Why this psalm – of all the psalms that might have been chosen – to begin the book of Psalms? There are bigger psalms – swashbuckling psalms, psalms about the excellency of God of His coming reign that might well have aptly fronted the one hundred and fifty. But no, it is this one – a quiet psalm about the individual – which has been chosen. Why?
Perhaps the answer is because it provides a template or model of what a human being should be before God. In a sense we are taken back to Genesis: a man standing before his Maker, with the law of God as his guide and source of reflection; how will he respond? Each of us in a sense stands just like that and we must ask ourselves what sort of person we will be and what we will do with His law. The book of Psalms is essentially about human beings and their relationship firstly with God and then with others, whether friend or foe. Psalm 1 sets the ground rules; it provides the paradigm where we ought each, calmly but deliberately, to begin. As we take the journey of faith we will have both triumph and tragedy as the later psalms powerfully go on to describe; all sorts of things will be thrown at us by life and through them we shall come to know more of ourselves – of what it means to be human, and, more importantly, we shall come to know more of God. But we must begin with orientation, with knowing where we ought to be standing and how our relationships should be configured. This is precisely what Psalm 1 provides.
But in describing a man (a human, an individual before God) and in setting a paradigm for what such a person ought to be, for Christians the psalm also of necessity describes the Lord Jesus Christ – the perfect man who truly was the image of God and fulfilled the destiny that God originally intended for humanity. A further dimension of Psalm 1, therefore, is to sketch out the outline of his perfection, the blessed man who would one day come. In this psalm his coming is quiet, like the coming of his first advent: he is obedient, he delights in his Father’s will, and he brings forth fruit when the time is ripe. But this psalm is paired with another – Psalm 2 – in which his coming is different: a coming of power and glory in which he appears not in the quietness of an obedient man but in the conquering glory of a perfect king. That is another story, of course, the story of his second advent. But it is worth noting even now that the two psalms form a pair with which the book of Psalms can begin. They are united in their vision of this great man, even though they are a contrasting pair – the first psalm tells of his obedience and first coming, the second of his future glory and coming role as king.
Before there can be the glory there must first be obedience – so Psalm 1 appropriately comes before Psalm 2. Psalm 1 opens personally with a blessing on an individual man as the perfect individual in God’s sight (‘Blessed is the man who…’); but his obedience brings the possibility of blessing for us all, and Psalm 2 appropriately closes with the words: ‘Blessed are all they (plural this time) that put their trust in him.’ The two psalms are framed by blessing, and the blessing of the one (Jesus) gives rise to the blessing of the many.
With that background, let’s now turn take a closer look at Psalm 1:
- Blessed is the man
That walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor standeth in the way of sinners,
Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
- But his delight is in the law of the LORD;
And in his law doth he meditate day and night.
- And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,
That bringeth forth his fruit in his season;
His leaf also shall not wither;
And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
- The ungodly are not so:
But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
- Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
- For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous:
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.
The characteristics of a godly person
We can quickly see that it is a psalm of who halves. The first three verses describe the righteous man and contrast him with the wicked with whom he chooses not to associate (he doesn’t walk, he doesn’t stand, and he doesn’t sit with them; notice the degenerating progression of increasing commitment and reducing mobility implied by the three verbs). The second set of three verses (v4-6) describe the ungodly and show how they fit against the backdrop of the righteous (in short, they don’t fit; they will not be able to stand in the congregation of the righteous).
The blessed man is defined not only by his refusal to integrate and to be absorbed by the wicked but also by what he positively does do: he delights in the law of the Lord and he meditates in it day and night. These lines (v2) are the central part of the section, the defining characteristic of the blessed man. Four poetic lines proceed them (v1), four poetic lines follow them (v3), and in the middle we find our man with the law of God as his companion and delight. This design is of course no accident.
Psalm 1 is thus also making a programmatic statement about God’s law and its importance. It is to be at the very heart of our lives, just as it is at the very heart of this stanza about the blessed man. We are to delight in it, relishing its contents and basking in its glow. We are to meditate in it – a word which conjures not just the human activities of meditation, reflection and thought, but which is also used to describe a cow chewing the cud (which brings to mind those seven stomachs and the extensive processing which the grass goes through in order to feed the beast!), or a wild animal like a lion voraciously devouring its prey. Meditation, therefore, has these innate links to the notion of food, intake, and regular sustenance or daily bread – which carries the mind to all sorts of other scriptural passages. The ‘meditate’ word can also carry the connotation of murmuring or muttering, and with it the idea of reciting or even chanting God’s word. While incantation or the use of mantras is typically associated with other religious traditions, there can be value in learning and repeating the words of Scripture so that they really do become a part of who we are.
The double reference to the law of the Lord at the centre of the first stanza of the first psalm also resonates with the overall structure of the Old Testament. The traditional division of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament as Christians call it, but in Hebrew rather than English order) is into three parts: the torah (the five books of the law of Moses), the former prophets (beginning with Joshua), and the latter prophets or the writings (beginning with psalms). The Bible opens with the Law itself (the first five books, the torah, the first chapter of which is built around the directly spoken words of God (‘And God said,’ ten times)), it continues with a book whose first chapter (Joshua 1) emphasises obedience to God’s law or teaching (using the word torah, Josh 1v7,8 as well as the same Psalm 1 words ‘meditate’ and ‘prosper’, Josh 1v8), and it concludes with a section whose first chapter (Psalm 1) pronounces blessings on the one who delights and meditates on God’s law. The very three-fold structure of the Hebrew Bible with each component part beginning with the same emphasis on God’s word thus emphasises its massive authority and importance. God’s word both creates the reality, natural and spiritual, in which the believer finds life, and it becomes the focus of his or her delight and meditation as they strive to come to know their Maker and build a life with Him.
The benefits of such a life before God is that the man will be like a tree planted by the waters bringing forth leafy foliage and delicious fruit – a life of benefit both to himself and to others. The river and the fruitful trees provide another echo of early Genesis and remind us that there can be a way back – but it is a way back which involves paying attention to and implementing God’s laws rather than rejecting them. This is the only path to true nourishment and fruitfulness, and the picture of the tree’s stability by the life-giving and fortifying water contrasts powerfully with the second half of the psalm in which the wicked is like chaff which is blown away. The chaff has no permanence, is cut off from sustenance, and has no value to anyone.
The tree imagery perhaps also has echoes both to how Nebuchadnezzar is described in Daniel 4:10-12 (an idealisation of what the institution of kingship ought to provide for its subjects) and what Jesus says of the kingdom of God in Mt 13:32. If kings and kingdoms can be like trees which provide nourishment and shelter (an ecosystem, in other words), then we may link this with the thought that the calling to discipleship is, as Peter explains, a calling to be ‘kings and priests’. This may indeed be applicable in a relatively limited sense just now – but it is a real calling nonetheless. If a king is to his subjects like a tree, strong and protective, life-enabling and sheltering for the birds who lodge in its branches, so the disciple who delights in God’s law should be in the smaller, more immediate environment he inhabits. There is no reason why we cannot be sources of stability, rest and even protection to those around us living in an unstable and uncertain world. If the word of God is our life-source, our food supply and our delight, we shall have resources enough to call on when times are tough – and more to spare for those who are round about.
The ungodly are not so
As we move into the second half of the psalm everything changes. Now instead of describing an individual the psalm moves to describe a group labelled ‘the ungodly’ (three times) and ‘sinners’ (once). We have gone from the narrow way (which at this point has just one person on it, unless we choose to follow him!) to the broad. These ‘ungodly’ are described as being ‘not so’ – that is to say, they are described negatively, in terms of what they are not, rather than what they positively are. They are described in passive or negative verbs (they are ‘not so,’ they are ‘driven away by the wind,’ they will ‘not stand’). This is a perfect contrast to the righteous man whose life is characterised by positive, active activities like delighting, meditating and bringing forth fruit. It is what the wicked don’t do that defines them; their rootlessness and lack of nourishment consigns them to being driven away by the wind. Ultimately, as we progress through the psalm, the righteous are gathered into one – the individual ‘blessed ones’ of the first half now amalgamated in fellowship into a congregation – while the ungodly are scattered like chaff because there was nothing that united them and held them together. There was, tragically, no core to their life and no food for their soul.
Almost casually, then, the notion of a final judgment is dropped into the second half of the psalm, but it is an idea which is pivotal to how the book of Psalms will unfold. Ultimately God knows the way of the righteous and He will bring them to their (and His) desired end, whereas the way of the wicked will perish. The rest of the book of Psalms is all about what the way of the righteous is like – what it feels like to walk it, the interactions with God that it will involve, and the times when it will feel like the way has been lost or destroyed but is then found again. But at the outset – before the journey is embarked upon – the psalm assures us in the clearest terms both what the stakes are and what the ultimate outcome will be. There are two very different ways before us and two completely different outcomes, just as it is in the book of Proverbs or in the teaching of Jesus. The way of the ungodly will perish, the first psalm asserts, so don’t walk in it no matter how wide and appealing it may seem to be! The way of the righteous, by contrast, is known by God and its destination sure – so we must resolve to continue to walk it.