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PSALM 1: TEXT AND NOTES (The text of Psalm 1 is my own translation. You are urged to consult a recognised translation such as the RSV or the NAB)
Vs 1 Happy the man who walks not according to the direction of the wicked, stands not on the path with sinners, sits not in the assembly of scorners.
Happiness in the bible has little to do with the emotional state we often associate the word with. The happy man is one who enjoys God’s blessing here, and looks forward to its fullness in the future. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for happy, asre, is derived from a Semitic stem which in its verb form means “walk” or “go forward”; and in its noun form means “a footstep”. Our life then is conceived of as a pilgrimage, a religious journey towards God and full happiness. This accounts for the journey motif which dominates this Psalm.
The present state of the happy man, which will reach its fullness only in the future, is described first by using a three-fold negation:
1) The happy man is one who walks not according to the directions of the wicked. In the bible, the word walk, along with the word path and its synonyms (way, road) are used as metaphors for ones moral actions and life. In keeping with the journey motif I have translated the Hebrew word etsah (ay-tsaw) as direction rather than the commonly used “counsel” or “advice”.
2) The happy man stands not on the road with sinners. As already noted, the word road or path is a metaphor for ones moral activity. The Hebrew word chattaw (khat-taw) is derived from a root word which, among other things, can mean “to miss a target,” but also can mean “to go errant from a course, road or direction.
3) The happy man sits not in the assembly of scorners. The word sits translates the Hebrew mosab. The word has the sense of keeping formal company. The scorner is one who mocks the will of God and its manifestation in true religion (see Psalm 119:51)
The three negations of verse 1 appear to increase in their designation of evil situations. Taking directions from the unrighteous is foolish enough, but accompanying them on a journey is even more foolish; worse still is it to gather formally with them and share in their deliberations which scorn God’s law and those who follow it.
Vs 2 But in the law of the Lord is his delight, upon this law he ponders day and night.
Verse 2 begins to describe the just man in positive terms. He is now described according to that which shows him to be just. The word but is emphatic, highlighting the different approach to the subject and emphasising the utter contrast between the truly just one and those who live in accord with the negations of verse 1.
Rather than listening to the directions of sinners and finding a false kind of happiness in the company of such people, the truly happy man delights in the law of the Lord. Delight is a translation of the word chaphets (khaw-fates). One could translate the verse to read “his inclination is towards the law of the Lord, upon this law he ponders…” One moves towards what one delights in and desires. The sense of the Hebrew chaphets
then could have a connection to the journey motif.
Law here would be better translated as instruction. The Hebrew word torah can mean either law or instruction; with the second meaning being the more common meaning for not all instructions are laws, but all laws are, in some sense, instructive. Remember that the Law of Moses consists of the first five books of the OT, but Genesis and the first several chapters of Exodus, along with various parts of other books, contain few laws but much narrative.
Not only does the happy man delight in the law, but he also ponders it continuously. This word ponder (Hebrew hagah) originally referred to the cooing of a dove and is usually translated as “meditates”. When the Jews meditated on the law they would recite it in low tones, much as we do with the Our Father or the Psalms. The word then refers to thoughtful, reflective prayer. This stands in marked contrast to the scorners mentioned in verse 1. the Hebrew word for scorn originally referred to the talk of people of foreign tongues. It came to be applied to those who childishly mimic people. (see Isaiah 28:9-11 and the corresponding footnotes of the NAB)
Vs 3 He is like a tree well-planted by steams of water, which gives forth its fruit in its season; its leaves do not wither. Whatsoever he does, he prospers.
A good bit of the Holy Land is quite dry, and therefore treeless. Also, during a certain time of the year the Sirriocco winds begin to blow in from the desert and wither much of the foliage. A tree which has been well-planted by flowing water however, would do well. The word I have translated as well-planted implies that the tree in the image has in fact been transplanted beside the water. This perhaps suggests the idea that the just man is taken care of by God, who is sometimes described in the bible as a husbandman (grower of trees, vines, ect. See Isaiah 5:1-7; Luke 13:6-9).
In the prophet Jeremiah the wise man is described as a tree near water while the fool is described as a desert shrub:
5: Thus says the LORD: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his arm, whose heart turns away from the LORD. 6: He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. 7: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. 8: He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (RSV Jer 17) See alos Revelation 22:1-3
In keeping with the wisdom motif of the Psalm, it should be noted that the word wither in its Hebrew form, can also be applied to foolish men or things as in Proverbs 30:32. The word can also be applied to the act of treating something with contempt, as in Micah 7:6.
Vs 4 But not so are the wicked! They are like chaff driven on by the wind.
This verse begins with the Hebrew word loken which is translated above as but. This word highlights in an emphatic way the contrast between what was said in verse 3 concerning the just, and what is said in verse 4 concerning the wicked.
In stark contrast to verse 3 the wicked are here described as useless chaff. Chaff refers to the outer shell or husks from which grain was taken. Light, dry, sterile, it was utterly useless. It was fit only to burn, but even in this it was useless, since it burned so quickly it wasn’t even adequate for use as kindling. Most people simply left it on the ground to be driven away by the wind. It is hard to imagine an image of rootlessness and bareness more fitting than this. (see the prayer against enemies in Psalm 35:5) The winnowing of chaff is used, throughout the Bible, as a image of God’s judgement (see Hosea 13:2-3 and Matthew 3:12).
Wind is also used as an image of God’s punishment (see Psalm 18:42; Psalm 48:7; Hosea 13:15)
Vs 5 For this reason the wicked will not withstand the judgement, nor sinners stand in the assembly of the righteous.
The wicked will not stand in the judgement because the are like chaff. As chaff has no root in the ground these people have not root in God or his torah. In the judgement they will not stand with God and his holy people but will be removed from their presence.
The reference to sinners standing and the term assembly reminds us of the negations of verse 1. A man who stands not on the road with sinners, sits not in the assembly of scorners shows that he is already on the way to God and the fullness of happiness to come. A happiness which consist in withstanding God’s judgement and being present with the just.
Vs 6 The Lord whatches over the way of the just, but the way of the wicked perishes.
As a farmer who has transplanted a tree or vine keeps careful watch over it and cares for it, so God keeps careful watch over the righteous as they live out their life. The barren way of the wicked can only end in destruction.
(NOTE:The Psalm has a very interesting feature. The first word of the text (happy) begins with the first letter of the Hebrew Bible. The last word (perish) begins with the last letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. As far removed as Z is from A- that’s how far removed the righteous are from sinners)