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Cottonwoods and Tumbleweeds

Date: June 16, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Image of a compass on a wooden table.

Scripture: Psalm 1

Scripture reader: Alan M.

When I was six, my family moved from our little brick house on 2nd Street to a 1953 ranch house on Ohio Street, on the other side of town. On the back fence, right outside my bedroom window, there was a rosebush which had stopped blooming for some reason.

About a year and a half after we moved there, the creek behind our house flooded. It didn’t get in the house, but it did knock down a substantial amount of the back fence, so my dad had to replace it. Before he could do that, he wanted to get rid of the rosebush that didn’t bloom. So he cut it down to the ground, then dug around the root and pulled it out of the ground with a chain attached to his pickup. Then he put the new fence up.

But apparently he didn’t get the whole root, because the next spring that rosebush grew back! He had pulled it out below where whatever kind of hybrid rose it was had been grafted onto the root stock, though, so when it grew back it had completely different flowers on it. That rosebush grew along the new fence for all the years we lived there, clear up until my parents sold the house when I was in college.

There are lots of things in nature that the psalmist could have used as an image to describe the righteous, like that rosebush in my backyard, or even a dandelion—a weed that is very difficult to get rid of, because of its deep taproots and abundance of seeds that spread on the wind. But what the psalmist chose was the image of a tree planted beside a water source.

The Bible came out of a land that was pretty dry. In that kind of climate, most native plant life is shallow-rooted and short-lived. A good, hard rain will cause an arid landscape to green up and bloom profusely, but only for a very short time, only until it dries out again. But where there is a water source, there may be healthy, tall trees that stay green even when it’s dry.

Out in what the earliest maps called the “Great American Desert,” in places like the prairies of central and western Kansas, there aren’t too many trees growing naturally—meaning trees that are native, that grow without human tending. There were so few trees in the days when the first white settlers came to the Kansas prairies that they built their houses out of sod, burned dried buffalo chips to cook over, and cut limestone out of the ground for fenceposts.

But the settlers learned fairly quickly that water could be found wherever there were some trees, most commonly the hardy cottonwood, Kansas’ state tree. Cottonwoods put down roots that are able to tap into not just the streams they grew near but also the ground water, and they stay green when everything else has pretty much dried up.

A lot of Christians don’t think too much of Psalm 1. It seems, at least at first reading, to be a psalm in praise of the Law, a psalm that would be a favorite of the Pharisees that had a running argument with Jesus throughout the Gospels. (I think we Christians unfairly caricature the Pharisees as joyless and rigidly legalistic.) We define ourselves as exactly the opposite of the Pharisees, as set free from legalism, saved by grace through faith, not by our works and our ability to keep every one of the 613 laws that are found in the Old Testament.

The first Psalm, which praises the person who delights in the Law and meditates on it day and night, can’t possibly have anything to say to us, right? It’s an illustration of the old order which we do not have to follow, right?

We’ll come back to those questions after we look a little harder at the psalm itself.

The tree beside a stream is the image the Psalmist uses to describe what a righteous person is like. It’s green, healthy, well-nourished even in drought.

The Psalm then shows us the opposite, the wicked, and gives us another image to describe them. Instead of a tree with deep roots, they’re like chaff that the wind blows away. If the Psalm had been written in the American west, the image might have been different. The Psalmist might have described the wicked as being like tumbleweeds—no roots, no connections, no anchor, just balls of dry vegetation that blow around, drifting from here to there, always in motion, never settling down.

That’s pretty much what the Psalm says: the righteous are like a tree that is being nourished because it has put down roots near a source of abundant water; while the wicked have no such nourishment and just blow away.

And what is it that defines the righteous people? “Their delight is in the Law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.”

Psalm 1 is thought by most scholars to be the introduction to the whole Psalter, which is organized into five books—and that number is meant to remind us of the five books of the written torah, the Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Psalm 1 is a song in praise of the torah life, the life formed and framed by God’s Law. But we Christians are immersed in Paul’s words about the Law being useful only to make us aware of our sin, that we will turn to Christ, who redeems and sets us free from sin. We have been taught that Jesus abolished the Law, as it says in Ephesians 2:15; so what use is Psalm 1 to us? Is it even for us?

The problem is, we don’t fully understand what the Law, torah, is. Actually, “Law” isn’t even the best translation for the word torah; more properly translated, it means “instruction.” And that instruction isn’t a long list of rules we must obey in order to be righteous. The written Torah, the first five books of the Bible, do contain a lot of rules, to be sure: rules that governed everything from what people ate to how they treated their slaves and their land, not to mention how they were to treat their neighbors, including foreigners living among them. But that’s not all they contain. They also include the stories that form the collective memory of the Jewish people—as well as part of the collective memory of Christians: how God created the heavens and the earth; the Garden of Eden and how Adam and Eve came to be cast out of it; the Flood and the Ark; the saga of the ancestral family, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and their sons, including Joseph; Israel’s slavery in Egypt and how God delivered them from that slavery; Moses leading the people through the wilderness after they came out of Egypt.

There are a few songs and some poetry in there, too.

Torah is not just rules; torah is the instruction of God. And the Jewish people believe there’s also an oral torah, the interpretations of rabbis and scholars and others down through the ages. So a better way of understanding what the first Psalm means when it says the righteous “delight…in the law of the LORD” is this: “their delight is in being instructed, guided, directed by God; and day and night they keep God’s ways and God’s guidance on their minds.”

There’s another problem with the first Psalm. The final word on the righteous, before the Psalmist turns to the tumbleweed-like character of the wicked, is this: “In all that they do, they prosper.”

Really? Righteous living makes us prosperous?

I’m sure you know folks who work hard and play by the rules, who delight in living God’s way, who are quite poor. And I’m sure you know at least a few folks who are plenty wicked, but who are also quite wealthy.

If this is the case, then is Psalm 1 even true?

Well, it turns out that Psalm one doesn’t quite mean the same thing as we do when it speaks of the righteous “prospering.” Nor does the Psalm define “wickedness” in quite the same way we might. If “righteousness” is defined as a willingness to learn from and be guided by God and God’s Word, then wickedness is an unwillingness to learn from or be guided by God and God’s Word. Throughout the Psalter wickedness is defined not as breaking the rules, but as autonomy—a person being a law unto themselves, the captain of their own ship, who doesn’t have to listen to anyone else, not even God.
Psalm 1 says people like this will dry up and blow away, like chaff, like tumbleweeds. This isn’t really about an eternal reward we receive someday, at the last judgment. What the Psalm describes is the immediate, natural consequence of living a wicked life. A person who relies on their own abilities, their own wisdom, their own ability to make their own decisions, has nothing else to draw on when those prove inadequate.

So what does the Psalm mean when it says that the righteous prosper in all that they do?

When we moved into that house on Ohio Street, there were 28 trees in the yard. It was a big lot, to be sure; but 28 trees is still a lot of trees. Many of them were maples, and my dad took several of them out as soon as we moved in. But in our backyard we also had a big pin oak, two sycamores, and yes, a cottonwood.

Cottonwoods, as Native Americans knew and as the early settlers in Kansas learned, live where there’s water, and they put down deep roots that allow them to flourish even in dry seasons. But there’s something else about cottonwoods.

We were sitting in our house one night, riding out a terrific thunderstorm, when there was a horrible noise from the backyard. Our cottonwood tree, which was not the tallest tree in the yard, had been hit by lightning—for some reason, cottonwoods tend to be lightning magnets. There were two burn marks down the side of it where the electric current in the storm had gone to ground.

After a time the bark between those marks came off, and a scar formed. But the tree lived. Being crowded by a huge sycamore and too many maples didn’t kill it, and neither did lightning.

Of course I have no idea whether it was the deep roots of the cottonwood tree that kept it from being killed when lightning struck it. The Psalmist, who had no knowledge of modern science, might say that was the case, and it would well illustrate the point of the Psalm.

“In all that they do, they prosper.”

As we explore the Psalter this summer, we will discover that there are several different types of Psalms. There are Wisdom Psalms, like Psalm 1; there are hymns, like the one we will look at next week. There are several other types; but the type of Psalm that appears most frequently is the Lament.

A Lament is, as you’d imagine, a complaint and a plea for God’s help from someone in a desperate situation. If “in all that they do, they prosper” were true as we think of it, there would be no need for Laments, because righteous people would never have any trouble or find themselves in desperate situations.

The point isn’t that a person who delights in God’s torah, God’s Word as written in Scripture, as spoken by prophets and preachers and teachers and others, and as made flesh in Jesus Christ, never has any problems and their life is just one long upward march toward health, wealth, and wisdom. The point is that as we become deeply rooted in the Word of God, in the Scriptures, and in Jesus, we aren’t protected from the universal human reality of suffering; but we will have deep and eternal resources to draw upon so that we can withstand whatever suffering we face, just as a tree with deep roots can find life-giving water even in the driest seasons.