And so begins the book of Psalms.
Let’s step back for a minute and look at the book as a whole. Longman in How to Read the Psalms, calls the book of Psalms “a ‘microcosm’ of the message of the Old Testament.” He quotes several church fathers with the same message, but perhaps the plainest is how Martin Luther refers to the Psalms: “a little Bible and the summary of the Old Testament.” The Psalms talk about creation and law and history and exile and return from exile and the hope we have for the future for salvation of the righteous and judgment of evil. As we study them, we will find all of that. Today’s passage is actually a little microcosm of it all.
When you read the Psalms it quickly becomes evident that there are different types. Some of the Psalms are songs of praise to God. Some are laments. Some seem to be history lessons. The poems are definitely not all alike. So one of the first questions we should ask when reading and studying them is what type of Psalm is it? In the case of the first one, it is a wisdom psalm or a torah psalm. Wisdom is a type of biblical literature. Proverbs is mostly a wisdom book, as is Ecclesiastes. Wisdom literature offers a choice of two ways of life to the reader. And that’s what Psalm 1 does. There are 2 options in this Psalm — the blessed, righteous way or the way of the wicked. But Psalm 1 is also considered a Torah psalm. (That’s not uncommon for a Psalm to fit into more than one category.) Torah is the Hebrew name for the law, which usually refers to the first 5 books of the Old Testament, but can also be a more general term for the OT Scriptures as a whole. A Torah Psalm celebrates the law of the Lord as a blessing to the author, and by extension to the reader. In Psalm 1, a righteous person “delights in the law of the Lord,” whereas the wicked do not.
Another thing that we quickly notice when reading the Psalms is the fact that they are poems. We all learned about English poetry in school and how it works with rhyme and meter. But this is Hebrew poetry translated into English. Rhyming and meter do not translate, which is one reason we don’t see that in the Psalms. Another reason we don’t see that in the Psalms, is those weren’t primary characteristics of Hebrew poetry. Instead Hebrew poetry uses parallelism as its primary characteristic. In the first verse of Psalm 1, the parallelism is synonymous, which means they are similar in meaning (walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, sit in the seat of mockers). This can feel repetitive to our ears, but the repetition is a key component to the poems. Here when we read those lines, we think about the different ways we can turn from God. Taking advice from people who don’t know God isn’t always wise. Doing things the ways sinners do them can take us down some hard roads. The third line as written in the NIV is mockers, but other translations have this word as scoffers. That’s not a word we use much. Proverbs 21:24 gives us a biblical definition for it. The ESV says it “is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.” The NIV11 describes this person as proud and arrogant, who “behaves with insolent fury.” Personally, I feel like I’ve been surrounded with scoffers the past few months. So the question becomes how do we stay out of their seat? How do we avoid the counsel of the wicked and the way of sinners? This parallelism emphasizes something. Here it emphasizes what blessed people do NOT do.
Verse 2 contrasts with verse 1 in that instead of telling us what a blessed man does not do, it tells us what that person does do. “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he mediates day and night.” This is another type of parallelism — a chiasm. A chiasm is defined as a literary structure where parallel elements correspond in reverse order. This is a simple one. ABB’A’ is the notation, each letter corresponding to a thought, with the apostrophe version identifying the parallel thought.
A = His delight
B = on the law of the Lord
B’= on his law
A’ = he meditates day and night
The center of this is the law of the Lord. The chiasm emphasizes to location of the blessed person’s focus. It is on God’s Word where they find joy and on which they meditate.
Another major Hebrew poetic device is imagery. We are familiar with imagery in language and in English poems. It works the same way in Hebrew poetry where a picture is meant to help us understand the point that is being made. The difficulty we run into is that the Hebrew culture, and therefore the images that are used, is not only very different from ours, but also from thousands of years ago. It’s hard to understand sheep metaphors if we don’t know much about sheep. Or shepherd metaphors if we don’t know how shepherds functioned thousands of years ago in the Middle East. So to really understand what the Psalmist is talking about, we will need to do some investigation of the culture that they were written in. In this chapter, the image isn’t so distant though. It appears in verse 3.
This image of a tree is a common one in Scripture. Jeremiah uses this same image in his prophecy:
“But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no wo4ries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”Jeremiah 17:7-8
This sounds just like the image used to describe the man in Psalm 1. Both authors are comparing a person who trusts in the Lord, who loves the words of the Lord, who has confidence in God to save and protect, to a tree that is rooted next to a plentiful source of water. A tree that always has life. A tree that consistently bears fruit. This image doesn’t point to a specific type of tree, so picture your favorite type. Maybe it’s an apple tree or an orange tree or a walnut tree. Picture this tree (or more than one tree) along a bubbling creek. The water is always there to draw from. And as it drinks from the water, it grows and flourishes. It’s branches stretch out and offer shade. It’s fruit feeds others and plants new trees along the stream. Take a minute to picture that in your head or use some of the images below.
As I looked for images I realized something. All of my pictures with water and trees give me a sense of peace. Sometimes the water is flowing straight over a cliff and making all sorts of noise, but there is a peace about these places. Not just in the images, but I remember the peace of being in those spots. Even in the one I had to climb 2 hours to get to. It was so worth it. And that’s true about working to put our focus on God’s Word as well. It is so worth it! That’s a point will get to in the next post about this Psalm, but worth pointing out now.
The image of a tree planted by streams of water is the psalmist’s picture for someone who trusts in God, who delights in his Word (written and THE Word), whose confidence is in the unshakeable source of living water. I pray that you can find your delight in the law of the Lord today. That you meditate on it and on Him. And that the living water will sustain you and give you peace.
May you be blessed by the Word of God today. We will finish Psalm 1 later this week.