, so I love them. But that bum by the side of the road -- he’s just going to spend whatever I give him on drugs and alcohol. That dirty immigrant is stealing my job! That guy with the whatever thing he’s wrapped around his head is a terrorist!

I’d offer you this: Love without action is meaningless. As Jesus teaches us in these examples he left us, love is not a feeling, it is an action. You don’t feel love. You do love. And if you don’t think so, try this thought experiment. A mother loves her child desperately, dearly, with all her heart, so much so that she carries around a picture of the child and talks to everyone she sees about how wonderful the toddler is, how cute, how loving, how darling. But she -- the mother -- doesn’t feed the child, and the baby dies.

Did that mother really love the child?

Finally, you might be asking yourself: What are we to do with all this? First, understand that Jesus is not up in the sky. Indeed, He is Lazarus at the gate of the rich man. He is the beggar woman’s dirty child in the cradle by the roadside, and that is where we find Him, not at the table with the billionaires. He is in our midst, as He reminds us: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

However, answering the question, what are we to do with all this? is not the end of our “job” as His followers, for it is not enough for us to merely understand the message, we must -- as the Psalm says, “sit,” “stand,” and “walk” our faith. And so we should take “delight ... in the law of the Lord ... meditate on his law day and night.”


[1] Psalm 1:2

[2] Matthew 22:39

Bibliography

Apple, Raymond. "The happy man of Psalm 1." Jewish Bible Quarterly 40, no. 3 (July 2012): 179-182. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2017).

Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler. Eds. The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford, England. 2004.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. 1892. Accessed http://www.gutenberg.org/files/834/834-h/834-h.htm.

Harmon, Kathleen A. 2011. "From the beginning to the end: Psalm 1, walking the way toward praise of God." Liturgical Ministry 20, no. 4: 181-183. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2017).

Hopkins, John Henry. “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” 1857. Accessed https://www.carols.org.uk/we_three_kings_of_orient_are.htm,

Mac an t-Saoir, Mìcheal. An t-Amadan Mòr aig an Loch [The Great Fool at the Lake]. Reading Girl. 2015.

Renn, Stephen D. Ed. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 2006.

© 2019 Dr W J Michael McIntyre

Comments

Dr W J Michael McIntyre (author) on July 23, 2019:

Thank you, Paul, for your kind comment.

Paul K Francis from east coast,USA on July 23, 2019:

Your article was a delight to read. It enlightens at the same time as it teaches. Thanks.

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