[With this article I begin a new series of short, daily meditations on selected Psalms.]
In most instances I like to leave myself a little theological wiggle room, a loophole, if you will, a measure of flexibility that affords me the opportunity of qualifying some statement that I've made. In fact, it's often the failure to provide nuance and clarification to our declarations that gets us in trouble or boxes us in to a position that on more mature reflection clearly calls for less inflammatory language or more charity to those who might take a different stance.
I say this only to prepare you for something Jonathan Edwards declared in a remarkable sermon entitled, "Nothing upon Earth can Represent the Glories of Heaven." It is utterly lacking in nuance. Its boldness is breathtaking and its ramifications are profound. And it provides a perfect introduction to our series of meditations on selected psalms. Said Edwards: "God created man for nothing else but happiness. He created him only that he might communicate happiness to him" (Sermons and Discourses 1723-1729, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 14. Edited by Kenneth P. Minkema [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997], pp. 145-46).
Would you have preferred that he not say "nothing else" but happiness? Or would it have been easier to swallow had he chosen a word other than "only"? Well, that's Edwards for you.
I'm convinced that once we understand what Edwards meant by "happiness" and how our experience of it relates to the glory of God, objections will cease. By happiness Edwards didn't mean giddiness or frivolity or fame or fortune. Few of the things that constitute happiness for people today were in view when Edwards wrote and preached this sermon.
Let me define the term by appealing to what I wrote in Chapter One of my book One Thing (Christian Focus).
When I speak of human happiness I'm not talking about physical comfort or a six-figure salary or emotional stability or the absence of conflict or sexual gratification or any such earthly or temporal achievement. That's not to say such things are inherently wrong. In their proper place they may well be expressions of divine benevolence. But we greatly err if they become foundational to human happiness. We should be grateful for them, but happiness is still within our grasp despite their absence.
The happiness for which we are eternally destined is a state of soul in which we experience and express optimum ecstasy in God. Happiness is the whole soul resting in God and rejoicing that so beautiful and glorious a Being is ours. Happiness is the privilege of being enabled by God's grace to enjoy making much of him forever (Piper). I'm talking about the ineffable and unending pleasure of blissful union with and the joyful celebration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a joy of such transcendent quality that no persecution or pain or deprivation can diminish, nor wealth or success or prosperity can enhance. It's what Paul had in mind in Philippians 4:11 when he spoke of a satisfaction in Christ that was beyond the reach of either adversity or abundance.
In another of Edwards' sermons (actually, the first formal sermon he ever preached), he put it this way:
"The pleasures of loving and obeying, loving and adoring, blessing and praising the Infinite Being, the Best of Beings, the Eternal Jehovah; the pleasures of trusting in Jesus Christ, in contemplating his beauties, excellencies, and glories; in contemplating his love to mankind and to us, in contemplating his infinite goodness and astonishing loving-kindness; the pleasures of [the] communion of the Holy Ghost in conversing with God, the maker and governor of the world; the pleasure that results from the doing of our duty, in acting worthily and excellently; . . . these are the pleasures that are worthy of so noble a creature as a man is" ("Christian Happiness" in Sermons and Discourses 1720-1723, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 10. Edited by Wilson H. Kimnach [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992], pp. 305-06).
I've gone to the trouble of making this point because I believe this is what the psalmist had in mind when he wrote of being "blessed" (Ps. 1:1a), a word that occurs 26x in the psalter. In fact, Psalm 1 begins with word "blessed" and God's prescription for its attainment. Look with me at the first three verses.
"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; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 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."
Believe it or not, happiness or blessedness can be found in something negative! There is joy in saying No! But to whom or what do we respond with a resolute No? According to the psalmist, it is to the counsel of the wicked (a reference to what we believe), the way of sinners (a reference to the way we behave), and the seat of scoffers (a reference to the place we belong).
The psalmist speaks of the "counsel" of the wicked, not their "error" or "falsehood". They are often careful to cast their system of thought and their advice for life in ways that initially appear wise and coherent. But there is a fundamental flaw in their thinking and their values are warped. Happiness is contingent, therefore, on discernment.
Sinners have a "way" that, again, often appears clever and insightful on first glance. Rarely do the wicked exert an influence by taking on the overt barbarism of a Jeffrey Dahmer or a Saddam Hussein. More often they are quietly pragmatic in their methods, morally slippery in their lifestyle, and cool (rather than openly resistant) towards any notion of biblical authority.
Yes, there are those who are more explicit and unashamed in their denial of the faith. These are the "scoffers," the "mockers," seen most recently in the brazen atheism of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation).
The psalmist is not suggesting that we cease to engage them in dialogue, far less that we decline to pray for their conversion. But beware of too close association with such folk. Be wary of lingering long in their presence. Don't be a party to their parties.
But simply saying No to the ways of this world is only half the prescription for happiness, and not even the better half. When our No stands alone and isolated, our resolve to rejoice in God will gradually erode under the incessant force of temptation and trial. God's prescription for our happiness (to his glory) is dependent on a Yes to the beauty and splendor of his Word.
We can't afford to stop with detesting the ways of the world. We must "delight" in the "law of the Lord"! Refusing to eat the food of folly and wickedness will not in itself fill our spiritual bellies. We need the meat of God's Word, the balanced diet of the whole counsel of God. That feast awaits us in the next meditation.
Saying Yes to saying No,