Chapter OnePsalm 1
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The Shape of Book 1 (Psalms 1-41)
The most immediately obvious characteristic of Book 1 of the Psalter is its
dominant Davidic character. Assuming the special character of the untitled
Psalms 1 and 2 as introductory, we are left in this initial section with thirty-nine
psalms, of which all but two bear attribution to David in their headings-employing
the simple although somewhat ambiguous constructionledawid, meaning "to/for/by/concerning/under the authority of/in the style of
David." The two anomalous psalms (Pss. 10 and 33) have no headings, but
each preserves a textual tradition of having been combined with the psalm
that immediately precedes (Pss. 9 and 32 respectively). If we accept the tradition
for the combination of these aberrant psalms with their immediate
predecessors, Book 1 of the Psalter is a uniformly Davidic collection bounded
at the beginning by Psalms 1 and 2 and concluded by the doxology in 41:13:
"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen."
Between these two boundary posts, Book 1 is characterized largely by
individual psalms and pleas for deliverance. Of the compositions in the book,
twenty-seven are clearly individual psalms, of which eighteen are pleas for
deliverance. An additional seven psalms (9; 10; 18; 21; 30; 32; 34) offer
thanksgiving for deliverance from trouble, and five more (14; 15; 35; 36; 37)
provide instruction regarding the experience of evil in the world. By contrast,
unambiguous praise of Yahweh is encountered in only five psalms (8; 16;
19; 29; 33), and confident reliance on Yahweh is expressed in only three
(11; 23; 27). A single psalm (24) represents an entrance liturgy.
Following the elevated hopes for kingship expressed in Psalm 2, Book 1
shifts decisively into a block of pleas for deliverance at its opening (3-7) and
concludes with an extended block of psalms focused on instruction concerning
continuing evil in the world (35-37) and additional pleas for deliverance
(38-41). Between these two extremes, psalms with an awareness of
evil and trouble (thanksgiving, instruction, pleas) outnumber psalms of praise
and reliance two to one. The effect of this arrangement is to focus the collection
on the experience of pain and suffering rather than on praise of God
for a well-ordered and firmly established world.
Despite the appearance of reliance and praise scattered through the middle
of this first book, the overriding sense expressed is of attack, suffering,
and the need for divine deliverance. Even though the central expression of
the collection (Ps. 21) is a thanksgiving psalm celebrating the victory granted
the king against his enemies, this joyous psalm is preceded by a prayer for
deliverance (20) and followed by agonized prayer of suffering and abandonment
(22). This leaves the reader with the impression that any sense of
victory is fleeting while suffering and distress are constant in life.
Elsewhere I have suggested that the first three books of the Psalter (Pss.
1-89) are arranged in a sort of rough commentary on the Davidic kingship
by the strategic placement of royal psalms. Book 1 announces the institution
of the kingship with the promises of universal dominion (Ps. 2), but
quickly slides into mourning and pleas for divine deliverance in Psalm 3 and
following. A real sense is established here of the frailty of human power, the
secure refuge God affords, and the need for divine deliverance and protection.
The last four psalms (38-41) are bounded before and after with prayers
for deliverance from sickness-a circumstance that accords well with David
at the conclusion of his own life and reign. While some may question whether
these psalms were actually written by David, they do reflect the uncertainty,
confusion, and plotting that characterize the transition between kings, even
within the Davidic dynasty.
If this were the end of the Davidic collection, then the situation would
seem dismal indeed. But the combination of this first book with the second,
as the postscript in 72:20 suggests, expands the Davidic collection by the
addition of Psalms 42-72. This provides the first Davidic collection with a
different terminus ("This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse"), and,
as we will consider in "The Shape of Book 2," with a different character. As
it stands, Book 1 does not represent the end of the Davidic dynasty but mirrors
at its conclusion (38-41) the difficulty of transition from one king to subsequent
The uncertainty reflected in these concluding psalms is also consonant
with that experienced by the Diaspora community, who had known not just
the death of a king but of the monarchy altogether. The grouping of Psalms
38-41 here provides counsel and hope that would have resonated deeply
with the needs of those struggling to survive in exile. These psalms affirm that
despite the suffering of attack, Yahweh is the only source of salvation; he is
salvation! (38:22). The appropriate response to the continuing suffering is to
acknowledge it is a just, divine rebuke for sin (38:1; 39:10) and to wait silently
for divine redemption (38:13-16; 39:1-3, 8-9). Psalm 40 mirrors this same
kind of enduring patience in the face of suffering and adds an attitude of
expectant anticipation (see the Bridging Contexts section of Ps. 40).
The whole grouping and Book 1 conclude with Psalm 41 and its description
of the suffering weakness of one facing death from disease. Remarkably
this psalm begins with the by-now familiar cry "Blessed" (asre), which links
this final psalm back to 2:8 and its triumphant celebration of the election of
the Davidic dynasty for powerful rule over the nations. Although the situation
reflected at the conclusion of Book 1 is radically different (as was the circumstance
of the exilic community), the call for blessing remains unchanged.
Those who took refuge in the conquering king in 2:8 have now become
those who cast their lot with the "weak" (41:1), but both remain "blessed" in
their enduring patience to wait for the coming one.
1 Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.
4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
If you were to open a handwritten medieval manuscript
of the Psalms at its beginning, chances are
that you would discover this psalm-the first in
the canonical collection-written in red ink and
without any evidence of a number. That is because at an early date the psalm
we now know as Psalm 1 was understood to be an introduction to the whole
Psalter rather than just another psalm. It is likely that the final editors of the
Psalter chose Psalm 1 as the gateway to the psalms because it encourages the
readers/hearers to consider the songs that follow to have the effect of divine
guidance or torah. This psalm also exhorts the readers both to read the psalms
and to meditate deeply on the message God is communicating through them.
It strongly affirms that how one responds to the revelation of God unleashed
by reading the psalms determines one's ultimate destiny.
The use of Psalm 1 as an unnumbered preface to the whole Psalter may
also explain the description in Acts 13:33 (in some Western manuscripts of
the Greek New Testament) of a quotation from what we now consider Psalm
2:7 as having been taken from the "first psalm." Apparently in that manuscript
tradition what we now call Psalm 1 was either unnumbered or had not yet
been appended to the beginning of the collection. In either case, the special
character of this psalm as introductory is affirmed.
Psalm 1 is described both as a wisdom psalm and as a Torah psalm. The
former designation recognizes the standard wisdom motif of the "two ways"
(1:6) of righteousness and wickedness (1:1, 4-6) as well as the characteristic
wisdom exhortation "Blessed!" (asre) at the beginning of the psalm. The
designation as a Torah psalm is a response to the centrality accorded thetorah (NIV "law") in verse 2. Other such Torah psalms (19; 119) appear in significant
locations within the Psalter and provide a thematic focus for the
final form of the whole collection.
Structurally Psalm 1 is arranged into a series of two-verse comparisons
between the lifestyle, consequences, and divine evaluation of the alternative
"ways" taken by the righteous and wicked. Three such comparisons are offered:
(1) guilt by association (1:1-2); (2) identifying fruits (2:3-4); (3) ultimate consequences
(1:5-6). In addition, the first and fifth verses intentionally employ
similar terms and motifs of standing in the public assembly to drive home the
contrast between the ultimate destiny of the righteous and the wicked.
The psalm is, then, an exhortation-through positive and negative examples-to
adopt the fruitful and satisfying life characterized by immersion in
the J. C. McCann, ed., of God. Then and only then will the faithful find
themselves on the "way" that is blazed and watched over by God himself.
Guilt by Association (1:1-2)
The opening blessing of the psalm (asre) is common enough in the wisdom
teaching of the Old Testament to recognize it as a characteristic method of
the sages to exhort hearers to right action. The word "blessed" conveys the
idea of happiness that flows from a sense of well-being and rightness. The
same term probably originally underlies the "blessed" of the Beatitudes in
Who does not walk . stand . sit. The positive exhortation leads to
a negative example. This is a lifestyle to be avoided, not emulated. The
sequence of verbs employed describe a life immersed and focused on association
with all that is opposed to God. The order of these verbs may indicate
a gradual descent into evil, in which one first walks alongside, then
stops, and ultimately takes up permanent residence in the company of
The passage has interesting similarities with the important command following
the Shema (Deut. 6:4: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord
is one") that faithful Israelites were to share Yahweh's commandments with
their children "when you sit at home and when you walk along the road,
when you lie down and when you get up" (Deut. 6:7). While the parallels
are not exact, both passages illustrate a totality of experience in which one
is immersed, focused, and committed to a culture of association that dominates
and shapes a worldview. In light of the move in Psalm 1:2 to direct the
hearer's attention to constant meditation on and delight in Yahweh's torah, the
contrasting profession and command from Deuteronomy may well have
been in the back of the psalmist's mind.