Psalm 1

The manner in which the Book of Psalms opens is important. The first two psalms are keys to the whole Psalter because they are not strictly prayers but declarations. The first prayer is actually Psalm 3. Taken together, Psalms 1 and 2 help us understand the whole book, and their interconnection is shown by a chiastic structure in that Psalm 1 opens with the idea of blessing (ʾasherê hâ’îsh, ‘Blessed is the man’) while Psalm 2 closes with it (ʾasherê kol-chôsê bô, ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him’). A link also exists in thought between the righteous person of Psalm 1 and the messianic king in Psalm 2. The king in Israel had to have a copy of the ‘law’ for himself (tôrâh, Deut. 17:18), and hence he should have been the one in Israel who exemplified most clearly the character of the righteous, delighting in the law and being guided by his daily meditation upon it (Ps. 1:2). c. 100-165) and Origen (ad c. 185-254), both knew them as a single entity. The absence of a superscription before Psalm 2 also points to a connection between the two. (Sheffield: JSOT Supplement Series 159, 1993), pp. 83-92.

The opening and closing of the Psalter are also important (see Introduction, for a discussion of the structure of the Psalter). It opens here in Psalm 1 with a call for obedient service, while it closes in Psalm 150 with a call for universal praise. 50 (1991), ‘Bounded by Obedience and Praise’, pp. 63-91. It commences with the challenge of walking diligently in the ways of the Lord, while it closes with universal adoration of him.

This first key starts by contrasting the two ways in which people can go. As the opening song of the whole collection it is intended to challenge readers as to their commitment to the Lord and to his law. It points to two ‘ways’, just as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13-14).

1. Near to God (vv. 1-3)

The book opens with a pronouncement of blessing. Blessed is the man. In Hebrew there are two words for blessing, one used by God when he is expressing a benediction (bâruch), and the other used here (ʾashe) by men when referring to other men. To merit the word blessed used here, man has to do something, or, as in this case, not do something, for which he can be commended. Here the character of the blessed man is defined by three negative terms — who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of the mockers (v. 1). With mounting emphasis the psalmist describes the character of those whose trust is in the Lord. They do not look to ungodly men as a source of wisdom; their path is not that taken by sinners; their company is not with those who mock God or who are self-satisfied and proud.

On the contrary, the blessed man is marked out because his delight is in law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night (v. 2). God’s instruction forms the basis of his conduct and the treasure of his heart. The word ‘law’ (tôrâh) does not mean a list of rules and the appropriate punishments, but the fullness of God’s ‘teaching’ for his children. This instruction, which included the history of God’s dealings with his people, was to be passed on from generation to generation (see Ps. 78:1-8). In the Old Testament the references to God’s tôrâh are almost universally positive, so that it is to be both obeyed and loved (Ps. 119:97, 113, 163, 165). It was to be the object of reverence and devotion. The Hebrew word translated ‘meditates’ (hâgâh) implies something more than silent reflection. It means to whisper or to murmur, a use that may point to the fact that reading was usually done aloud in biblical times. It also seems to be taking up and using in a new context the words of God to Joshua: ‘Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate upon it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful’ (Josh. 1:8).) in Josh. 1:8, is replaced by a statement in Ps. 1:2, ‘and on his law he meditates day and night’ (ûvetôrâtô yehgeh yômâm vâlayelâh). The comparison is also closer than the niv suggests as ‘then you will be prosperous’ is really ‘then your way shall prosper’, which in Hebrew contains the words ‘way’ (dérek) and ‘shall prosper’ (yatslîach), both occurring in Ps. 1. See verses 1 and 3.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers (v. 3). The result of such meditation is that the blessed man is like a transplanted tree, set alongside an irrigation canal.) can mean either ‘plant’ or ‘transplant’. All its ten occurrences in the Old Testament are metaphorical and all relate either to Israel or the righteous Israelite. What God [trans]plants thrives for ever. Jer. 17:8 contains almost the same phrase as Ps. 1:3, declaring that the ‘blessed man’ ‘will be like a tree planted by the water’, though the application is different. Here it is that such a person will bring forth fruit, whereas in Jer. 17 it is that the tree will put forth roots towards the water. The thought of being transplanted recalls the imagery of God transplanting a little vine from Egypt into Canaan, where it became a great tree (Ps. 80:8-16). It may also reflect the situation prevailing when the whole Psalter was brought to completion, soon after the experience in exile, in which they knew so much about the irrigation canals of Babylon. In its well-watered position the tree brings forth its fruit, and its bountiful location ensures that it will not fade. So it is with the believing child of God who endures to the end (Phil. 1:6) and who brings forth fruits of righteousness (Gal. 5:16-26).

2. Far from God (vv. 4-6)

How different are those whose trust is not in the Lord! The lines of demarcation between God’s children and the children of the world are clearly drawn. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away (v. 4). The contrast is clear.), which when appearing at the beginning of a sentence, signify emphasis, or, as here, contrast. Instead of being like a living tree, the wicked are as unstable as chaff. They are without root and without fruit. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous (v. 5). Such people will not be able to stand their ground at God’s judgment seat, neither have they any right to be among God’s people. The combination of the Hebrew verb ‘rise’ (qûm) with the noun ‘judgment’ (mishpât) points to God’s final judgment. Their experience will be one of exclusion from the company of God’s people on earth, and exclusion from the presence of God in eternity.

The final verse of the psalm sums up the contrast. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish (v. 6). The way of the righteous is overseen constantly by the Lord, whereas the way of the ungodly has no future. It is going to perish utterly. This is a poetic form of the challenge of Moses to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 30:11-20. By implication the psalmist echoes Moses’ command: ‘Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.’