Commentary on Psalm 1
The poets and compilers of the Book of Psalms were clearly in touch with a perennial human issue — happiness.1
“Happy” is the very first word in the Psalter, and the repetition of “happy” in Psalm 2:12 provides an envelope-structure for the two psalms that introduce the book. Given this introductory function, it is not surprising that “happy” will occur over twenty more times in the Psalter; and indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the whole Book of Psalms offers a commentary on the single word “happy.”
Some 2,500 years or so after the origin of Psalm 1, we are still thinking about and talking about happiness. There has even emerged in relatively recent years an academic discipline within the social sciences called “happiness studies,” and there is now a Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being. As the word “subjective” in the title of the journal suggests, happiness scholars are interested in what people think and feel about various aspects of their lives — income level, relationships, health, career, and so on. While this approach is interesting and important, it is fundamentally different from the psalmists’ approach to happiness. For the psalmists, the primary subject is not the human being, but rather God! So, happiness is not primarily about what we human beings feel, desire, or accomplish. In short, and in contrast to much of what our society tells us, happiness is not about doing what we want to do. Rather, happiness is about doing what God wants done.
The God-driven life
The repetition of the Hebrew torah in verse 2 reinforces this conclusion. The traditional translation “law” is quite misleading; and in the history of interpretation, it has led to very negative assessments of Psalm 1, which many commentators have construed as legalistic and retributional. But torah does not mean “law.” Rather, it means “teaching” or ‘instruction” (see the Common English Bible’s “Instruction”); and in the broadest sense, it suggests God’s will.
So, Psalm 1 does not mean that happiness can be reduced to a mechanical process of following a set of rules, for which one is duly rewarded. Instead, happiness is a dynamic process that involves — indeed requires — constant meditation (“day and night”) upon God’s will, in order to discern what God would have us do in any and every situation. In short, as Jesus would later summarize the torah, happiness derives from discerning what it means at all times and in all places to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … And … your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; see Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).
The translation “prosper” in verse 3 has also contributed to the misunderstanding of Psalm 1, since it has suggested to many commentators the promise of a reward for obedience — even a material reward, since “prosper” in English almost inevitably connotes money or material wealth. A better translation is “thrives” (Jewish Publication Society Bible). If there is a reward involved, that reward is the stability and strength derived from connectedness to God that offers the opportunity to grow and bear fruit. This understanding of reward is, of course, not tied to a retributional system (or a retributional God).
In a similar direction, verses 4-5 do not portray a retributional system whereby God punishes “the wicked.” Rather, by their own choice, “the wicked” separate themselves from God. Verse 5 could be translated, “The wicked do not stand up for justice.” Why? Because, unlike “the righteous,” they do not attend to God’s torah. In other words, God does not exclude “the wicked” from “the congregation of the righteous.” Rather, “the wicked” choose not to be there. To be sure, one may conclude that the consequences of this choice are “punishing.” But if so, this is not a punishment that God intends.
The choice is ours
In the final analysis, Psalm 1 invites a choice — our choice. There are clearly two ways. Note the repetition of “way” in verse 6, and see also “path” in verse 1 and “way” in Psalm 2:12. The contrasting ways yield sharply different consequences that are emphasized by the first and last words of the psalm — “Happy” and “perish.” “Happy” begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and “perish” begins with the final letter. The rhetorical style emphasizes the comprehensiveness of the choice. Will we choose God’s way, which promises life? Or will we choose to go our own way, which promises death?
Can we be more specific? Are there guidelines or criteria to assess whether we are genuinely choosing and following God’s way? Yes! In fact, two key Hebrew roots in Psalm 1 are suggestive in this regard — the roots underlying “justice” (New Revised Standard Version Bible “judgment”) and “righteous.” These two roots constitute a summary of what God wills; and it is likely that the introductory Psalm 1 intentionally anticipates what many scholars consider to be the theological heart of the Psalter — that is, the enthronement psalms (Psalms 93, 95-99). The core-psalms of this collection (Psalms 96-99) all mention “justice” and “righteousness.” Psalms 96 and 98 even say that God “is coming (a Hebrew participle indicating continuous action in the present into the future) to establish justice on the earth … with righteousness” (my translation; see also the Common English Bible). Other key psalms, especially Psalms 72 and 82, also feature “justice” and “righteousness” as basic articulations of God’s will, defining them as attendance to and provision for the poor, the weak, and the needy.
If there is a law involved, it is the law of love (see Romans 13:8-10). The promise of Psalm 1, reinforced by Jesus and Paul, is that the God-directed and neighbor-oriented way is the most rewarding and happiness-producing life possible. The choice is ours.
1 Commentary adapted from a version first published on this site on May 17, 2015.