Psalm 1: Torah and the Way of the Righteous

Introduction

Psalm 1 serves as an introduction to the Psalter. Along with the other Torah Psalms, which have been strategically placed in specific central positions throughout the Psalter, Psalm 1 serves to place the Psalter as well as the worship of the community of faith in the context of the choice of whether or not to live torah. The basic message of the Psalm is that a life centered on torah leads to blessings, life, acceptance by Yahweh, and inclusion in the eschatological community of faith while the path of those who reject torah leads to ruin, worthlessness, and exclusion from the eschatological community of faith.  This essay will discuss the content of Psalm 1 in greater detail, before analyzing the genre of Torah Psalms, and the significance of their placement throughout the Psalter.

 

Content

The aim of the first verse of Psalm 1 is to communicate the progressive solidification in wickedness that a person undergoes if they do not live Torah, as well as the negative results of this way of life. The first word is an intensive plural in Hebrew and is designed to signify the multitude of blessings for those who do not live a life that is devoid of Torah[1]. There is a triadic structure to the narrative sequence of the first verse. Firstly, there are three phases or degrees of pursuit of non righteous things. These are walking, standing and sitting[2]. This movement is counter-intuitive and seems to represent a progressive departure away from God and a solidifying of one’s wickedness[3]. Secondly, there are three degrees of fellowship or involvement in evil. These are counsel, path and seat[4]. In these three degrees there is a definite progression away from God and a greater identifying of the person with those who are ungodly[5]. Thirdly, there are three degrees of ungodly people who are being associated with. They are the wicked, sinners and scoffers. Again, we see a progression in the levels of ungodly people involved with[6]. The title ‘scoffer’ signifies an active participation in derision and an attitude of contempt towards Yahweh[7]. The Psalmist portrays this as the ending position of one who continues in their progression away from God. The triadic pattern demonstrates a progressive movement away from Yahweh, and a pattern of habit forming until one is solidified in wickedness[8].

 

In verse two the Psalmist equates the meditation on and living of Torah with the way of the righteous, happy person, thereby equating the aforementioned way of the wicked with those who do not live or meditate on Torah[9]. But what is meant by Torah? Bullock asserts that as individual piety developed in the direction of postexilic wisdom thought, the way of the righteous became synonymous with the way of Torah so that in most of the psalms Torah is synonymous with our idea of worldview rather than the law outlined in the Pentateuch by itself[10]. It is clear that the foundation of Torah is in the Pentateuch; however it seems that Bullock is correct in recognizing that in the post-exilic Psalter, Torah is a God centered way of life rather than adherence to the Mosaic Law alone[11]. This revealed way of life is portrayed as liberating, life giving and demanding[12]. Given the post-exilic understanding of Torah it seems that the meditation which is mentioned would be more than a reading of the Pentateuch. It is likely to be continuous meditation on the life God wishes us to live and a lining up ones thoughts with God’s will[13].  Verse 1:3 is connected with the former verse on the Torah and consists of a metaphor and a propositional statement about the results of living torah. It compares the righteous person who delights in and meditates on Yahweh’s Torah with a tree planted by a stream[14]. This image suggests that living Torah nourishes and transforms a person. The image of being planted signifies solidarity in a certain way of living life as being seated did in verse one[15]. The fruit, that is mentioned, represents blessings[16]. The text asserts that this fruit does not wither. This seems to suggest freedom from crippling circumstances and seasonal blessings[17].  In contrast to the symbolism of the well nourished tree planted by the stream, the wicked are compared to worthless chaff[18].

 

The last two verses drive home the contrasting consequences of one’s choice between the two possibilities. Firstly, Verse 1:5 could possibly refer to the coming judgment, in which case it would seem to assert that the wicked will not be able ”stand” or endure, Gods final judgment and will therefore not be admitted into the eschatological community of faith, while the righteous will[19]. Secondly, Verse 1:6 suggests that God identifies himself with those who walk the righteous path [20]. In contrast the next part of the verse proclaims that the way of the wicked perishes. This seeks to communicate that the wicked will come to nothing or will go to ruin[21].

Style

Psalm 1 is one of a few Psalms which correspond to the Genre ‘Torah Psalms’. The Psalms are poetic writings that were designed to be read, chanted or sung by the post-exilic Israelite community[22]. The Torah Psalms are linked by their emphasis of the importance of living torah for the community of faith. They focus on the beauty of Torah, using poetic devices such as chiasmus, reiteration, and metaphor to communicate its life giving nature and its associated blessings[23]. However, each Torah Psalm has its own specific message to communicate about the Torah. While Psalm 1 seeks to make the living of Torah the defining factor of whether or not one is a righteous person, Psalm 19 emphasizes the living of Torah as an act of worship. Together these Psalms piece together a wholesome view of the living of Torah as the beautiful God ordained means of worship, and challenge the community of faith with the call to live Torah.

 

Significance

This Psalter has been structured intentionally by its compilers so as to emphasize certain concepts in the worship of the community of faith[24]. The Psalter was most likely compiled by a post-exilic priestly circle, for the purpose of the facilitation of the public reading of the Psalms[25]. This is evidenced by the number of Psalms (around 150), which closely corresponds to the number of Psalms needed in order to allow one Psalm to be read per week for each three year cycle, in the liturgy of the Israelite community of faith, as well as the Psalter being composed of five books in reminiscence of the five books of the Pentateuch[26]. The Torah Psalms have special significance in the Psalter[27]. While Psalm 1 serves as an introduction to the Psalter, Psalm 19 and 119 are also central to their own books of the Psalter. The Torah Psalms serve as a unifying point of view by which the Psalter is to be read and understood[28]. Psalm 1 is one such Torah Psalm. It stands at the beginning of the Psalter as a faithful doorkeeper, confronting the community of faith with the basic choice between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked[29]. On the recognition that the Psalter was originally compiled for use in corporate worship, one can see that the centrality of Torah is designed to persuade the audience of the worth and life-giving nature of Torah, in order that they will choose to live Torah. Each Torah psalm has a neighbouring Psalm with an eschatological focus[30]. This structure serves to place the call to live Torah in an Eschatological and international context.

 

Conclusion

In order to persuade its audience to live Torah, Psalm 1 employs several metaphors which contrast with one another so as to emphasize the difference between the results of living Torah or not living Torah[31]. Psalm 1 is one of several Torah Psalms which seek to persuade their audience of the worth of Torah and its resulting blessings. These Psalms are strategically placed in central places of the Psalter so as to place the community of faiths worship in the context of the call to live Torah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Alter, R., The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007).

 

 Anderson, A.A., Psalms 1-72 edited by R.E. Clements. (The New Century Bible Commentary, 1; London: Marsh, Morgan and Scott, 1972).

 

Bullock, C Hassel., Encountering the Book of Psalms: A literary and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).

 

 Goldingay, J., Psalms 1-41 edited by T. Longman. (Baker Commentary of the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, 1; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006).

 

 Keathley, J.H., “Psalm 1: Two Ways of Life A Psalm of Wisdom”. http://bible.org/article/psalm-1-two-ways-life-psalm-wisdom (accessed 10 May, 2012).

 

 Kidner, D., Psalms 1-72 edited by D.J. Wiseman. (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, 1973).

 

Mays, J.L., “The Place of the Torah-Psalms in the Psalter” Journal of Biblical Literature 106/1 (1987): 3-12.

 

Pinto, B.D., “The Torah and the Psalms” Journal of Biblical Literature 86/2 (1967): 154-174.

 

 

 


[1] It could be better translated as, “how very, very happy is” to bring out this exclamation of the multitude of blessings for the righteous person. J.H. Keathley, “Psalm 1: Two Ways of Life A Psalm of Wisdom”. http://bible.org/article/psalm-1-two-ways-life-psalm-wisdom.

[2] R. Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007), 3. Walking on a way is a traditional metaphor for pursuing a particular set of choices in life

[3] J. Goldingay, Psalms 1-41 ed. T. Longman. (Baker Commentary of the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, 1; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 82. It is counter intuitive because the movement is from walking to sitting instead of from sitting to walking as one would usually expect. D. Kidner, Psalms 1-72 ed. D.J. Wiseman. (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, 1973), 48.  This is made evident by the Hebrew word for “sit”, which emphasises being entrenched and comfortable in ones position. Keathley, “Psalm 1: Two Ways of Life A Psalm of Wisdom”.

[4] Keathley, “Psalm 1: Two Ways of Life A Psalm of Wisdom”.

[5] This can be seen particularly in the third line of the verse in which the person is seated with the ungodly, since being seated is symbolic of a high level of fellowship.

[6] Goldingay, Psalms 1-41, 83. A scoffer is someone who mocks, derides, or ridicules A.A. Anderson, Psalms 1-72 ed. R.E. Clements. (The New Century Bible Commentary, 1; London: Marsh, Morgan and Scott, 1972), 59. A scoffer is more ungodly than a sinner or the wicked and the furthest from repentance. Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 48.

[7] Anderson, Psalms 1-72, 59.

[8] The context and tone of the verse suggests that it is a person’s choice as to which way they walk. Goldingay, Psalms 1-41, 82-83. However, the main function of the three negatives is to clear the way for the positive exhortation which is mentioned in the next verse

[9] Anderson, Psalms 1-72, 59. The translation of torah to law is inadequate, and fails to communicate the meaning of the Hebrew. A better translation is God’s teaching for life. The verse talks about delighting in the Torah. This means to live Torah and to see Torah as a blessing rather than a hindrance.

[10] C.H. Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms: A literary and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 214-216.

[11] This view is backed up by the psalms (Pss 40:6; 50:23; 51:16-17; 141:2) and prophetic writings (Mi 6:8) which criticize the emphasis on the ceremonial law in the concept of Torah and put forward the thesis that the essence of Torah is being in a right relationship with God by doing the Will of God and treating our fellow human Beings in the correct way. Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, 214. This is the same view we see in the New Testament writers and the teachings of Jesus. Although they reject any assertion of the importance and necessity of the ceremonial Law for the New Testament community, Jesus, Paul and James stress the primary importance of loving God and our neighbour.

[12] Anderson, Psalms 1-72, 59.

[13] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 48. This would include a study of the Scriptures. Anderson, Psalms 1-72, 60.

[14] Such a tree would gain great nourishment from the water and would grow well and bear good fruit.

[15] These two images are linked; both are seen as long term journeys of character solidification. Just as the wicked end up solidified in their character as scoffers, so also the righteous end up planted like a tree and bearing fruit in season.  Alter, The Book of Psalms, 4. In the semi-arid environment of Israel this would have been a powerful image, as everyone knew that a tree needed to be near a water source to flourish.

[16] Notice that the growing of the fruit is not immediate but is in season.

[17] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 48. Rather than an independence of the rhythm of the seasons, since the previous verse precludes this reading. Scholars disagree as to whether the last part of the verse denotes God as the subject who makes everything the righteous man does thrive or whether it is the righteous man himself who makes everything he does thrive by living torah. Goldingay makes a strong case for the translation “He makes everything that he does thrive”, based on the immediate context and other uses of the language. Goldingay, Psalms 1-41, 79. This is significant because it is the response of the righteous man to live Torah that makes him thrive rather than some intervention by Yahweh.  

[18] This metaphor is given in verse 4. Chaff is the husks and fragments of straw that are blown away in the process of winnowing. The chaff has no purpose or worth and is therefore discarded in the winnowing process. Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 48. The juxtaposition of these two metaphors serves to emphasise the difference between the results of the choice to live Torah or not to live Torah.

[19] This interpretation is backed up by similar language in Nah 1:6. Though scholars continue to disagree about this verses interpretation. Anderson, Psalms 1-72, 62.

[20] The Hebrew word used to communicate Gods state of relationship with the righteous person is usually translated “embraces”, however, it literally means “knows”. This denotes an intimate connection between God and the righteous, which is akin to that between a man and woman. Alter, The Book of Psalms, 4.

    Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 49.

[21] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 49.

[22] Alter, The Book of Psalms, xviii-xix. While the Psalms are poetry, many of them are actually in the form of prayers to God.

[23] Psalm 1 uses metaphoric images to communicate the difference between living Torah and not living it. e.g. The wicked are pictured as chaff and those who meditate on Torah are pictured as a tree planted near a stream.

[24] Alter, The Book of Psalms, xviii-xix.

[25] Alter, The Book of Psalms, xviii-xix.

[26] This demonstrates that the Psalter was read alongside the Pentateuch. Alter, The Book of Psalms, xviii-xix.

[27] Alter, The Book of Psalms, xviii-xix. This is no surprise if they were read alongside the Pentateuch.

[28] J.L. Mays, “The Place of the Torah-Psalms in the Psalter” JBL 106/1 (1987): 9. The Torah Psalms are 1, 19, and 119.

[29] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 47.

[30] Mays, “The Place of the Torah-Psalms in the Psalter”, 11. Psalm 1 sits next to psalm 2 which has an emphasis on the need for the nations to choose the right way or be punished. Mays, “The Place of the Torah-Psalms in the Psalter”, 7-11. Psalm 1’s contrast between the consequences of the two ways to live, leads into the warning of Psalm 2:11-12 that the nations will be destroyed if they continue on in their way. Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, 60.

[31] For example verse 3’s metaphor of tree planted close to water contrasts with verse 4’s metaphor of the chaff that is blown away.

 

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