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Psalm 1 Biblical Commentary:
This is a wisdom psalm, calling people to follow the path of righteousness to obtain the blessings that God confers on the righteous.
This psalm has a good deal in common with Proverbs 2:12-15, 20-22 and Jeremiah 17:5-13, both of which contrast the blessed condition of the righteous with the wretched condition of the unrighteous.
PSALM 1:1-3. THE GODLY PERSON
1 Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stand in the way of sinners,
nor sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in Yahweh’s law.
On his law he meditates day and night.
3 He will be like a tree planted by the streams of water,
that brings forth its fruit in its season,
whose leaf also does not wither.
Whatever he does shall prosper.
“Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stand in the way of sinners,
nor sit in the seat of scoffers” (v. 1).
“Blessed.” Modern translations often use the word happy instead of blessed. Both translations are legitimate, but blessed seems preferable because of its religious connotations. Blessedness is a gift of God. We use happy more broadly––often in ways that are profoundly secular and often contrary to biblical standards.
Note the progression of the verbs. The first is walk, which seems somewhat casual or relaxed. Then we have stand, which is more deliberate and fixed. Last, we have sit, which suggests that the person has settled into a particular way of life.
Verse 1 defines the Godly person in terms of what he or she does NOT do:
• The blessed person “doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked.” He/she neither seeks nor follows the advice of those whose lives manifest their rebellion against God.
Resisting such people can be difficult, because wicked people often couch their advice in ways that look quite attractive. Furthermore, they often wield power, and are prepared to use it against those who defy them. However, their advice is likely to lead to destruction. Jesus calls us to the narrow, difficult road that leads to life rather than the wide, smooth road that leads to death (Matthew 7:13).
• He/she doesn’t “stand in the way of sinners”––those whose actions have displeased God and who are subject to God’s wrath.
The word stand suggests a continuing posture. While the word way can mean a path or road, the psalmist uses it metaphorically to refer to the person’s lifestyle or system of values.
All of us must rub elbows at some point with people who live wanton lives. The trick is to keep moving, so that we don’t absorb their values, join in their wanton activities, or give the appearance of approving their lifestyle.
• He/she doesn’t “sit in the seat of scoffers.” Scoffers express profound contempt––in this case for God, godly people, and godly ways. When they find an opening to do so, they are likely to move from expressions of contempt to active resistance to Godly people.
In times past, standing in opposition to God and godly people was sufficiently unpopular that only hard core scoffers would persist in their resistance. That is no longer the case. The media often feel compelled to take issue with godly people and godly values wherever they might appear. Television programs and movies seldom portray the Christian faith in a positive light, and often mock Christian people and their way of life. While that is in many ways tragic, it does create an environment where a Christian finds it easy to stand out in opposition to the culture.
“but his delight is in Yahweh’s law.
On his law he meditates day and night” (v. 2). While verse 1 outlines what the godly person does NOT do, this verse outlines what he or she DOES.
• The blessed person delights “in Yahweh’s law” (Hebrew: torah). While we have come to identify torah with the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), that word also means teachings or instructions. The blessed person loves to learn about God and God’s expectations.
While we can easily understand how a person might devote him/herself to following God’s law, we find it more difficult to understand how a person could love God’s law. God’s law often calls us to do things that we don’t want to do, such as loving our enemies (Matthew 5:43). It also serves to constrain us from doing things that we might like to do, such as committing adultery.
However, Psalm 19 speaks of God’s law with great affection––and in terms that we can readily understand:
• God’s law “is perfect, restoring the soul.”
• It is “sure, making wise the simple.”
• It is “right, rejoicing the heart.”
• It is “pure, enlightening the eyes.”
• It is “true, and righteous altogether.”
• God’s law warns the faithful of dangers that they can then avoid.
• In keeping God’s laws, the faithful obtain great rewards.
That last line is key. In keeping God’s laws, the faithful obtain great rewards. Are those rewards the natural product of keeping God’s laws, or does God confer a blessing on those who keep his laws. Both are true. God has structured things so that virtue produces its own rewards. God also often adds rewards as a gift to those who are faithful.
We have heard stories of people whose lives have been turned around in a positive way when they began to follow God’s law and to seek God’s will. I remember the story of a workman whose fellow workers were scoffing at his newfound faith. One of them said, “You don’t really believe that Jesus turned water into wine, do you?” The man replied, “I don’t know if he turned water into wine, but I do know that in my house he turned beer into furniture.” If you happen to be one of the people whose life has been turned right side up by newfound faith, you can appreciate how the psalmist could delight in God’s law.
• “He meditates day and night” on God’s law. If we truly love something, we are likely to study it in detail and try to master it. That’s true of sports fans, woodworkers, golfers, hunters, and devotees of classic cars. They not only study those things, but also spend irrational sums of money in their pursuit. I knew a man whose passion was covering every possible surface in his home with Formica. He also loved working on his 1957 Chevy. His family saw little of him after dinner, because he was passionate about his hobbies.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that a person who delights in God’s law would meditate on it day and night.
“He will be like a tree planted by the streams of water,
that brings forth its fruit in its season,
whose leaf also does not wither.
Whatever he does shall prosper” (v. 3). In this verse, the psalmist outlines the various blessings that the faithful person experiences by devoting him/herself to God’s law:
• A tree planted by a stream of water is truly blessed, because water is always in easy reach. The tree can be assured of bringing “forth its fruit in its season,” because it always has water. In like manner, its “leaf also does not wither.” Life is easy for trees that have a dependable water supply.
So it is with the person who loves God’s law, meditates on it, and seeks to follow it. God’s law helps him to avoid many of life’s pitfalls and sets his feet in positive directions. It comforts him when life is difficult. It nurtures his soul.
Also note that the Godly person “brings forth…fruit in (his/her) season.” The Godly person doesn’t just take in nourishment, but also produces Godly fruit. That fruit will have a seasonal character. It won’t appear every day or every month. I knew a pastor who served a church for ten years with an attendance of ten or twelve people. Then people began to get the message, and the church prospered for the several decades remaining in his ministry.
Sometimes we won’t be privileged to see the fruit. We plant a seed and another waters it, but God will bring the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6)––often at a time when we will not see it. My fantasy is that, in heaven, God will reveal to us the fruits of our labors in his behalf. I am confident that we will be in for pleasant surprises.
• “Whatever he does shall prosper.” We must be careful here, because we have known faithful people who have not prospered. In fact, many devout and godly people have been martyred for their faith. I prefer to regard this sort of statement as hyperbole––exaggerated language to make a point.
But I would be remiss if I failed to note that Godly people often do prosper as a direct result of their faithful lives. My church history professor used to talk about Quakers, who worked hard, developed reputations for honesty, and lived simply. He noted that their lifestyle was a prescription for growing rich. While the Quakers might not have had the accumulation of wealth as their goal, many did become quite wealthy as a direct result of their Godly lives.
It is also true that a Godly person who tries to live according to God’s will can expect to avoid many common pitfalls that ruin other people. They are also more likely than most to live in harmony with their neighbors and to waste less time, energy, and money on frivolous things and unnecessary worries. Godly virtues won’t always lead to wealth, but they are likely to lead to a blessed life.
PSALM 1:4-5. THE WICKED
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like the chaff which the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
“The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind drives away” (v. 4). When harvesting grain by primitive methods, the farmer ends up with a pile composed of three parts:
(1) The seed or grain itself, which is the valuable part of the plant.
(2) Straw, a useful byproduct that can be used as animal feed or bedding.
(3) Chaff (the husks of the seed, but not the bran), is not only useless, but it also requires extra effort to remove it.
In Jesus’ day, the farmer separated the three parts by throwing the harvested grain in the air in the presence of a breeze. The grain, being the heaviest part of the plant, would settle to the ground. Straw, the next heaviest, would blow a short distance away, where it could be collected. Chaff, being quite light, would blow further away and would neither be collected nor used.
When the psalmist says that the wicked are like chaff, he is saying that they are worthless and doomed to the fate of those who are of no value.
Jesus’ portrayal of the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46) and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) portray the fate of such people. In neither of those examples does Jesus limit condemnation to gross sinners, such as Hitler or Stalin or the Mafia. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus portrays the condemnation of those who fail to help those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, or in prison. In the Lazarus story, he portrays the condemnation of a rich man who ignored the desperate need of a beggar (Lazarus) at his doorstep.
Other scriptures (Matthew 3:7-10; John 3:16-17, 36; 1 Corinthians 3:11; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Revelation 20:11-15) state additional criteria, but none offer hope for those who are merely good citizens. Jesus said that the first commandment (in order of importance) is loving God. The second is loving our neighbors. He said, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40). To face Judgment Day with assurance, we need to insure that we love God and our neighbors––in that order.
“Therefore the wicked shall not stand (Hebrew: qum) in the judgment” (v. 5a). The idea of a final judgment is found in both Old and New Testaments (Amos 5:18–20; Zephaniah 1:14-15; Malachi 3:1-7; 4:1-5; Matthew 10:15; 11:22, 24; Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 3:13; 2 Corinthians 1:14; Philippians 1:6, 10; 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4; 2 Peter 2:9; 3:7; Jude 6; Revelation 6:17).
The Hebrew word qum means stand. In this instance, it means stand as contrasted with fall. The psalmist is saying that, while Godly people will stand successfully the trial of judgment, the wicked will fall––will be convicted––will be subject to punishment.
“nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (v. 5b). It is only appropriate that the righteous should not be saddled with sinners as neighbors. The Day of Judgment will separate sinners from the righteous forevermore.
PSALM 1:6. HEADER
6 For Yahweh knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked shall perish.
“For Yahweh knows (Hebrew: yada) the way of the righteous” (v. 6a). The Hebrew word yada means know, but has different shades of meaning depending on the context. In this verse, it means “know relationally.” Yahweh is in deep relationship with the righteous––the kind of relationship that a father and son might experience. In that kind of relationship, the father might not approve of everything the son does, but he would do whatever possible to bring an errant son back into relationship. This verse, therefore, is saying that Yahweh knows and cares about the righteous to the point that he can be expected to keep that relationship intact.
“but the way of the wicked shall perish” (v. 6b). But Yahweh doesn’t know the wicked in the same relational way. Given that the wicked are not in relationship with Yahweh, they have no eternal support and can expect to perish.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Craigie, Peter C., Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50, Vol. 19 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72, Vol. 14a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 1-41, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan