"He is a like a tree planted by running water" says more than we realize about the life of faith.
Psalm 1 (New American Bible)
Blessed is the man who does not walk
in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the way of sinners,
nor sit in company with scoffers
Rather, the law of the LORD is his joy;
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted near streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season;
Its leaves never wither;
whatever he does prospers.
Usually, when I go to the psalms, I’m looking for comfort, or for a lesson, or an example of how to pray. That’s perfectly legitimate, but the psalms are poetry, too, which means that the images that support the psalm can show us a new dimension of the truth the psalmist, and the Holy Spirit, wanted to convey.
The first verse shows us what not to do — don’t take the advice of evil men, or keep company with them. But there’s much more going on here. The psalmist could easily have put his point in the positive: “Walk in the counsel of holy men, and sit in the company of the righteous.” He doesn’t though.
In fact, he points out a startling difference between good and evil men. In the first stanza, he’s used spacial images. When he talks about evil men, he uses the language of proximity — walking, standing, and sitting, with sinners. But the blessed man is not just the opposite of the evil man. He doesn’t just keep company with good people. He is radically different.
Instead of simply standing next to what is good, he drinks it up. The law of the Lord is not just before his eyes, it fills his mind; it runs through his veins. A tree planted by a river has constant access to the water that it needs, and it draws that water right up into itself.
Have you ever wondered how a huge tree draws water up from its roots, through its massive trunk, all the way up to every leaf? It has to do with the organism’s xylem cells, which act like a drinking straw. They’re spongy, so they absorb water, and through osmosis, are drawn up, cell by cell, to the every leaf. As water evaporates out of the leaves, more water is sucked up out of the ground to replace it. It’s just like drinking through a straw. The tree really is drinking water.
You want to know the best part, though? Xylem cells are dead. They have to be. If they weren’t dead, they wouldn’t have the room or texture to draw water into the plant.
Here, the psalmist has given us the image of a tree that is robustly alive — it bears fruit, it never withers. It only has life, though, because of these dead cells. Thousands of years later, when Christ comes to us in human form, he says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (Jn 12:24)”
The evil man does not have the capacity to draw evil into his very being. Evil is not the opposite of good; it’s just the absence of good. So you can keep company with evil men, and hurt yourself that way, but evil can never become part of your very being. Goodness, though, can be drawn up into your very veins, if you can be like the tree, like the grain of wheat, and die to yourself, to make room for the source of life which alone can cause you to bear fruit.