Psalm 1: The Way of Life

The Hebrew Psalter opens with an instructional psalm that maps the future as a choice between one of two different paths. These two paths are not characterized by their terrain or geography (cf. Matt. 7:14: “The gate is narrow and the road is hard . . .”), but by the character of the people who tread them. Down one path walk the wicked, sinners, and scoffers. Their eventual destination is judgment and unhappiness. Down the other path march the righteous, who bring with them the Torah of the Lord. Their end is happy, because they journey under the protection of the Lord.

The poem consists of four stanzas that are carefully constructed upon a basic contrast between the wicked and the righteous. This contrast is exploited by means of a chiastic structure:

The closing verse of the psalm places an exclamation mark on the basic contrast between the ways of the wicked and the righteous, which serves as the “theological axis” around which the basic contrast swings. The psalm builds on this basic contrast between the righteous and the wicked, including several related contrasts:

As previously noted, this psalm is an instructional psalm. Because of this classification, the suggestion has been made that the psalm should be understood as having originated in an educational setting, from whence it made its way into the cultic liturgy. But any original context in which this psalm may have functioned has been obscured by one clear fact: in its scriptural context, the psalm introduces the book of Psalms. The placement of this wisdom psalm at the front of the Psalter is not an accident. Together with the second psalm, Psalm 1 functions as a two-part introduction to the Psalter. Because of this, its message of the two paths has significance beyond the mere boundaries of Psalm 1. The reader is invited to read the entire book of Psalms as a guide to life in God — a life that the psalm describes as happy. Likewise, because the key characteristic of the happy life is depicted as a constant meditation on God’s torah, the book of Psalms itself is commended to the reader as torah.

1 Happy is the one

who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,

and does not stand in the way of the sinners,

and does not sit in the seat of scoffers.

2 Rather, whose delight is in the instruction of the Lord,

who meditates on his instruction day and night.

3 This one is like a tree transplanted by streams of water,

which produces its fruit in its season,

Whose leaves do not wither;

but who prospers in everything.

4 Not so the wicked!

Rather, they are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not arise in the judgment,

nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.

1 The first of the psalm’s four stanzas defines the happy person in terms of a contrast with the wicked. The Hebrew ʾîš (lit., “man”) is pluralized in the NRSV translation as “those” in order to avoid exclusive male language, but is rendered here as the one, to preserve the singular number of the noun. This is important because in the first stanza the singular one is contrasted with three plural nouns: the wicked, sinners, and scoffers. In two ways, the opening verse thus elegantly sets up a “one against the masses” image. On the one hand, as is often the case in the Old Testament’s wisdom literature, the one is set up against three — wicked, sinners, and scoffers. And, on the other hand, this already mismatched equation is then multiplied because each of those three is not a single person but a group. The effect is to deepen the contrast between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked: not only are the two ways distinguished by who travels down them, but by how many travel down. The contrast evokes the idea that the way of the righteous is the road less traveled; it is not an easy or popular choice to make. One who walks in the way of the righteous must struggle against the traffic, buffeting against the currents of peer pressure and group-think. Yet in spite of this, it is still the way of happiness.

The poem expands upon the difference between the righteous and the wicked by describing both groups in terms of the other. In the first stanza, the righteous one — although note that the word righteous does not occur until the third stanza — is defined at first in negative terms. He does not walk in the counsel of the wicked; he does not stand in the way of sinners; he does not sit in the seat of scoffers. Most English translations obscure the heavy-handed repetition in Hebrew of the word not (lōʾ). Further, some English translations also obscure the poetic progression evident in the three verbs of v. 1: walk, stand, and sit. This verbal progression depicts a regression from moving — to stationary — to sitting. Perhaps the idea is that sin is a temptation that one first tries out, later becomes accustomed to, and finally becomes a habit or lifestyle. Many have noted that the verbs walk, stand, and sit also call to mind the positive commandment in Deut. 6:4-9 that the person of faith is to keep the commandments of God in mind while at home and away, while coming and going. Craigie has argued that the nouns counsel, way, and gathering also suggest a progression: perhaps from listening to advice, to joining on a walk, to joining in living. Notice that each of these nouns requires the presence of at least one other person; these nouns continue the contrast between the singular righteous person and the plural wicked persons whose lifestyle is a temptation to be avoided.

2 In this poem, it does not suffice to define the righteous or happy life purely in terms of the negative. There is also a positive employment for the happy person: the study of the torah of the Lord. The translation of this word, which occurs twice in v. 2, is particularly problematic. The term can mean “law” or a collection of laws. In this context, however, it is better not to render it as “law” because of traditional negative connotations with legalism. Also, in this context, it seems not to refer to a collection of laws, nor is it a technical designation for the Pentateuch. The basic sense of the word is instruction, and that is the sense that best fits here. In both occurrences of tôrâ in v. 2, the term is defined not as just any instruction, but specifically as the Lord’s instruction. When this verse is contrasted with v. 1, the message is clear: the way to happiness means following not the advice of the questionable humans but rather the instruction of the Lord. The verb hāgâ is normally translated as “meditates,” but it should be noted that the term does not imply a strictly internalized, cognitive exercise. It properly denotes a verbalized rumination, because the ancients did not read silently but out loud. The verb is used to describe the cooing of the pigeon (Isa. 38:14), the growling of the lion (Isa. 31:4), and the voice of the human (Ps. 35:28). In this context, the verb stirs up the idea of a congregation (cf. v. 5) murmuring in prayer and praise. In a poetic sense, the verb also anticipates the simile that follows in the next verse. The sound of human voices murmuring has its analogue in the soft whisper of water gurgling in a stream.

3 Like the first stanza, the second stanza opens with a succinct mention of the lone righteous one that is followed by the body of the stanza. Whereas the first stanza began with the declaration, Happy is the one, this stanza begins this one is (the Hebrew does not contain a noun, of course, but the subject of the verb hāyâ can only be the one of v. 1). What follows is one of the most striking similes in the Psalter. Here, the life grounded in the Lord’s instruction is likened to a vibrant tree whose roots are sunk deep into the life-giving soil of a river bed. The sense of the verb šāṯûl suggests that the location is intentional — the tree has either been transplanted there or was planted as a seedling. This image is well-suited for the life characterized by study of torah. The nourishment that sustains the tree is hidden; it is internal nourishment that feeds the life of the tree, drawn up through invisible roots. Yet the life thus imparted suffices to fortify the tree against the harsh conditions of Israel’s arid climate to such an extent that it never withers, but faithfully bears its fruit at harvest time. The closing colon of the stanza introduces a degree of ambiguity. It states, it prospers in everything. The subject of the phrase is ambiguous; it could either be the tree, of v. 3 or the righteous one of v. 1. If it is the tree, then the point is that in all weather conditions the tree flourished. If it is the human, then the point is that the environment created by the wicked cannot extinguish the righteous. Like heat applied to a chemical reaction, this ambiguity serves to help the tenor and the vehicle of the simile (the righteous one and the vibrant tree, respectively) marry. The one who studies God’s instruction is the tree transplanted near water.