Psalm 1

Psalm 1:1-6, ASV translation, as prose:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers: but his delight is in the law of YHWH; and on his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also doth not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For YHWH knoweth the way of the righteous; but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Psalm 1:1-6 ASV according to Hebrew parallelism (as marked in BHS):

Blessed is the man / that walketh not / in the counsel of the wicked
Nor standeth in the way of sinners / nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers.
But his delight is in the law of YHWH / and on his law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree / planted by the streams of water
That bringeth forth its fruit in its season / whose leaf also doth not wither
And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The wicked are not so
But are like the chaff / which the wind driveth away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment / nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For YHWH knoweth the way of the righteous / but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Psalm 1 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter of 1650:

1 That man hath perfect blessedness,
who walketh not astray
In counsel of ungodly men,
nor stands in sinners’ way,

2 Nor sitteth in the scorner’s chair:
But placeth his delight
Upon God’s law, and meditates
on his law day and night.

3 He shall be like a tree that grows
near planted by a river,
Which in his season yields his fruit,
and his leaf fadeth never:

4 And all he doth shall prosper well
The wicked are not so;
But like they are unto the chaff,
which wind drives to and fro.

5 In judgment therefore shall not stand
such as ungodly are;
Nor in th’ assembly of the just
shall wicked men appear.

6 For why? The way of godly men
unto the Lord is known:
Whereas the way of wicked men
shall quite be overthrown.

As we begin our study of the Psalms, let us consider these different ways of looking at the same text. When we see the Psalm as unbroken prose we may see the substance and the theme but cannot as clearly see many of the poetic features. When we break up the Psalm into appropriate parallel versets we can see the poetic features in a bit better relief but they remain foreign to our ears. I include the Scottish Metrical Psalter recognizing the limitations of a 365 year old project but in order to show the poetry in a way more familiar to us English speaking types. If the Psalms will be effectively put to song it will look quite like the Scottish Metrical Psalter with updated language.

Psalm 1 as Poetry

Psalm 1 features all the hallmarks of a wisdom psalm and an elaborate poetic composition. The first word of the Psalm begins with aleph and the last word with tav, from “A to Z” in English terms. Psalm 1 is organized according to A B A’ B’ order (Psalm 1:1-3 A, Psalm 1:4-5 B, Psalm 1:6a A’, Psalm 1:6b B’). Psalm 1 features the inclusio of the “wicked”, beginning with the righteous avoiding the way of the wicked and ending with the overthrowing of the way of the wicked. Psalm 1:1-2 also maintains an anaphora of triple negative and then triple positive declarations.

The imagery of Psalm 1 is quite striking. The predominant image is that of the way or journey: a sharp, clear choice between the “way” of righteousness and the “way” of the wicked. We can perceive the warning in movement in Psalm 1:1: not to walk with wicked, not to stand with sinners, not to sit with scoffers, with each level denoting ever greater comfort and association with ever more depraved and terrible persons. In addition the Psalter uses agricultural imagery: the righteous as the healthy, prosperous tree and the wicked as the chaff, the refuse blown away when grain is thrown in the air, thus, the unhealthy, unprofitable plant.

Psalm 1 in Context and Canon

Psalm 1 is generally and rightly seen as a wisdom psalm.

Psalm 1, and in fact the whole book of Psalms, begins without any sort of superscription; since antiquity Psalms 1 and 2 have been understood as part of the “bookends” of the Psalms, providing an introduction to the entire corpus.

Psalm 1 contrasts the fortunes of the “righteous” and the “wicked.” The righteous man is blessed and made prosperous by YHWH because he delights in and meditates upon the torah of YHWH; he does not maintain association or connection with the wicked. The righteous are commended highly in Psalm 1:1-4; the Psalter then makes a sharp and emphatic contrast in Psalm 1:5, declaring that while the righteous prosper, it is “not so” with the wicked. The righteous are an ever fruitful tree planted by water; the wicked are as the chaff that blows away and will not endure. The wicked will not stand in judgment or be able to participate in the community of God’s people in Psalm 1:5. The conclusion of the matter is seen in Psalm 1:6, the point to which the whole Psalm points: YHWH knows the way of the righteous, for it is the way He has prepared for them; the way of the wicked will perish.

The focus on the two “ways” emphasizes the choice put before the people of God as individuals and as a collective: the “way of the righteous,” based in YHWH’s torah, and the “way of the wicked,” which is opposed to God’s torah.

There are no strong contextual markers upon which to declare that Psalm 1 is pre-exilic, exilic, or based in the Second Temple period. Some have tried to reconstruct a first Temple context for Psalm 1 but it does not seem to have any special cult-functional purpose. The focus on torah and the “community of the righteous” may denote a Second Temple period setting in the synagogue as exhortation toward faithful torah living, especially if there is movement from Temple to Torah from the First to Second Temple period.

The canonical purpose of Psalm 1 is more clear: it opens the Psalter. The presence of a robust wisdom psalm to begin the Psalter may seem surprising in light of the Psalms’ purpose as praise and giving a voice to the people of God to make petitions and declarations to YHWH. Yet perhaps that is the point: Psalm 1 begins the Psalter to warn the reader, hearer, or petitioner to remain firmly grounded in YHWH’s torah. Psalms and Torah are not in competition with one another; the Psalter in fact goes out of his way to make the Psalms parallel to Torah, compiling a fivefold collection of Psalms just as there are five books of Torah. The wicked will find no solace in the Psalms; there will be no avoiding or getting away from the demands of Torah. The people of YHWH should sing the Psalms but continue to serve YHWH according to Torah. Likewise, Psalm 1 can be seen as the door or gate for the rest of the Psalms, in terms of protecting the Psalter’s collection from the taint of heresy and as a continued warning, in light of Israel’s history, of trying to substitute liturgy for obedience.

We may not be able to ascertain the specific time of the writing of Psalm 1 but its placement dates to the Second Temple period as the Psalter finally compiled the Psalms as we now know them. Psalm 1 is deliberately placed to exhort the synagogue community to righteousness through delight in and meditation upon torah as found in the Pentateuch and likely in the Psalms and Prophets as well.

Psalm 1 Throughout History

It did not take long for early Christians to see Jesus as the embodiment and illustration of the “righteous” in Psalm 1. Jesus came to fulfill the Torah according to Matthew 5:17-18, and thus exemplifies the Righteous One who lived by YHWH’s instruction. Likewise, to delight in YHWH’s torah is to delight in His Word, the Logos, that is, in Jesus as the embodiment of God’s instruction to humanity.

Exegetes like Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine saw connections between Psalm 1 and Exodus 3 in terms of the revelation of YHWH: as YHWH is Being and the Source of Life, to be known by YHWH is life, and to be unknown to Him is death.

Many focused on the contrast between the righteous and the wicked and used it as a paradigm for other similar contrasts, especially in the days of the Reformation and beyond. In light of James 1:22-25 it could be contrasted with the one who does versus the one who just hears, or one who actually loves God while another just loves to learn, or the godly person seeking to serve YHWH versus the humanist scholar who pursues learning for learning’s sake. Among the Puritans Matthew Poole declared that the life of the faithful must start with trust in the Creator which is to lead to obedience to the Savior and then praise in the Holy Spirit; thus, Psalm 1 invites the reader toward trust in the Creator and imitation of the Righteous One so as to be able to proclaim the praises inspired by the Spirit throughout the Psalms.

In hymnody the chorus of “I Shall Not Be Moved” is drawn from the tree image of Psalm 1:3 (and has been coordinated with many different types of verses, even for secular purposes):

I shall not be moved
Like a tree planted by the water
I shall not be moved

Psalm 1 Today

The substance and exhortation of Psalm 1 is timeless: everyone is confronted with the two ways. We can either follow the way of God’s instruction, participate with the people of God, and share in the prosperity which God will give all of His people, or we can follow the way of the wicked, sit in their counsel, and perish along with them. The choice seems obvious, and it should be. Yet the people of God need constant reminder and exhortation to delight in God’s instruction and meditate upon it; thus Psalm 1 remains ever relevant.

We must not be moved from YHWH’s instruction in Christ, but we must first make sure that we are firmly rooted in YHWH, delighting in His instruction, meditating on His precepts, and actually doing that which YHWH has commanded. Let us be firmly anchored in God in Christ and continue to devote ourselves to His instruction!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Psalm 1

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