This is the first in a series of exegetical studies on the Hebrew Psalms (i.e. the canonical Psalms of the Old Testament Scriptures), which are planned to run throughout the year, being posted in the afternoon on most Sundays. Following the canonical order, each Psalm will be discussed, largely on a verse-by-verse (or line-by-line) basis, beginning with the first Psalm of the corpus (Psalm 1). This poem, which functions as a thematic (and spiritual) introduction to the collection of Psalms as a whole, was addressed as part of my earlier series on the Beatitudes. Psalm 1 is an early example in Hebrew/Jewish literature of the Beatitude-form; for more on this, see my previous discussion (in the Beatitudes series), as well as the article on the Qumran Beatitudes text.
In the discussion below, “Dahood” refers to Mitchell Dahood’s Commentary Psalms 1-50 (Anchor Bible vol. 16, 1965). His observations remain distinctive and noteworthy in the extent to which he relies upon old Canaanite (Ugaritic) parallels in vocabulary and word usage.
The first Psalm begins: rv#a& vya!h*Áyr@v=a^ “Happiness of (the) man who…”, which the Septuagint (LXX) renders as maka/rio$ a)nh/r o^$…—a common beatitude form. Maka/rio$ (makários) is the same word used to begin Jesus’ Beatitudes, and occurs frequently in the Psalms and Wisdom literature (see the previous article in the Beatitudes series on these points). The terms “happy” and “happiness” have come to carry a trite meaning in modern English, so, in these contexts, most translators prefer to use “blessed”; however, this risks confusing ma/kar-/rva with eu)log-/irb, which are typically translated “bless, blessing”, etc. Hebrew yr@v=a^ (°ašr¢y) is a plural construct form which is actually difficult to render into English—literally, something like “Happy (thing)s for the man who…” It is also possible to understand it as an intensive plural, i.e., “How happy is the man who…!” The expression can be found numerous places in the Old Testament—1 Kings 10:8; 2 Chron 9:7; Job 5:17; Isa 30:18; 56:2, and frequently in the Psalms (Ps 2:12; 32:1-2; 33:12; 34:8; 40:5; 41:2; 65:5; 84:5-6, 13; 89:16; 94:12; 106:3; 112:1; 119:1-2; 127:5; 128:1; 137:8-9; 144:15; 146:5) and Proverbs (Prov 3:13; 8:34; 20:7; 28:14).
Verse 1: “Happiness of (the) man who has not walked in (the) counsel of wicked ones, and in (the) path of sinful ones he has not stood, and in (the) sitting-place of (those) mocking he has not sat (down).”
This verse describes the characteristics of the person declared “happy/blessed” in negative terms. There are three expressions, each of which contains: (1) a q¹tal (perfect) verb governed by a negative particle al), (2) a construct noun with locative preposition B=, and (3) a plural noun describing a negative class of person.
Three Verbs: (a) El^h* (h¹lak “walked”), (b) dm^u* (±¹mad “stood”), (c) bv^y` (y¹ša» “sat”). The last verb bv^y` can also have the sense of “set down, dwell”—there would seem to be a progression of sorts, from walking to sitting down.
Three Construct Nouns: The construct form attaches it to the following noun in each case. The preposition B= here indicates a consistent locative sense: that is, “in” a particular location.
- The first noun hx*u@ (±¢ƒâ) generally means “counsel, advice”. This can be understood two ways: either (i) walking in [i.e. according to] certain counsel, or (ii) walking in a place of counsel [i.e. council, circle of advisors]. The latter sense is to be preferred.
- The second noun Er#D# (derek) is usually rendered “path, way”, either in a concrete or metaphorical sense. It derives from a verb ird which has the basic meaning “to tread, step, march”—i.e., a place trodden down, where people have (repeatedly) stepped. It can be used in a transferred, metaphoric sense as “habit, custom, manner of being/acting”, etc., but here a concrete “path” better fits the context. Dahood draws attention to Ugaritic drkt “dominion, etc”, which also would fit the political (royal) imagery in the verse. Perhaps the rendering “domain” would be appropriate—i.e., the place belonging to the wicked/sinners, where the (wicked) activity occurs. To “stand in the path/domain” implies a participation, that one belongs to this place.
- The third noun bv^om (môša») is derived from the same verb bvy (“sit [down]”) used in the phrase; it literally means a “place-of-sitting” (i.e. “seat”). Probably a royal seat (or “throne”) is implied, parallel to the earlier expressions “domain [or ‘path’]” and “council [or ‘counsel/advice’]”. To “sit [down] in the seat” means to identify oneself entirely with the “domain” and/or its rule; there may also be the connotation of a more permanent residence (“sit down” = “set down, dwell”).
Three plural nouns: As with the verbs, there would appear to be a progression involved: (a) <yu!v*r= (r®š¹±îm) “wicked, evil” persons in a general, unqualified sense—the construct expression is “in the council/counsel of wicked (person)s”. (b) <ya!F*j^ (µa‰‰¹°îm) “sinful, errant” persons, in the more specific sense of those who err and transgress the Law (of God)—”in the path/domain of sinful (person)s”. (c) <yxl@ (l¢ƒîm), a participle meaning persons who are “mocking, deriding, scoffing”—”in the seat of (those) mocking”. Finally, a specific kind of wrong-doing is specified, located at the very heart (the “seat”) of the wicked domain.
Verse 2: “instead, his delight (is) in (the) Instruction of YHWH, and in His Instruction he mutters by day and night”
If the first verse declares what the happy/blessed person is not, v. 2 indicates what he is. The two italicized words above are difficult to render literally in English. The opening expression <a!ÁyK! (kî-°im) is a compound particle which can be used in a variety of ways; it is frequently used in oath formulas, and often means something like “indeed if…” or “except that…”. The idea here would seem to be that, if the man does not do the things described in v. 1, then he will do (instead) only thus… The focus of this verse is the hr*oT (tôrâ) of God (YHWH); hr*oT is usually translated “law”, but more properly means “instruction”. Sometimes this is regarded as synonymous with the Pentateuch (and the Law code[s] at the heart of it), but the word itself (and the metaphor expressed by it) can have a wider meaning as well—i.e., all that God commands and teaches. There are two aspects emphasized here:
- His delight [Jp#j@] is in the Instruction [Torah]
- In the Instruction he mutters [hg`h*] by day and night
The translation “mutters” sounds almost derogatory in English, but it is perhaps the best approximation here of the verb hgh “to growl, groan, moan, mumble”, i.e., the ineffable sounds made by animals, mourners, magicians, etc. It is also used in a figurative sense, which we might translate something like “ponder, imagine, meditate”. The common translation here of “meditates” is rather misleading, perhaps suggesting something like silent reading and prayer; in the ancient world, texts and material for instruction were not so much read as recited (from memory). The verb here perhaps indicates a deep, intense, utterance of God’s Word. For an interesting parallel (of sorts), see Romans 8:26f.
Verse 3: “and he will be like a tree (trans)planted upon streams of water, which gives his fruit in his time, and his leaf will not drop (off), and every(thing) which he does will succeed.”
This verse gives the reason or basis for the person being called “happy/blessed”, and corresponds generally to the o%ti-clause in the Beatitudes of Jesus. With many similar Beatitudes, it expresses something of the future (eschatological) state of the righteous one who passes through Judgment and enters into (heavenly) bliss; but also, it would seem, reflects the present condition of the person as well. The righteous/believer as a tree which produces (good) fruit is a common religious motif—of many examples, see Jesus’ teaching in Matt 7:17-19; 12:33 & par; cf. also Jn 1:48, 50; 15:1-2ff. Similarly, life-giving water as an image of heavenly/eternal life is widespread. The verb lt^v* (š¹¾al) indicates a plant or shoot which is transplanted—i.e., removed from one location and set into a new, better location.
Verse 4: “(It is) not thus (for the) wicked ones!—instead, (he is) like the chaff which (the) wind drives about;”
Verses 4-5 describe the wicked person, that is, the opposite of the happy/blessed one; it is the second, negative side of the Beatitude formula. Jesus’ Beatitudes in Matthew have no such specific negative formulation, but comparable statements are found in the “Woes” of the Lukan Beatitudes (Lk 6:24-26). Verse 4 presents a simple, striking contrast with the fate of the blessed person as a tree upon life-giving waters—instead, he (the wicked) is the chaff (Jm)) which the wind blows about. The wicked person as worthless chaff/dust is a fairly common metaphor, as expressed most famously in the Synoptic account of John the Baptist’s preaching (Matt 3:12 par).
Verse 5: “upon this [i.e. therefore] (the) wicked (one)s will not stand up in the Judgment(-place), and (the) sinful (one)s (will not stand) in the appointed-place of the righteous (one)s.”
Dahood suggests that fP*v=m! (mišp¹‰), is not simply the Judgment, but implies specifically the place of Judgment, i.e. the heavenly Court. This would seem to be likely with the parallel use of the preposition B= (as in v. 1, see above). Similarly the hd*u@ (±¢dâ) signifies not so much the just/righteous persons (the appointed gathering), but rather the appointed place (where the righteous gather); as such, it would be parallel to the heavenly place of Judgment. The scene, of course, is eschatological—the final Judgment before God. Just as the righteous do not belong in the place of the wicked (v. 1), so the wicked do not belong in the place of the righteous. Indeed, the <yq!yD!x^ (ƒadîqîm), the “just/righteous/loyal (ones)”, are the very ones declared happy/blessed. For more on the eschatological context of the early Beatitude form, see the previous article.
Verse 6: “For YHWH knows (the) path of (the) righteous (one)s, but (the) path of (the) wicked (one)s will pass away [i.e. perish].”
The entire Psalm is summed up in the final verse, where the “path” (Er#D#) of the righteous and wicked is juxtaposed. Here the word Er#D# is used in a wider sense than in v. 1 (see above)—it covers the entire “way” (including the habits, mode of behavior, etc.) taken by the righteous and wicked, respectively. That of the righteous is characterized by God’s knowing it (the participle u^d@oy yôd¢a±); without this knowing by YHWH, the path wanders off (db^a*) and leads to destruction (cf. Matt 7:13-14).
This Psalm (and verse 6 in particular) had an enormous influence on the “Two Ways” theology (or ideology) in subsequent Judaism and early Christianity. Several of the Qumran texts display a strong sense of dualism—light vs. darkness, truth vs. deceit, which distinguishes the righteous (identified with the Qumran community) from the wicked (virtually everyone outside of the community) with their respective destinies. In addition to the ethical aspect of this dualism, there are cosmological and soteriological components as well; see especially the “Treatise of the Two Spirits” in the Comunity Rule [1QS] 3:13-4:25, and cf. also 1 QH 6:29-30; 14:11-12; 1 QM 1:1ff; 13:9-11, etc. Similar imagery is found in the Gospel of John: light/darkness, above/below, of-the-World/not-of-the-World, from-God/not-from-God. Paul makes frequent use of ethical and psychological dualism—spirit/flesh, freedom/slavery, inner-man/outer-man, new-man/old-man, etc.—which is representative of early Christian teaching.
There is some indication that the Christian movement initially referred to itself as “The Way” (see Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4); cf. the use of Isa 40:3 (a verse used as a point of identification at Qumran as well) in Mark 1:3 par., and also note John 14:5-6. The “Two Ways” concept was prominent in early Christianity, and is used as the framework for exposition in the so-called Teaching (Didache) of the Twelve Apostles (chaps. 1-6) and Epistle of Barnabas (chaps. 18-20). The Didache begins (1:1):
“There are two Ways—one of Life and one of Death—but there is much difference between the two Ways”
The instruction which follows (in both the Didache and Barnabas) is heavily dependent upon Jesus’ teaching, especially that in the Sermon on the Mount. Besides the “two paths” in Matt 7:13-14, Jesus speaks of “two masters” (Matt 6:24), “two trees” (Matt 7:15-20), and “two builders” (Matt 7:24-27). An ethical dualism, of sorts, is implied throughout the “Antitheses” of Matt 5:21-48. The “way of the wicked” is only implied in the Beatitudes (i.e., the opposite of what characterizes those called happy/blessed), but this is spelled out in the Lukan version with the “Woes” of Lk 6:24-26.