Psalms Lecture 2: Psalm 1

THE FOLLOWING ARE NOTES FOR LECTURES GIVEN AT NEW COLLEGE, BIRMINGHAM. I AM NOT AN EXPERT AND BOOKS WILL BE CREDITED TO SHOW WHERE MY INFORMATION IS COMING FROM. IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS, COMMENT ON THIS POST AND I WILL TRY MY BEST TO ANSWER.

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PSALM 1

1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

Psalm 1 is basically an introduction to the book of Psalms as a whole, the author is attempting to point out the importance of the law. It is talking to those who would be part of the “congregation of the righteous”, it is acting as a faithful doorkeeper confronting them with the choice, between two ways: the law or sin.

We can also see that this psalm is a preface or introduction because there is no title, no author’s name, and this is unusual for psalms in Book 1. It is as if the author was writing a sermon, and psalm 1 & 2 were probably written after many of the others to introduce the collection as it stood.

The tone and themes bring to mind the wisdom writings, particularly Proverb 2:12 & 20.

Pr.2:12
Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men,
from men whose words are perverse,

Pr.2:20
Thus you will walk in the ways of the good
and keep to the paths of the righteous.

It lacks the personal touch in a lament, praise or thanksgiving genre, aiming only to teach. The closest parallel with psalm 1 is found in the prophets, who would also aim to teach the people to follow the law above all else. Specifically similarities can be seen in Jeremiah 17:5-8.

This is what the Lord says:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.

7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
8 They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”

One of the ways you can get into a psalm is through exegesis, which comes from the Greek to mean “to lead out”. This is what you will find in commentaries of biblical text, where chapters and verses are split into section to find patterns and literary devices. Different scholars will divide a piece of text in different ways, but we can use it to dig deeper into each psalm.

Looking at this Psalm I personally would split it into three:
A. 1-2 – the law and the contrast between the counsel of the wicked. Contrast in movement: walk, stand, sit.

B. 3-4 – Nature imagery of a tree, fruit, and chaff.

C. 5-6 – final judgement and the way to “congregation of righteousness”

Spurgeon on the other hand split it into two pieces:
A. 1-3 – what the blessing of a godly man are, what he does, what blessings he will receive.
B 4-6 – contrasts the state and character the ungodly, reveals the future and their ultimate doom.

If we look at both sets of divisions we can see that the author had levels of complexity, specifically when using mirroring. If we do take the split into 3-pieces, each piece contrasts the godly man with the ungodly. If we look at the 2-piece split it allows us to see an overall picture of contrast between the ungodly and godly man.

We will be going forward with the 3-part option in order to keep things simple and clear. There are specific parts that are highlighted by looking at the structure, for example, the contrast in part A (1-2).

1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

So firstly, there are “counsel”, “way” and “seat”, these draw attention to the thinking, behaving, and belonging of the man. Here the man’s choice of allegiance which is carried through to his actions and place in life. Alongwith this there seems to be a gradual worsening of the state. First is the option of listening to those who are wicked, this is the though, here there is still movement, he could turn and walk another way. Then, worse is standing in the sinners way, sinning himself, and there is less chance of repentance, then there is the seat of the scoffers. Here not only is there sin, but there is the attitude of humour around it. Sin doesn’t matter to them anymore. Spurgeon claims: “The seat of the scorner may be very lofty, but it is very near to the gate of hell; let us flee from it.”

The repetition of what the blessed man does not do emphasises the point. Just as “Holy Holy Holy” means that the Lord is the MOST holy, providing 3 negatives means that this man is clear of wickedness completely.

The blessed man is not any of these things, instead he meditates on the law. Blessed can also here mean “happy”, one who is seen as blessed by others and most likely one who is scoffed by the wicked. Law here means instruction or teaching, but the original word is “torah”, although we can expand it here to mean scripture. Blessed in the Hebrew is also plural, suggesting not just one blessing but many, many blessings that God will give to one who follows Gods law.

Moving on to part B (2-3).

2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

3 He is like a tree

planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

This analogy is the centrepiece of the psalm. We could take it simply to mean that the godly man would bear fruit, or be blessed by God. But it is more than this.

The tree is a living, growing organism that absorbs the water. It has been planted there to grow, and using Christian imagery we might see God & Jesus as this living water that we too can grow on. The water, through the tree, is transformed into the blessings we see in the fruit over time, and the leaf which will not wither is reminiscent of Isaiah 40:31:
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

This is all in comparison the chaff. Whereas the tree has provision and purpose: to grow and produce fruit, the chaff is empty, useless and rootless. When corn would be tossed up in the air the chaff was the husks and fragments of straw that were blown away in the wind.

Part C (5-6)

As we have worked out that in part A, they have chosen the way of the wicked, in part B they are shown to have become empty and have no roots in Gods law, bring us to part C where there is no place for them at the end of their path. Like the chaff the wicked will perish, whereas the righteous will join the great congregation. The word perish here is used in many senses:

– a road that comes to ruin
– hopes and plans frustrated
– creatures that get lost
– men that come to grief

It is at the final point that the two ways divide forever emphasising the choice the reader must make: either the way of God following the law OR the way of the wicked under their counsel. Spurgeon points out that it is not only the people on this wicked path that will perish, but the path itself.

  • Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary on Book I and II of the Psalms (Inter-Varsity Press, England, 1973).
  • Spurgeon, C. H. The Treasury of David, Volume 1, Psalm I to LVII (Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts).
  • Society of Biblical Literature. The Harper Collins Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version).
  • Walton, John H. Chronolgical and Background Charts of the Old Testament (Zondervan, Michigan, 1978).
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