Commentary on Psalm 1
Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm that serves as the preface to the psalter, sharing literary and theological relationship with the Torah.1
Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—is traditionally translated as the “law” but may be more accurately read as “instruction” or “guidance.” Torah is God’s guidance for God’s creation about how best to live both individually and communally. So, it is fitting that the Psalms—this collection of praise begins with some guidance about the possibilities of life. The author offers two ways, mostly often understood as the “good way” and the “wicked way.”
The good way
Psalm 1 begins with happiness. But, this concept of happiness is commonly misunderstood in contemporary contexts. Our understandings of happiness are often warm, fuzzy, and without complication. In contrast in Hebrew, happy is ‘ashre, which derives from the verb, ‘shr, meaning to go straight or to advance.2 Such an understanding of the emotion evoked by the psalmist suggests that following the instruction of God allows the individual to move forward, to develop, to grow in life. The “good way” is not devoid of problems, anxieties, or heartache. However, this way in relationship with God, grants us the freedom to evolve as human beings.
Further, the author suggests that the imperative for God’s faithful is to “delight in the instruction…and meditate [on it] day and night.” Historically, Christians have read this command as God’s requirement for blind obedience and acquiescence to God’s word. However, here, rather than meditate, the Hebrew word, hgh3, can be translated as “to groan, utter, speak, or plot.”
The spiritual practice commonly outlined by Psalm 1 has commonly been read as a kind of silent, solitude practice of meditation. However, for this to be true of the author’s context it would presume that the author’s audience had someone else tending to their basic needs for survival. Such readings create a classism around the text and around God. Very few people in the ancient world, or today, have the luxury of sitting in solitude with Torah all day.
However, reading hgh as plotting, moaning, and speaking suggests that rather than passive reception of God’s word, our call is to act meaningfully and intentionally towards God’s guidance. In this context, our relationship with torah or instruction should be to read, question, discuss, engage the text in ways that impact our daily living. Meditation then becomes active participation in the world in ways that demonstrate God’s presence in the world.
The result of such nuanced reading of God’s instruction should be a reality where we are not so easily moved and not devoid of spiritual life. Here, the author describes fruit bearing trees with deep roots that have a constant water source. Ancient Israel was a largely agrarian society that understood prosperity in terms of agricultural production and weather.
Water is commonly understood as a biblical metaphor. In various texts (Psalm 32, 69, Lamentations 3) water is understood as a source of trouble visited upon human beings. In Exodus 14, water is a barrier to freedom that is removed by God for the Hebrews coming out Egypt before consuming God’s enemies—the army of pharaoh. In Proverbs (18, 20) water symbolizes depth and purpose for humanity. Here, water is a constant source of nourishment for the tree—which symbolizes humanity and life. It is important to note that the water never consumes or moves the tree, but instead establishes roots and bears fruit.
The wicked way
In contrast to the stability established in Psalm 1:1-3, here the psalmist compares the wicked to chaff. Chaff is the unusable material separated from wheat during the threshing process. Again, the author uses the agricultural context of ancient Israel to establish a metaphor. Threshing floors were spaces often on the periphery of a community where farmers would create a circular space in which to gather recently harvested grain. Here they would beat the grain against the ground with a winnowing fork and the light chaff would be carried away by the wind while the grain would call to the ground and remain on the threshing floor. Thus metaphorically, threshing floors often mark a point of transition for biblical characters who encounter them. They are spaces where they are separated from the chaff of their life.
In this text the author establishes the wicked as those who are without substance or weightiness. They are the people from whom the primary “good group” should be separated. The author’s language is somewhat ambiguous about who constitutes the wicked. Wickedness is not defined in direct correlation with goodness. Thus, we should be careful to define the wicked as those who have different theologies, opinions, or lifestyles as others.
Instead the wicked “will not stand in the judgement … nor … in the congregation of the righteous” (verse 5). We might connect the depiction of the wicked in verse 5 with the author’s description in verse 1 of those who “sit in the seat of scoffers.” Unlike the righteous who are advancing, the wicked are stagnant. They are the ones with no opinion, no belief, nothing for which they are willing to live, grow, evolve, or fight. The wicked are those who live outside of community and/or accountability. Wickedness here may be equated to stagnation.
The psalms include a variety of forms to encapsulate the range of human experiences and emotions. The wisdom from which this body of work begins should not focus on establishing an invisible enemy so much as it reminds us of our capacity to be skeptics who scoff at the desire for meaning in life. The author offers an alternative path that propels us down a path of discovery alongside God.
- Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 8, 2019.
- Brown, Francis, S.R. Driver, and Charles Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1907), 80.
- Brown-Driver-Briggs, 211.