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Psalm 1

“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; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. 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. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 1:1–6, ESV)

The book opens with an exquisite picture of the truly Happy Man, as seen from the highest ground of the old dispensation. He is described both literally and figuratively, positively and negatively, directly and by contrast, with respect both to his character and his condition, here and hereafter. The compression of all this into so short a composition, without confusion or obscurity, and with a high degree of graphic vividness, shews what the psalm is in a rhetorical or literary point of view, apart from its religious import and divine authority. Its moral design is both didactic and consolatory. There is no trace of any particular historical occasion or allusion. The terms employed are general, and admit of an easy application to all times and places where the word of God is known. The psalm indeed contains a summary of the doctrine taught in this book and in the Scriptures generally, as to the connection between happiness and goodness. It is well placed, therefore, as an introduction to the whole collection, and although anonymous, was probably composed by David. It is altogether worthy of this origin, and corresponds, in form and substance, to the next psalm, which is certainly by David. The two seem indeed to form a pair or double psalm, of which arrangement there are several other instances. The structure of the first psalm is symmetrical but simple, and the style removed from that of elevated prose by nothing but the use of strong and lively figures.

1. The Happy Man is first described in literal but negative expressions, i.e. by stating what he does not habitually do. The description opens with a kind of admiring exclamation. (Oh) the blessedness of the man! The plural form of the original (felicities or happinesses), if anything more than a grammatical idiom like ashes, means, &c., in our language, may denote fulness and variety of happiness, as if he had said, How completely happy is the man! The negative description follows. Happy the man who has not walked, a common figure for the course of life or the habitual conduct, which is furthermore suggested by the use of the past tense, but without excluding the present, who has not walked and does not walk, in the counsel, i.e. live after the manner, on the principles, or according to the plans, of wicked (men), and in the way of sinners has not stood. The word translated sinners properly denotes those who fall short of the standard of duty, as the word translated wicked denotes those who positively violate a rule by disorderly conduct. Together they express the whole idea of ungodly or unrighteous men. And in the seat, not the chair, but the company, or the place where men convene and sit together, of scorners, scoffers, those who treat religion with contempt, has not sat. The three verbs denote the three acts or postures of a waking man, namely, walking, standing, sitting, and are therefore well adapted to express the whole course of life or conduct. It is also possible that a climax was intended, so that walking, standing, and sitting in the company of sinners will denote successive stages of deterioration, first occasional conformity, then fixed association, then established residence among the wicked, not as a mere spectator or companion, but as one of themselves. The same kind of negative description reappears in Psalm 26:4, 5, and in Jer. 15:17. It is of course implied that no one, of whom any of these things can be affirmed, is entitled to the character of a Happy Man.

2. A positive trait is now added to the picture. Having shewn what the truly happy man does not, the Psalmist shews us what he does. But, on the contrary, in contrast with the previous description, in the law of Jehovah, i.e. the written revelation of his will, and more especially the Pentateuch or Law of Moses, which lay at the foundation of the Hebrew Scriptures, (is) his delight, not merely his employment, or his trust, but his pleasure, his happiness. And in his law he will meditate, i.e. he does so and will do so still, not merely as a theme of speculation or study, but as a cherished object of affection, a favorite subject of the thoughts, day and night, i.e. at all times, in every interval of other duties, nay in the midst of other duties, this is the theme to which his mind spontaneously reverts. The cordial attachment to an unfinished revelation, here implicitly enjoined, shews clearly what is due to the completed word of God which we possess.

3. The literal description of the Happy Man, both in its negative and positive form, is followed by a beautiful comparison, expressive of his character and his condition. And he is, or he shall be; the present and the future insensibly run into each other, so as to suggest the idea of continuous or permanent condition, like the past and present in the first verse. And he is, or shall be, like a tree, a lively emblem of vitality and fruitfulness. He is not, however, like a tree growing wild, but like a tree planted, in the most favorable situation, on or over, i.e. overhanging, streams of water. The original words properly denote canals or channels, as customary means of artificial irrigation. Hence the single tree is said to overhang more than one, because surrounded by them. The image presented is that of a highly cultivated spot, and implies security and care, such as could not be enjoyed in the most luxuriant wilderness or forest. The divine culture thus experienced is the cause of the effect represented by the rest of the comparison. Which (tree) will give, or yield, its fruit in its season, and its leaf shall not wither; it shall lose neither its utility nor beauty. This is then expressed in a more positive and prosaic form. And all, or every thing, which he, the man represented by the verdant fruitful tree, shall do, he shall make to prosper, or do prosperously, with good success. This pleasing image is in perfect keeping with the scope of the psalm, which is not to describe the righteous man, as such, but the truly happy man, with whom the righteous man is afterwards identified. The neglect of this peculiar feature of the composition impairs its moral as well as its rhetorical effect, by making it an austere declaration of what will be expected from a good man, rather than a joyous exhibition of his happy lot. That the common experience, even of the best men, falls short of this description, is because their character and life fall short of that presented in the two preceding verses. The whole description is not so much a picture drawn from real life, as an ideal standard or model, by striving to attain which our aims and our attainments will be elevated, though imperfect after all.

4. Not so the wicked. The direct description of the Happy Man is heightened and completed by comparison with others. Not so the wicked, i.e. neither in condition nor in character. The dependence of the one upon the other is suggested by describing them as wicked, rather than unhappy. Not so, i.e. not thus happy, (are) the wicked, because they are wicked, and are therefore destitute of all that constitutes the happiness before described. The immediate reference, in the phrase not so, is to the beautiful, well-watered, green, and thriving tree of the preceding verse. To this delightful emblem of a healthful happy state the Psalmist now opposes one drawn likewise from the vegetable world, but as totally unlike the first as possible. The wicked are not represented by a tree, not even by a barren tree, a dead tree, a prostrate tree, a shrub, a weed, all which are figures not unfrequent in the Scriptures. But all these are more or less associated with the natural condition of a living plant, and therefore insufficient to present the necessary contrast. This is finely done by a comparison with chaff, which, though a vegetable substance, and connected in its origin with one of the most valuable products of the earth, is itself neither living, fruitful, nor nutritious, but only fit to be removed and scattered by the wind, in the ancient and oriental mode of winnowing. There is a double fitness in the emblem here presented, as suggesting the idea of intrinsic worthlessness, and at the same time that of contrast with the useful grain, with which it came into existence, and from which it shall be separated only to be blown away or burned. Not so the wicked, but like the chaff, which the wind drives away. The same comparison is used in Psalm 35:5, Isa. 17:13, 29:5, Hos. 13:3, Zeph. 2:2, Job 21:18, and by John the Baptist in Mat. 3:12, with obvious allusion to this psalm, but with a new figure, that of burning, which seems to be intended to denote final and complete destruction, while in all the other cases, the idea suggested by the chaff being blown away is that of violent and rapid disappearance.

5. Therefore, because they are unlike a living tree, and like the worthless chaff, fit only to be scattered by the wind, wicked (men) shall not stand, i.e. stand their ground or be able to sustain themselves, in the judgment, i.e. at the bar of God. This includes two ideas, that of God’s unerring estimation of all creatures at their real value, and that of his corresponding action towards them. The wicked shall neither be approved by God, nor, as a necessary consequence, continue to enjoy his favor, even in appearance. Whatever providential inequalities may now exist will all be rectified hereafter. The wicked shall not always be confounded with their betters. They shall not stand in the judgment, either present intermediate judgments, or the final judgment of the great day. And sinners, the same persons under another name, as in ver. 1 (shall not stand) in the congregation, or assembly, of righteous (men). They shall not continue intermingled with them in society as now, and, what is more important, they shall not for ever seem to form part of the church or chosen people, to which the word translated congregation is constantly applied in the Old Testament. Whatever doubt may now exist, the time is coming when the wicked are to take their proper place and to be seen in their true character, as totally unlike the righteous.

6. The certainty of this event is secured by God’s omniscience, from which his power and his justice are inseparable. However men may be deceived in their prognostications, he is not. The Lord, Jehovah, the God of Revelation, the covenant God of Israel, knows, literally (is) knowing, i.e. habitually knows, or knows from the beginning to the end, the way of righteous (men), i.e. the tendency and issue of their character and conduct. As if he had said, the Lord knows whither they are going and where they will arrive at last. This is a clear though indirect assertion of their safety, here and hereafter. The figure of a way is often used to express the character and conduct itself; but this idea is here implied or comprehended in that of destiny, as determined by the character and conduct. There is no need, therefore, of taking the verb know in any other than its usual and proper sense. The verse is an appeal to divine omniscience for the truth of the implied assertion, that the righteous are safe and will be happy, as well as for that of the express assertion, with which the whole psalm closes. The way of wicked (men), in the same sense as before, shall perish, i.e. end in ruin. The apparent solecism of making a way perish only brings out in more prominent relief the truth really asserted, namely, the perdition of those who travel it. This completes the contrast, and sums up the description of the truly Happy Man, as one whose delight is in the law and his happiness in the favor of Jehovah, and whose strongest negative characteristic is his total want of moral likeness here to those from whom he is to dwell apart hereafter.

Alexander, J. A. (1864). The Psalms Translated and Explained. Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot; James Thin (Public Domain)

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