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Psalm 1: Two Ways of Life

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Some Thoughts on Psalm 1

Its Place as First in the Psalter

The various Psalms which now comprise the book of Psalms were written over a period of 1000 years by various authors. It has been generally recognized that the Psalms can be broken down into 5 general groupings or books on the basis of “seam” psalms: 1) 3-41; 2) 42-72; 3) 73-89; 4) 90-106; 5) 107-150. It is possible that the “seam” psalms (i.e., 41, 72, 89, 106) suggest that the purpose for the organization of the material (i.e., all 150 psalms) centers on David and the Davidic covenant, as well as how people respond to Israel’s national disasters in light of the covenant God made with David.1

Psalms 1-2, which are obviously not in our list here as part of the five books proper, stand at the front of the Psalter as an introduction to Israel's worship songs. It seems that there is some evidence from both Jewish and Christian sources to indicate that Psalm 1 and 2, though distinct compositions in their own right, were at some time in the past joined together, and stood as the first psalm of the Psalter.2 In any case, they make a fitting entrance to this material. Psalm 1, a wisdom psalm, demonstrates that the way to happiness is through a life well lived according to the guidelines set down by the Lord, and the way to destruction is to lead an evil, lawless life—a life in disregard of Torah. King David was the perfect example of the righteous person envisioned in Psalm 1. Psalm 2 speaks about God’s enthronement of his king and the futility of the nations to thwart it. Obedience is required. So Psalm 1 focuses on obedience no matter what is happening all around one (a wisdom approach to life), and Psalm 2 focuses on trusting God to fulfill his promises of justice on the earth some day by installing his king (a prophetic approach to life). David was the perfect example of God’s king. Christ is the ultimate example, par excellence, of what this psalm envisions (cf. Acts 13:33) and the final fulfillment as well.3

Now, let’s turn our attention to a more detailed look at Psalm 1. Mortimer J. Adler, in Ten Philosophical Mistakes, makes the astute observation that “people generally espouse the mistake made by most modern philosophers—that happiness is a psychological state rather than an ethical state, i.e., the quality of a morally good life.”4 Psalm 1, in its presentation of an ethically upright lifestyle, has much to say about the nature of true happiness.

Its Structure

The psalm can be broken down into three distinct yet related parts: 1) the way of the righteous (1-3); 2) the way of the wicked (4-5); 3) the final word on the two lifestyles (6). There is also the possibility that there may be a deeper chiastic structure (AB-B’A’): A = 1-2, B = 3/ B’= 4, A’ = 5. Further, the final verse seems to be structured chiastically as well: A = “the Lord watches over,” B = “the way of the righteous/ B’ = “the way of the wicked,” A’ = “will perish.” In this structure “to perish” means not to have “the Lord watching over.”

Comment on the Psalm

    I. The Way of the Righteous (1-3)

1:1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, who does not stand in the place of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers.

The psalmist says that a person is blessed if he does not do one kind of thing, but instead does another. The person who wants to be blessed must not walk the road of those who rebel against God, have no fear of him, and constantly consider themselves above Him and his Law. No, instead a person who wants to be blessed must live wisely in his relationship with YHWH, delighting in and meditating on the Torah (i.e., obeying it). The person who follows the way of the wicked will experience God’s judgment, while God watches over and preserves the righteous man.

“Blessed” or “blessed is the man” is a formulaic statement/pronouncement found on numerous occasions in the psalms and three times in Proverbs (3:13; 8:34; 20:7; 28:14). It is always used in connection with people and not God. This is the kind of blessing one experiences as he/she lives a righteous life in the context of his/her relationship with God, not the priestly blessing. Four passages in the psalms use the term/phrase in ways similar to Psalm 1:

Psalm 89:15 says: “Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord. Psalm 94:12 speaks about blessing and obedience to the Law: “Blessed is the man you discipline, O Lord, the man you teach from your law.” The same idea is found in Psalm 112:1: “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who finds great delight in his commands.” Finally, Psalm 128:1 also connects the idea of blessing with one’s “walk”: “Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways.” The bottom line, then, in each of these passages and in Psalm 1, is that blessing is for those who live a certain way. They are happy, not as the result of feeling a certain feeling (which may refer more to contentment), but because they have lived life well, that is, according to Biblical truth.

The reference to does not walk, does not stand, and does not sit is probably not a reference to increasing sinfulness, per se, since the lines are synonymously parallel, but is intended instead to cover some of the various possible scenarios in life wherein one can be tempted to follow sinful people in their attitudes and actions.5 These are the kind of people who take counsel with themselves in the abundance of their own wisdom and scoff at the word of God and have no place for those who live according to it.

1:2 But in the Torah of Yahweh is his delight and on his Torah he meditates day and night.

The psalmist now gets to the positive quality and action of one who is blessed. This person delights in the Torah and meditates on it day and night.

The reference to the Torah of YHWH could refer to just the Mosaic Law or to the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). At a later time it came to refer to the entire Old Testament. It is probable here, though, in the context of the psalmist’s discussion of the ethics of the wicked and the righteous, that what he has in mind is any and all instruction given by God to benefit men by guiding him in the proper course of life. It is a law that has certain demands, i.e., one cannot live like sinners, but it is also very freeing for it arouses pleasure and delight in the one who meditates on it.

The term delight occurs some 126 times in the Old Testament with several slightly different nuances. It can indicate something as precious or valuable, as for example in the case of the stones for the walls of the future Zion predicted by Isaiah (54:12); they will be precious stones established by the Lord himself. The land of Israel is said to be a delightful land as a result of the rich and exorbitant blessing of God in Malachi 3:12. It can also refer to a person’s longings and desires: 2 Samuel 23:5 provides an interesting parallel to our passage in Psalm 1. David is giving his last words before his death and he contrasts himself with wicked men. He says that God has made an everlasting covenant with him which He will fulfill in every detail, but wicked men will be set aside. He says that God will bring to fruition his salvation and grant him his every desire. The term can also refer to YHWH’s delight, good pleasure, purpose, or will (Is 46:10). Further, it can also refer to a person’s business or work (cf. Prov 31:13). In the context of Psalm 1 the term has the obvious connotations of “delighting and enjoying” God’s law so much that the person meditates on it day and night. This is not so much something that the psalmist feels he has to do as much as it is something he loves to do. He has chosen not to go down the path of the wicked, but instead to go down the path of meditation on God’s truth.

The term meditates in our culture often conjures up the idea, associated with eastern mysticism, of some kind of dreamy revelry or incantation. This is not the point at all, but rather meditation means to think about the instruction God has given for life with a view to understanding it and allowing it to shape one’s thoughts and actions. It is hard thinking about God and his ways and what he desires of us. It may well involve the process of reciting the portion being meditated upon until one knows it by heart so as not to forget it. A good illustration of the principle of meditation can be seen in Joshua 1:8. God says to Joshua to meditate (same Hebrew word as used in Psalm 1) on the book of the Law so that he might be careful to do everything written in it (cf. James 1:22). And this, of course, is the same point that the psalmist is making; think on God’s words, understand them, remember them, and live by them. Meditation, the writer says, is to be done day and night. That is, it is never to cease. The sect of the Jews living at Qumran felt that incessant meditation on Torah was very important, as the following words make plain:

(6) And in the place where the ten are, let there not lack a man who studies the Law night and day, (7) continually, concerning the duties of each towards the other. And let the Many watch in common for a third of the all the nights of the year, to read the Book and study the law (8) and bless in common6 (1QS 6:6-8a).

How are we doing in our meditation on God’s word? It is difficult, but here are a few suggestions: 1) start with a psalm or a paragraph of scripture; 2) read through the passage repeatedly until you can basically work your way through it from memory, i.e., without looking at the passage in the Bible; 3) summarize the main point of the psalm and try to fit each verse into that main point; 4) summarize principles from the psalm; 5) think through how the various truths in the psalm might apply to you; 6) ask God to help you apply a particular truth to your life; 7) apply the truth to your life and watch the difference God can make!!!

1:3 But he shall be like a tree transplanted near streams of water—a tree which gives its fruit in its season and whose leaves do not wither. All that he does prospers.

For the one who takes delight in the Torah of YHWH, who meditates day and night on it and shapes his/her life by what is found, there is prosperity, here envisioned as a tree which yields its fruit in season. Jeremiah used a similar expression in his discussion of the blessed man (see Jeremiah 17:7-8). The reference to the idea of a tree which is transplanted, rather than just “planted” may indicate divine favor in the bringing of the person from a place of barrenness to a place of blessing. The streams of water probably refers to artificial irrigation channels which secured a continuous source of water for vegetation. A tree deliberately placed near this water source would as a matter of course produce fruit. It is inevitable that it should prosper. As Craigie correctly points out, the simile of the tree and the righteous man makes clear that the blessing on the righteous is not a reward, but is part and parcel of living a life within the revealed will of God.7 The person who is blessed will bring forth fruit in season—not necessarily immediately upon being planted—and when circumstances get difficult (as many of the psalms indicate that they do) they will not perish and wither away. The blessing in their experience is evidenced not necessarily monetarily or externally, but by the strong character of their lives and the presence of God.

The point of the simile, then, is to give a picture of the blessedness of the person who turns away from ungodly counsel and lifestyles and turns instead to a life with God based on the Torah. All that he does prospers in the sense that God blesses his life as a life directed by Torah.

    II. The Way of the Wicked (4-5)

1:4 Not so the wicked who are like chaff that the wind blows away.

In contrast to the blessed state and strong character of the righteous stands the character and plight of the wicked. The Hebrew term for wicked here, myuvr probably refers to those who live their lives outside of covenant relationship with YHWH and evidence this in their animosity toward God and his people (e.g., Num 16:26; Ps 12:8). It involves the distinction between those who serve God and those who think that such a lot in life is futile: God, speaking through Malachi, says: “And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.” Finally, the term can refer to gross acts of sin and wickedness or simply to a life characterized by wanton disregard for God and his law.

The wicked are like chaff that the wind blows away. The psalmist has in mind the practice of winnowing grain which is tossed into the air; the chaff is blown away in the evening wind and the grain is left to fall to the threshing floor and gathered. Chaff pictures the light and useless character of the wicked and the fact that God will deal with them easily.8 This is clearly brought out in the following verse. We must be careful to think seriously about the nature of wickedness and wicked people and what their outcome will be. This will be a theme developed at length in the rest of the Psalter and one that deserves serious consideration.

1:5 Therefore the wicked will not rise up in judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

One of the biggest interpretive problems in this verse concerns the meaning of judgment. Craigie suggests that the term refers to the “important areas of human society. . . the pursuit of justice and government.” In these areas, he says, the wicked will not be recognized.9 This would mean, of course, that there is no future aspect to the term in Psalm 1 and that the judgment is purely human, involving societal affairs. Others, such as A. A. Anderson understand the term to refer to God’s judgment, including both present manifestations of it, as well as its future consummation when the wicked will be fully and completely dealt with.10 Because the writer says (i.e., in verse 6) that the way of the wicked will perish, not just the wicked themselves, and because wicked people do corrupt government and society, we understand the latter interpretation to be much more likely with an emphasis on the eschatological aspect of God’s judgment. The statement, then, that the wicked will not rise up or stand means that they will not endure God’s judgment in the end. But it is a judgment that YHWH has already begun, for the psalmist can already see God separating the wicked from the righteous like chaff from wheat (v. 4).

The reference to nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous indicates that just as sinners will not endure God’s judgment so they will not ultimately be found in community with the righteous. God is in the process of separating between the righteous and the wicked now and will some day completely judge all the wicked and remove them from among the righteous. In the context of the Psalter as a whole the final righteous community will be Messiah’s community where all unrighteousness will be quickly and permanently done away with (cf. Ps 2).

There is only one way to be a part of the righteous community of Messiah and that is by attaching oneself to Messiah. The New Testament writers unequivocally referred to Jesus as the promised Messiah and that there is salvation in him and no one else (see John 14:6; Acts 4:11) and that it comes through faith in him (John 5:24; 1 John 5:11-13). Have you trusted Christ as your Savior?

    III. The Contrast Completed (6)

1:6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of sinners will perish.

How is it that God can ensure the presence of a community of righteous people who know the “Torah” and keep it, and who separate themselves from those who have refused to obey YHWH? The answer is because he knows the way of the righteous, but the way of sinners will perish.

How is it that the psalmist can say that God knows the way of the righteous and seem to imply, at the same time, that he does not know the way of the wicked? Obviously, for the psalmist, God knows everything, so that what he means by knowing entails more than just mental assent to a fact. In that case he knows both the way of the righteous and the wicked. What the psalmist means, however, is that God is involved in caring for the righteous and enabling them to obey him and bear fruit. We saw that in the case of the tree in verse 3 which was deliberately transplanted and placed near a fresh water source. In a similar way, Jesus said God was a gardener who helped his children bear fruit (15:1-11; see also Phil 2:12-13). So God knows the way of the righteous in that he promotes their lives in accordance with his revealed will. This he does not do for the wicked.

Concerning the wicked, Anderson says:

Since the godless have no regard for the Law of God, God cannot have a real regard for their way, because the Law is the God-given guide to his people, and consequently those who reject that guidance also repudiate God’s concern for them, and thereby they cut the very ground from under their own feet.11

Conclusion

Several principles for life can be garnered from this portion of God’s word. First, the psalmist says that there is a place where one can live where there is blessing. We do not all have to live without the sense of spiritual well being in our lives. Unfortunately, most of us do not really believe this to be true. Either we demand more from God than he has promised us in the present life (we want heaven now, immediately) or we ask him for nothing, believing all the time that our lot in life is to endure this present existence. But, if we sought to obey him we would find a sense of his presence hitherto unknown in our experience (cf. John 14:21).

Second, there is a place of blessing and spiritual vitality, but it does not come without a cost. If Jesus had to pay a cost to walk with God in this world, then so will we (cf. e.g., Heb 5:7-8). He said, “take up your cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23). The cross was an instrument of suffering and death. The cost in this psalm involves turning from sin and those who lure us into it. This may lead to our being ridiculed at some level, whether it be only mild on the one hand, or sometimes even intense on the other. Persecution may result, but it is the price of blessing and walking with God according to his revealed will. Paul said that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).

There is also the cost of not doing what we want, but when there is a conflict, doing what He commands instead. While there is a sense in which his commands are not burdensome for those with the Holy Spirit (1 John 5:3), they are nonetheless demands, that we struggle with at times—commands which involve our dying to ourselves so that others may live (cf. John 12:24). We do this in emulation of our savior who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45; 2 Cor 4:5). The more our society is committed to the preservation of self, the more difficult it is to convince ourselves that God’s will, not our own, is the way to blessing. God help us.

Third, as Christians we need to be meditating on the truth of God as often as we can, day and night if you will (cf. Col. 3:16). Again, scripture memory is exceedingly helpful in this regard. The more we meditate on God’s truth the more we delight in it. The less we do so, the less we enjoy it. We are not just referring here to knowing a lot about the Bible. Such a goal is rather easy to accomplish. We are, instead, talking about thinking hard about the truth of God and how it applies to my life. The goal of meditation is to know God better and to apply his word to our lives. This reaches well beyond just knowing facts about the Bible. It calls us to trust the God of the Bible.

Fourth, growth in character and righteousness takes time. The psalmist says that the tree will bear fruit in its season, perhaps not right away. We have to be patient and continue to maintain an honest and pure heart as well as commit ourselves to doing what is right. Paul said it this way: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” The harvest Paul is referring to is a harvest of righteousness.

Fifth, there is a cost at the present time for those who engage in wickedness and there will be a cost to pay in the future as well. At the present time men and women do experience the wrath of God as Paul discussed in Romans 1:18-32. In the future men and women who have not trusted Christ as savior will be permanently separated from God. The good news in the book of Romans and indeed the entire NT is that God’s wrath has been completely satiated by the sacrifice of Christ and anyone who trusts in Christ can be forgiven for his/her sin and moved out from under the judgment of God into the sphere of his blessing.

Finally, for those who love the Lord and want to live a life pleasing to him, they need to know that God is the one who will keep them to the end and present them in his presence blameless and free from accusation (Jude 24-25). Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). We know that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”


1 For more information on the structure, background, purpose, etc. of the Psalms, see Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 274-285.

2 Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. John D. W. Watts, vol. 19 (Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1983), 59.

3 For further comment on the nature and placement of the first two psalms, see Leopold Sabourin, The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning (New York: Alba House, 1974), 371-72.

4 Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Collier Books, 1985), 131.

5 This is not to say that there is no difference in the degree of sin outlined in the three descriptions, but only that the point has more to do with the various circumstances in which one is tempted to sin. For a different view see Sabourin, Psalms, 372.

6 A. Dupont-Sommer, The Essene Writings from Qumran, trans. G. Vermes (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973), 85.

7 Craigie, Psalms, 61.

8 See Allen P. Ross, “Psalms,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1:791.

9 Craigie, Psalms, 61.

10 A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms: 1-72, The New Century Bible Commentary, ed. Ronald E. Clements, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 62.

11 Anderson, Psalms 63.

Related Topics: Sanctification