1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. 3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. 4 The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. 5 Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. 6 For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish. (Authorized Version)
Part 1: Introduction
Two Kinds of Men
The first Psalm delineates the respective characters and the corresponding destinies of two kinds of men: called in verse 6 “the righteous” and “the ungodly”. This psalm makes a fitting introduction for the Psalter, the inspired song-book of the Old Testament church, for it captures in a picturesque and memorable way the essential differences between men who live their lives under the blessing of God and those who live under His wrath and curse.
For the Bible teaches that there are only these two kinds of men. It starkly states that every one of us is either the friend of God, or His enemy; there can be no neutrality. Either one is living a life of grateful obedience to his creator and redeemer, or he is in rebellion against God. Either one is in Christ, and destined to eternal life — or in Adam, and bound for everlasting ruin. To which class do you belong? Are you someone whom God regards as righteous? Or are you one whom he reckons among the ungodly?
The Psalm as Poetry
In interpreting this, or any other psalm, it is important to remember that it is a song, and therefore falls into the literary class or genre of poetry, as distinguished from prose. The Hebrew psalter uses literary devices common to all poetry generally: an artificial structure, rhythm, words selected for their sound as well as their meaning. In addition, it possesses some special features that are characteristic of ancient Hebrew poetry in particular. Among these are the extensive use of parallelism. We see an instance of “synthetic” parallelism in verse 2 and “antithetical” parallelism in verse 6.
The purpose of poetry is to enhance the impression of truth by proposing it to the mind in ways more vivid than a bare description. Poetry deals not so much with abstract ideas as with concrete images, immediately presented to the imagination, which gives it a peculiar force and power. Because a very large part of the Bible is poetry, a translation of Scripture should be judged not only by its conveyance of the meaning of the particular words, but also by its success in rendering Hebrew poetry into English accurately, and in a pleasing way. A good translation of poetic language will preserve as much as possible both the form of the original, and the evocative effect of its words. Most modern translations would have to be rated very low in this respect. The New Living Translation illustrates this point well:
1 Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with scoffers.
2 But they delight in doing everything the LORD wants; day and night they think about his law.
3 They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season without fail. Their leaves never wither, and in all they do, they prosper.
Notice that the poetic progression, “walketh… standeth…sitteth” has been removed from verse 1. In verse 2, the repetition of the word “law” in a chiastic parallelism is missing. In verse 3, the flowing expression, “planted by the rivers of waters” has been exchanged for “planted along the riverbank”. This is not only flat, but the use of the plural pronoun, “they”, and the gratuitous thought of a row of trees, rather than a single one, combine to mislead the reader. The true picture is of a man who stands out, who is willing to stand alone, if need be, rather than compromise with the world. The psalmist singles this remarkable person out, and exclaims “Behold how blessed is that man!” We could go on, but this suffices to illustrate the point.
This, and other modern versions, because they use the modern idiom, rather than choosing words appropriate to poetry, fail to transmit faithfully what God intended when He caused His word to be written down by men. If God chose to express Himself using exalted and beautiful language, it will not do for us to translate it into the language of the street. By arbitrarily removing important details of the poetry, they produce an inaccurate and impoverished rendering of God’s beautiful word.
Calvin summarizes: “The sum and substance of the whole is, that they are blessed who apply their hearts to the pursuit of heavenly wisdom; whereas the profane despisers of God, although for a time they may reckon themselves happy, shall at length have a most miserable end.”
Verses one and two describe the blessed man — first negatively, then positively. He does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, etc. He does meditate in God’s law day and night. The actions of men are indicative of character.
Verse three is a simile that likens him to a well-watered tree: strong, sturdy, and fruitful.
Verse four uses a contrasting metaphor, “chaff” to impress us with the frailty and impermanence of the ungodly, who are vulnerable to the least threat, so that, as it were, they are forcibly driven away by the summer breeze.
Verse five, building on the “chaff” metaphor, declares that such a worthless and insubstantial thing as a wicked man cannot hope to withstand the judgment of God.
In verse six, the psalm concludes with the assurance of Divine approval and perpetual blessing for the righteous, and the denunciation of certain destruction upon the ungodly.