Psalm 1: Delight in the Law

The Book of Psalms begins with a beatitude. Not a prayer or a hymn, but a statement about human existence. Here at the threshold of the Psalter we are asked to consider the teaching that the way life is lived is decisive for how it turns out. This opening beatitude also serves as an introduction to the book. Its location as the first psalm is not accidental; the psalm is there to invite us to read and use the entire book as a guide to a blessed life. It introduces an agenda of themes that recur frequently in the book and play a fundamental role in its theology. So the psalm needs to be interpreted at two levels: first as a psalm in its own right and then in its relation to the whole book.

1. Psalm 1 has the form of a complex beatitude. The form is composed of the formula, “Blessed (is) the one …,” followed by a word or a clause that identifies a kind of character or conduct: for instance, “Blessed the one who takes refuge in him” (34:8). Here in Psalm 1 the basic beatitude is “Blessed the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord.” One way to analyze the elaboration of this central statement is to note the pattern of contrast in the psalm. Verse 1 says what the blessed do not do, and verse 2 says what they do do. Verse 3 uses a long simile and a short statement to describe the good outcome of the life of the blessed. Verse 4 uses a brief contrasting simile, and verses 5–6 use a long concluding statement to describe the failed life of the wicked. Behind this pattern in the literary structure is the antithetical pair of righteous/wicked, though the righteous are not specifically mentioned until the concluding statement, because the psalm is designed to emphasize one thing as fundamental to the righteous—engagement with the law of the Lord. That is the central purpose of the psalm, to commend joyous and continuous concern with the law of the Lord. “Blessed” is the traditional translation of the saying’s formulaic word; contemporary translations prefer “happy” in order to distinguish these sayings from pronouncements of blessing that invoke the beneficent work of God on persons and groups. In blessings, the formulaic Hebrew term is baruk ; in beatitudes, ‘ashre. The primary difference is that the blessing invokes God’s beneficent support of life, while the beatitude points to and commends the conduct and character that enjoy it.

This opening beatitude is followed by others scattered through the Psalter. The next one comes at the end of Psalm 2, and with this one it forms an inclusion that binds the two psalms together as a double introduction to the book. In all, there are twenty-five such sayings in the Psalms, compared to eight in Proverbs. The beatitude seems to have been a favored literary form in post-exilic psalm composition. The subject of the psalmic beatitudes is the religious life, piety as enacted or enjoyed. They commend both obedience and trust. Their presence in the psalms is one evidence of the instructional purpose that informs psalmody in its later history. This first beatitude prompts the reader to think of the entire book as instruction for life and commends a kind of conduct that uses the Psalter in that way.

2. The commended conduct is constant reflective meditation on the “law” (torah) of the Lord that grows out of delight in it and concern for it. The basic meaning of the term torah is instruction, not legal rules and stipulations. Commandments and ordinances are called torah because they instruct. The term is used variously in the Old Testament for material that directs belief and conduct ranging from prophetic oracles (Isa. 1:10) to a version of the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 31:24). Here “torah of the Lord” is used in a comprehensive sense to refer to the whole body of tradition through which instruction in the way and the will of the Lord is given to Israel. This psalmist knows torah in the written form, Scripture that one can read and absorb (see Josh. 1:8). It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and the will of the Lord and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness (40:9; 37:31). This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight, not because it is an available instrument of self-righteousness, material for a program of self-justification, but because the Lord reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it. For this psalm, torah is a means of grace. Jeremiah 17:7–8 says, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord…. That one is like a tree planted by water.” When Psalm 1 replaces “trust in the Lord” with “delight in the Lord’s torah,” it is not to substitute confidence in the law and self. The psalmist trusts himself to torah as a discipline of entrusting life to the Lord. The psalm represents the prototype of Scripture piety that is part of the heritage of Judaism and Christianity.

As introduction to the book, Psalm 1 invites us to expect and receive torah from the psalms, that is, to read them as Scripture. The reader will come upon two other great witnesses to torah piety in Psalms 19 and 119. Scattered through the psalms are recurrent references to torah and its constituent elements and forms that show how fundamental it is to the religion the Psalter represents and nurtures. Indeed, Psalm 1 wants the whole to be read as instruction—instruction in prayer, in praise, in God’s way with us and our way under God. The division of the Book of Psalms into its five component books doubtless expresses the same view of the Psalter by giving it an analogous shape to that of the first five books of the biblical canon, which came to be called “the Torah” in Jewish tradition (Mays, “The Place of the Torah Psalms in the Psalter,” pp. 3–12).

3. The counterparts of those whose life is directed by the Lord’s instruction are the wicked. The psalm uses the opposing word pair “wicked/righteous” for pedagogical purposes. The terms are categories of discrimination that function as simple opposites, with no grading between the two and no ambiguity in either. But the categorical character of the terms does not imply that their use reckons with absolute moral righteousness or wickedness. The discrimen that determines which applies is theological. The issue is the relation of a pattern of living to the Lord, and in the psalm’s theology, life either is in the right with God or it is not. No partly righteous, no a-little-bit-wicked. Do life purpose and life performance confirm or deny the sovereign deity of the Lord? For the torah piety of this psalm, the central question is what directs life. If concern with and searching the revelation of the Lord informs and guides living, then one is in the right on this question. The wrong in the wicked lies in the fact that they offer another possibility. Their advice and path and position are their own. The direction given life by them expresses their sinfulness and cynicism. In their very autonomy they are wrong, and those who are guided by their torah are in the wrong with respect to the Lord’s torah (see Job 21:14). The psalm does not call those devoted to the Lord’s torah to withdraw from society into a defensive ghetto. What is to be avoided is not the wicked but their influence and effect on life. Jesus ate with sinners, but he did not follow their way. The psalmist does know about the power of socialization, so he warns against this corrupting effect.

The terms “wicked” and “righteous” are important elements of the psalmic vocabulary. They are used to characterize individuals and groups. The particular discrimen in question will differ, but always the basic criterion is the rightness or wrongness of one’s response to the reality and revelation of the Lord’s sovereign rule over human affairs. In the psalms the wicked play three principal roles. Their character and actions are described to warn against living that conflicts with the will of the Lord and to provide a background of contrast that sets the identity of the righteous in profile (e.g., 5:4–6, 9–10). They afflict the lowly, accuse the innocent, and undermine the trust of the faithful, and so constitute the distress from which the psalmists cry for deliverance (e.g., 3:7; 10:2; 11:2). In corporate form, they threaten the people of the Lord and put the course of the Lord’s providence in question (e.g., 9:5–6, 17). In all their roles the wicked represent the incongruence in the human world between the will of God and the will of human beings. Psalmic speech about them seems to simplify what could be understood as complex and ambiguous matters, but the necessity for faith to recognize the disastrous and tragic disparity between God and human beings gives this speech a significant grounding in God’s relation to the world.

4. Psalm 1 teaches that life is a journey through time; living chooses a particular route for existence. It uses the great biblical metaphor of the “way,” a road or path that one follows. Within all the individuality that particular lives express, there are ultimately only two ways for the journey to take, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked (v. 6). The first way leads to the fulfillment of life, depicted by the favorite simile of a tree that bears fruit (v. 3). That way is incorporated in the providence of God (v. 6a), because it follows the direction given through the torah of the Lord. The fulfillment is not so much a reward as a result of life’s connection with the source of life. The second way is really an illusion. It has no more substance than chaff that the wind drives away (v. 4) and no future among the righteous who are vindicated by the judging of God, who watches over human life. The wicked are grounded and guided within themselves, a way that has no connection with the source of life. That way will perish. Let the readers understand and ask in what way their feet are set.

The first psalm teaches without qualification that each way has its distinctive destiny. The claim is the claim of faith, not experience. It will be reiterated at other points in the psalms (e.g., Psalm 37). But it will also be qualified in many ways. The prayers testify that the righteous meet affliction rather than fulfillment in life. Some psalms wrestle with the enigma of the prosperity and power of the wicked (e.g., Psalm 73). A few perceive that only the forgiveness of God can sustain life because of the sinfulness of the human condition (e.g., Psalm 130). Almost certainly verse 5 came to be understood in the light of apocalyptic eschatology like that of Daniel (see Daniel 7; 12) as a reference to a vindicating judgment beyond this life. Nevertheless, qualified in all these ways, the doctrine endures and is heard again in the New Testament from another teacher who uses beatitudes and warns that the outcome of life depends on one’s guidance by his torah (Matthew 5–7). “Blessed,” he says, “are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).