Between Trees and Chaff

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on [the Lord’s] law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

Psalm 1 (NRSV)

Psalmist, I struggle to see things as your poem sees. Sometimes I wish for either–or camps like trees and chaff that are as clear as day to tell the law delighters apart from the wicked. I often root for the good to prosper. I hope for God’s careful attention in the lives of the righteous.

But I think of Paul, a law delighter who ended up doing wicked things out of his dedication to God. Countless Christians have followed in his footsteps, using the law of the Lord to exploit, oppress, neglect, marginalize, shame, or otherwise harm others. So convinced that they’re right and righteous in what they’re doing, they have veered completely off course in their righteousness pursuits.

I think of those who have walked in counsel aimed at wickedness without knowing it. A prime tool in wicked counsel’s toolbox is deception. Counsel that conceals its untrustworthiness can pull numerous people into bad decisions and actions against their better judgment.

I think of the person that Jesus’s disciples saw doing good work who wasn’t an official follower of Jesus, and of Jesus’s response, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). I think of those who live lives that reflect the love and justice of God, though they may not profess faith or belong to a religious community devoted to God.

I think of the times in scripture when God manages to make something good out of people’s wrongs. I think of when wickedness is not left to stew in its own wickedness but is transformed and redeemed.

I think of the times in this world when those who do wicked things look more like prosperous trees and law delighters like blown about chaff. When those with power wield it to dominate and harm others and maintain their powerful positions, and those who advocate justice, equity, and care for the most vulnerable get mowed down like grass.

And I wonder if any person could truly don the law delighter mantle when constant meditation on the law of the Lord seems like a luxury available only to the well-to-do, the educated, the ones who have been handed higher positions in the social hierarchy. I wonder where this image leaves all the people whose days and nights revolve around just trying to survive.

And so I struggle.

But maybe you did too.

Maybe your world looked a lot like the one I’m a part of. Maybe your poem is a future tense watercolor, not a present tense photograph. Maybe you expected the simple duality of trees and chaff to conflict with what your hearers saw all around them. Maybe you wrote into the struggle.

Because maybe the point is not to parse out who is a tree and who is chaff.

My eyes keep returning to the trees beside the flowing water. Out of habit, I stare at each tree to discern its truth, as if its height or bark or leaves hold the key to finding happiness in faithfulness to God. But when I call to mind lessons learned from nature shows, documentaries, and scholars concerned with creation care and climate justice, I notice the soil intertwined with and stabilizing the trees’ roots. I notice the spaciousness of invisible air that interacts with their leaves. I notice the waters that hydrate their trunks and branches. I notice the sunlight that helps produce their energy. I notice the nearby plants, pollinators, decomposers, insects, and other living creatures, some way too small for me to sense, that play a part in the trees’ health and well-being. Your trees are not just trees. They are a living, breathing ecosystem.

In your metaphor, the scene I had conjured up shifts. A whole community engaged in the work of law delighting comes into view. Members supporting one another and sustaining a life of faithfulness together. People working together to discern the law of the Lord. Each person contributing in different ways to a communal way of life with God in which all can thrive by thriving together. An ecosystem.

You may have had a larger message in mind when you composed this poem. You may have turned to trees and chaff to draw your hearers’ attention to the waters and wind, elements visited by God’s presence and filled with transformative power again and again since the very beginning in scripture. The community involved in law delighting may have been a given for you and your people.

For now, especially right here and now, with all the health, economic, social, and climate emergencies closing in, with countless lives present and future at stake, and with so many people decrying the organic ties that bind our lives together as a freedom-stifling curse instead of a gift, I’ll just sit under the trees for a while. I suspect they have plenty more to teach me.


A piece on Psalm 1, one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Sunday, May 16, 2021

Sources that have inspired my reflections on nature and creation in this post include: David Attenborough’s Planet Earth (2006) and Planet Earth 2 (2016) video series; Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba’s Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (InterVarsity, 2012); and Ellen F. Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2008), among others.

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version

Featured image of “Trees and Path” is by Dave Hoefler on the Unsplash website,