The book of Psalms is a collection of songs and Hebrew poetry written throughout the ancient history of the people of Israel. These 150 songs span from the words of Moses after the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt to the words of David fleeing from Saul and reigning as King to great laments as the people were scattered in exile and finally to their return to the promised land of Canaan. The language and tones of these songs reflect that they were written in various places and during difficult and prosperous times. A variety of forms have been identified in the Psalms: songs of praise, messianic songs, historical psalms, psalms for specific celebrations, laments, and instructional songs.
The first psalm in the collection was likely the last one written. The book of Psalms is divided into five separate collections which were gathered at various points in Israel’s history. It is likely that as these five sections were finally canonized that this psalm was composed as a capstone for the entire collection.
Psalm one is a song of contrasts. The righteous man is first presented and shown to be a man who studies God’s Word consistently and is therefore not swayed by the unrighteous. He is rewarded for this devotion with prosperity. Then the wicked are presented as worthless chaff that has no substance, depth, or weight and will be ultimately judged by God. Augustine supposes that the righteous man presented in this psalm is Jesus Himself. While this certainly is a picture of Him, and only Christ can completely fulfill the demands of the presented righteous man, His disciples are called to be like Him and we too should strive to be like the righteous man.
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.
There is a progression presented in the first verse. First the man is not walking with wicked people. Second, he is not standing with them. Third, he is not sitting with them. This is a familiar progression for those who do not guard their hearts against wickedness; it begins by keeping bad company and progresses to becoming the bad company. This verse must always be held in tension with Jesus’ words for His disciples in His High Priestly prayer, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:14-19) Jesus leaves his disciples in the world to work alongside and know unbelievers, but they are sanctified (set apart) for the work of Christ and the Gospel. We must befriend and live with our unsaved neighbors, but we must not be identified with them, but instead we are united with Christ.
In verse two, emphasis is put on the process of sanctification. The righteous man is doing more than just avoiding evil; he is pursuing God’s law. He delights in the law that God has revealed to him. This means that he does not read the Word begrudgingly or out of duty, but he is happy to learn from it and think about it over and over again.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields 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.
Stanza two transitions from the righteous man to the wicked. In the beginning of the psalm the righteous man was called “blessed” meaning both happy and favored. The benefits of God’s favor are fleshed out in verse three. He flourishes in this environment because he is rooted in the Words of God. God causes what the man does to prosper as a blessing and a gift. So, we must remember the examples of Job and Joseph and that even for the righteous there are times of trial and want. In its most basic meaning, however, the prosperity of spiritual development cannot and will not fail if we are abiding in the stream of God’s Word.
Verse four begins to present the contrasting wicked man. He is described as weightless chaff that is blown away by the wind. This agricultural picture is of the hull of wheat being blown away on the threshing floor, leaving behind the useful wheat. The wicked live lives that are empty and ultimately of no value or worth to God. They are also flighty and easily whisked around by their fancies. This is in great contrast to the righteous man who is firmly planted into a solid foundation.
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.
Just as the righteous man doesn’t count himself among sinners, so the wicked man will not be named among the righteous. He will not stand when he is judged; he cannot present a case that would allow his name to stand as a child of God. He is so removed in his heart from the things of God that he cannot be a part of the family of God. It is important for believers to remember what a different mindset the world has about the things of God. The world is hostile to God. This verse should fill us with urgent compassion for those who are not yet in the congregation of the righteous.
The psalm concludes by restating this contrast but with a comforting reminder. God knows the way of the righteous. This is true because the righteous man’s way is God’s way. God’s law is the way that he wants to walk. God knows his path because He has instructed the righteous man in it. Yet, the way of the wicked God will put to an end. Yes, this may sound hard to our ears, because it is sobering and difficult to look on the judgement of God. But, we want wickedness to end. We want evil to perish. We desire a future in which God has stopped the work of sin.
Psalm 1 should encourage the believer that seeking joy in the Word of God is a worthwhile pursuit. His Law will make us flourish and grow more into the image of Christ and give our lives weight and meaning. It also warns us not to be named among the ungodly. Reflecting on this song should cause us to desire God’s Word more so that we can discern what the way of the righteous is, and it should remind us to call the wicked to repentance so that they may be named among the righteous.
All Scripture quoted is from the ESV.