Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2, New Revised Standard Version).

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"El Fasher Hospital," image by UNAMID via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

October 29, 2017

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Commentary on Psalm 1

“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2, New Revised Standard Version).

Standing at the beginning of the psalter, Psalm 1 functions as both an introduction and invitation (along with Psalm 2) into the book that follows. The opening psalm begins with a promise of happiness (or “blessedness”) to the one (literally ha?îš, “the man”) whose “delight is in the law of the LORD (tôrat yhwh).”

Yet this common translation “law of the LORD” obscures the invitation into the textual world of the psalter that the opening psalm provides. Rather, the Hebrew tôrat yhwh is better translated as “Teaching of Yahweh” or “Torah of Yahweh.” Much like the Torah, the ensuing book of Psalms came to be divided into five “books” (Psalms 1-41; Psalms 42-72; Psalms 51-72; Psalms 90-106; Psalms 107-150). Psalm 1 thus opens by encouraging readers to see the books that make up the psalter as “Torah,” worthy of “meditation day and night” (Psalm 1:2; see Joshua 1:8).

The image of a tree stands at the heart of the first psalm. Those who recite the Torah “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither,” while “in all that they do, they prosper” (1:3). The language echoes Jeremiah 17:8, where the man who trusts in Yahweh “shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” Psalm 1 clearly instructs its listener in how the right relationship with the Torah of Yahweh separates an individual from the “wicked,” the “sinners,” and the “scoffers” (1:1). These people stand in the way of the individual who spends their time reciting the Torah.

Psalm 1 paints a neat and orderly world: good comes to those who follow the Torah, evil to those who do not. So, unlike the prosperous tree, the wicked “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (1:4). The juxtaposition is clear: the good person is a prosperous, rooted, watered tree, while the wicked men only chaff, easily driven away by the wind. As is often noted, the Hebrew underscores how lonely and difficult it might feel to choose the good path: up until verse 5, which invokes the plural “righteous (?addîqîm),” the one faithfully meditating on the Torah is in the singular. Against this person stand the wicked, always in the plural.

Often classified as an instructional psalm or a wisdom psalm, the first psalm lacks a superscript and bears no Davidic attribution. For this reason, many scholars suggest that Psalm 1 is a relatively late addition to the psalter, perhaps an editorial addition that now provides an introduction to what follows. Yet though it stands at the beginning of the book of Psalms, this psalm does not feel particularly psalm-like.

After all, while Psalm 1 describes a world easily divided into the righteous and wicked, the psalm lacks any praise, thanksgiving, or lament. There is no “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever” (Psalm 145:1), no “I thank you, Yahweh, with all my heart” (Psalm 138:1), no “My god, my god, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22:1). In fact, there is no speaking to God at all in this psalm. Rather, there is only a description of God, who “watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6).

Thus, as beautiful and inspiring as the image of the prosperous tree is, readers might find themselves unsatisfied. After all, it is rarely the case that things are as neatly ordered as this psalm promises: at least not here, not now, not in our day-to-day lives in this world we live in. Psalm 1 does not grapple with the many realities of what it means to be human.

Yet the psalms that follow do, wrestling with all of the facets of human emotion: anger, grief, and mourning, but also love, admiration, and joy. This is why the invitation that Psalm 1 provides is so important. Psalm 1 asks readers to meditate on the entire Torah of Yahweh, to delve into the whole of the psalter that follows. While Psalm 1 is painstakingly clear on which path is the correct way — and it’s not the path of the wicked — it also urges its readers to continue into the world of the psalms that follow. And the world of the psalms that readers will encounter as they recite them day and night is far more complex, diverse, and far more representative of human existence than the simple contrast between wickedness and righteousness that Psalm 1 presents.

Psalm 1 might leave readers wanting, but happy are those who enter into the polyvocal, emotion-filled world of the book of Psalms, with all of its thanksgiving, praise, and lament.