Psalm 1:1-6: An Exegesis

Introduction

The book of the Psalms is one of the most treasured books in all the canonized scriptures. It is used in many worship services in both Jewish synagogues and Christian churches across the globe. Islamic tradition recognizes the power of Psalms and references it in the Qu’ran: “We have written in the Psalms, after the Reminder, that the earth will be inherited by My righteous servants” (Q21:105). The influence of the Psalms has a long history in corporate and private worship over the centuries in all traditions of Judea-Christian faiths. “The psalms are directed at Yahweh as listener and are intended to express the full range of human emotion for various individual and group settings, such as praise, thanksgiving, petition, and lament.”[1] It is often considered the most powerful book of the Old Testament in terms of worship and adoration.

Psalms is a collection, or a collection of a collection, of poetic poetry. “The book of psalms is the first book of Ketuvim, or Writings—probably because of its size and significance and also perhaps because it was the first book in Ketuvim to become authoritative.”[2] The first book of Psalms begins with a specific series of verses that set the stage for the remainder of the book. This essay will unpack Psalms 1:1-6 in detail, and verse by verse, to explain how it lays out the foundation for the rest of the book and posits an underlying theme throughout the Psalms that point to the righteous worship of Yahweh. It is at this beginning of the Psalms, in the first six verses, that disciples of Jesus Christ can establish a powerful theological didactic that will help root and shape his/her spiritual formation underpinnings.    

Historical Context

The historical context of the Psalms is very different from other books of the Old Testament. Much like Chronicles and Kings, the book of Psalms takes place over large swathes of time, various geographical locations within that time, and numerous players of theological and historical importance. The composition and makeup of the Psalms make pinpointing historical context very difficult to surmise; however, each psalm must be taken individually.[3] This being taken into account, each Psalm could, and will, have different authors, historical context, and cultural context; “its tradition and literary history span from the pre-monarchic period to well into the Second Temple period.”[4] The remainder of this essay will only be concerned with Psalm one, its authorship, historical context, and cultural significance.

The historical significance of Psalm one is more general than its subsequent following chapters. Psalm one extolls a widespread context of all of Israel over time from its inception to its final exile. The historical context is that God is sovereign over all, is unchanging, and no matter the situation, the nation, or the person, Yahweh’s way is the righteous way: “In Israel, the cosmic king establishes ‘right order’ in both nature and human society. Yahweh’s saving activity, whereby He puts things ‘right,’ extends into the human realms of history and justice.”[5]

In this respect, the historical significance of Psalm one is the entire historical narrative of the Nation of Israel. Unlike certain Psalms that deal with specific situations in history i.e., the death of David’s son (2 Samuel 12:14-31) and his lament (Psalm 51), the very first Psalm has a universal historical narrative, or plot, to all people of all nations. Psalm one is a polemical warning to every human in history as to the warnings of not heading to the will of God. The makeup of the origin of Psalm one is ancient Israel and its people, but it still holds modern relevance today.

Cultural Context

Psalms are not unique to Judaism; “the genres of poetic hymns and prayers were ancient even before the first biblical psalm was written, as evidenced by their long history in Egypt and Mesopotamia.”[6] The Psalms represent tribal communities dealing with historical consequences of obeying God’s law and disobedience of said law; “It represents national circles as varied as the kingdoms of northern Israel and southern Judah, and social circles such as the royal court, the priestly temple, and rural clan settings.”[7] This makes the cultural context of Psalm one not only ancient Israel but that of the ancient cultural world. Unlike many exegetically significant cultures, Psalm one is targeted to all cultures of all the world, in all the nations, dealing with every relevant morality.

Literary Context

As heretofore mentioned, “Psalms is a collection, actually a collection of collections, of poetic prayers. (Prose prayers are also found throughout the Bible, but they are ad hoc, private prayers of individuals.)”[8] This is much more important than normally taken for granted. Most people do not understand what is going on in the book of the Psalms. Understanding its makeup and composition is essential to recognize the meaning of the different chapters. Craig Boyles aptly writes:

Most psalms were originally set prayers, intended to guide worshipers in articulating their cries of distress and their celebrations of God’s goodness and power. This means that it would be inappropriate to read them simply as autobiographical poems expressing the feelings of their composers. Rather, they are meant to lead the worshiper’s experience of God through times of trial and times of worship.[9]

This suggests that in order to understand what the Psalms extoll or teach, one must understand their makeup, structure, and origin. It cannot be overstated that the literary understanding of the book of the Psalms is one of the most difficult to understand concerning literary context. Remember, each Psalm has its own composition, history, narrative, author, and cultural relevance but there are overriding literary significances that need to be considered. The Psalms are broken into five books:

Book I is made up of Psalms 1–41; Book II comprises Psalms 42–72; Book III is Psalms 73–89; Book IV is Psalms 90–106; and Book V includes Psalms 107–150. Each section concludes with a doxology, and the entire Psalter concludes with Psalm 150, a grand doxology. The earliest evidence for this fivefold division comes from the Qumran scrolls (found near the Dead Sea) copied soon after the beginning of the Christian era.[10]

Once the reader understands how the literary context of the Psalms plays into its interpretation moorings that underpins its worship capability, one can better appreciate each passage considering their own theological magnitude. Comprehending the literally milieu of Psalm one is crucial to exegeting the meaning by which spiritual formation, or transformation, is approachable and even obtainable. 

Exegetical Commentary

It cannot be overstated that the first Psalm in the book of Psalms is foundational to understanding the rest of Psalms. “It may be classified as a wisdom psalm because of its emphasis on these two ways of life, the use of the similes, the announcement of blessing, and the centrality of the Law for fulfillment in life.”[11] This motif is echoed over and over again throughout the entirety of this book and lays the roots of how man is to worship God. The Psalm gives ancient Israel a roadmap as to who God is, who man is, and what the right relationship with God entails.

v. 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;”[12]

The Psalm begins with a warning against sin, sinners, and those who seek fellowship in those opposed to the holiness of God. The word man used here is important; “ אִישׁ (ʾîš): n.masc.; man, i.e., a male or female human as a class or kind in contrast to other classes of created beings (Ex 19:13).”[13] This is generic man, all men, including women who inhabit that world. This is not just for Israel, but all men and women of all nations. This is a universal statement that shows up time and again in the Psalms.

Interestingly enough, Saint Augustine of Hippo had a very unique commentary on Psalm one where he declared that “man” in this passage is to be understood as our Lord Jesus Christ:  This is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord Man. “Blessed is the man that hath not gone away in the counsel of the ungodly,” as “the man of earth did,”2 who consented to his wife deceived by the serpent, to the transgressing the commandment of God. “Nor stood in the way of sinners.” For He came indeed in the way of sinners, by being born as sinners are; but He “stood” not therein, for that the enticements of the world held Him not. “And hath not sat in the seat of pestilence.”[14]

Augustine is advocating a sort of dueling typography in which the first and second verse of Psalm one contrasts Jesus Christ with Adam of Genesis three. Either view, it is abundantly clear that this verse begins with a stark warning to all who follow Yahweh that bad friendships spoil good character (1 Corinthians 15:33).

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

The second verse introduces the law. The Hebrew in this passage is “תּוֹרָה (tô·rā(h)): n.fem.; ≡ law, regulation, i.e., a legal prescription of something that should or must be done (Ex 12:49; Lev 6:2)”[15] The law is not just the five first books of the Old Testament (while it does include that) but the prescriptions, prohibitions, and worship regulations of the Lord. The law, to which a blessed man should meditate day and night, points to the right relationship with the creator. It is the law (God’s word) that blesses a man, not human influence.

The second verse stands in contrast to the first, fore “the law” shows how man is to live, diametrically in opposition to that of scoffers, sinners, and the wicked mentioned earlier. This shows the duality of good and evil. On one hand is mankind, represented by evil men, and on the other hand is righteousness, represented by the Torah. 

Another point to underscore is the phrase “delight in this law” and how its emphasis is not on regulatory obligation. Michael Lefebvre writes: “there is nothing explicit about obedience in this Psalm. The focus of Psalm 1 is not on the individual’s obedience to Torah; rather, its focus is on delight in Torah.”[16] This is a common misnomer in Christianity that following Christ is about rules and regulations, quite the opposite; abiding by God’s law free’s the individual from the pitfalls and atrocities of sin and wickedness. To delight in the law is to delight in righteous freedom.

1.3 “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.”

In this verse, the psalmist introduces the benefits of following the law. “This verse is remarkably like Jeremiah 17:8; see also Psalm 92:12–14.”[17] Considering the agricultural community in the ancient middle east everyone would have easily understood the agrarian expressions in this verse, much more than modern, industrial, communities could comprehend. The significance of this passage is to show the prosperity of what it is like to follow the law and obey Yahweh.

Verse three shows the majesty and imagery of ancient Hebrew poetry. Interestingly, the imagery used here for the relation to the law and a blessed man is later used for Jesus Christ. Jesus is referred to as the living water in John 7:37. In Mark four Jesus used the parable of the sower where planting seed is like the Kingdom of God. In John 15:6 Christ compares those who do not abide in him as a withering plant. Constant epistles of the New Testament echo the sentiments of Christians bearing fruit (Galatians 5:16, Ephesians 2:8, 2 Corinthians 3:18). The emphasis here is how man is to abide in the word of God (the Law – later to be Jesus the Messiah) and through that law mankind prospers.

1.4 “The wicked are not so but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”

Once again, the agricultural reference is merely an illustration of what the psalmist is conveying to an audience steeped in agribusiness. The keyword in this verse is wicked: “The Hebrew word rāšā‘ is often translated wicked (cf. vv. 1, 5–6) but that may connote gross evil. People described by rāšā‘ are not in covenant relationship with God; they live according to their passions.”[18] This goes back to the dichotomy of the blessed man versus the wicked man. Those who live in a relationship with God, by the law, do not run the risk of being blown away by the winds of change. The law roots mankind in sound theology, that is the purpose of all the plant imagery. Good plants have deep roots. The use of chaff in this section has cultural significance and stresses chaos. “In the East, the threshing floors are in the open air, upon heights (Is. 17:13), on which the winds more readily blow the chaff away.”[19] The wicked, living without God’s law, are easily prone to be pushed or pulled into chaos where God does not abound, the wicked are not rooted in any foundation.

1.5 “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;”

Verse five is a turning point for Psalm one. The first four verses spell out the differences between the righteous and the wicked. It shows how the Lord’s law divides them. Fidelity to Yahweh is righteousness, all other wicked. In verse five, God shows that those opposed to His law will surely be judged. The terms Judgement here is key: “מִשְׁפָּט (from שָׁפַט)—(1) judgment—(a) used of the act of judging, Levit. 19:15, ‘do no unrighteousness בַּמִּשְׁפָּט in judgment;’ verse 35; Deu. 1:17, כִּי הַמִּשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹהִים הוּא ‘for the judgment (is) God’s.’”[20] God will judge according to His righteous knowledge which is reposed in the Torah.

Once again, the psalmist draws a parallel of the wicked with the righteous congregation. “The phrase the congregation of the righteous means all God-fearing Israelites (see 111:1). Here it stands for those whom God rewards in this life or will reward on Judgment Day.”[21] In this sense, Psalm one is timeless and transcends both the Old and New Testaments. Either in this life or the next, the wicked never escape God’s judgment.

1.6 “for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

The final verse of the first psalm is the definitive declaration to those who refuse to follow Israel’s God: The Lord.  Allen Ross writes; “‘The way’ means one’s whole manner of life including what directs it and what it produces. The worthless life of the ungodly will not endure.”[22] Verse six summarizes and concludes what the entire first psalm is saying: the Lord knows the only righteous way for humanity and anyone else who refuses His law (the wicked) will perish at the hands of His divine judgments. 

Significance

The significance of the first psalm is detrimental to understanding the rest of the book of the Psalms. Psalm one lays the foundational understanding of all the other Psalms; that God’s sovereign reign over all creation will judge rightly on the good and the evil. It lays the groundwork for what true worship is and how God (Yahweh) responds to those individuals (and nations) who refuse to worship Him correctly. This is a reoccurring theme throughout both testaments and Psalm one spells it out in detail: “The purpose of Psalm 1 is to introduce a collection of meditations on Yahweh’s Torah to sustain his scattered people in joy as they await his judgment of the wicked and his ingathering of the righteous.”[23]

The key to Psalm one is sovereignty, Yahweh is in control over His creation, in all ways and in all things. God’s justice is the only true justice that humanity must balance out the world. The only way to escape this balance is to follow Yahweh and His ordinances. This is echoed in the New Testament: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12 ESV). The only path to salvation is to follow God (Jesus Christ) and obey His laws. This demarcates morality, good, and evil. God is the only source of truth and for man to be blessed he must worship God according to God’s commandments. In the Old Testament it is God’s law, in the New Testament Jesus Christ is the law, and humanity is tasked to worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

Application

The best way to apply this hermeneutic is to have a “high view” of God in worship rather than a “low view” of God. This means that man always lives within the sovereignty of God, in all situations, and in all circumstances. Yahweh is the focus of our worship and He is in control of our world. Worship should be shaped around how humanity can glorify God and not on how God should bless humanity. This is the difference between a “high view” of God and a “low view” of God.

 This can be better described as God-centered worship versus man-centered worship. In all ministries, God needs to be the conclusions of all theological doctrines. God is the focus, His glory is all that matters and liturgy, worship, praise, etc. should all encompass this fact. Worship services and ministry outreaches that do not center on the glory and sovereignty of God is false worship. Therefore, hymns are better theology than contemporary songs. Expository preaching is better than inspirational sermons. Self-control is better than self-esteem. Wrath and Judgement are attributes of Jesus Christ and should be taught in all faith-based doctrines.

A church, without deep roots in Psalm one, cannot be theologically aligned with the will of God. If believers cannot read Psalm one and see how it points to God as the standard of good and justice, then those believers struggle with the doctrine of God, and it would behoove leadership to establish sound biblical teaching in its worship. Psalm one shows how man can worship God with respect to how God demands to be worshiped.

 Conclusion

The first Psalm gives all believers a motif of the whole totality of the biblical text. Understanding what Psalm, one is about is to understand what God is about. Both the Old Testament and New Testament have one thing is common: the only way to salvation is through God. God sets the standard for worship with His creatures and they are tasked to follow His truth, and only His truth can lead to blessings. Jesus embodies this in the New Testament and reiterates what the Old Testament professes; that God is the arbiter of Justice and only through His truth can humanity find salvation. This is the essence of Psalm one; righteous worship of Yahweh (Jesus Christ) is the path to truth which brings forth blessings unto all who follow His law. 

Bibliography

Augustine, Aurelius, and Philip Schaff. Saint Augustin: Expositions on the Book of Psalms: Translated, with Notes and Indices. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989.

Barry, John D. “Faithlife Study Bible.” Logos Bible Software, January 1, 2012. https://www.logos.com/product/36338/faithlife-study-bible.

Barry, John D., David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Elliot Ritzema, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, and Wendy Widder. “Lexham Bible Dictionary.” Logos Bible Software, January 1, 2016. https://www.logos.com/product/36564/lexham-bible-dictionary.

Berlin, Adele, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane. “The Jewish Study Bible.” Logos Bible Software, January 1, 2004. https://www.logos.com/product/30983/the-jewish-study-bible.

Bratcher, Robert G., and William D. Reyburn. A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms. New York: United Bible Societies, 1991.

Lange, Johann Peter, Philip Schaff, Carl Bernhard Moll, Charles Augustus Briggs, John Forsyth, James B. Hammond, J. Frederick McCurdy, and Thomas Jefferson Conant. “A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Psalms.” Logos Bible Software, January 1, 2008. https://www.logos.com/product/27032/a-commentary-on-the-holy-scriptures-psalms.

Lefebvre, Michael. “‘On His Law He Meditates’: What Is Psalm 1 Introducing?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 40, no. 4 (2016): 439–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309089216628415.

Scanlin, Harold P., James C. VanderKam, Matthew Henry, Hanan Isachar, Jim Yancey, Flavius Josephus, John Bright, et al. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

Tregelles, Samuel Prideaux, and Wilhelm Gesenius. “Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament.” Logos Bible Software, January 1, 2003. https://www.logos.com/product/2001/gesenius-hebrew-chaldee-lexicon-to-the-old-testament.

Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. an Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.

Footnotes:

[1] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016).

[2] Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, “Psalms: Introduction and Annotations (תהלים),” in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1280.

[3] Allen P. Ross, “Psalms,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 782.

[4] Craig C. Broyles, “Psalms, Book of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[5] Craig C. Broyles, “Psalms, Book of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[6] Craig C. Broyles, “Psalms, Book of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[7] Craig C. Broyles, “Psalms, Book of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[8] Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, “Psalms: Introduction and Annotations (תהלים),” in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1280.

[9] Craig C. Broyles, “Psalms, Book of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[10] Allen P. Ross, “Psalms,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 783–784.

[11] Allen P. Ross, “Psalms,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 790.       

[12] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version.

[13] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[14] Aurelius Augustine and Philip Schaff, Saint Augustin: Expositions on the Book of Psalms: Translated, with Notes and Indices (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), page not available.

[15] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[16] Michael Lefebvre, “‘On His Law He Meditates’: What Is Psalm 1 Introducing?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 40, no. 4 (2016): pp. 439-450, https://doi.org/10.1177/0309089216628415, 444.

[17] Robert G. Bratcher and William David Reyburn, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1991), 19.

[18] Allen P. Ross, “Psalms,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 790–791.

[19] John Peter Lange et al., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Psalms (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 52.

[20] Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), 519.

[21] Robert G. Bratcher and William David Reyburn, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1991), 21.

[22] Allen P. Ross, “Psalms,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 791.

[23] Michael Lefebvre, “‘On His Law He Meditates’: What Is Psalm 1 Introducing?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 40, no. 4 (2016): pp. 439-450, https://doi.org/10.1177/0309089216628415, 450.

2 Comments

  1. Wow Samson! This was SO good! By far, my favor-ite article you’ve ever written! All have been great and sound, but this one takes the cake! Thank you for your love of Christ and your breakdown of God’s Holy Writ in all situations of life!

    With your permission I would love to teach a Bible study on this article 🙏🏼

    Liked by 1 person

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