This is the final message of three on Psalm 1 and picks up on the issue of prosperity from verse 3. The current popularity of so-called prosperity preaching makes it important for believers to example the true nature of Biblical prosperity. I have attempted to address this issue in today’s message.
The video is below. This is the recorded version of the message and is available for anyone who is unable to attend our live services at Lansdowne.
The notes underneath are a summary (not a transcript) of the message and are sent to those who have no access to the internet.
Psalm 1 is about two ways: God’s way (which is the blessed way), and the other way that ends with perishing. The psalms as a whole are the prayers of God’s people on the narrow way that leads to life as we wait for the King to come.
So, when it says the blessed person “is like a tree planted by streams of water… in all that he does he prospers” (Psalm 1:3), we need to understand what that means.
People want to be successful, we want to better ourselves and do well. We don’t want poverty or trouble. Many preachers today talk about prosperity and define prosperity as success, riches, health, comfort. But we need to test what the Bible says about prosperity.
This is not idle speculation or an exercise just for our minds. Understanding what prosperity is helps us to live. We don’t want to go through life thinking that, whenever trouble comes, God has somehow not kept His promises or that there is something wrong with us. On the other hand, we don’t want to go through life assuming everything will be miserable.
Always having earthly success, riches, health and comfort is not a Biblical view of prosperity. Thinking that God wants us to be miserable all the time is also not Biblical.
So, if we’re going to live faithful, fruitful lives, confident of God’s goodness now and in eternity, we need to understand and believe what the Bible teaches about prosperity.
I) The nature of prosperity
The word used in Psalm 1:3 for “prosperity” is found elsewhere in scripture. Here are some examples where the word is used in a positive sense (it is sometimes translated “success”):
- The success of Abraham’s servant in finding a wife for Issac (Gen 24:21).
- The success of Joseph in the prison (Gen 39:23). There is a prospering in God even in adversity.
- The promise to Joshua that the Lord would enable him to take the promised land (Joshua 1:8) as God had promised.
- It is spoken of Christ fulfilling His mission (Isaiah 53:10) – that He will indeed have a people for His own.
- God’s word prospers – it succeeds in the purpose for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:11).
So, prosperity in this positive sense is fulfilling the purposes of God that God has given to His people (even in adversity, like Joseph). It is not about earthly riches or success beyond those things that God has given us to do.
This is confirmed by the negative references to prosperity (which refer to material riches or human achievement):
- Don’t fret about the wicked who prosper (Psalm 37:7)
- Envy of the prosperity of the wicked (although a different word, Psalm 73:3).
- Why does the wicked prosper (Jeremiah 12:1)?
- The activity of the enemy of God’s people (Daniel 11:36).
So, the words “prosperity” or “success” are not always used positively, which is telling us that true prosperity is more than material wealth. Those that limit “prosperity” or “success” to material wealth and health are showing that they are following the ways of this world and not the way of Christ.
Our understanding of Biblical prosperity is helped by the context. “In all that he does, he prospers” immediately follows the illustration of a tree. How does a tree prosper? By going deep, by growing up and out and by bearing fruit.
While we are on earth, God has called us to bear fruit, the fruit of the Spirit. We are joined to the True Vine (Jesus Christ) and, as branches of that True Vine, we are to be fruitful. And so for the Christian, the person on the blessed way, the definition of prosperity is to grow deep, to grow in maturity and to bear fruit.
Prosperity is seen in bearing fruit even when the outward circumstances are so hard. One of the roots of this word, according to the Hebrew dictionary is to push in, to penetrate into. The Holy Spirit pushes into our lives, penetrates into our hearts and minds and restores and strengthens, even in the midst of disappointment and sorrow and pain and doubt and fear.
Here is an illustration that I have adapted from something that John Piper said: If you see prosperity as merely material success, you might say to your friend, “Look how God has blessed me with this new car.” Is your friend impressed with God because he can get a new car by getting a loan from the bank?
However, if you see prosperity in the Biblical sense of bearing fruit, when the pressure comes, the fruit that grows in your life points your friend to Christ. So imagine your friend sees you by the grave of your loved one, your heart is broken, tears run down your face, for that time of intense grief, darkness surrounds you, and your friend thinks to himself, what good is their faith now? BUT – he watches you through those days, weeks, months and even years, and he sees that, despite the sorrow, there is joy, despite the sadness, there is peace, despite the doubt, there is faith. He sees love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And he has no choice, unless he hardens his heart completely, to say that your God is real. That is true prosperity.
Another picture of a tree is found in Jeremiah 17:5-8. The one who trusts the Lord does not fear when heat comes, is not anxious in the year of drought, does not cease to bear fruit.
We don’t necessarily prosper in the sense of what WE want, but rather in the sense of God-enabled pressing on through difficulty. So, we are like the tree that Jeremiah speaks of – we stay fresh and fruitful, spiritually prosperous in times of great trouble.
II) The principle of prosperity
However, that is not the whole picture. God also works in times when things seem to go well, not just in adversity.
As the blessed person’s roots go into the Lord and His word, as we walk with the One who fulfils this psalm, the Lord Jesus Christ, there should be an expectation of growth. This is the natural overflow, even though there will be times of adversity.
We saw when we were looking at how prosperity is described in scripture that it is prospering in the things that God has given us to do. We are to show the fruit of the Spirit, but we do that through the ordinary activities of life, and scripture encourages us to pray for God’s help and success in these things – in our workplaces and households.
As we live according to God’s word, which enables us to make wise choices and to be a godly example, this impacts all of life, under the providence of God. So, for example, the word of God teaches us to be hard working, honest, respectful employees. And that, within God’s providential purposes, will often bring blessing into our lives.
Another example: many who were saved during the Great Awakening in the past stopped spending their wages on getting drunk and had money for their families, so their families began to do better.
This is a principle, not a promise of freedom from trouble. Being a good employee doesn’t always mean a boss will treat you well. However, because God is so generous, He often uses our obedience to Him to bring good things into different areas of our lives.
To continue with the illustration of work, say you are praying for God to “prosper” you at work by giving you a promotion. If you turn up late every day and you are lazy and hardly do any work, you have no reason to expect Him to answer that prayer for success. Rather the normal means God uses to give success in the workplace is for us to obey Him by doing our work unto Him (Colossians 3:22).
We see a similar idea in 1 Tim 4:8: “…godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
The reason that I’m highlighting this is that the so-called prosperity gospel is not a total lie. There is some truth in it (although it is often mixed with terrible errors, sometimes even moving into heresy). However, the errors of the prosperity movement must not diminish the fact that God is so generous. He gives to us, He provides and meets needs and goes beyond needs, and He often does through our obedience and prayerfulness.
But this is a principle rather than a promise, because His desire to prosper us goes beyond earthly things. He will in His sovereign love even take away or limit material blessing and lead us through difficult circumstances to give us the prosperity that lasts – the greater prosperity of enjoying Himself more and more, of knowing His peace and love and joy, of finding our treasure in Christ alone. We see this finally fulfilled in glory.
So Romans 8:28 is a promise, not necessarily of good earthly things, but of spiritual blessing.
III) The prize of prosperity
While there is a principle that applies to earthly things, it is not the whole, or even the main thing. There is something far greater. In fact, this is the ultimate, final prosperity. This is how Psalm 1 and Psalm 73 go together. The prosperity of the wicked is not ultimate. The righteous may go through seasons where there appears to be no outward prosperity, but that is not the end of the story.
The greatest storm that anyone will go through is to leave this life. The tree of the righteous will be standing with eternal blessing and prosperity while the wicked will be revealed as chaff that the wind drives away.
True prosperity, eternal prosperity, is assured to the person on the right road. The eye of faith sees the prosperous prize – that which we don’t always see on earth, but we will assuredly see in glory.
The eye of faith sees trouble as the means of true prosperity, that takes us off relying on ourselves and leads us to rely on Him, that humbles us, that causes patience to grow, that causes us to see where the true treasure lies.
The eye of faith looks at the cross and sees the empty tomb and sees Christ seated at the right hand of God – that is the destiny, and the trials are part of the blessed way.
The eye of faith looks forward to that eternal treasure that is shining in glory when moth doesn’t destroy or thief break in and steal. It sees that these pressures are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory. It looks to what is unseen and not simply what is seen. It sees prosperity in the crown that the Lord will lay on the head. But more than that, it sees prosperity in the fact of being in the immediate presence of the King, surrounded by His glory.
And He is the prize. To know Him NOW, and to be in glory with Him in His immediate presence, is worth all the riches of the universe because He is the greatest treasure. That is true prosperity and that is the outcome for the man or woman who is on the blessed way of Psalm 1.