Let us dwell a bit further on the contrastive images of the chaff and tree. For their depictions in Psalm 1 do not tell the whole story. Indeed, if we only considered their position within this poem, we might relegate their purpose to a mere rhetorical device to grab and maintain our attention, or perhaps to illuminate for us whether we are on the side of the blessed or not.
However, there is more to the story of these contrastive metaphors when they are contextualized within the greater biblical narrative. Today we want to focus on the relationship of the chaff and the tree between Psalm 1 and Matthew 3:1-12.
In the latter passage, John the Baptist uses both images in his Gospel presentation. In Matthew 3, as John is preaching and baptizing, the religious elites come out to inspect and evaluate his actions. Upon seeing them, John calls them out with the strongest of language. Like with the crowds, John urges them to repent and bear good fruit. If they do not repent of their sins, especially their self-righteousness, God’s wrath will be poured out on them. It is at this moment that John picks up the language of chaff in Matthew 3:12. Those who do not repent and choose to remain in their sin and wickedness are likened to chaff; and as chaff, once the wind has separated the grain from it, such unbelievers will be gathered up and burned. This is an obvious reference to the wrath of God’s judgment (i.e., hell). Since that is the destination of sinners, John’s purpose is to encourage people to repent of their self-centered, self-exalting, self-righteous, consumeristic life.
So John takes up the chaff image of Psalm 1 and applies it to everyone who does not repent. Do you see that? This is a sobering and frightening reality. All who choose themselves over God, who prefer to live for themselves instead of Christ, will perish in God’s fiery judgment.
Did you notice that John also takes up the image of the fruit-bearing tree in verses 8 and 10? The fruit that is good in God’s eyes is a lifestyle marked by repentance. This life no longer seeks to live for him/herself but for God’s glory. This life is a rejection of this world and the embrace of Jesus and His commands. Put another way, a tree that bears good fruit is a life that trusts in Jesus, regardless of our life’s circumstances.
The story of Psalm 1 comes full circle when we realize that our natural starting point is chaff. We all begin life as chaff. This is because of our sin and our life apart from Christ. But when one repents of their sins and confesses Jesus as King, they are instantly changed from chaff to a tree “planted by streams of water.” What follows is a life of continual repentance, a life of continual trusting in Jesus, which in turn bears “fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither.” Jesus takes us from chaff and transforms us into fruit-bearing trees. Praise God!