Whose ‘Blessed’? Five Reflections from the Psalms

blessedBlessingIt’s what every wants, but few know how to get.

In America, we have a certain brand of blessing that has come to be known as the prosperity gospel. You can find its explicit version on TBN and its more subtle form in a Christian bookstore near you. This subtler prosperity gospel comes with invitations to ask God for the impossible and promises to help you break through to the blessed life. In its softer form, the blood of Christ may not be denied; it’s just hidden behind the luggage of the Lord’s blessings.

In other words, instead of centering on the “blessed and only Sovereign” (1 Tim 6:15), this soft prosperity preaching, as Kate Bowler calls it, centers on man and his earthly desires. Lost is a sense of eternal gravitas and the biblical conviction that God created the universe for his glory. What it lacks is a sense of what blessing is and isn’t. We need to let Scripture inform our understanding of blessing, and we need to see that true blessing is radically God-centered.

‘Blessed’ According to the Bible . . . Or, At Least the Psalms

In the Psalms, the word “blessed” is used fifty-one times (ESV). And over the course of the Psalter, it is used in five different ways. While these divergent uses show how manifold God’s blessing is, one theme unites them all—God is the source and sovereign benefactor of blessings. Accordingly, divine blessings are not something we can merely pull down from the heavens. Blessedness is given to the one who is covenant relationship with him. Then, as now, God’s blessings where misunderstood and misapplied. Therefore, we need to let Scripture speak if we are going to understand who is “blessed.”

1. God’s Individual Blessing

Not surprisingly, its most common occurrence comes in reference to the ‘blessed’ individual.  Psalm 1 begins, “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 whose delight is in the law of the Lord” (vv. 1-2). Twenty-one more times, “blessed” is used to describe individuals in a variety of situations: Blessed is the one whose sins are forgiven (Ps 32:1), who is chosen by the Lord (65:4), who dwells near to God (65:4; 84:4-5, 12), and who is taught by the Lord and his Word (94:12; 119:1-2). Additionally, God promises blessing to those who have children (Ps 127:5) and care for the poor (41:1-2). Still, the most recurrent blessing comes to those who cling to the Lord in faith (40:4; 112:2; 128:1-2, 4; 146:5). In the Psalms, personal blessing is not simply related to material prosperity; it is utterly centered on God and his Law. Physical blessings are included but never divorced from him.

2. A Temporal Blessing

This theocentric blessedness (see #1) is most evident by a comparison with Psalm 49:18. In this single verse, the enemies of God are described as experiencing a “blessed” life. Or more exactly, the sons of Korah describe how the arrogant rich man “counts himself blessed,” but in the end dies “never again [to] see light” (49:18-19). The point is obvious, “man in his pomp will not remain” (v. 12). Even under the old covenant, earthly riches were not indicative of God’s judgment. Personal well-being—then or now—tells us little to nothing about our eternal condition. Though a man may judge himself to be blessed, it is not his subjective opinion that matters (cf. 1 Cor 4:4). It is the Lord who judges and the Lord who blesses.

3. God’s Blessedness

God-centered blessing is further underscored by the second largest emphasis in the Psalms—namely, the blessedness of God himself. Sixteen times God is the subject of blessing. Psalm 18:46 reads, “The LORD lives, and blessed be my rock.” Subsequently, the Psalms follow a pattern of blessing God (“Blessed be the Lord”) for a number of particular reasons (see 28:6; 31:21; 66:20; 68:19, 35; etc.). Additionally, the Psalmists bless God at the end of each book in the Psalms (41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48). The only exception is Book V, which concludes with a five-Psalm “hallelujah chorus” (146:1-150:6). Once again, blessedness in the Psalms is manifestly theocentric. The saints of old would be shocked by our twenty-first century drive for God to bless me and mine.

4. Israel’s Blessed King

Another way the Psalms readjust our man-centered views of blessing is see how the blessedness depended on the king of Israel, not solely upon personal obedience. In five passages, it is the king of Israel who is referred to as blessed. For instance, the king is blessed for his royal beauty (45:2); he is blessed because of his sovereign power (72:17); and he is blessed for defeating the enemies of God (137:8-9). In keeping God’s covenant with David, the priestly-king mediated the relationship between God and his people. In fact, in Psalm 2, God’s blessing is directly tied to an individual’s relationship with the king. Thus, anticipating the coming of Jesus Christ himself, the Psalms teach that there is no divine blessing apart from a perfect human king (cf. 1 Tim 2:5).

5. God’s Blessed People

Finally, blessing in the Psalms is not an individual affair. Unlike the kind of individualistic marketing employed by most Christian retailers, the people of Israel knew blessedness to be a corporate affair. Just as it was impossible to think of receiving God’s blessing apart from a human mediator, it was equally inconceivable to receive blessing outside the covenant community. Therefore, five times in the Psalter blessedness is aimed at the nation (33:12; 37:22; 89:15; 112:2; 144:15). Unfortunately, the prosperity gospel of manifest destiny has led many Americans to understand Psalm 33:12 as a particular promise to them. However, in context the blessed nation is Israel, God’s only covenant nation. In application today, the focus must be given to believer’s filled by the Spirit of God, not the United States or any other geo-political entity. God’s blessing is for his Son (Ps 2:12) and all the citizens of his heavenly kingdom.

Are You Seeking the Right Blessing?

When the data is all in, a biblical view of blessing is far removed from what the American church of the twenty-first century considers “blessed.” This should trouble us, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Whenever God leads a people out bondage and into the kingdom of his beloved son, he must eradicate the idols of their hearts. For Israel, God had to pulverize the golden calf with which Israel sought to worship YHWH. For us, it means that God must expose and eliminate the way we use him to get material blessings—money, happiness, success, or personal peace. As YHWH told Israel, he is a jealous God, and he will not let the heart of his people seek blessing in anyone but him. He is the treasure of the gospel. He is the blessing that for which our hearts yearn.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss