The Book of Psalms

Commentary On Psalms

I. Book One: Psalms 1-41

A. Psalm 1

Notes

1:1 Oh, the joys of those who. The first word of the psalm, 'ashre [TH 835A, ZH 897] (traditionally translated "blessed"), is a key word that runs through the Psalter from beginning to end. No single English word captures the full sense of 'ashre. Those who are 'ashre are in a state of total well-being: They lack nothing (34:8-10 [9-11]), are delivered from trouble (41:1-2 [2-3]; 94:12-13), and are wealthy and have successful children (112:1-3; 128:1-4; 144:12-15). No wonder they are so happy! The Psalms are about how to experience this profound happiness (Mays 1989:40): Yahweh must be your God (33:12; 144:15; 146:5), and you must trust him (40:4 [5]; 84:12 [13]) and delight in obeying his teaching (94:12; 106:3; 112:1; 119:1). Jesus' teaching in the Beatitudes complements what the Psalms express with 'ashre. This opening clause stands outside the poetic structure (Petersen and Richards 1992:92; see also Miller 1986:82).

not follow the advice of. The word translated "advice" ('etsah [TH 6098, ZH 6783]) can also mean "counsel," but the exact expression "walk in the 'etsah of" occurs in 2 Chr 22:5, and the phrase 'atsath resha'im [TH 6098/7563A, ZH 6783/8401] occurs in Job 10:3, 21:16, and 22:18, establishing the meaning "follow the advice of."

not follow... or stand... or join. Lit., "not walk... not stand... not sit." The 'ashre formula is characteristically followed by a positive description; here the threefold negative perspective keeps the formula from being a cliche and creates dramatic tension by delaying the expected positive note until 1:2 (Gitay 1996:234). The negative description connotes moral decline that begins with taking the wrong advice ("walk"), proceeds to acting the wrong way ("stand"), and results in becoming the wrong kind of person ("sit"); for the reversal of this decline, see Rom 12:2.

1:2 delight. The Lord's instruction is not burdensome (see 119:1-2, 14, 16, 45, 47).

law. Heb. torah [TH 8451, ZH 9368], here translated "law," has the broad sense of teaching (see Introduction and McCann 1992:27). The teaching in view is in written form (see Josh 1:8 and Mays 1989:41), and can be found, for example, in the Five Books of Moses or, closer at hand, the Five Books of the Psalms (see "Major Themes" in the Introduction). The poet focuses our attention on the "teaching" of Yahweh by using the term twice in one line, the usual poetic convention being to use a term once, followed by a synonym (Gitay 1996:235). The expression torath yhwh [TH 8451/3068, ZH 9368/3378] occurs in the Psalms only here, in 19:7 [8], and in 119:1.

meditating. Heb. hagah [TH 1897, ZH 2047] and its cognates are used for a low sound like the cooing of a dove (Isa 38:14) or the growling of a lion (Isa 31:4), so meditating on the word of God may have involved an intoned reading of the text (TWOT 1.205 and Craigie 1983:58). The imperfect verb contrasts with the perfect verbs of 1:1, and stresses the enduring nature of the pious (Gitay 1996:235).

day and night. Not just once during the day and once during the night, but continually (see 32:4; 42:3 [4]; 55:10 [11]; Isa 60:11). The Lord's instruction must govern the whole of life (see Deut 6:4-9).

1:3 They are like trees. The poet introduces a metaphor at this point to give concrete form to the more abstract concept of being 'ashre. Whereas a tree in the steppe or desert may live but not thrive, this tree intentionally planted by an irrigation canal will always be productive.

they prosper in all they do. This prosperity includes material prosperity, but success in the sense of attaining one's goals is the broader meaning (see 1 Kgs 22:12).

1:4 not the wicked! The terseness emphasizes the brevity of the wicked's life. This is also underscored by the relative brevity of the chaff metaphor (6 words in Hebrew) over against the tree metaphor (17 words).

chaff, scattered by the wind. This is a prevalent image of divine judgment (see Isa 17:13; 29:5; 40:23-24; Jer 13:24; Hos 13:3). Zephaniah 2:2 makes explicit what is implicit elsewhere: The image of chaff driven before the wind is an image associated with the day of the Lord.

1:6 the Lord watches over. This expresses the Lord's intimate knowledge of and care for his people and is the ultimate basis of the experience of being blessed.

path. The word "path" is a frequent metaphor in the Wisdom Literature for the life one lives. There are two such paths: that of the righteous/wise and that of the wicked/fool. Each leads to its own inevitable destiny (cf. Matt 7:13-14).

destruction. As the last word in the Hebrew text, to'bed [TH 6, ZH 6] serves as a fitting antonym of 'ashre [TH 835A, ZH 897].

Commentary

The main message of this wisdom psalm can be articulated in two ways: (1) the pious experience total well-being, but the wicked perish, or (2) the pious prosper, but the wicked do not. This message is communicated by the form of the poem, as well as by its content. First, note that the opening word, ashre [TH 835A, ZH 897] (joy), begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, while the closing word, to'bed [TH 6, ZH 6] (destruction), begins with the last letter of the alphabet (see Ps 112 for this same poetic device). The psalm is thus an "incipient acrostic" (Petersen and Richards 1992:94), articulating the diametric opposition between life and death: The two are as far apart as Aleph and Taw. Second, note the chiastic structure of the whole:


Summarizing Introduction (1:1)

A. Description of the Righteous; key terms: wicked, sinners, not stand, advice (1:1-2)

B. Metaphor for the Righteous; key phrase: like trees (1:3a)

C. Fruition of the Righteous; key term: prosper (1:3b)

C. Fruition of the Wicked; key term: not (1:4a)

B'. Metaphor for the Wicked; key phrase: like chaff (1:4b)

A'. Description of the Wicked; key terms: wicked, sinners, not stand (NLT, "be condemned"), no place (1:4-5)

Summarizing Conclusion (1:6)


This structure focuses our attention on the central point (see Petersen and Richards 1992:95-96): "They prosper in all they do. But not the wicked!" (1:3b-4a).

How does one come to enjoy the prosperity of the righteous? Whereas the Psalms as a whole provide a full answer to this question (see the first note above for a summary), Psalm 1 focuses on a key aspect of the answer: Live in the light of the Lord's teaching. For the centrality of the torah [TH 8451, ZH 9368] in this psalm, see Botha 1991. This means not giving heed to teaching that is contrary to the Lord's, for that would lead to wrong actions and attitudes. Rather, you must delight in the Lord's teaching and study it thoroughly. And, in fact, the Psalms provide you with the Lord's teaching from A to Z (or perhaps we should say Aleph to Taw).

If taken out of the context of the book of Psalms as a whole, Psalm 1 could be misunderstood in two critical ways. First, it could be taken as an expression of self-righteousness: If I do not follow the wrong advice and if I delight in doing everything the Lord wants and if I think about his teaching all the time, then I will be joyfully prosperous. Such a self-righteous reading of the psalm, however, ignores parallel texts like 40:4 [5], "Oh, the joys of those who trust the Lord" and 84:12 [13], "O Lord of Heaven's Armies, what joy for those who trust in you" (see also Jer 17:7-8), and goes against the grain of the wholesale critique of misplaced trust developed in the book (see Introduction).

Second, Psalm 1 could be taken as articulating a simple recipe for ensuring an easy life: If I just do what is right, then I will be blessed—automatically. Such a "health-and-wealth" reading of the psalm ignores the tension that arises when 1:3b-4a, "They prosper in all they do. But not the wicked," is read in the context of texts like 37:7b, "Don't worry about evil people who prosper" and 73:3 "For I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness" (italics mine). "The poet, who sought to be a true believer, notices the 'real world' turns upside down his own religious view" (Gitay 1996:236). Reading in context precludes a simplistic understanding of the text and life itself.

The teaching of Psalm 1 is idealistic (VanGemeren 1991:52) but true nonetheless: The righteous will be joyfully prosperous, but the wicked will not. This is true in part in this life, but in fullness only in the life to come. So as David thought about the prosperity of the wicked, his mind turned to the way their lives will end up (37:9, 10, 12-13). So, too, Psalm 1 points us forward to the time of judgment beyond this life (see Day 1995:44). Psalm 1 thus gives the Psalter an eschatological orientation from the start.

We are responsible to delight in and think about the Lord's teaching and to put that teaching into practice. But we are not to trust in any of this activity for our happiness in this life or the life to come. Rather, we are to trust in the Lord who watches over all our steps (1:6), whether those steps are on the heights of prosperity (23:2) or in the valley of adversity (23:4), knowing that ultimately he will bless us (94:12-15).

B. Psalm 2

Notes

2:1 angry. The verb ragash [TH 7283, ZH 8093] occurs only here; related nouns occur in 55:14 [15] (regesh [TH 7285, ZH 8094]; see NASB, "throng") and 64:2 [3] (rigshah [TH 285A, ZH 8095]), with the sense "uproar" (Zorell 1963:757), which may be positive (55:14 [15]) or negative (64:2 [3]). The verb carries a negative connotation in 2:1.

they. "They" translates the Hebrew word le'om [TH 3816, ZH 4211], which means "people" (HALOT 2.513), contra Craigie (1983:63), who proposed that it means "warriors." Hebrew dictionaries do not recognize "warrior" as a gloss for le'om, which is elsewhere, as here, parallel with terms for "people" (see, e.g., 44:2 [3]; 105:44; Gen 25:23; Isa 34:1).

futile plans. The verb underlying this phrase is the same verb used in 1:2, where it has the sense "think/meditate." In 2:1 it has the sense "plan/plot/conspire," as in 38:12 [13] and Prov 24:2. A contrast is thus drawn between those who "think" about the Lord in order to submit to him and those who "plot" to rebel against him.

2:2 against the Lord and against his anointed one. The conspiracy is explicitly against both the Lord and his anointed king. For "anointed one" in reference to the human king, see 18:50 [51] and 20:6 [7] (see also 1 Sam 10:1 and 16:6).

2:3 break their chains... from slavery. The Hebrew text speaks of "chains" and "ropes." The picture is that of oxen whose yokes are tied together (see Jer 27:2). The NLT captures the import of this picture with the word "slavery," because the "chains" and "ropes" refer to the servitude imposed upon a vanquished foe (see Isa 52:2 and Jer 27:2-8; see Keel 1997:302-303 for graphic representations). "Breaking chains" can be a positive symbol of freedom from slavery (see Jer 2:20) or a negative symbol of rebellion against authority (Jer 5:5); in 2:3 it is negative. The pronoun "their" refers to the Lord and his anointed one and shows the close association of the two (VanGemeren 1991:67).

2:4 the one who rules. Lit., "the one who sits," but when it is a king who sits, the sense is "rules" (Zorell 1968:334; see 29:10). There are two kinds of sitting at the opening of the Psalms: the "sitting" of scoffers ("join in"; 1:1, NLT) and the "sitting" of the Lord (2:4). Those who sit to scoff do so at the sitting/ruling of the Lord.

laughs... scoffs. There is movement from the general "laughs" to the specific "scoffs." This movement continues in 2:5.

2:5 rebukes... terrifying. The scoffing becomes a rebuke. Terror follows the rebuke.

2:6 I have placed my chosen king on the throne. The Hebrew is wa'ani nasakti malki [TH 5258A/4428, ZH 5820/4889]. The precise sense of the verb nasakti is in doubt. There have been numerous suggestions: (1) from nasak [TH 5258, ZH 5818] (pour out), meaning "dedicate by means of a libation" (Kraus 1988:129) or "pour out," "pour wide and firm," "set firmly in place" (Delitzsch 1982:94); revocalized as a Niphal, meaning "be consecrated by a drink offering" (HALOT 2.703); (2) from nasak II [TH 5259, ZH 5820] (constitute)—so Zorell 1968:520; (3) revocalized as a Niphal from suk [TH 5480, ZH 6057], meaning "be anointed" (Dahood 1965:10). All suggestions orbit around the general idea of the installation of the king, which is undoubtedly what the context requires.

2:7 proclaims the Lord's decree. The use of the verb sapar [TH 5608, ZH 6218] with the preposition 'el [TH 413, ZH 448] instead of the direct object marker is unusual, but it does occur in 69:26 [27] with a similar sense as here ("tell of the pain," NASB). The "Lord's decree" refers to the royal covenant made with David and his descendants, and the central content is provided by the rest of 2:7b-9: the sonship of the anointed king (2:7; see 89:26-27 [27-28] and 2 Sam 7:14) and the promise of universal dominion (2:8-9; see 89:25 [26]; see also 2 Sam 7:16 for the analogous promise of an enduring dynasty). There may be a reference here to a copy of the decree/covenant given to the king at his coronation (see 2 Kgs 11:12).

2:9 You will break them. The NLT accurately translates the Heb. tero'em [TH 7489A, ZH 8318]. Revelation 2:27, 12:5, and 19:15, however, use a word meaning "rule," in keeping with the LXX; these Greek translations point to a Heb. tir'em [TH 7462, ZH 8286] ("shepherd," "rule"; Zorell 1968:783). The two alternatives are not unrelated because "the promise that the Davidic king can break and smash the nations is conventional royal language for the power to rule" (Mays 1994:47). The same Hebrew verb for "shepherd" is used in Ezek 34:23 for the future Davidic king.

2:10 Now then. The Heb. we'attah [TH 6258, ZH 6964] introduces an exhortation to take a wise course of action (VanGemeren 1991:71; see Job 42:8; Prov 5:7; 7:24; 8:32).

2:11 rejoice with trembling. This expression creates tension in the mind of a modern reader, but "the tension between the rejoice at the Lord [sic] and the fear of him seems to be integrated in the OT experience of God" (Vang 1995:176); "rejoice" is used in the context of celebrating the Lord's kingship (see 97:1, 8-9; 149:2; 1 Chr 16:31), and this rejoicing is at times coupled with trembling (97:1, 4). "Rejoice with trembling" makes sense in the context of foreign kings being terrified, on the one hand (2:5), and being invited to join the joyous ranks of the righteous, on the other (2:12).

2:12 Submit to God's royal son. Lit., "kiss [the] son," which is problematic on two counts: (1) the Aramaic word bar [TA/ZA 10120, S 1247] is used for "son" instead of the Heb. ben [TH 1121, ZH 1201], as in 2:7, and (2) there are no precise parallels for kissing the king as an act of submission. (See, however, Keel 1997:268 for a picture of vanquished Elamite nobles about to kiss the feet of the Assyrian king.)

what joy. This provides an inclusio with 1:1 and thus brings the introduction to the Psalms to a close.

Commentary

"Why are the nations so angry?" sounds rather dissonant against the harmonious, "They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season" (1:3). In Psalm 2 the reality of hostility resounds in the believer's ears. The nations are raging against the Lord and his anointed king (2:2b). There is a conspiracy afoot (2:2a), and the goal of this conspiracy is autonomy: liberation from God's authority, and that means from the authority of his anointed king (2:3). The Davidic kings were certainly the objects of this raging from time to time and to varying degrees, but this raging reached its climax when "Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate the governor, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were all united against Jesus, [the Lord's] holy servant, whom [he had] anointed" (Acts 4:27). The raging of the nations against the Lord Jesus entailed the raging of the nations against his disciples in the apostolic church: "And now, O Lord, hear their threats" (Acts 4:29)—a prayer offered in the wake of Peter and John being arrested for preaching that "There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). This raging continues in our own day, whether in the form of physical or political or social attempts to silence those who would proclaim Jesus Christ as the exclusive way to God (John 14:6).

To God, however, such raging is ultimately a colossal waste of time (2:1). So certain is his sovereign rule over the nations that he can "sit" in heaven and laugh. But eventually his laughing changes to scoffing, and his scoffing gives way to angry rebuking, until finally he is found to be "terrifying them with his fierce fury" (2:5). Now, what could possibly strike terror in the hearts of the raging nations? The declaration that God's "chosen king [is] on the throne" (2:6)!

Yes, the Lord reigns, but he exercises his reign through his anointed king. The Davidic king at his coronation would have declared his exalted position as son of the Father, his destiny as ruler of the nations, and ruler of the ends of the earth. But the Davidic king was only a shadow of the true King Jesus, who became Son of the Father in a special sense when he was raised from the dead (Acts 13:32-33). After his resurrection, when he entered into his messianic sonship, he could say, "I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth" (Matt 28:18).

Though the day will come when Jesus will use his authority to "break them with an iron rod and smash them like clay pots" (2:9; see Rev 19:15), this is not that day. Presently, while warning them of the destruction that lies ahead, he invites them to take the wise course of action and submit to God's authority, which is not a path to slavery but to true freedom (see 119:45 and John 8:32). To his disciples today he still says, "I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations" (Matt 28:18-19).

The concluding beatitude is addressed not only to believers who need protection from the raging of the nations but also to the people of the nations who need protection from the fierce fury of the king: "But what joy for all who take refuge in him!" (2:12).