Commentary on Psalm 1
“Why do they keep messing with my Bible?”
I chuckled at this exasperated question following an adult forum on Bible translations that I was leading in one of our local congregations. Upon asking for more specificity, I was deluged with the likes of “When did the Red Sea become the Reed Sea?”; “What’s wrong with ‘the Son of Man’?”; and “What are ‘resident aliens,’ anyway . . . immigrants?” to cite but three of many.
The familiar opening phrase of Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man,” (King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New International Version), rendered “Happy are those” in the New Revised Standard Version, prompts similar questions. While there may be little difference between the two translations in contemporary English, there are sound reasons for translating ashre with “happy” rather than “blessed.” Most importantly, “Blessed is/be . . .” (using the Hebrew word baruk) is a benediction, that is, a request, prayer, or wish that God would bless that individual. “Happy is . . .” on the other hand, is a beatitude, that is, a statement, a declaration that someone is fortunate because of something they possess or because of something they have done. As my teacher, Patrick Miller, was fond of saying, ashre celebrates “a life that takes real pleasure in living according to God’s will.”
The translation “those” instead of “man” is trickier. Obviously, the NRSV is attempting to avoid a gender specific suggestion that the happy or blessed one is an adult human male. Surely most will agree that the promise and admonition of this psalm is not directed solely to them. But pluralizing the Hebrew singular obscures the common trope, found in other passages of the wisdom literature, of comparing a singular devout individual to a group of the “wicked,” rhetorically maximizing the contrast and perhaps suggesting an emphasis on individual righteousness in the face of societal or communal evil. Maybe we should read “How happy is the one. . .” as does the New English Translation, or more ambiguously “O how fortunate. . .”
The New Revised Standard Version translation of the verbs in the rest of verse one (“follow . . . take . . . sit”; for “walk . . . stand . . . sit”) is also unfortunate. Why one would choose to disrupt the obvious flow of the Hebrew progression is unclear to this interpreter, especially when one recognizes the contrast between the righteous person who “does not stand (amad) in the counsel of the wicked” (verse 1, New International Version) and the wicked who “will not stand (qum) in the judgment” (verse 5, New International Version).
Perhaps the most important aspect of Psalm 1 is its function as an introduction to the Psalter. Although it contains neither praise nor lament, the warp and woof of the book of Psalms, most interpreters these days believe the final editors of the Psalter have intentionally placed Psalm 1 here as a useful guide to the reading of the rest of the book, either alone or in conjunction with Psalm 2. Reading this wisdom psalm first, invites us to read the following psalms through the lens of what is generally known as “Torah piety,” an ethical reflection on what it means to live one’s life in accordance with the vision presented in Scripture.
Such alignment with God’s will, however, presupposes one knows what that will is (hence an implicit urging to continue reading in the Psalms?) and that one is able or likely to so conform. Disagreement on these matters, especially the second, has resulted in divergent interpretations of this psalm revolving around its seeming legalistic tone since the patristic period. But torah need not imply “Law.” The Pentateuch, itself, may be intended by torah, or, more simply, God’s “teaching” or “instruction” as in the JPS translation. Certainly, it is not speaking of “law” as opposed to “grace” in some Pauline sense.
Structurally, the Psalm clearly falls into two sections contrasting the righteous (verses 1-3) with the wicked (verses 4-5), followed by a summarizing coda (verse 6). A and A’ are linked by the repetition of “wicked” and “sinners.” B and B’ are linked by the repetition of the comparative kaph, “like,” as well as the adversative “but” (ki im). This leaves the stark contrast of C and C’ with its dramatic “Not so, the wicked!” (verse 4a, NIV) as a central hinge or pivot, as the following schematic reveals:
Structural Analysis of Psalm One:
A Description: the righteous (1)
B Comparison: the righteous is like (2-3a)
C Result: Prosperity for the righteous (3b)
C’ Result: Not so for the wicked (4a)
B’ Comparison: the wicked are like (4b)
A’ Description: the wicked (5)
CODA The two ways summarized (6)
Essentially, the psalm serves as an extended metaphor and explanation of the antithetical proverb expressed as a chiasm in the Coda (verse 6):
A For Yahweh knows
B the way of the righteous
B’ but the way of the wicked
A’ will perish
It’s important not to overemphasize this stark opposition between the “righteous” and the “wicked” in a simplistic, black-and-white way. This most wisdom-like of the Psalms is not claiming that there are no shades of gray in our commitment and walk of faith. People are complex; life is not so simple. Rather, this psalm strives to depict the two ways and their consequences for us in all their stark reality. At any one moment we find ourselves moving in one direction or the other, moving toward an ultimate destination. As the frontispiece of the Psalms, this snap-shot will serve to remind us of the joys and consequences of our journeys.