Psalm 1, perhaps also Psalm 2, serves as a preface or introduction to the Psalter. It says something important about how we should read, sing, pray, and meditate on Psalms.
There is some text-critical evidence (variant readings) that Acts 13:33 calls Psalm 2 the “first Psalm,” and some medieval manuscripts write the first psalm in red. This suggests that some believed Psalm 1 introduces the whole book of Psalms. So the question is: how does Psalm 1 orient us to the practice of praying and singing the Psalms? That can only be answered by a close reading and focused understanding of the psalm.
Psalm 1 is neither a prayer nor a song. Rather, it is a teaching. Often classified as a Torah Psalm (that is, a Psalm that intends to teach, instruct, or guide in reflection of what Yahweh has revealed to Israel), it also serves as a Wisdom Psalm (that is, offering a general perspective on life), and both genres orient the worshiper who uses Psalms. The psalms become a way of life; they provide guidance in how to pray, what language to use about God, how to think about life in communion with God, and how to live with God in the midst of life. Psalms teaches people how to praise, pray (event protest), and give thanks (testify).
Psalm 1 is deeply rooted in both Torah and Wisdom as both teach there are two ways. The righteous and the wicked take different paths. This kind of language is common throughout the Torah (obediently following God and refusing to obey God) and Wisdom (wise people and foolish people). Jesus reflects this same vision of “paths” in Matthew 7:13-14. There is a path that leads to destruction (even self-destruction) and there is a path that leads to life (even the abundant life). The wise choose the latter while the foolish choose the former (Matthew 7:24-27). Can you sing the song? Upon what did are we building our houses–rock (wise) or sand (fools)?
As one student helpfully suggested, this sounds like “us versus them” thinking, or at least it sounds like a kind of arrogant “we are righteous” and “you are sinners” kind of thing. Certainly some might use Psalm 1 to reinforce their hostile and antagonistic attitudes towards others they believe are “sinners” (even if they are not). Clearly we neither want to claim any kind of sinless status, nor do we want to treat people with hostility in an “us versus them” sort of way.
However, I don’t think that is the picture here. Indeed, Jesus ate with sinners, and he loved sinners. We are all sinners in some sense. At the same time, Jesus also prayed the psalms (often quoting them) and recognized the distinction between the foolish and the wise.
So, what is the point of the Psalm 1? It is about the direction in which our life is oriented and the path we have chosen to take. Do we seek to live under God’s guidance, or do we choose the advice of those who live self-destructive lives? Do we choose to live out God’s story for our lives, or do we create our own story? We have a choice, and the crux of the decision is to choose whether we will humbly submit to God’s Torah (guidance, instruction, or story) or whether we will arrogantly create our own path. This is the choice Psalm 1 sets before us.
One path leads to death or destruction, even self-destruction. This path is like chaff in the wind. It leads nowhere and is blown away by the wind. The path ultimately means that they cannot withstand the close scrutiny of life, that is, their life is ultimately empty and without substance. That path has no goal, and it ultimately has no place to stand. It is blown about by the winds of life.
The other path leads to life. It is a fruitful and productive life. Deeply rooted, it is stable. Planted by water, it is constantly refreshed and nourished. The path of wisdom results in a centered-life, and one that prospers.
But does the wise path always prosper? Surely we all know people, even the best of people, who suffer greatly despite their wise choices.
It is good to remember that we are reading poetry, and it is a wisdom poem at that. The psalm speaks in general terms. Within God’s good creation, a wise path tends toward life, while a foolish path tends towards self-destruction, which is the whole point of Proverbs 1-9. But there are exceptions (Job is a memorable one within the canon), and the Psalter will remind us that they exist. In fact, the biblical psalms include the prayers of righteous sufferers, diseased devotees, and dying believers. The Psalter is not naive, and neither is Psalm 1.
Nevertheless, wisdom teaches that which we path we choose entails blessings or consequences. It says something about how life works within God’s created order. There are practices and habits that bring death, and there are those that bring life.
- live (walk) by the advice (counsel) of the foolish (wicked),
- choose (stand) the path of those who reject God’s Torah (sinners), and
- participate (sit) in or join in the planning (assembly) of mockers hostile to God,
then we have chosen a path that leads to destruction.
The Psalmist has chosen a different path; he sits in the assembly of the righteous (disciples of God’s Torah) rather than in the assembly of the mockers.
- delight, love, and embrace the teaching (story, narrative) of Yahweh and
- immerse themselves in that narrative through prayer, reflection, and worship
As we read, sing, and pray the psalms, we have a choice. We may either submit our hearts and lives to the language, values, and story of Yahweh’s teaching through Psalms, or we may create our own language, values, and story by ignoring or rejecting Psalms.
Psalm 1 invites us to decide how we will approach the Psalter. Will we read in humility seeking to learn how to praise, pray, and give thanks, or will we read them in arrogant dismissal? Psalm 1 prepares us for a journey through the Psalter, and it recommends humble submission. Psalm 1, introducing the five books of the Psalms (which mirrors the five books of the Torah), invites us to worship and commune with God within the narrative that God has created.
Those who accept that invitation are “blessed.” They are not simply “happy” like some kind of satisfied, consumerist state of consciousness. Rather, they are “blessed.” God has invested in their lives and provided a sense of “blessedness.” As they walk in the path of God’s story, God is actively shaping and transforming them so that they are trees planted by water yielding their fruit in every season of life. Blessedness is a divine act, and God gives it to those who walk wisely in the fear of the Lord.