Introduction

Surprisingly, Psalm 2 was the first psalm until Psalm 1 became part of the collection of Psalms. Psalm 1 is likely the last of the psalms written. Psalm 1 is in need of introduction to fully appreciate it. The author of Psalm 1 may have penned it during peace time between the exiles of Israel and Judea, or in response to the messages of the prophets. [1]

It seems the Psalmist thinks along the same lines as the New Testament Pharisees. The New Testament Pharisees were extremely strict when it came to observing the Old Testament Law because they believed the defeat and exile of the nation in the Old Testament was because of their unfaithfulness to God. And that is the very reason God cited through the prophets. But the Pharisees made the mistake of adding to the Law of God and made it a burden on the people. The psalmist focuses on the Law of God. He loves the Law, delights in it, and places a high priority on meditating on it.

Knowledge of Hebrew poetry reveals the impressive poetry of Psalm 1. Paying careful attention as one goes through the lines increases one’s appreciation of the poet’s effort. We as readers must seek to understand the intention of the poet and what they are doing in the poem.

Parallel lines are foundational to Hebrew Poetry. Thoughts are frequently repeated by groups of lines. There are several kinds of parallel lines with fancy names that do not matter nearly as much as what the parallel lines are doing for the poem. One must examine each line and its interaction with the other lines. The words chosen for specific purposes present subtle meanings and word play.

Psalm 1:1 The Blessed Described Negatively

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
Psalm 1:1

The first phrase, “How blessed is the man” is a half line written as an interjection[2] that wells up out of his heart and flows over his lips in praise of God, “How blessed!” The blessed man is in a good place or position. He is happy and content.

The psalmist continues by negatively describing the blessed man with a triplet of lines. The blessed man “does not…” The person that does not do the things the wicked does is the blessed one. The wicked are evildoers and the blessed do not think the way the wicked do.

To walk in the counsel of evildoers is to think like them. There is some debate among scholars whether it is to walk in the “counsel” or “council” of the wicked. The Hebrew word can carry either meaning. One finds a minority of translations and commentators support council. If it is council, it places the wicked in a group, whereas counsel indicates they are like minded with the wicked and points to the very core of their condition. It is counsel that fits the parallelism of Hebrew poetry in the next line whereas council does not.

Walking in the counsel of the wicked means to be under the influence of the guilty. It is not the beginning of influence or the slipping into wickedness, but rather it is the condition of being under the influence of the wicked already. They already think the same way as the wicked.

Although many people understand the second and third lines of this triplet as indication of sinking deeper into sin, we will see that is not the case here. The second line simply reiterates line one. This is a classic example of “Synonymous Parallelism” which simply presses the thought into one’s mind a second time. One could go a step further and say it is, “Static Synonymous Parallelism.” This is explained in a moment with the next line which is “Dynamic Synonymous Parallelism.”

The path is simply where one walks. The wicked and sinners are synonyms. Standing in the path of sinners indicates continual participation in the sinners’ journey of guilt. They are comfortable in the company of fellow sinners burdened with guilt. This person travels the same road of life and lives the same way of life as the sinners.

Sinner Defined

Now “sinner” is not a word used all that often today as it is as likeable as the word “hypocrite,” so it is worthwhile to discuss what is meant by “sinner” in the Bible. The Hebrew word for sinner (חַ֭טָּאִים) has a wide range of meaning. The word is often used of those who are to receive the wrath of God. It is sometimes used of a person who might be teachable and converted to serving God. It is also used to describe the person whose heart is set against God. “Sinner” always describes someone who is not right with God, but the situation is not necessarily unchangeable. But sinner is not a label to be used with disgust since they are not always without hope of repentance. Let it be a term that ignites compassion in us for those in need of God. Perhaps they are teachable and one day be willing to turn to God.

The comfort sinners find in the company of other sinners seems to them as a friend, though it brings destruction in the end. This present comfort lessens their desire to change. The thought of repentance seldom occurs to a sinner for consideration while they are comfortable in their sin, though possible. The sinner resist hearing of God and correcting their ways. Salvation is far from him. It is for their sake Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:15)

Scoffers

The next parallel line moves from the general terms of the previous two lines to the specific term of scoffers.[3] This heightens the tension. No longer is it in the vague terms of “wicked” and “sinner” but we are now informed it is precisely the “scoffer” we are talking about.

It is the slight change from the previous parallel lines that make it “Dynamic Synonymous Parallelism.” The second line had no movement and that is what made it “static.” Both lines are still “Synonymous Parallelisms.”

Twice Proverbs uses the word “scoffer” with the word “naïve”[4]. Scoffers are very vocal, thinking they know more than they do. They often resort to ridicule of those who oppose them to appear knowledgeable despite their inexperience and lack of knowledge. (see Proverbs 9:7) The Scoffer hears only his own rhetoric and does not listen to others. They heap ridicule on others. To sit down in the seat of scoffers means to take one’s place with them. This means to exclude themselves from the sphere of righteousness and indicates an enduring ungodly disposition.[5] The people the poet has in mind agree with and support the scoffers’ position against God.[6]

The first three and a half lines (verse 1) of the psalm has described the blessed in the negative by describing what they avoid in their discretion of the company they keep. Verse 2 turns a to a positive description of what he chooses and contrast the actions of the blessed man with those of the wicked.

Psalm 1:2 The Blessed Described Positively

But his delight is in the Law of the Lord,
And in His Law he meditates day and night.
Psalm 1:2

Psalm 1:2 is comprised of two parallel lines. They are “Synthetic Parallel” lines because they do not reiterate each other as synonymous parallelism do, nor are they opposites (Antithetical Parallelism).

These two lines have a logical relationship of cause and effect. The cause is his delight in the Law of the Lord and the effect is his meditation day and night. The Law of the lord is his source of contentment. It is his delight. Such a delight in fact, that day and night he meditates in the Law of the Lord.

What is it to meditate?

The Hebrew word here means to read or recite in an undertone. The blessed man immerses himself in the Law so deeply that he is mouthing the words as he recalls the Law, as he does so, he applies a sound that is barely audible and perhaps the words are not even intelligible to anyone else, but it puts his focus on God and His Law. This is the meditation of the blessed man. (See: Joshua 1:8).

Psalm 1:3 The State of The Blessed

He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
Psalm 1:3

Psalm 1:3[7] compares the blessed man to a tree (trans)planted near an irrigation ditch. The transplanted tree is not in its original place but was moved and planted near an adequate water source. The Hebrew word for stream indicates irrigation. An irrigation ditch does not sound as lovely as stream but maybe an acequia or lateral will do. The water source is not necessarily a natural source of water but is one used for irrigation. The ample water supply is the cause of the tree’s contentment.

The next two parallel lines give us the effects of this trees happy state. It produces fruit when it should. The second of these two parallel lines intensifies the first with, not even do its leaves show the first sign of thirst by withering. (dynamic). Lines 2 and 3 have a synthetic relationship to line 1 and have developed the idea of the tree planted by the water but seems to do nothing for the comparison of the man to the tree other than illustrating the happy state of the tree as an analogy of the happiness of the blessed.

The fourth line does not interact directly with the previous two parallel lines and could have appeared immediately after line 1 of the verse without the verse appearing broken. Yet the two parallel lines develop the happy condition of the tree to help us better appreciate the condition of the blessed man who prospers or succeeds in whatever he does. This final line of verse 3 is also synthetically parallel to the first line of the verse but has little relationship to lines 2 and 3 which seem parenthetical. Again, it is the effect of the cause in the first line of the verse that make it a synthetically parallel relationship. It refers to the contentment of the blessed man now instead of that of the tree he is compared to. Perhaps his success parallels the fruit of the tree. The blessed succeeds in whatever he does. Most Bible translations use the word “prospers” while a few uses the word “succeed.”[8]

Psalm 1:4-5 The Wicked Are Not Like the Blessed

The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
Psalm 1:4-5

In Palm 1:4 the palmist presents us with a comparison of the wicked introduced by, “The wicked are not so.” This seems to be another half line, giving reason to pause before continuing. The wicked are not like the blessed who are content. The psalmist compares the wicked to chaff driven away by the wind. This winnowed chaff sits in a pile outside. The pile is sitting there before a strong wind rises. After the wind settles down, the chaff pile is gone with only a footprint left on the ground among the stubble to remind a person where the pile was and to remind one how temporary chaff is. The pile of chaff simply could not stand in the face of the wind. The point of the psalmist is the dramatic vanishing of the chaff pile causes by the wind. The life of the wicked is fleeting and disappears without warning.

The single line comparison of the wicked to chaff serves as the cause statement and two following synonymous parallel lines that provide the effect in Psalm 1:5. The synonymous general terms of “wicked” and “sinners” from Psalm 1:1 return. The first line of Psalm 1:5 tells us the wicked will fail to stand in the face of the judgment, just like the chaff pile in the wind. The judgement refers to the final judgement before God. To stand in the judgment is to be acquitted. Not standing means they will be condemned.

The third line of this triplet intensifies the second line dramatically. The condemnation is an event, it is only the verdict. But not being in the assembly of the righteous is a lasting existence, it is the sentence awaiting the wicked. It is separation from God and all His people forever.

Psalm 1:6 A thoughtful Summary

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1:6

It is in Psalm 1:6 that we see the masterful hand of the poet at work as the two lines loaded with poetic features make us pause and think for a moment. The parallel lines of verse 6 also have the cause and effect interplay we have already seen in much of the psalm. The lines are opposites. (Antithetical Parallelism.) Line 1 is for the righteous and line 2 is for the wicked. There is still more in verse 6 to notice. Line 1 gives only a cause for the righteous while line two gives only an effect for the wicked. We expect a cause and effect for each the righteous and the wicked. We want four lines instead of just the two. What one thinks is a summary of the entire psalm, which it is in a way, becomes more of a fill-in-the-blank exam.

The meaning of verse 6:

God      approves     of the way of the,   righteous   and they      survive.   

God   disapproves   of the way of the,     wicked     and they    will perish.

Alternate candidates for survive:

(are preserved - opposite of perish; or maybe opposite of lost - are cared for, are kept, are shepherded)

Will perish can mean “will become lost”[9]

Perhaps a reader would unpack these two lines this way:

For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,

*And the blessed man is preserved.

*For the Lord despises the way of the wicked,

And the way of the wicked will perish.

The asterisk indicates the supplied lines.

Summary

This is what it is like to examine the poet’s intention as they fashion the poem together. It is certainly more work. But it increases one’s understanding of the passage as well as their appreciation for the well-crafted poetry of the Bible. The key is to ask why the poet did what they did. What does that line do? Or why is that word with these other words. Learning more about Hebrew poetry will expand the rewards of studying the poetic passages of scripture which is about one-third of the Bible.

Bibliography

[1] Briggs, C. A., & Briggs, E. G. (1906–1907). A critical and exegetical commentary on the book of Psalms (pp. 3–4). New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.

[2] Barnes, A. (1870–1872). Notes on the Old Testament: Psalms (Vol. 1, p. 2). London: Blackie & Son.

[3] Bratcher, R. G., & Reyburn, W. D. (1991). A translator’s handbook on the book of Psalms (p. 17). New York: United Bible Societies.

[4] Proverbs 19:25; 21:11

[5] Görg, M. (1990). יָשַׁב. G. J. Botterweck & H. Ringgren (Eds.), D. E. Green (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 6, p. 426). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Compare Psalm 1:1-3 to Jeremiah 17:7-8.

[8] I feel “prosper” has more financial overtones and therefore prefer succeeds which has more support in the lexicons for the hifʿil form as is used here. The qal form of צלח can carry the meaning of prosper.

[9] (HALOT qal-1)