The end of the school year is almost upon us. And every student knows what that brings… exam season. Think of all the different exams we take in our lives. High schoolers take AP Exams, college students take finals, and plenty of professions require you to take some sort of board exam — health care, counseling, law, teaching, finance, etc. Those in the military live a life full of exams and evaluations. Even buying a house or renting an apartment requires a credit check, essentially a financial health exam one has to pass. Exams and evaluations are expected and normal in so much of life, simply because tests are meant to reveal where we stand.

What about our lives as a whole? How often do we hold up our desires and loves, our actions and attitudes, and examine them? How many of us live an unexamined life, just doing what everyone else does, or just going through the motions? In Plato’s Apology Socrates famously says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Almost all of us have taken some sort of exam, but have we stopped to examine our life as a whole?

Psalm 1, and really the entire book of Psalms, calls us to examine our lives in light of the most foundational truths of the world, so we can become steadfast and flourishing people. In fact, the psalm, and the Psalter, examine us under three headings: a choice, a chance, and a change.

1 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;

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

and on his law he meditates day and night.

3 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.

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 knows the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.

First, a choice. The six verses of this psalm divide rather neatly into two halves. Verses 1–3 speak of the way of the righteous, while verses 4–6 cover the way of the wicked. The writer presents these two paths in words that paint a picture of flourishing down one path and perishing down the other. What sounds better to you? Flourishing or perishing?

Start with flourishing. Verse one begins, “Blessed is the man.” This idea of “blessed” communicates the idea of happiness that flows from a sense of well-being, rightness, and wholeness — things being as they should be. This idea shows up when Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. There we find the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” etc. (Matt. 5:3a, 6a).

Interestingly, the writer starts in Psalm 1 with the things that those who flourish do not do. Slow down and notice the poetic progression: “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” (v. 1). Did you see the slippery slope? The wicked, the sinners, the scoffers — these are different words for those whose hearts and lives are against God, moving away from God, rebelling against God. Why will the one flourishing not walk with the wicked, sinners, and scoffers? Because walking will lead to standing, and standing will lead to sitting. You may have thought it was going to be a brief stroll with disobedience, and then all the sudden you are stuck, sitting, immobilized in all of your brokenness. Those who are blessed know better than that. They don’t start down the path of disobedience. They don’t even touch it.

What do they do instead? Verse two tells us: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The one who flourishes has a North Star, a principle, a norm outside himself or herself. The righteous one has a standard, a direction, a gift from God — his Word — and with that, an understanding of what a good life looks like. The picture of flourishing continues in verse three: “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.” Notice the words that speak of prosperity: fruitful, productive, growing, leaves that don’t wither. The path of flourishing leads to something like this.

In contrast, the path to perishing is not compared to a steadfast and flourishing tree but to chaff. Verse four tells us, “The wicked…are like chaff that the wind drives away.” In a psalm written to an agricultural society, this image of chaff means so much more than it does to us today. When wheat or grains are harvested, there’s the kernel, the part that nourishes you, and then there’s the chaff, a wispy, thin, grassy part. A farmer has to separate the two. The chaff really has no weight, no resistance, so farmers throw the harvested grain in the air. The heavier kernels fall to the ground, and the wind simply blows the chaff away. Verse four asks us to choose — do we want to be a person of weight and substance or a person of flightiness and triviality?

Verses 5–6 make it clear that the psalm is developing all this for reasons of putting an eternal choice before us, not simply a here and now choice. In the psalmist’s worldview, there is not only this life, but there is a judgment to come, one in which the grain and the steadfast tree will stand, and the chaff will be blown away, will perish.

If we are being honest, both the path to flourishing and the path to perishing can seem really good now, but only one is everlasting. Chaff does grow, and it grows quickly. It does flourish at first. In fact, a tree grows more slowly than chaff. But faster is not always better. As the old saying goes, “slow and steady wins the race.” If we choose the “slow and steady” path, we will have the chance to examine ourselves. And here’s the thing about exams — they force us to deal with reality, the way things truly are.

For example, I could tell you that I am great at calculus, truly gifted, a bit of a prodigy. Differential calculus, integral calculus, multivariable calculus, fractional calculus, you name it. But the reality is that if I took a calculus exam, the exam would reveal that my entire knowledge of calculus is contained in the last sentence. Failing a calculus exam would not be devastating for me, though, since I do not need calculus in my vocation as a pastor. However, there are exams that really matter for us, and when we face those exams, it changes how we live. Those in the military have to take a physical fitness test regularly, and this regular examination effects how servicemen and women eat and the time they spend working out. Those who want to pass the driver’s license exam have to spend time studying and learning behind the wheel.

What about the exam in Psalm 1? Notice we don’t set the standard — verse two speaks of delighting in God’s law. Verses five and six say, “The wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous.” It is the Lord that does the judging, and his law is the standard. We don’t set the standard.

If I set the standard for a calculus test, it would have two questions: “How do you spell ‘calculus’?” and “Name two different types of calculus.” I would get an A+ on that exam. But such an approach would be silly when it comes to setting the standard for my life. Yet this is what I do. I tell myself, “I’m not doing that bad. I’m doing better than him.” I grade myself on a curve. I allow for excuses: “I snapped at my wife and kids, but I had a long day at work,” or, “They failed my standards so that excuses my poor treatment of them.” We are terrible at setting a standard and holding to a standard — terrible.

We will be examined; there will be judgment. The Lord knows everything about us, so there’s no sense in pretending or hiding or posturing.

You may think that’s all made up, that this claim of a future judgment is just a way priests and pastors have endeavored to control people. Consider this question if that is your reaction: Why is there a somewhat universal human instinct for justice, for fairness? When we see the terrible things of our world, we want justice. Why? Maybe because there really is an objective standard of justice by which we will all be judged one day. Even if the knowledge of it is somewhat dulled, the truest truths of the universe are still there, still imprinted, even if dimly, on our hearts.

If we simply evolved, then morality wouldn’t even exist as a concept; the word “fair” wouldn’t even have meaning. As Alfred Lloyd Tennyson said, “Nature is red in tooth and claw.” Instead, the universal human instinct for justice is there because it reflects the deeper, foundational truth of the world, that there is such a thing as a just judgment at the end.

What happens when God’s law examines us? We fail. When the standard is an expression of God’s perfect righteousness, a laying out of the truly right way to live before God and man, none of us can pass. Every one of us has plenty of shame, regret, and secret things we wouldn’t want exposed to others. Things that, if we admitted them, if they came to light, we’d be gutted. We’ve all failed the test.

That’s why we sing songs like, “All I Have is Christ.” In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul writes an amazing and audacious statement: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” When we are all examined, and we fail — as we surely do — there’s a cost to that. Our failure is our sin, and sin has a penalty. No human being can pay our penalty for us because we each have our own to deal with.

Except one. Jesus, God incarnate, came to live the perfect life you and I should have lived, and in so doing, he passed the test, he passed the examination, perfectly. As God the Father declared, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17b). Yet that same Jesus ended up on the cross, crucified, bearing our sin so that we, who deserved to be there, are spared. And not just spared but given his perfect righteousness.

Psalm 1 gives us a choice and a chance to examine ourselves. If we’re honest, more times than we care to admit we have chosen poorly. We have chosen the path to perishing. Yet Psalm 1 gives us a chance to examine ourselves and see our need for the grace found in Jesus as it points us to our hope for change.

Jesus gives us his righteousness, his being right with God, when we come to him. But he also starts to do something in us, to make us different people. He starts to form us, to shape us, to grow us. He makes us new, not just someday, but right now. Colossians says we are conformed more and more into the image of Christ, our Savior (Col. 3:9-10).

In other words, life starts to become different. We stop being chaff, and we start actually becoming that righteous tree. Even though we struggle, we start becoming different.

Have you ever thought about why God gave us his law? Why does he tell us we should do some things and not other things? Is he just a great big killjoy? It can seem like that sometimes, because, honestly, I’m prone to love the wrong things. I’m prone to want to be chaff. I think it’s what I’m made to be, that it’s my most authentic self.

But the psalm says it’s not. You were made for more. God doesn’t want us to be people of nothingness, blown about by the cultural and emotional winds that will scatter us if we’re chaff. He doesn’t want us to be people of scoffing and mocking, leaving a trail of destruction. He wants us to be flourishing and fruitful people.

And the wisdom of this psalm shows us how. Look again at the tree. Why does the tree flourish? Because it works so hard? Because all of the effort it exerts? Because it’s a really gifted tree?

No! The tree flourishes because it’s by the river. It is close to the living water. Its roots are being nourished constantly. Delighting in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night — that’s how our roots find the nourishment we need.

Psalm 1 urges us to become a people of the Word more and more every day. It calls us to slow down and make time and space to be formed by God’s Word. That’s how he changes us. That’s how he steadies us. There is no secret or shortcut. He’s given us his Spirit, and only as we are nourished by him through the living water of the Word will we become firmly rooted trees — trees that bear fruit in every season because we delight in the Lord and are truly blessed by him.

Rob Yancey is the lead pastor of Capital Presbyterian Fairfax in Fairfax, Virginia. He has served previous churches in family ministries, missions, and outreach. He and his wife, Liz, also spent 8 years serving in South Africa where he was an Area Director for Campus Outreach Johannesburg. Originally from North Carolina, Rob earned his undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and completed his Masters of Divinity with Reformed Theological Seminary in 2014. Outside of church, Rob enjoys concerts at the 9:30 Club, fly fishing, cheering on his North Carolina Tar Heels, and relaxing with a game night with Liz and their two boys, Ben and Will.

Meet Rev. Rob Yancey