Presented at Florida College on February 1, 2016
The Psalms are both delightful and difficult. Easily accessible for the most part, they give us great joy — we naturally turn to them for strength and sustenance. But the Psalms also challenge us. In places, they are very hard to understand, and even when we do understand them, we find them to be like the “hard sayings” of Jesus in the New Testament: they call for a response that is by no means easy.
The spiritual depth of the Psalms is unfathomable. We can study them for a lifetime and never comprehend their full meaning. We learn much and we rejoice in what we learn, but as with God himself, there is always more in the Psalms waiting for our discovery. The Psalms are a well that we can never get to the bottom of.
We are drawn to the Psalms because of their personal nature. Unlike the prophets where we hear God speaking directly to his people, in the Psalms we hear God’s people speaking to him in prayer and praise. These are real people, and we can relate to them because we hear the full range of emotions that we experience today: adoration of God, love and gratitude, fear and frustration, grief for our sins, walking with God even when the way is difficult, reaching out to God in our darkest hours, devotion to the word of God, and confidence that, in the end, God’s purposes will be victorious. The psalmists were people just like us, and that is encouraging, but it is even more encouraging to know that the God of those people has not changed. He is the same God today.
It is no wonder that the Psalms are a favorite part of the Scriptures for so many of us. We will surely enjoy our studies this week, but we should set ourselves the goal of understanding the Psalms better than we have before — and especially understanding what God is saying to us in these songs about the kind of God he is and the kind of relationship he wants to have with us.
The Book of Psalms
The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 Hebrew songs located in the Old Testament. It is comprised of five smaller collections (or “books”) of songs. These songs were written over a period of about 1,000 years, from the time of Moses to the return of the Jews from their Babylonian exile. About half of these compositions are attributed to David, the second king of Israel and the “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1). The Davidic psalms, as well as others in the book, were used in the worship which David organized for the temple that would later be built by his son Solomon. We can learn a great deal about any religion by looking at its hymns, and this is especially true of the religion of Israel. It is a religion brimming with song.
Psalms is the longest book in the OT, and it is the one most often quoted, both today and in the past. Indeed, the NT writers frequently referred to the Psalms, as did Jesus himself.
The Psalms are Hebrew poetry. They do not sound like our poetry today, but they are poems and they should be heard as poetry. In contrast to the narrative of the historical books, the commandments of the Law, and the preaching of the prophets, the Psalms express their great truths in poetic style. As poetry, they are intended to reach the emotions as well as the intellect.
Although Psalms is the most diverse book in the OT, its diversity has a very clear focus — and that focus is God himself. Many different subjects are dealt with by the psalmists, and their thoughts remarkably varied, but the centerpiece of the whole story is God. He is the Great King, the One who is sovereign over every last thing that has ever existed — and he, God, is what the Psalms are all about. As J. A. Motyer said, “One of the remarkable features of the Psalms is that though personal testimony abounds, the clearest impression left is not of people but of God” (New Bible Commentary, p. 487).
What we learn about God in the Psalms is not simply that his creation is complex but, more importantly, that his character is complex. The multidimensional character of God is what accounts for the great diversity that we see in these songs, and it is only by pondering all of the Psalms that we see the portrait of God that we need to see. God is not just our Savior; he is our Ruler. He is not just wise; he is powerful. He does not just love what is good; he hates what is evil. He is not just gentle; he is wrathful. He is not just our Father; he is our Judge. The Book of Psalms is the ultimate correction to all lopsided and limited views of God. But, to repeat, it is only by reading all of the Psalms that we get this correction.
But putting it all together, what do we learn about God in the Psalms? We learn that he is our Creator and our King. And given the fact that our sins have alienated us from God, what do we learn in the Psalms about our relationship with him? We learn that He is our Redeemer and our Refuge. In these four words — Creator, King, Redeemer, Refuge — is summed up the theology of the Psalms (and, in fact, the whole story of salvation).
Ultimately, of course, the Psalms point us to Jesus, the Messiah (Lk. 24:44), in whom was revealed “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). It is in Christ that we finally learn what the Psalms were always pointing us toward: an uninhibited delight in God coupled with a profound respect for him. It is in Christ that we see, even more fully than the psalmists saw it, that God really does keep his promises, he really will bring about a glorious future, and in the meantime, he really does want a people who will sing their adoration unto him when they gather for worship (Psa. 100:2; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
But to see anything close to the truth about God is a shattering experience. (Just ask Isaiah or Ezekiel or the apostle John.) To whatever extent the Psalms show us God, we will find it a disturbing book — disturbing in the very highest sense of that good word. And we need to be disturbed, do we not? The Book of Psalms is “God’s prescription for a complacent church” (W. VanGemeren, Psalms, p.23). Much to our great benefit, the Psalms can jolt us out of the silly, self-centered entertainment that we often call “worship,” and bring us back to the throne room of the eternal “I AM” where those who truly love him are those who fear him.
So with those general thoughts in mind, let’s turn our attention to the very first song in the collection: Psalm 1.
Overview of Psalm 1
If, as seems likely, Psalm 1 was put first in order to introduce the other Psalms, we need to see what kind of an introduction it is. (Actually, Psalms 1 & 2 together may be seen as introductory, but we will hear about Psalm 2 in tomorrow evening’s lecture.)
The “two ways.” In Psalm 1, the psalmist wants us to see that there are only two basic paths or “ways” open to us in life: the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. There is no other path. The two paths represent two fundamentally different ways of living, and a choice must be made between them (cf. Deut. 30:15-20). In the NT, we hear Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 7:13,14) speaking very plainly about where the two paths lead, and it is very interesting that the earliest Christians referred to their new life as “the way” (Ac. 9:2; 19:9,23; etc.). So in Psalm 1, the writer is urging us to read the rest of the Psalms with our eyes wide open to what will happen if we fail to take the path that the Psalms recommend.
A “wisdom” psalm. Psalm 1 is usually classified as a “wisdom” psalm since it has some of the same characteristics as the OT wisdom books: it emphasizes the importance of human choice, underscores the consequences of good and bad advice, stresses the blessings of obedience and the hardships of sin, and reminds us of the reality of God’s judgment. Psalm 1 can be seen as a commentary on Proverbs 1:7: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). As in the wisdom writings, righteousness is a very practical matter in Psalm 1. The righteous person is the one whose reverence “affects his daily living; he avoids evil and learns how to live from God’s Torah, and therein lies his wisdom” (P. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, p. 61).
A “torah” psalm. With its exaltation of God’s “law” (Heb. torah), Psalm 1 is termed a “torah” psalm, along with Psalms 19 and 119, and its priority of position in the Psalter is significant. Walter Brueggemann argues, “Standing at the beginning of the Psalter, this psalm intends that all the psalms should be read through the prism of torah obedience” (Message of the Psalms, p.190).
In the OT, torah can mean several things. The basic meaning is “law,” so it can refer to what we call the Penteteuch: the first division of the Hebrew canon, which contains the Law of Moses. But torah can also have the simple meaning of “teaching, instruction, or guidance,” and in this sense it can refer to any (or all) of what has been revealed by God. In Psalms 1, 19, and 119, we need not quibble about whether torah is to be taken as “law” or “guidance.” These psalmists surely delighted in the laws and commandments of God (these were seen as wonderful blessings), but their praise extended to any of God’s revealed teaching. The fact that the Psalms were incorporated into the Hebrew Scriptures indicates that early on they were recognized as being divine torah.
We should not miss the significance of the fact that the Psalter begins and ends where it does. The “bookends” are Psalm 1 (wisdom and torah) and Psalm 150 (praise). Today, those who emphasize praise often shy away from any mention of law or commandment or duty, as if that would be “legalism.” But the Psalms take torah as their beginning point. Those who would worship God must first embrace his law and find joy in carrying out its requirements. There is no worse blasphemer than the person who thinks he can worship God and still live disobediently while he is away from the place of worship (Isa. 1:13).
But if we are right to consider the Psalms themselves as torah, think what that says about the placement of Psalm 1. First in line, this psalm encourages the reader to consider all of those that follow as divine “guidance” (torah) that cannot be safely ignored. We are being called to listen to the Psalms, meditate deeply on their meaning, and above all, respond to them obediently. To hear God’s torah is a serious thing, for how we respond to it will determine our destiny. As Jesus taught, to hear and not obey is the ultimate disaster: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man” (Mt. 7:26).
So Psalm 1 invites us into the Psalms, and it tells us what the Psalms are. They are not just songs to enjoy singing — they are a part of God’s torah, and they contain instruction that should be considered carefully and incorporated into the very fabric of our lives. The Psalms are texts in which our Creator is imparting his wisdom to us.
Two Choices (vv.1,2). These verses contrast two opposite decisions — one to follow the path of reverence and the other to go down the road of rebellion. This psalm certainly points the way to God’s blessing (vv.1,2), but it also warns about divine judgment upon those who refuse the way of righteousness (vv.5,6).
Verse 1 — “Blessed is the man who . . .” The word “blessed” is the translation of a Hebrew expression meaning “O how happy!” Here, the expression is plural, which intensifies the meaning: “O the happinesses of!” The Psalms consistently teach that the “blessed” life is a byproduct of godliness (cf. Psa. 128:1). The godly life is not free of difficulty, or even suffering, but it does contain the highest and best of what is available to mankind in this world. It is the truly “good life” (1 Tim. 4:8), and we can hardly think about its blessedness without recalling Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-11).
But if godliness is to be accepted, the opposite path must be rejected. Since no one can serve two masters, a fundamental choice has to be made. According to Psalm 1, true happiness/blessedness does not come automatically to everybody in the world — it comes to those who have said “no” to every path except the one that leads to God. Psalm 1, therefore, pictures the godly man as one who refuses to go along with the world in its defiance of God. Cf. Psa. 119:104; Prov. 4:14,15.
(a) “Walks not in the counsel of the wicked.” In regard to his thinking, the godly man does not “take the wicked for his guide” (NEB). “Counsel” is advice or guidance, and to “walk” in someone’s counsel would be to allow that person to imprint our thinking and impact our principles. Surely, we can ill afford to walk in the counsel of the wicked. Whatever shapes our thinking shapes our lives, and so when we choose our advisers, we make an important choice. It pays to be careful whom we listen to. The worst thing we can do is carelessly pick up whatever values, principles, attitudes, and character traits happen to be around us. If we desire the “blessedness” of Psalm 1, we will have to be guided by God’s instruction rather than the advice of those who reject that instruction. We will have to say what Job said, “The counsel of the wicked is far from me” (Job 21:16).
(b) “Nor stands in the way of sinners.” In regard to his behaving, the godly person does not follow the path of sinful conduct. Sin has been defined as “missing the mark.” In Psalm 1, the “sinners” whose way is to be avoided are not godly people who inadvertently miss the mark now and then. No, these are individuals who miss the mark and couldn’t care less, as the saying goes. They are practicing a particular “way” of life, and it is one the godly person will have to refuse. “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent . . . do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths” (Prov. 1:10,15).
(c) “Nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” In regard to his belonging, the godly person does not identify himself with those who have rejected God — he does not take a comfortable seat in their assembly and make himself at home in their culture. Cf. Psa. 26:4,5.
Does the progression “wicked > sinners > scoffers” indicate an increasing level of sinfulness? Students of the text differ on this point. But however we construe the terms “wicked” and “sinners,” it is certainly true that the final term, translated “scoffer” in the ESV, is a very strong one. This is the only instance of this Hebrew word in the Psalms, and outside of the Psalms it only occurs once in Isaiah (28:14) and five times in Proverbs (1:22; 3:34; 19:29; 21:24; 29:8). The word “describes those who have gone beyond a few sinful acts and even a personal life marked by an inclination to wrongdoing. They actively seek through their mockery to express disdain for right living and seek to belittle and undermine those who want to be righteous” (G. Wilson, NIV Application Commentary: Psalms —Volume 1, p.95). The scoffer, then, is not merely a moral weakling — he is defiant in his rejection of God’s authority. (On this kind of attitude, see also Psa. 10:2-11; 14:1; 36:1,2.) The scoffer contemptuously ridicules what is right, and not content with defying God, he mocks those who are faithful to God, ruthlessly and deceitfully suppressing them. He is not the only person guilty of sin, but he is the one furthest from repentance, and that makes his situation very serious.
And then what about the progression “walk > stand > sit”? Does that indicate an increasing fellowship with sin? Again, opinions differ. But whether such a progression is inherent in the text, it is an obvious fact that when we depart from what is right we put ourselves on a slippery slope. If we don’t promptly repent, we begin to move deeper and deeper into sin’s territory. At first, we may have done no more than listen to the world’s advice on a “minor” point or two. But having yielded to temptation and not repented, the “counsel of the wicked” began to sound better and better. We soon found ourselves standing in the “way” of those practices. And still failing to repent, we eventually found that our hearts had found a new home. So when we start accepting the world’s advice, we are in danger of learning the world’s habits, and we may eventually adopt the most fatal of all the world’s attitudes: a blatant denial of God. It may be trite, but it is true: if we follow the wrong advice, we will soon run with the wrong crowd — and eventually become a part of the wrong culture.
But to return to the point of Psalm 1:1, all three of these (the wicked, the sinners, and the scoffers) are people who refuse to live by God’s law — and the godly person will refuse to live by their example. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.”
This does not mean the godly are to withdraw into a monastery and have no contact with the ungodly whatsoever. What is being prohibited is not casual or incidental contact (1 Cor. 5:9,10) and certainly not evangelistic contact or the kind of redemptive association that Jesus modeled. But the godly person must not take the “way” of the unrighteous. He is to take a different “way.” He is “in” but not “of” the world (Jn. 17:11-19), he refuses to be “conformed” to the world (Rom. 12:2), and he does not “love the world or the things in the world” (1 Jn. 2:15-17).
What, then, does he do?
Verse 2 — “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” In the first verse, we learned that the godly person is directed by God’s word — here we learn that he is also delighted by it. Cf. Psa. 25:4,5,8,9,12.
(a) Torah. In regard to God, the “blessed” man in Psalm 1 has a very specific delight: it is God’s law (Heb. torah) that gives him joy. “Blessed are those . . . who walk in the law of the LORD!” (Psa. 119:1). An emphasis on torah is significant in Psalm 1 because of the introductory role of that Psalm. In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Psalms is simply called tehillim (“praises”). So think what it means that a book of praise begins with an emphasis on law. Jesus asked, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Lk. 6:46). The truth is, worship (praise/thanksgiving) can never be separated from law (instruction/commandment), and we are never praising God any more highly than when we are reverently regarding his commandments and saying, “Thy will be done.” So the Book of “Praises” could not have a more appropriate preamble that Psalm 1 — a torah psalm.
What a pity that we so often see “law” as a negative concept. God’s law is never anything less than benevolent. It is always for our good, the kind of teaching that a caring parent offers to a beloved child: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments” (Prov. 3:1). How could any right-thinking person not see such instruction as a blessing?
(b) Delight. Here is the main point of this verse (and indeed of the entire psalm). The man who is “blessed” not only studies and knows God’s law, but he delights in it. His “greatest pleasure is in the law of the Lord” (Harrison). This man loves God’s law because he loves God’s person — he is eager to be conformed to God’s image, and he understands torah to be the teaching that is requisite to that transformation. “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psa. 119:97). Cf. Psa. 26:8; 63:1; 112:1; 119:14,16,35,47,92.
We should note that this person’s delight is not just in knowledge but also in obedience. He pays close attention to the law of God, and he responds to it faithfully. He “finds pleasure in obeying the Lord’s commands” (NET).
Ultimately, it is our character that determines our happiness, and nothing evidences our character any more than the things that our hearts delight in. When it comes to things to be delighted about, the law of the Lord is the most delightful thing in the world. If your highest happiness is in the Lord and his law, you will never run out of things to be happy about!
(c) Meditation. The psalmist’s mention of “meditation” here is fascinating. The word he uses for “meditate” literally means “mutter.” Since few of the ancient Hebrews had a written copy of the Scriptures, their meditation would consist of remembering what they had heard (and memorized) on occasions when the Scriptures were read publicly. The image in Psalm 1 is that of a person pondering the law by thoughtfully reciting to himself the words that he had stored up in his heart. What a beautiful picture of meditation! In ancient times, it was customary, even when one had a manuscript to work with, for the words of Scriptures to be read audibly. And it is still traditional in some Jewish circles for one to recite the words in an undertone as the Scriptures are being read. In this way, one does not merely “think” about torah. He ponders the instruction audibly by “muttering” the words — in search of insight. This is an active (and probably more impactful) form of meditation, and I recommend it to you. Don’t just think with your brain. Read the words of God with your lips. “Mutter” them!
But it is not just once in a while that the godly person meditates on God’s word — he does it “day and night.” Cf. Psa 63:5,6. This doesn’t mean that godly people never do anything else, but neither is the expression mere hyperbole. (Cf. “pray without ceasing in 1 Thess. 5:17). It means that God’s word is woven deeply into the fabric of our everyday lives. We need to hear the same thing that God said to Joshua, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Josh. 1:8). Cf. Deut. 6:4-7.
Historically, many people have recognized the special meditative value of the Psalms. Even in bound copies of the New Testament books, the Psalms have often been included because they were thought to be indispensable. We desperately need a similar recognition of the Psalms’ value today. The Psalms should be our constant companion. We need to read them regularly from beginning to end. We need to pray the Psalms, memorize them, recite them to ourselves, and hide them in our hearts.
But whether it’s the Psalms or any other part of the Scriptures, meditation on the word must permeate our lives so thoroughly that it plants our feet firmly on the path toward God. The word won’t have a chance to shape our lives if we don’t feed on it frequently. So we must give ourselves to this activity wholeheartedly.
Frequent meditation (along with prayer) is a strong protection against the inappropriate associations mentioned back in verse 1. Immersion in the Scriptures may be the only thing that will keep us from joining the wicked on their path. That path is likely to prove irresistible if we aren’t immunized against it by “day and night” meditation on God’s word.
To sum up the second verse, then, the godly (and therefore happy) person delights in God’s torah, he meditates on it, and he acts on it. He listens to God deeply, and he responds faithfully. He delights both to hear and to do whatever God teaches. Cf. Jn. 13:17; Jas. 1:25.
Two Qualities of Life (vv.3,4). Godliness has an impact on our lives even in the here and now, and so does ungodliness. The psalmist portrays the righteous man as a fruit-bearing tree planted by streams of water, while the unrighteous is as insubstantial as the dusty chaff which the wind blows away.
Verse 3 — “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”
(a) A well-watered tree. The psalmist uses a vivid metaphor to describe the godly person’s strength: he is like a tree with all the advantages of an abundant water supply. The language here has a close parallel in Jeremiah 17:7,8 where the man who trusts in God 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.” Cf. Psa. 92:12-15.
A tree located by a stream can withstand heat and hardship because its roots have access to water. Likewise, the godly, being nourished by God, are strong and productive even in the midst of difficulty. Water, of course, is a symbol used throughout the Scriptures for the life-giving qualities of God’s word (e.g., Jn. 4:7-15; 7:37-39).
The concept of fruitfulness is extremely important. Even as human beings, we are meant to do more than just exist: we are to be productive, and among the Lord’s people, this is even more important. There could be no worse condemnation than to be described as an “unprofitable servant” (Mt. 25:30 NKJV). Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (Jn. 15:8).
(b) Success. The godly man “prospers” or “succeeds” in all that he does. Prosperity here involves more than financial wealth, and success is more than the acquirement of power or prestige. Biblically, to “succeed” is to bring one’s plans to a successful conclusion. So in this verse, a part of the happiness of the godly man is that the Lord gives him success in his undertakings. With the Lord’s blessings, the godly man “succeeds in everything he attempts” (NET) and “success attends all he does” (Jerusalem Bible). Cf. Psa. 18:29; 128:1-4.
Joseph is the obvious example of this principle (Gen. 39:2,3,23), and Joshua was told that his success would depend on faithfulness to the Book of the Law: “then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Josh. 1:8).
Obviously, God is the one who ultimately decides whether our plans materialize. Cf. Psa. 127:1,2. No matter how industrious or intelligent we may be, we are never in complete control over what happens. God always has the final say: at any moment, he can alter the outcome. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Prov. 19:21). So James counsels us to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (Jas. 4:13-16).
But in real life, do the godly always prosper? Certainly they do not always become wealthy, but even defining prosperity in more general terms, the good things in life are not the exclusive property of the godly. I agree with Motyer who says that Psalm 1:3 “professes a ‘creed’: this world is God’s world and those who side with him will surely and ultimately enjoy blessing” (p.489). And as VanGemeren puts it, “The future belongs to the godly, even when the wicked are enjoying temporary power and prestige” (p.77). Cf. Psa. 4:7. The godly person’s faith is in both the existence and the benevolence of God: despite the appearance of things at certain times, God will certainly reward those who seek him (Hb. 11:6). Our faith is that of Job (Job 19:25). As we often sing, “This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
Verse 4 — “The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.” Cf. Job 21:18; Isa 17:13. Without the water that nourishes the godly, the wicked can have no real strength or stability. In ancient times, when grain was threshed, the sheaves were crushed and then tossed into the air. The wind would blow away the “chaff” (husks, straw, etc.), and the kernels of grain would fall back to the threshing floor. In verse 4, the wicked are compared to the “chaff.” Rather than being solid and substantive, they are easily “blown away.”
Created in the image of an eternal God, we were made for permanence and lasting joy. We have a deep need for stability because “eternity” is in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). But the sin broke the perfect picture of the world as was created to be. As a consequence, God has subjected the world to “futility” (Rom. 8:18-22). The world is now a place of temporariness rather than permanence. (Cf. the term hebel or “vanity” in Ecclesiastes.) Until we get out of this world, we can’t have the stability we so desperately need. So we groan, constantly having to say goodbye to things we don’t want to say goodbye to. In the words of a song several years ago, “The only thing that stays the same is that everything changes.”
When we are told that the wicked are “like chaff that the wind drives away,” that is a serious warning. “Depart from God,” the psalmist is saying, “and you will doom yourself to a life of insignificance, devoid of anything that has any lasting value.” None of us wants to think that we’re “dust in the wind,” but without God that’s all we are. We have no deeper need than the need for stability, and so the wicked cut themselves off from something that is absolutely essential to human well-being. Unlike the godly, who are as solid as “a tree planted by streams of water,” those who reject God are simply “chaff.”
Momentary appearances, however, can be deceiving. When we only look at the short-term evidence, it may look like the wicked have more substance than the godly. Ultimately, it is only God’s judgment — the final “winnowing” — that will show what was solid and what was straw. Cf. 1 Cor. 3:12,13. Asaph only understood the emptiness of the wicked when he “discerned their end” (Psa. 73:16,17). Cf. Psa. 39:4-6; 90:12.
Two Results (vv.5,6). Ideas have consequences, and so do decisions. Psalm 1 ends by contrasting the very different outcomes of wickedness and righteousness. When we make our decision about God, here is what ultimately grows out of our choice.
Verse 5 — “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” The judgment spoken of here could be any temporal or historical judgment that falls on the wicked in this life or it could be the final judgment of all mankind. It is certainly true that God comes in judgment upon the wicked (nations and also individuals) in the here and now. Cf. Gen. 6-9; 18-19; Psa. 37; etc. But I believe the OT writers had at least some awareness that there is going to be a final judgment (e.g. Eccl. 12:14). In Psalm 1:5, “judgment” has the definite article — it is not just “a” judgment but “the” judgment — indicating perhaps that the speaker had in mind something more definite than any of the preliminary judgments of God.
From the NT, we know that a great day is coming on which every human being will face a final assessment before the Creator. This will be a final “assay” of mankind, the effect of which will be to purge God’s creation of wickedness once and for all. Cf. Mt. 13:24-30. At that time, if not before, what the Psalmist says of the wicked will be true: “they will not stand in the judgment.” As the NET renders it, “the wicked cannot withstand judgment nor can sinners join the assembly of the godly.” In other words, the refining process is one the wicked will not be able to survive (Mal. 3:2). As a protected remnant, the righteous will spared the punishment of everyone else (Mal. 3:17), and when all that is left in the presence of the Lord is the “congregation of the righteous,” the wicked will not be found anywhere in that entire assembly. Cf. 1 Pt. 4:17,18.
God is the absolute Sovereign over his creation. As Creator and King, he “judges the world with righteousness” (Psa. 9:7,8). The final judgment of all mankind will amount to a great separation that will be made between those who have submitted to his rule and those who have refused to do so. It will be an irrevocable division, a sorting out, an expulsion. Between the righteous and the wicked, it will be an ultimate “parting of the ways.” The redeemed will enter the eternal congregation of the saints, and all others will be excluded, not because they were predestined to be lost but because they never made the choice to accept God’s redemption.
To return to the agricultural metaphor, judgment will be the final “winnowing” that separates the wheat from the chaff. David’s prayer in Psalm 35:5 (“Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them away!”) looks back to 1:4 (“The wicked . . . are like chaff that the wind drives away”). Psalm 1:1-4 shows the contrast between the godly and the ungodly. At the final judgment, God will simply make this contrast last forever. With every choice we make in the here and now, we move ourselves toward one destiny or the other, and there is no way to follow both paths at the same time. We can’t follow the “counsel of the wicked” (v.1) and still expect a place in the “congregation of the righteous (v.5).
Verse 6 — “For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” To say that the Lord “knows” the way of the righteous can mean that he acknowledges them with approval (Jn. 10:14; 2 Tim. 2:19). But it can also mean that he watches over them with loving care. “The Lord watches over the destiny of the godly” (NEB). Psalm 18 is a powerful commentary on this truth (vv.2,19,28,30,36). Cf. Psa. 25:15; 26:12. The righteous have a protection on their path that the wicked do not enjoy on theirs. Cf. Job 23:10; Prov. 3:5,6.
The last word of Psalm 1 is “perish.” To perish is to end in ruin (Jn. 3:16). To say the least, the way of wickedness is a road that leads to no good end (Psa. 146:9). In the chiastic structure of Psalm 1, the last word, “perish,” looks back to the first word, “blessed.” A more important contrast cannot be imagined: be blessed or perish. Those whom the Lord “knows” will be blessed, but all others will hear him say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Mt. 7:23).
Psalm 1 deals with a life-and-death subject: our choice between “two ways.” As in the story of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:17,18), our Father waits for us back home, but we can’t get to where he is if we don’t take the path that leads there. All paths have destinations and all lives have outcomes (Rom. 6:21,22; 1 Pt. 1:9). Whether we take the path back home or stay on the path of rebellion, eternity will give us the consequences of our choice.
What is it, then, that we learn in Psalm 1 about God and our relationship with him? The answer fairly jumps off the page: we must be people whose delight is in the law of the Lord. God is our Creator and King, but we have rebelled against him. His desire now is to be our Redeemer, and then our Refuge, but this can’t happen if we won’t lay down our rebellion, learn the meaning of reverence, and let the joy of living within God’s law be our motivation. We must seek not only to do His will but delight to do it, once again trusting our Father’s wisdom and his goodness.
And who, we ask, may have a right relationship with God? Not just anybody, if Psalm 15 is any indication. God is seeking a certain kind of people (Jn. 4:23,24), and we get no better portrait of that person anywhere than the one in Psalm 1. Here is a person who delights (and meditates) in God — God’s law, God’s way, God’s people, God’s blessing, and, yes, even God’s judgment.
Obviously, none of us is there yet, and we have no room to be proud of ourselves. But this is what we must be seeking. And more than that, we must understand what God is seeking. His plan involves a good deal more than making us “church members.” He will be not be content until we have been brought back all the way to a perfect, eternal conformity to his character (2 Cor. 3:18). If that’s not what we’re interested in, then as far as a relationship with God is concerned, we need not apply. God is seeking only those who are seeking him — just like the seeker in Psalm 1, who knew no higher joy than to meditate on the Lord’s teaching.
Psalm 1 sets the tone for the Book of Psalms by introducing the most basic choice that we ever have to make in life. Which path will we follow: reverence to God or rebellion against him? The first Psalm is the doorway to a great literary temple, but it is an entrance posted with a clear warning. The warning goes something like this: “If you are ready to hear and obey the law of the Lord, then enter the Psalms and worship. But if you are not willing to obey, then enter at your own peril — the Psalms will declare your doom.” The study of the Psalms, then, is no trivial pursuit. It will probe the deepest recesses of our hearts and either draw us toward God or drive us away.
If we have to choose, however, the Psalms encourage us to make the better choice and say “yes” to God rather than “no.” This has always been the desire of God for his wayward children. While our lives last, our Creator’s plea can be summarized like this: “If you do not come back to me, you will die. But do not die — return to me and live!” As long as our time in this broken world remains, God is always saying: “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live” (Ezek. 18:30-32).
Our theme for these lectures is “You Are My God.” May each of us, personally and individually, be able to say these words to God: “YOU ARE MY GOD.” If we learn anything from the Psalms it is surely that God is the Creator and King of heaven and earth. In eternity, he will reign triumphantly, even if some of us have refused his rule and been excluded from that blessed realm. But — by his grace — may we joyously come back to the King while we can and submit to his loving rule. May each of us be in a position to say, with David in Psalm 40:8, “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
- Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974.
- Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.
- Craigie, Peter C. Psalms 1-50. Vol. 19, Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004.
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- Longman, Tremper, III. How to Read the Psalms. Downers Grove: IVP, 1988.
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