It and the South Asia Bible Commentary are both very useful resources... along with Liturgical Press's International Bible Commentary (this volume attempts to provide global voices including NA/Eur). These are providing a wider perspective than the typical European/North American viewpoint. The Christian Community Bible is another great non-european resource.
Psalm 1 Wisdom of the Psalms
Psalm 1 serves as an introduction to the whole psalter, which explains why its vocabulary, content and style are rather unusual. Generally, psalms speak for us, and are personal expressions of joy or sorrow, praise or frustration with which we can immediately identify. However, this teaching psalm speaks to us as it compares the happiness of godly people with the sad end of the ungodly. The central theme is how meditating on the law of the Lord leads to blessing.
This psalm speaks to our region’s deep interest in meditation. But it clearly limits what we should meditate on—God’s law—if we want to receive his blessing. It makes it clear that our fate is not determined by karma but by what we do in this present life. We have control over our behaviour and can act in a way that brings blessing. Moreover, this blessing is not simply something we hope to enjoy in a future existence but is also to be enjoyed in the present.
This psalm also speaks to our current obsession with material blessing and prosperity. It reminds us that the blessedness or futility of our lives is not determined by how much we accumulate. It is directly related to how much we listen to and act on the Lord’s revealed will.
1:1 What the Godly Do Not Do
The godly person is introduced with the joyful affirmation Blessed is the one (1:1a), a frequent expression in Psalms and Proverbs. Jesus used it in the Beatitudes at the start of his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-11). It always refers to blessings from God.
No translation is able to capture the full meaning of the Hebrew word translated “blessed”. Some versions use “happy”, while others use a phrase like “Oh, the joys of those” (NLT). The Hebrew word refers to a desirable state of life that is not open to all, but only to the kind of people described in 1:1-3 (see also 32:1-2; 40:4; Prov 8:34-36; 28:14).
The godly are first identified by what they choose not to do. They refuse to follow a godless way of life by deliberately choosing not to walk in step with the wicked (1:1b). The wicked in the Psalms are not necessarily those who have committed some crime. They are the enemies of God both inside and outside the nation of Israel and are hostile to his people. The godly choose not to dance to their music.
Secondly, the godly deliberately choose not to stand in the way that sinners take (1:1c). Sinners are those who fail to walk in God’s ways and allow their failures to become habits that they try to justify. The godly cannot avoid social interaction with such people, but they can refuse to adopt their lifestyles and values (Prov 1:10-19).
Thirdly, the godly do not sit in the company of mockers (1:1d). Mockers are the proud and self-sufficient who refuse to take instruction or correction from God or anyone else (Prov 15:12; Isa 5:11-12; Mal 3:13-15). The godly refuse to associate with them when they make light of the Lord’s law.
Many in South Asia advocate religious pluralism and argue that all roads lead to the same ultimate reality. However, this approach leaves people confused about what is right and wrong and less inclined to check where they are “walking” and “sitting”. Many end up as mockers, dismissing faith and turning to pragmatism and secularism.
1:2 Characteristics of the Godly
Two things characterise the godly. The first is their delight is in the law of the Lord (1:2a). The word translated “delight” could also be translated “concern” or “preoccupation”. The godly continually study God’s law, and their interest does not evaporate when their circumstances change (see Isa 58:3, 13).
This delight leads to the second thing that characterises the godly: meditation on God’s law (1:2b). The idea of meditation is familiar in South Asia, but what did the psalmist mean when he spoke of it? The Hebrew word translated meditate does not simply mean to sit in silence and think about something. Nor does it mean repeating some words over and over again as if they have magical power. Nor does it mean reading simply as an intellectual exercise. We get a better idea of its meaning when we realise that the same word can be used of a lion’s low growling (Isa 31:4) and the cooing of a dove (Isa 38:14). The psalmist is saying that the godly read God’s law aloud or mutter it to themselves as they seek to understand its meaning and act on it (Josh 1:8).
The godly meditate on the law day and night (1:2c). This does not mean that only the elderly and insomniacs can be godly! Nor need we imitate the ancient Jewish sect that arranged to have someone studying the law every hour of the day and night. The point is that the godly maintain unbroken dependence on the law as God’s revealed will.
But what is the law of the Lord? The Hebrew word translated “law” is Torah, which means far more than just the rules and regulations we associate with the word “law”. The Torah embodies all of God’s revealed will: all the stories, statutes and prophecies in the Bible. The godly need to study every part of the Bible in order to understand who God is and what he requires of us if we are to walk according to his moral and ethical way. This is the law that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfil (Matt 5:17).
1:3 Blessedness of the Godly
What is the result of seeking to live according to God’s law? Writers in the dry lands of ancient Egypt and Israel often describe it using the image of a flourishing tree planted by streams of water (1:3a; Ps 92:12; Jer 17:8; Ezek 19:10). Significantly, this tree is planted (literally “transplanted”) into its present location by God.
Much of West Asia is arid, and farmers rely on irrigation canals to provide a consistent supply of water so that a tree’s growth and productivity is not stunted by a lack of rainfall and that fruit is produced in season. A tree planted by such a stream produces fruit unfailingly and even plentifully, while the fact that its leaf does not wither indicates that it remains healthy even in times of drought (1:3b). This metaphor powerfully describes the fruitfulness and vitality of those who delight in God’s word and are preoccupied with knowing and obeying his will.
But this is not all: whatever they do prospers (1:3c). This statement is a general truth and should not be taken as a blanket promise that anything and everything the godly undertake will succeed. Sometimes the godly endure opposition and suffering as they follow their Lord (John 15:19-21; 2 Tim 3:12; 1 Pet 1:6-7).
1:4-6 Futility of the Ungodly
The righteous person is like a sturdy, fruitful tree. Not so the wicked! (1:4a). The sinners and mockers (1:1) who reject God’s law are like chaff, the husks left over after the grain has been threshed out. The reapers gather the grain, but the weightless and worthless chaff is blown away by the wind (see 35:5; Hos 13:3). The futile life of the wicked is not the consequence of some evil committed in a previous life. It is the result of living here and now in disobedience to God’s will revealed in his word. As the chaff does not survive the threshing, so the wicked will not stand in God’s judgement, either now or in the future. They will have no place in the assembly of the righteous at the end of time when God gathers his people (1:5).
The psalm concludes with an affirmation that the Lord watches over the way of the righteous (1:6). The Hebrew word translated watches is literally “knows”. But “watches” implies that this is no mere intellectual knowledge. It is the personal response of the Lord who cares for those who follow his way. In contrast, the way of the wicked is a dead end because they have rejected his way and his concern for them. They have cut the ground from under their own feet.
Psalm 1: Two Ways, Two Destinies
This psalm by an unknown author occupies a very significant place in the book of Psalms. As the very first psalm, it functions as an introduction to the whole book. It is no accident that its first letter is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and that the first letter of the last word is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This pattern indicates that this psalm and the book it introduces contain the word of God from alpha to omega, from beginning to end. In other words, the Book of Psalms may be a collection of hymns, but it is far more than just a hymnbook.
This point is driven home by the division of the Book of Psalms into five sections or ‘books’ just as the Torah or Pentateuch consists of five books. Like the Pentateuch, the psalms contain God’s instructions, direction and teaching. Unfortunately we often miss this point in our churches when we routinely read a psalm as an invocation to open a service but do not pay attention to its content.
Psalm 1 is, however, more than merely an introduction. It also contains teaching presented in a form that is often adopted in the wisdom literature in the OT. Our earthly life is presented as a journey on which we can follow two different paths, leading to two different destinations. This psalm functions as a road sign, pointing to the path we should follow.
1:1–2 Portrait of the Righteous
The psalm begins by presenting the characteristics of someone who is righteous. Such a person is described as blessed (1:1a). The opening of the psalm thus affirms the verdict of the judgment at its end (1:6). The outcome of a good life is certain from the beginning.
The nature of the good life is first presented in negative terms and then in positive ones. The three negative verbs represent increasing levels of intimacy: does not walk in … stand in … or sit in (1:1b). The people with whom this intimacy develops are described as the wicked … sinners … mockers. The reader is being warned about the danger of socializing with the wrong people. Our associates can have a powerful effect on our lives. African wisdom makes the same point with its many sayings about the bad effects of associating with evil people (for example, ‘the friend of a thief is a thief’). The same point is made in the NT: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’ (1 Cor 15:33).
The OT provides several examples of people who failed because they followed the counsel of the wicked. Amnon, one of David’s sons, followed the bad advice of his friend Jonadab and raped his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam 13:1–20). His action led to the destruction of David’s family. Rehoboam, Solomon’s successor, refused to listen to the advice of wise elders and instead followed the counsel of his young friends. As a result, the nation of Israel was divided into two kingdoms, which were never re-united (1 Kgs 12:1–20).
Verse 2 stresses the positive actions of a righteous person. Instead of following the advice of the wicked, the righteous follow the law of the Lord (1:2). The word ‘law’ (or torah) is used twice in the two parallel statements in this short verse. The ‘law’ as used here does not mean only the five books of the Pentateuch, but the whole of Scripture, including the Book of Psalms, which this psalm introduces. Those who are righteous have no time to stand around gossiping and mocking because they are meditating on the law day and night. They do not find this a burden, but rather a delight as they think about what the law means and how they can apply it in their own lives.
This description of the righteous reminds us of God’s words when he first spoke to Joshua and gave him the key to a successful ministry: ‘Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful’ (Josh 1:8). God is not telling Joshua that all that he needs to do is to read the law every day. Joshua must not only read it, he must also reflect on it in order to find instruction, direction and advice. Psalm 119:105 expresses the same truth in another way: ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.’
1:3–4 The Righteous and the Wicked
The description in 1:1 of what the righteous do not do also tells us what the wicked do. So the psalmist does not describe the life of the wicked. Instead, he gives us similes which compare the fate of the righteous and the wicked.
The life of the righteous is said to be like a tree planted by streams of water (1:3). Such a tree regularly bears fruit at the appropriate time and its leaves remain a healthy green. In biblical thinking, bearing fruit refers to being prosperous, successful and prolific. The image is used of people, animals, plants, and even the land. This prosperity is what the Lord promised when he made his covenant with Israel: ‘He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land—your grain, new wine and oil—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land that he swore to your forefathers to give you’ (Deut 7:13–14).
While this promise of God’s blessing still stands, it is being distorted by those who preach a prosperity gospel that focuses solely on the link between faith in Christ and material prosperity. Poverty-stricken Christians in countries from Senegal to South Africa and from Abidjan to Nairobi are often encouraged to try to get rich by fasting. According to their gurus, all that they need to do is to fast, in some cases for as long as forty days. But such teaching is not the whole truth. God in his grace can give us material prosperity, but prosperity does not come in a mechanical and passive way. This psalm makes it clear that prosperity is not a reward for a particular action but the result of a lifestyle that follows the way set out by God the Creator. Because the righteous follow the directions in God’s word, they will never fail. Like trees that draw nourishment from the water and the soil, the righteous draw nourishment from God’s word. African Christians need to learn to give God’s word its rightful place in their lives.
Where we might have expected the writer to say that the wicked are like withered trees planted in a dry land, he chooses a different simile. A wicked person’s life is not even like that of a dry tree; all that it amounts to is scattered chaff (1:4). This image is a familiar one in Africa, where women harvest their cereal crops and then separate the grains from chaff. The heavy grain falls to the floor or into a basket for storage while the lighter, worthless chaff is blown away by the wind. This image emphasises the lightness of the wicked. They are worthless; they have no weight. When the wind blows, they disappear.
1:5–6 God’s Judgment
In the OT, the image of scattered chaff is often associated with God’s judgment (Ps 35:5; Hos 13:3). Because of their lightness, the wicked cannot stand in the judgment, that is, at God’s final judgment, and sinners will have no seat in the assembly of the righteous (1:5). These words link back to 1:1 where the same people are mentioned. There the righteous avoid the assembly of the wicked, and here the wicked are expelled from the assembly of the righteous. Their exclusion from this assembly guarantees their destruction.
The concluding verse of the psalm explicitly speaks of the two ways that lie before us: the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked (1:6). We have been shown these two paths and their inevitable conclusion: the righteous will succeed because the Lord watches their way, but the wicked will perish. God is the one who guarantees that the life of the righteous will be successful.
As a wisdom psalm, this one calls for a decision. The reader must choose between the two ways. May our choice be that advocated by Jesus when he said: ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’ (Luke 11:28).
Tokunboh Adeyemo, Africa Bible Commentary (Nairobi, Kenya; Grand Rapids, MI: WordAlive Publishers; Zondervan, 2006), 608–610.