Book 1 (Psalms 1–41)
Book 1 consists largely of psalms spoken by David individually, rather than by Israel as a nation. They address matters that concern David, personally, and this makes them applicable to the situations we face at work on our own. Later books bring in the social and communal aspects of life and work.
The two opening psalms establish themes that run through the entire Psalter. Psalm 1 describes personal integrity, indicating that this is how every reader should live. It specifically applies this to work and to our desire for success. It says of the righteous, “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” (Psalms 1:3). Work done ethically tends to prosper. This is a general truth and not an infallible rule. Sometimes people suffer because of acting ethically, at work or elsewhere. But it is still true that people who fear God and have integrity will likely do well. This is both because they live wisely and because God’s blessing is upon them.
Psalm 2 focuses on the house of David. God has chosen this kingdom and its temple, Zion, to be the focus of the kingdom of God. Someday Gentiles will submit to it or face God’s wrath. Thus, Psalms 2:11–12 says, “Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling, kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.” Jesus fulfilled the promises to David. For us, the lesson is that we must value Christ’s kingdom above all things. A good work ethic is valuable, but we cannot make prosperity our priority. We cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24).
After Psalms 1 and 2, Book 1 has many psalms in which David complains to God about his enemies. These psalms can be difficult for readers today since David sometimes sounds vengeful. But we should not miss the fact that when foes are around him, he commits the problem to God. He does not take matters into his own hands.
These psalms have application to the workplace. Frequently conflicts and rivalries will appear among people on the job, and sometimes these fights can be vicious. Occupational battles can lead to depression and loss of sleep. Psalm 4:8 is a prayer about personal enemies, and it says, “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” When we commit a matter to God, we can have tranquility. When we are in the midst of such a battle, however, our prayers for help may seem futile. But God hears and responds: “Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping” (Psalm 6:8). On the other hand, we must be careful to maintain our integrity when in the midst of such conflicts. It will do no good for us to call out to God if we are being mean, dishonest, or unethical on the job. “O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, if I have repaid my ally with harm… then let the enemy pursue and overtake me… and lay my soul in the dust” (Ps. 7:3–5). Psalm 17:3 makes the same point.
Psalm 8 is an exception in Book 1, as it does not pertain specifically to David. Its concern is with all human authority, not only David’s rule. Although God created the entire universe (Ps. 8:1-3), he chose to appoint human beings to rule over the creation (Ps. 8:5-8). This is a high calling. “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Ps. 8:5-6). When we exercise authority and leadership, we do so as God’s delegates. Our rule cannot be arbitrary or self-serving, but must serve God’s purposes. Chief among these are caring for the creatures of the earth (Ps. 8:7-8) and protecting the weak and vulnerable, especially children (Ps. 8:2).
If we gain authority in work, it is tempting to regard our position as a reward for our hard work or intelligence and to exploit our authority for personal gain. But Psalm 8 reminds us that authority comes not as a reward, but as an obligation. It is right that we should be accountable to superiors, boards of directors, trustees, voters or whatever earthly forms of governance we serve under, but that alone is not sufficient. We must also be accountable to God. Political leaders, for example have a duty to pay attention to the best environmental and economic science available when considering energy policy, whether or not it accords with current political winds. Similarly, business leaders are called to anticipate and prevent possible harm to children —whether physical, mental, cultural, or spiritual—from their products and services. This applies not only to toys, movies, television, and food, but also to retailing, transportation, telecommunications, and financial services, among others.
The Psalter says a good deal about workplace ethics. Psalm 15:1 and 5 say, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?…[Those] who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.” If we allow that interest is not necessarily prohibited in the contemporary context (see “Does the Bible Prohibit Charging Interest?” at www.theologyofwork.org), the application of this Psalm is that we are not to take advantage of others in the workplace. Loans that put distressed borrowers into greater debt would be an example, as would credit cards that intentionally entrap unsavvy cardholders with unexpected fees and interest rate escalations. In an expanded sense, any product or service that targets vulnerable (or “innocent”) people and leaves them worse off is a violation of the Psalter’s ethics. Good business ethics—and its counterparts in other fields of work—requires that customers genuinely benefit from the goods and services offered to them.
Psalm 24:4–5 adds to this that God accepts “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.” The falsehood described here is perjury. As in the modern world, so also in the ancient world, it was difficult to be involved in business without sometimes getting ensnared in lawsuits. The passage moves us to testify honestly and not pervert justice by fraud. When others are unscrupulous, our honesty might cost in lost promotions, business transactions, elections, grades and publications. But in the long run such setbacks are trivial in comparison to God’s blessing and vindication (Ps. 24:5).
Ethics also comes to the fore in Psalm 34:12–13: “Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.” This could refer to any kind of deceit, slander or fraud. The reference to “many days to enjoy” simply points out that if you swindle people or slander them, you are likely to create enemies. In extreme cases, this could lead to your death at their hands, but even if not, life surrounded by enemies is not enjoyable. If life is your chief desire, trustworthy friends are far more profitable than ill-gotten gain. It is possible that a life of integrity will be costly in worldly terms. In a corrupt country, a business person who does not give bribes or a civil servant who does not take them could be unable to make a steady income. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” the Psalm acknowledges. “But the Lord rescues them from all,” it adds (Ps. 34:19). Working with integrity may or may not result in prosperity, but integrity in God’s eyes is its own reward.
Psalm 20 teaches us to trust God rather than human power, such as military might. “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God” (Ps. 20:7). Financial assets, no less than military assets, can be the basis for a false faith in human power. For that matter, we should recall that in the ancient world only the upper class soldiers would have horses and chariots. The ordinary soldiers would be drawn from the peasants and be on foot. It is a disturbing reality that even modest wealth and power often draw us away from God.
“The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). If we trust God, we have the tranquility of knowing that God watches over us, like a shepherd watching over the sheep. This is a reminder to see our work from God’s perspective—not primarily as an instrument for our gratification, but as our part in God’s mission in the world. “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake” (Ps. 23:3, emphasis added). We work to honor him and not for our own glory—a powerful reminder that we need to hear on a regular basis.
Such a godly perspective on our work generally drives us into our work more deeply, not away from it. In Psalm 23, we see this in the way the narrative of the Psalm is driven by the details of the work of shepherding. Shepherds find water, good grazing and paths in the wilderness. They ward off predators with sticks and staffs, and comfort the sheep with their words and their presence. Psalm 23 is first of all an accurate representation of the shepherd’s work. This gives it the grounding in reality needed to be meaningful as a spiritual meditation.
While we seek to honor God in our work, this does not mean the road will be easy. We sometimes may find ourselves in the “darkest valley” (Ps. 23:4). This could come as the loss of a contract, a teaching assignment that has gone bad, or feelings of isolation and meaninglessness in our work. Or it could come as a longer-term struggle, such as a toxic office environment or inability to find a job. These are things we’d prefer to avoid. But Psalm 23 reminds us that God is near in all circumstances. “I fear no evil for you are with me” (Ps. 23:4a). His work on our behalf is not hypothetical, but tangible and real. A shepherd has a rod and staff, and God has every instrument needed to bring us safely through the worst of life (Ps. 23:4b). God will take care of us even in a sometimes-hostile world, “in the presence of my enemies” (Ps. 23:5). It is easy to remember this when things are calm, but here we are called to remember it in the midst of the challenge and adversity. While we would often rather not think about this, it is through the challenges of our lives that God works out his purposes in us.
Psalm 23 concludes by reminding us of the destination of our journey with God. “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (Ps 23:6b). As in Psalm 127 and elsewhere, the house or household is not only a shelter where people eat and sleep, but the basic unit of work and economic production. Thus, dwelling in the house of the Lord does not mean waiting until we die to so that we can cease working and receive our reward. Rather it promises that the time is coming when we will find a place where our work and life can thrive. The first half of the verse tells us directly that this is a promise for our present lives as well as eternity. “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Ps. 23:6). The promise that God will be with us, bringing goodness and love in all of the circumstances of our life and work is a deeper kind of comfort than we can ever get from hoping to avoid every adversity that could befall us.
Human life is a series of choices, and many of these involve vocation. We should develop the habit of taking all such decisions to God. Psalm 25:12 teaches, “Who are they that fear the Lord? He will teach them the way that they should choose.” How does God teach us the way to choose? Psalm 25 notes several ways, beginning with “Make me to know your ways, O Lord. Lead me in your truth, and teach me” (Ps. 25:4-5). This requires reading the Bible regularly, the primary way we get to know God’s ways and learn his truth. Once we know God’s ways, we need to put them into practice without needing special guidance from God in most cases. “The paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness for those who keep his covenant and decrees” (Ps. 25:10). His covenant and decrees are found, of course, in the Bible.
“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions,” adds Psalm 25:7. Confessing our sins and asking God’s mercy is another way we receive guidance from God. When we are honest with God—and ourselves—about our sins, it opens the door for God’s guidance in our hearts. “Pardon my guilt,” and “forgive all my sins” the psalm asks (Ps. 25:11, 18). When we are forgiven by God, it frees us to cease trying to justify ourselves, which otherwise is a powerful barrier to God’s guidance. Similarly, humbleness in our dealings with God and people gets us beyond the defensiveness that blocks God’s guidance. “He leads the humble in his way,” Psalm 25:9 informs us.
“My eyes are ever toward the Lord,” continues the psalm (Ps 25:15).We receive God’s guidance when we look for evidence about the things God cares about, such as justice, faithfulness, reconciliation, peace, faith, hope and love. (The psalm does not name these particular items—they are examples from other parts of the Bible.) “May integrity and uprightness preserve me,” says Psalm 25:21. Integrity means living all of life under a coherent set of values, rather than, for example, being honest and compassionate with our families, but deceitful and cruel with our customers or co-workers. Thinking clearly about how to apply our highest values at work thus turns out to be a means of God’s guidance, at least to the degree that our highest values are formed by scripture and faithfulness to Christ.
Although these means of guidance may seem abstract, they can be very practical when we put them to use in workplace situations. The key is to be specific in our Bible study, confession, prayer, and moral reasoning. When we bring our actual, specific work situations to God and God’s word, we may find God answering with the specific guidance we need. For more about God’s guidance in relation to our vocation or calling in work, see “Discerning God’s guidance to a particular kind of work” in Vocation Overview at www.theologyofwork.org.