Psalm 1

Psalm 1 is one of the first psalms I memorized in English and in Hebrew (posted in a plastic sleeve in the shower, one phrase at a time).

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!
But his delight is in the Torah of YHWH,
And in his Torah he meditates day and night.
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.

The wicked: not so–
For they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For YHWH knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.

It is quite appropriate that this psalm is the first. Along with the second psalm, it sets forth many of the themes we find throughout the Psalter. It is also instructive for the student of Hebrew poetry, since we find several of the most common devices: word pairs, different sorts of parallelism, symmetry, ellipsis.

The two halves of the poem focus on the righteous individual and on “the wicked,” plural. Unfortunately, the singular-plural contrast is lost in translations that, in the quest for gender neutrality, replace masculine singular pronouns with common plural pronouns.

What are the characteristics of this righteous individual? First, he does not keep the company of the wicked, or the sinners, or scoffers. This a wonderful example of ellipsis: the first phrase (“Blessed is the man who”) applies equally to each of the three that follow. The description is not only negative: keeping bad company is not enough. The righteous person delights in YHWH’s Torah/instruction, and meditates on this instruction day and night. Sometimes the point is made in commentaries or popular exposition that “day and night” could mean a “quiet time” in the morning and evening, or daily prayers and sunrise and sunset. This phrase is more appropriately thought of as consistent, iterative, constant thought and consideration of all that YHWH has communicated in the scriptures. The metaphor of the tree firmly planted is found throughout the Hebrew Bible, and of course in literature more broadly. The tree bears fruit in time, and does not suffer the decay/entropy of physical trees–this tree is like those planted along the “river of the water of life” in Revelation 22:1-2, whose leaves do not whither but actually provide “healing for the nations.”

Verses 1 and 3 are the longest in the psalm (fourteen words), followed by verse 2 (nine words). Verses 4-6 each contain seven words. There is no elaboration of the deeds or characteristics of the wicked, as there is of the blessed man–elaboration on the deeds of wickedness is unnecessary. The wicked have no root like the righteous man, and are blown away like chaff to decay. The wicked cannot “stand” in the judgment–“standing” is more than merely being subjected to judgment, it is vindication. Again, ellipsis or “gapping” creates a balance in the poetic line: “Will-not-stand” applies to both phrases (“the-wicked in-the-judgment” and “and-sinners in-the-assembly-of the-righteous”), so the second colon lengthens to compensate.

YHWH “knows” the way of the righteous–isn’t he also aware of the way of the wicked? “Knowing” must mean something deeper, an intimacy and approval of the conduct of the righteous people (plural).

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, exiled to the land of Phillies fans…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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One Response to Psalm 1

  1. Pingback: Best of 2013 | think hard, think well

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