Have you ever had the privilege of stepping into the entryway of a gorgeous Victorian-era home? (Maybe you live in one. Not the entryway, the gorgeous home. But I digress.) Behind you a leaded glass door swings shut as you push gently against its antique brass knob. To your right a paneled stairway winds gracefully upward from a plush carpeted living room toward a vaulted ceiling on which is painted a fresco of the four seasons. You are tempted to pass the grand piano, grasp the banister and step upstairs to the bedrooms in the second story, but just then you see to your left a parlor shimmering in firelight at the end of a long Persian rug. There you stand in the entry of this mansion, in awe of the exquisite beauty of craftsmanship now rare in modern home construction. There in front you is an expanse of waxed hardwood leading through an alcove to a massive smorgasbord illumined by the brilliance of a majestic chandelier and delicately hammered sconces. Standing upon the granite of her vestibule you discover that seeing the impressive interior of this stately mansion has stopped your steps and caught your breath.
Derek Kidner (1973: 47) introduces his comments on Psalm 1 saying:
It seems likely that this psalm was specially composed as an introduction to the whole Psalter. Certainly it stands here as a faithful doorkeeper, confronting those who would be “in the congregation of the righteous” (5) with the basic choice that alone gives reality to worship; with the divine truth (2) that must inform it; and with the ultimate judgment (5, 6) that looms up beyond it.”
Indeed, Psalms 1 and 2 open the door to the rest of the Psalter both in sequential position and content. They stand as the gateway poems for the remaining 148. The first contrasts two ways: the righteous and the wicked. The second contrasts two kingdoms and hence, two worlds and two worldviews: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of earth. Psalm 1 looks at individual, personal life. Psalm 2 looks at corporate, national life. Both psalms present contrasting attitudes toward God’s law. In the first psalm, the righteous person loves tôrâ and is able to stand under judgment, but the wicked person hates it and cannot survive under God’s just judgment. In the second psalm, righteous leaders submit to it and receive Yahweh’s favor; wicked leaders seek to throw it off and receive Yahweh’s wrath.
Our objective in this lesson is to consider carefully the meaning and application of Psalm 1. Admittedly our time constraints will limit our depth of analysis to a summary of the material. Closer scrutiny in private study and meditation will yield even sweeter fruit. As we acknowledged in the introductory lesson, psalms require analysis as complete poems. The poet’s economy of words and graphic thought-pictures require study line-by-line line and stanza-by-stanza.
One final word of introduction to the Psalms: It is widely thought throughout Christian scholarship that nearly all of the Psalter is messianic, reflecting the heart of Messiah as He, the perfect God-man, confronts the realities of living in a fallen world, under the Yahweh’s sovereign kingship and control of history, guided by Yahweh’s law in the context of covenant love, anticipating Yahweh’s judgment upon unbelief and eternal reward of true faith. In a real sense, the Psalms are the poetic reflect of the Davidic Covenant.1
(Read Psalm 1.)
In this poem, the psalmist describes the blessed (righteous) person who leads an untarnished and prosperous life in accord with the word of Yahweh, and contrasts him with the ungodly person who will perish.2 The application of this psalm from a cost-benefit perspective is a no-brainer: investment in meditation and delight on tôrâ gives the best return; failure to do so destroys one’s investment.
The psalm is divides into three stanzas. We could label them very simply
- the blessed (righteous) person (1-3),
- the ungodly person (4-5), and
- the conclusion (6).
In the first stanza, the poet describes the blessed person who leads an untarnished and prosperous life in accord with the word of Yahweh. In the second stanza, by contrast, the psalmist describes the ungodly person, unstable, unfruitful, and unable to withstand the judgment of God. In the third stanza, the psalmist concludes that the ungodly shall perish because Yahweh “knows” the way of the righteous (6).
We come then to the first stanza and find that it opens with a description, an exclamation really, of the untarnished life of the blessed person (1). “Blessed” is happy plus. One who is blessed enjoys the favor of God upon his life; it is the desirable life of peace, pleasure and prosperity. “How completely happy is the man!” (Alexander: 9). Now there’s an attractive post-modern idea. How often we hear complaints about unhappiness. We want to be happy in our marriages, happy with our jobs, happy with children’s teachers, happy with our elders and ministers, happy with our cellular telephone vendors, happy with our doctors and realtors. So what is the psalmist’s secret to being happy? Mind you, the psalmist is not giving a stock formula or a prescription that guarantees happiness. Yet the poet-worshipper is also the sage who affirms what he has learned to be real. Happiness results from what (or who) one avoids as well as what one embraces. In this case, an untarnished life yields happiness.
In verse one the psalmist describes the untarnished life. Untarnished living means not walking, standing or sitting with the ungodly. First, the blessed person does not live (“walk”) by the principles (“counsel”) that violate God’s law. (“Wickedness” positively violates God’s rules of conduct.) Secondly, the blessed person does not associate (“stand”) with sinners, those who continually fall short of God’s standards of conduct. (Recall that “sin” is missing the mark, not hitting the target set by God for one’s behavior, speech and attitudes). Thirdly, the blessed person does not join in (“sit”) with the scornful, those who positively disregard God, who make light of the sacred.
The Psalmist uses a three-fold climax to underscore the serious threat that sin is to one’s happiness. He demonstrates deterioration by degrees:
As one’s MOBILITY DECREASES
His/Her ASSN INCREASES
and His/Her STANCE INTENSIFIES
Walk (moving casually)
Wicked (violating law)
Stand (taking a position)
Way (marked path)
Sinners (falling short)
Sit (settling down, abiding)
Now the implication is clear: “True happiness. . . comes from choosing the way of Yahweh.”3 Knowing how to choose God’s way results from what a person ponders. Verse two develops this as the psalmist describes the blessed person’s delightful meditation on the law of Yahweh (2). “Delight” means “strong desire to have or to do something, so it is evident that the psalmist here speaks of joyful, wholehearted commitment to God’s instruction for life, not just a compelled legalistic observance.”4 The delight of the soul motivates the meditation of the mind. “Meditate” pertains to “ongoing mental interaction”5 as a “cherished object of affection”6 at all times (“day and night”) as a habit of life. See also Deut. 6:6-9; 17:20; Josh. 1:8.
See, then, the negative with the positive here. A blessed person is one who avoids the practical atheism of the wicked and practices his theism, particularly the practice of submissive meditation upon the word of God. What results is fruitfulness, a most desirable outcome with lasting benefits. Verse 3 describes the prosperity of the blessed person under the image of the fruitful tree. The blessed person is stable (“planted”), rooted in an unending supply of grace (“streams of water”), and productive in due time.
I am reminded of a recent experience in the north woods of Pierce County. Tucked against the Kitsap County is a 6.68 acre parcel of land. A creative builder could likely construct a tall home from which we could enjoy the panoramic beauty of the Olympic Mountains outside the rear windows. From the bank above northwestern edge of the property one sees towering cedars rising from a steep ravine alongside Rocky Creek. These evergreen giants bespeak the truth of Psalm 1’s “tree planted by the rivers of water that bringeth forth its forth in its season” (KJV). Joshua 1:7-8 pick up the same theme and describe the outcome as success. “Success comes as a result of meditating continually upon the divine law….7 Jeremiah 17:7-8 portrays the same regarding the blessed man whose confidence is in the Lord. He has “no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (NIV).
By contrast, the psalmist describes the ungodly person (4, 5). With emphatic negative assertion, the psalmist says, “Not so, the wicked!” He pictures the unstableness of the ungodly man under the image of the chaff (4). “Instead of bearing fruit, the wicked is an empty husk. Righteousness leads to a fulfilled life, but wickedness yields only a futile existence.”8 Prophets such as Isaiah, Hosea and Zephaniah use the “chaff” metaphor to picture the futility, rootlessness and hopelessness of the wicked in God’s final judgment. (See Isa. 17:13; 41:15; Hosea 13:3; Zeph 2:2.) Chaff is blown away, but the psalmist uses a term that means, “to drive asunder, disseminate, diffuse, strike, or beat. It is a harsh, buffeting picture which brings to mind our Savior’s words in Matthew 7:26-27:9 “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
In verse five the psalmist telescopes eschatologically to judgment day. He predicts an eventual and final separation of the ungodly from the righteous (5). The wicked will not stand in the final judgment. “Stand” means to maintain oneself,10 to stand one’s ground, to hold one’s own in defense of his/her character.11 The wicked will have not a leg to stand on alongside the righteous (blessed persons) in the end. Of course we know that until the end, wicked, unbelieving people will always intermingle with believing, righteous people in the Church, as weeds amidst wheat, Jesus teaches. But an end to this commingling is coming and the great harvester will execute his holy judgment to separate once and for all the mass of humanity into two distinct and diverse destinies.
And so, in the first two stanzas the psalmist exclaims two things as he portrays the two and only two classes of people: the righteous lives under the favor of God! The wicked do not! Now verse 6 sets forth the dark prospect of the wicked and the bright hope of the righteous: The righteous will flourish now and forever because Yahweh “knows” the way of the righteous (6). The priority of this declaration must be that Yahweh knows. The Lord of the universe, the controller of history, the redeemer who calls to himself a chosen people—this One is the Judge who sees and discerns and knows all things about all men.
“Knows” may be translated literally, “is knowing,” not merely an holy intellectual awareness (omniscience) but a personalized “watching over.” God knows the way of the righteous, the whole reality of his/her life. Psalm 31:7 records the worshipper singing: “I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul.” Jesus develops this sweetly regarding God’s personal care for the believer. (See Matthew 6:25-34 and 7:7-11.)
In contrast to the assurance that God watches over the righteous, “the way of the wicked will perish.” Swindoll (1988: 13) remarks: “A severe reminder. . . a jolting climax!” “The wicked will find that their way of life, deviating from God’s path, will be a one-way road to destruction.”12 “Because the Lord is inclined and bound to the righteous by special love, He will not allow an intermingling between the righteous and the unrighteous” (Swindoll 1988: 13).
Spurgeon’s evening devotion for February 22 caused me to consider that God’s judgment that will someday cast the wicked into everlasting punishment comes not as fury sparked by a subject’s foible or inadvertent transgression. It is rather the final expression of a longsuffering God whose creatures have tested his patience to the max. Citing Nahum 1:3, that the Lord is slow to anger because he is great in power, Spurgeon observes:
A person with a strong mind can bear insults a long time, and only resents the wrong when a sense of right demands action. The weak mind, however, is easily irritated. The strong mind bears insults like a rock that does not move, though a thousand waves dask against it spraying their ineffective malice on its summit.
Though God marks His enemies, He holds back His anger and takes no action. If God were less divine He would long ago have sent His thunders and emptied the weapons of heaven on us with a blast of mighty fire. We would have been utterly destroyed. But the greatness of His power brings us mercy.13
Thus, the doorkeeper of the Psalter stands at the gateway to the Church’s inspired hymnal, exclaiming to us 1) the blessedness of the righteous who leads an untarnished and prosperous life in accord with the word of Yahweh, and 2) the sorrowful and tragic end of the ungodly person who will perish under Yahweh’s all-knowing, holy justice.
The applications of this psalm to our lives are not difficult to see. I state them in the first person singular for our ease in considering them more personally.
- I can “determine” my happiness both by what I avoid and what I embrace. If I expect God to bless me (smile upon me and favor me) I must demonstrate both negative and positive behaviors.
- I cannot let myself be guided by the advice of evildoers, despite how enticing the lure of sinful behavior.
- I cannot conform to the example of sinners (those who habitually fall short of God’s standards of behavior, speech and attitudes).
- I cannot treat what is godly and sacred as a joke.14
- I will delight in the word of God, make it my object of affection.
- I will practice consistent reading and meditation on the word of God.
- I will obey the word of God: fearing and loving God, worshiping and praising God, loving my neighbors, respecting the image of God (imago dei) as created in myself and others, submitting sweetly to human institutions (church, family, government) established by God.
- I can be certain that godliness will bear the fruit of happiness in God’s time (v. 3, “its fruit in its season”) which may well require the endurance of faith until it is evidenced in tangible form.15
- Since the trueness of my profession of faith will be revealed by God in the end, and since one never knows when his end will come (“Man knows not his time.”), I should seek to live according to the law of God now so that I will be able to “stand in the congregation of the righteous” in the end.
- Of course, I cannot live this way on my own. I am weak, rebellious, sinful at the core. Thus, I must lean on Jesus Christ, the perfect lawkeeper, who kindly and mercifully took upon Himself the wrath of God against me.
- By trusting Him, I may exchange my sin for His righteousness and be certain that I will stand in the judgment, for in Him I am not condemned (Rom. 8:1). With this assurance, I know that He has granted me His Spirit and adopted me into His family.
- As a result, I may grow strong and consistent in my obedience to His word and live in such a way as to attract others, by word and deed, to trust and obey Him as well.
- All of this I can do as an ongoing expression of my gratitude for His mercy to make me righteous and free me from my deserved punishment from God for being a lawbreaker.
- My life then becomes a sacrifice of thanksgiving to Him and, with other believers in His Church, we live our lives as worship offerings to God.
- Someday we believers will gather at the judgment and in Christ we will stand unashamed and confident. Then we will bow in adoration, worship and joyful celebration of Jesus Christ forever.
Allender, Dan. B. and Longman II, Tremper. 1994. Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions about God. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
Alexander, Joseph Addison. 1975 (first published 1850). The Psalms Translated and Explained. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Estes, Daniel J. 2005. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Kidner, Derek. 1973. Psalm 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press. Also Psalms 73-150, published by the same in 1975.
Spurgeon, C. H. 1966. The Treasury of David in Three Volumes. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
1 Rayburn, Robert S. Sermons on Psalms, Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA, 1/18/2004.
2 Ross, Allen P. 1975. The Analysis of Bible Books: The Old Testament, Course Paper, Bible 655, Dallas Theological Seminary. Outline of Psalm 1 has been modified slightly for this paper.
3 Estes, Daniel J. 2004: 20. Psalms, prepublication manuscript.
4 Estes: 21. “There is no sense here of God’s law as a rigid and discouraging burden that cannot be handled. Rather it is the object of one’s constant attention, a joy and pleasure that brings about a desirable, indeed enviable, result or reward for the shape of one’s life.” Patrick D. Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986. Quoted in Estes.
5 Estes: 21.
6 Alexander, Joseph Addison. 1975: 10. The Psalms Translated and Explained, Grand Rapids: Baker.
7 Miller as cited in Estes: 22.
8 Estes: 22.
9 Swindoll, Charles R. 1988: 12. Living Beyond the Daily Grind: Reflections on the Songs and Savings of Scripture (Book I). Dallas: Word Publishing.
10 Estes: 22.
11 Spurgeon, C. H. 1966: 1:3. The Treasury of David. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
12 Estes: 23.
13 Spurgeon, C. H. 1994. Morning and Evening: An Updated Edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
14 Estes: 20-21.
15 Estes: 22.