Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked / nor standeth in the way of sinners / nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers:
But his delight is in the law of YHWH / and on his law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water / that bringeth forth its fruit in its season / whose leaf also doth not wither / and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The wicked are not so:
But are like the chaff / which the wind driveth away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment / nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For YHWH knoweth the way of the righteous / but the way of the wicked shall perish (Psalm 1:1-6).
You certainly cannot judge the book of Psalms by its cover.
The book of Psalms features so many wonderful songs and prayers praising YHWH and extolling His greatness while also giving voice to the pain, suffering, distress, and questions of the people of God. Yet the book begins with a psalm which would not be out of place in the book of Proverbs.
Psalm 1:1-6 is without a doubt a wisdom psalm, well crafted with sharp and vivid imagery. The Psalmist pronounces blessings on the righteous: he does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers (Psalm 1:1). Notice how the Psalmist intensifies the imagery: walking / standing / sitting would denote ever greater comfort and association, and wicked / sinners / scoffers features a progression from bad to worse! Instead the righteous delights in the law (Hebrew torah) of YHWH, and meditates upon it day and night (Psalm 1:2). He has taken the way of YHWH, not the way of sinners.
The Psalmist then describes the righteous in terms of a tree planted by a river (Psalm 1:3). In a semi-arid or arid climate like Israel, riverbanks are one of the few places where water will be found in dry times. Thus a tree planted by the river will produce fruit, will not wither, but will prosper, and so it will be with the righteous (Psalm 1:3).
The poetic flow of the psalm is sharply interrupted in Psalm 1:4, and for good reason: whereas the righteous prosper, it will not be so with the wicked! The Psalmist compares the wicked to chaff, the cases or straw of grains which provide no nutrition and are left to blow in the wind as worthless (Psalm 1:4).
The Psalmist assures us that the wicked will not stand in the judgment or in the “congregation of the righteous” (Psalm 1:5). YHWH knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish (Psalm 1:6). Thus Psalm 1 is a pure exhortation to wisdom, representing “proverbial orthodoxy” to the full: blessings and prosperity come to the righteous, but the wicked will perish.
Psalms 1 and 2 have no superscription; throughout time they have been understood as the “introduction” to the Psalms. This means that Psalm 1:1-6 was deliberately placed here as the beginning of the Psalter. Why should we expect the Psalms to begin with such a message, especially since the message of many of the psalms would challenge this “proverbial orthodoxy”?
Perhaps that is the very reason God directed the Psalter to begin the collection with Psalm 1. The world of the Psalms is full of sacrifices, kings, glory to YHWH, but also pain, suffering, doubt, and questions. The Psalmist grapples with the prosperity of the wicked and the struggles of the righteous. The Psalmist tries to make sense of a world in which the people of God suffer under the rule of pagan overseers. And yet Psalm 1:1-6 remains.
Psalm 1:1-6 reminds the reader, singer, or prayer of the Psalms of the two ways, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, and of their ends. It always goes best with the righteous: if not in this life, then in the next one. The Psalms in many ways must begin with a full exhortation to righteousness so as to remind Israel that sacrifice alone has never been and is not sufficient to please God. Likewise, Psalm 1:1-6 in many ways serves as an anchor for the whole Psalter: no matter how bad it gets, no matter how terrible it looks, it goes better for the righteous than it will for the wicked. In a world where Israel might be tempted to see too much grey God wants to remind them of the black and white.
We do well to recognize the value of Psalm 1:1-6. If we take it absolutely and expect the righteous to always prosper in this life and the wicked to always perish in this life we will be disappointed; as with all wisdom literature we must understand that many times the author is telling us the way things ought to be and will be when the Lord returns. On the other hand we can easily get discouraged when we see the complications in life, the seeming prosperity of the wicked, and the trials which accompany standing for righteousness. Psalm 1 reminds us of the way things should be, the way things stand before God, and that in the end the righteous will be the ones who are planted by the river and will prosper. The wicked will not endure!
Blessings still attend to those who seek to follow God’s instruction; they will prosper before God. We do well stand firm in God in Christ, as a tree planted by the water, and not be moved!
Ethan R. Longhenry