WEDNESDAY BIBLE STUDY AT 7:00 P.M.
A STUDY OF THE BIBLE
A Study on the Wisdom Books
(Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Son of Solomon)
What Is a Psalm?
In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis emphasized the importance of studying the Psalms as poetry, with its unique forms and characteristics. He wrote:
The Psalms are poems; intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. … Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.
When a literary work begins, “Once upon a time …” and ends, “and they lived happily ever after,” we don’t expect to take anything literally. Every literary work must be interpreted in view of its literary form.
The Old Testament Psalms are not just poetry; they are Hebrew poetry. It has a unique style and structure of its own, very different from the poetry of our time. While there are various types of Psalms in the Psalter and great diversity among the Psalms, all have several characteristics in common.
The Characteristics of the Psalms
A Psalm Is a Poem
Poetry is not particularly popular these days. For many of us the fact that the Psalms are poems may be something we need to overcome. How many of you, have penned or pondered a poem in the last month or so?
Until recently one would hardly have realized that the Psalms are poems. The translators of the King James Version of the Bible overlooked the poetic structure of the Psalms (as well as other poetic portions of the Old Testament). If you have a copy of the King James Version handy, look for a moment at the Psalms. Do you see that the printing format is virtually identical to that of the Book of Genesis? Who would have thought that he was reading poetry in Psalms from the form in which they were printed in this most revered version of the Bible?
Hebrew poetry is much different than the poetry we know today. When I think of poetry I think of such lofty works as,
Mary had a
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.
A flea and a
fly in a flue
Were imprisoned so what could they do?
Said the flea, “Let us fly!”
Said the fly, “Let us flee!”
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
The poetry with which we are most familiar is based on rhyme and rhythm. Hebrew poetry is very different.
In Hebrew poetry it is not the rhyming nor the rhythm of the words, but the relationship of two lines (most often) of poetry which is the heart of the poetic style. This relationship is most frequently referred to as parallelism. By the use of various types of parallelism the first line of poetry is expanded upon in the second, either by clarification, completion, or contrast.
Since the Psalms are poetry, we should not approach them in the same way we would prose. We must expect figures of speech, for example, and interpret expressions in the Psalms in the light of their literary use. In Psalm 1 the godly are likened (a simile) to a tree planted by streams of water, while the wicked are described as chaff (vv. 3-4). In Psalm 23 the Lord is portrayed as a shepherd, caring for us as His sheep (a metaphor). These poetic images and devices stimulate meditation and encourage the reader to probe the meaning of the passage.
Poetry is much more vivid, catching our attention and stimulating our thought. It is somewhat like listening to “The Shadow” on the radio. Enough is said to stimulate the imagination, but much is left for us to fill in. The excitement is often experienced by what the reader himself supplies, what he or she brings to the passage and takes from it. Poetry is therefore a more intense form of communication.
Poetry is a special use of language. Perrine remarks that “poetry might be defined as a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language.” Poetry is not designed basically to communicate information. … Poetry is the language of experience. It is powerful in its communicative ability.
It is not just the style of poetry which makes it more meaningful to the reader; it is also the sacrifice which poetry demands of the author. Good poetry, like anything else of quality, does not come easily. Any who have tried their hand at poetry know how true this is. Poetry should mean more to the reader, knowing that the writer has spent considerable effort in the expression of his thoughts.
The Hebrew psalm is especially significant because, in the providence of God, it is the most universal form of poetry. Can you imagine trying to translate a poem like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into another language and thought patterns of another culture thousands of years removed? A word-for-word translation is virtually impossible, let alone to find words which would rhyme. In French, for example, a “headache” is to “have a bad head.” To “look good” in French is translated “to carry yourself well.” In spite of the great difficulties translators find putting our modern poems into another language, translation has almost no adverse effect on Hebrew poetry because rhyme and rhythm are not prominent features.
It is the striking fact that this type of poetry loses less than perhaps any other in the process of translation. In many literatures the appeal of a poem lies chiefly in verbal felicities and associations, or in metrical subtleties, which tend to fail of their effect even in a related language. … But the poetry of the Psalms has a broad simplicity of rhythm and imagery which survives transplanting into almost any soil. Above all, the fact that its parallelisms are those of sense rather than of sound allows it to reproduce its chief effects with very little loss of either force or beauty. It is well fitted by God’s providence to invite ‘all the earth’ to ‘sing the glory of his name.’
A Psalm Is a Song
If a Psalm is a poem, it is also a song. The Book of Psalms, while it is many things, is a hymnal. The various titles of the Book of Psalms are one indication of the role of the book as a hymnal. In the Hebrew Bible the title of the Psalms is Tehillim, which means “songs of praise.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, the term Psalmoi is employed. The verb form of this Greek word originally referred to the plucking of strings with the fingers. Eventually, Psalmoi came to mean “sacred songs sung to musical accompaniment.”
In addition to the titles used for the Book of Psalms there are numerous musical terms in the book which indicate that the Psalms were written to be sung. The words “psalm” (Heb. mizmor, used 57 times) and “song” (Heb. sir, found in the heading of 30 Psalms, frequently with mizmor) are both musical terms. In 55 Psalms there is a reference to the “choir director.” Various musical instruments are mentioned in the Psalms, both stringed (e.g. Psalms 4,6,54,55), wind instruments, such as the flute (Psalm 5), and perhaps the harp (Psalms. 8,81,84). Some of the musical terms in the superscriptions are difficult to interpret. These terms may be instructions to the various sections of the choir, such as the sopranos and the basses. In Psalms 45 and 69 it is possible, if not probable, that the reference to “the Lilies” is the name of a well-known tune, to which the words of the song were to be sung (cf. the superscription in the NIV).
The fact that the Psalms are songs should serve as proof of the important role which music has to play in our spiritual lives and particularly in our worship. This was very clear to Martin Luther, who is quoted as saying: “He who despises music … does not please me. Music is a gift of God, not a gift of men. … After theology I accord to music the highest place and the greatest honor.”
It is obvious to anyone that while the words of the Psalms remain, the notes do not. The tunes are lost to us, but the lyrics are what God has preserved.”
Why has God preserved so many indications of the musical character of the Psalms if this has no relevance to us today? Why have the saints down through the ages composed music by which the Psalms have been sung? You see, music is woven into the culture of our times.
A Psalm Is an Expression of Worship
Perhaps no one word better summarizes what the Psalms are about than the word “worship.” Even though the term “worship” is not frequently employed in Psalms, there are a number of Hebrew words in the Psalms which point in that direction.
The Psalms are man’s response to God. Three words which help us classify the Old Testament Scriptures: revelation, reflection, and response. The historical books (such as the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) and the prophets are best characterized by the word “revelation,” not that all of the Bible isn’t revelation, but that the primary function of these books is revelation. The wisdom books, and especially Proverbs, would best be characterized as “reflection.” The contribution of these books has to do with the reflection of the writers on what has been revealed. The Book of Psalms is best described as “response.”
The Bible as a whole is not only the story of God’s dealings with his people but also the witness of his people’s response in thanksgiving and adoration, in lament and petition along the way of its pilgrimage through history.”
Since the saints respond differently to God’s activity (or perceived inactivity), the whole spectrum of man’s response can be found in the Psalms. One finds psalms expressive of the gamut of human emotions. Some ring with the exuberant thrill of praise; others reverberate with the throes of human desperation. The heights and the depths of human life resound through its poetry.”
The Worship Which the Psalms Facilitate Is More Public Than Private
While many maintain that they wish to worship God privately and in their own way, the Psalms were compiled primarily for use in public worship, not private. One may take home a hymnal (which also contains responsive readings) to use in their private devotions, but the principal purpose of that hymnal is for corporate singing and responsive reading by the congregation. The experience which prompted the composition of a Psalm may have been personal and private, but the Psalm was included in the Psalter for corporate praise and worship. Worship in the Psalms should always be meaningful to the individual, but it is assumed to be public in nature.
The Psalms of the Bible are not individualistic poems such as a modern person might compose to express his own thoughts and feelings. Of course, according to the Bible the individual is infinitely important in God’s sight.
All of the Hebrew terms for praise … have about them a public and vocal nature. In contrast then, thanksgiving may be silent and private; praise is vocal and public. But both must be intense and genuine.
Because praise in the Psalms is public and corporate, the author becomes almost anonymous:
The Psalms Are Prayers
The doxology of Book II of the Psalms concludes with these words: “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended” (Psalm 72:20). This indicates that the author of this verse (who was likely the compiler of this book of the Psalms) viewed the Psalms as prayers. When the author of each Psalm composed his work, he did so as to God. When the congregation of the Israelites sang, repeated, or prayed the Psalms, they did so to God, and, in the broadest sense, they prayed. If prayer is more than petition (which it should be), then it is not difficult to see how the Psalms could be regarded as prayers.
The Psalms Are Praise
Westermann draws our attention to this significant fact: “In our modern languages there are whole lists of words for which there is, in Hebrew for example, no single corresponding word (for example, “modest”). And among these is ‘to thank.’” Westermann feels that the significance of this fact has never been properly evaluated. He goes on to show that there is a great deal of difference between “thanks” and “praise,” which I have summarized below:
- Praise elevates the one praised, while thanks does not.
- The one who praises is preoccupied with the one praised; the one who thanks is not.
- Praise involves freedom and spontaneity; thanks, obligation.
- Praise always occurs in public; thanks is private.
- Praise is joyfully done; thanks, dutifully.
- Thanks is merely a word: “Thanks.” Praise cannot be done so simply.
This is the wonder of praise. True praise elevates God, not the speaker. True praise magnifies God in the community, not just in the thoughts of the one speaking. Praise is constructive worship. It should be a part of everyday living. Praise is a matter of life and breath.
The structure of Psalm 1 is straightforward. The entire Psalm extols the blessedness of one who avoids the path of the wicked and walks in the way of wisdom and life. Verses 1-3 describe the way of the righteous, first in negative terms (v. 1), and then in a positive dimension (v. 2), and finally the blessings alluded to in verse 1 are described through the imagery of a tree planted beside an abundant supply of water (v. 3). In contrast, verses 4 and 5 describe the wicked, who are likened to chaff (v. 4), and who are destined for judgment (v. 5). Verse 6 is a summary and conclusion, explaining the reason for the blessings of the righteous and the destruction of the wicked.
The Way of the Righteous (1:1-3)
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. (NIV)
The way of the righteous is depicted in verses 1-3, in terms of what it prohibits (v. 1), what it promotes (v. 2), and what it promises (v. 3). From the perspective of the righteous man these three verses describe his peril (v. 1), his priorities (v. 2), and his prosperity (v. 3). Let us consider each of these elements more carefully.
The Perils to Shun (v. 1)
The psalm begins by describing the way of the righteous in terms of three things which the godly will avoid.
First, we are told that the man who is blessed of God does not “walk in the counsel of the wicked.” Counsel may not be the most desirable rendering here, for it generally brings to mind what would be more in the line of “advice.” “Counsel” (Hebrew, `etsah) can mean specific advice (1 Kings 12:8, 13), or, more broadly, a plan (Ex. 18:19), but here it seems to refer to the principles which determine one’s actions. If this is the case, the godly will not only reject the advice of the wicked, but they will also avoid the philosophical and moral principles which lead to such conclusions. In other words, the godly will not adopt a humanistic world view which is the source of ungodly actions.
Humanism has manifested itself in a philosophy known as “situation ethics,” which was popularized by Joseph Fletcher. This point of view has become an intellectual and moral foundation for a great variety of moral evils. To mention but one, situation ethics holds that it is possible, in certain situations, for a man or woman to commit adultery and be right in so doing. The humanistic philosophy of situation ethics condones and sometimes even “sanctifies” sin.
Second, the righteous do not “stand in the way of sinners.” If the “counsel” of the wicked is a humanistic view of life, the “way of sinners” is a worldly lifestyle. In the first instance our attention is drawn to the principles by which wicked men live; in the second, we take note of the practices which stem from worldly principles. If we should not think the way the wicked do, neither should we act as they do. The term “way” occurs frequently in both Psalms and Proverbs, and often it is a reference to a man’s characteristic lifestyle, his habitual, predictable, pattern of behaving. The term “walk” has a similar connotation. So, the righteous is not to walk in the way of the wicked. Our lifestyle must not imitate that of the wicked.
Third, the righteous do not “sit in the seat of mockers.” I understand the “seat of scoffers” (NASB) to be a reference to a forbidden fellowship with those who have rejected God. The word “seat” is one which can refer to an assembly. The “assembly” which is forbidden the righteous in verse 1 is the counterpart of the “assembly” of the righteous in verse 5, from which the wicked are excluded. The righteous refuse to fellowship with fools who are hardened in their unbelief and who can only be known as “mockers.”
“Counsel, way and seat (or ‘assembly,’ or ‘dwelling’) draw attention to the realms of thinking, behaving and belonging, in which a person’s fundamental choice of allegiance is made and carried through.” I believe the progression in these three areas of believing, behaving, and belonging, can be illustrated in the Book of 1 Corinthians. The Corinthian church was far from spiritually mature. When Paul sought to correct the evils in this church which had been reported to him (1:11-12), he first dealt with the errors in their thinking. The first three chapters of 1 Corinthians concern the vast difference between merely human wisdom and the wisdom of God. The Corinthians were guilty of worldly reasoning, rather than using godly wisdom. The wisdom of the apostles was the wisdom of God and totally different from worldly wisdom (2:1-9). The wisdom of God can only be known through revelation (2:10) and can only be understood through the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit (2:11-16).
From the belief of the Corinthians, Paul moved to their behavior. He censored the man who was living with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5:1-5), and he challenged the practice of those who were taking fellow-Christians to court (1 Cor. 6:1-11). The subjects of marriage and divorce are dealt with in chapter 7. Then, in chapters 10 and 11, Paul comes to the topic of belonging. Some of the Corinthians had no qualms about joining a neighbor in a meal which involved idolatrous sacrifices and a kind of counterfeit communion. This kind of fellowship was forbidden (1 Cor. 10:14-22). It is little wonder that in their own assembling (chaps. 11–14) there were gross improprieties, to the degree that divine discipline had been meted out, even resulting in the death of some (1 Cor. 11:30).
Wrong thinking leads to wrong living and loose living ultimately hinders our worship, for we will ultimately seek our fellowship with fools, rather than with the congregation of the righteous, where genuine worship takes place.
Prohibitions are not punishment, but a divine protection. Adam and Eve were given great liberty in the Garden of Eden, but they were forbidden to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We now know why. Walking in the way of the righteous necessitates forsaking the way of the wicked. While the essence of our faith is not negative, some of its expressions are, and for our own blessing. Praise God for what He prohibits, as well as for what He provides!
We should also observe that while the first verse is largely negative, it is not entirely so. The opening words of verse 1 are, “Blessed is the man …” While it is not until verse 3 that these blessings are defined, the psalmist nevertheless begins on a positive note. The blessings of God are due, in part, to the obedience of His children to His prohibitions.
A Provision to Seek (v. 2)
Having dealt with the prohibitions of verse 1, the psalmist comes to the provisions of God which replace and far outweigh the negatives previously described. What the righteous avoids from the wicked he acquires from the Word of God: “… his delight is in the law of the Lord” (v. 2). It is amazing to read the arguments of men who would have us believe that the “law of the Lord” does not include the law of Moses. While more of the Old Testament Scriptures than just the five books of Moses may have been available to the saints of that day, the Pentateuch is surely included. In fact, verses 2 and 3 seem to allude to Joshua 1:8.
The problem we have with taking the psalmist’s words at face value reveals more about us than it does about the law of Moses. We are inclined to view the law as restrictive, petty, and confining. What we fail to recognize is that the law was not only the source of specific rules and regulations, but it was also intended to teach the Israelites principles which would govern their actions. The fundamental issue underlying the Sermon on the Mount was over the interpretation of the Old Testament law. The scribes and Pharisees interpreted the law only in terms of particulars (in Jesus’ words, “gnats,” Matt. 23:24), while Jesus was concerned as well with the principles (the “camels,” Matt. 23:24).
For example, the scribes and Pharisees differed among themselves over the reasons for which a man could divorce his wife. Jesus, on the other hand, did not want to talk about the exceptional cases where divorce was permitted “due to the hardness of men’s hearts,” but rather he emphasized the principle of permanence which the law taught: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6).
When Paul sought to demonstrate that he had the right, as a minister of the gospel, to be financially supported, he turned to a passage in the Book of Deuteronomy which seemed to have no direct relationship to his situation: “For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing’” (1 Cor. 9:9; cf. Deut. 25:4).
Paul went on to show that God’s primary concern was not for the ox, but for man (1 Cor. 9:9-10). This particular regulation was given to men to teach them the principle of remuneration. If the ox should not be muzzled so that he could benefit from the fruits of his labors, surely men who preach the Word of God should be provided for in their labor.
Since these principles are somewhat below the surface of the passage and therefore not immediately evident, we must meditate on the law in order to derive them. That is exactly what the godly man is pictured as doing: “… on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2, NIV). The law does contain rules and regulations, commands and prohibitions, but, in addition, it is fuel for meditation.
The Hebrew word translated “meditate” is employed in some interesting ways. It is used, for example, “of a young lion growling over his prey (Isa. 31:4), of the moaning of a dove (Isa. 38:14), and as a synonym of ‘to speak’ (37:30, 71:24) or ‘to remember and to muse on.’” Anderson therefore suggests that to meditate “… may mean in our context ‘he reads to himself in a low tone.’”
There is a change in the tense of the verb in verse 2 which heightens the contrast between verses 1 and 2.
O how happy is the person who has not shaped his conduct after the principles of the ungodly, Nor taken his stand in the way of sinners, Nor taken his seat in the assembly of scoffers! But it is in the law of the Lord that he takes his delight; And on His law he keeps pondering day and night.
The impression which may be intended by this change of tense appears to be that the godly man has made a firm and final decision to avoid the principles, practices, and fellowship of the wicked. On the other hand, he delights in the law of God, persistently and habitually meditating upon God’s Word.
The Prosperity of Those Who Seek (v. 3)
Verse 1 briefly introduced the subject of the blessing of the righteous. In verse 3 we find a poetic description of the blessings which the righteous will experience. The prosperity which is promised the righteous is described by comparing the righteous man to a tree which is planted beside streams of water. Water, in the context of verse 2, would almost certainly be a poetic representation of the Word of God, the “law of the Lord.”
The righteous man is described in verse 2 as one who delights in the law of God and constantly meditates on His Word. In verse 3 a tree is used to picture his dependence on the Word of God and the blessings which flow from it. The life of a tree is dependent on a continual supply of water. Trees absorb hundreds of gallons of water from the ground and return it to the atmosphere through their leaves. The point is thus made that just as the life of the tree is dependent on a supply of water, the spiritual life of the saint is dependent on the abundant supply of the Word of God. As our Lord Himself said, quoting from the law (Deut. 8:3), “‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4).
The last line of verse 3 promises prosperity in these words: “whatever he does prospers.” While this is true, it is important that we understand the nature of the prosperity that is promised. While the last statement clarifies the previous imagery and specifically applies it to the righteous man who abides in the Word, we need to interpret prosperity in the light of the context. In short, we need to understand that the tree prospers as a tree. So too, the saint prospers as a saint. Let us therefore consider the prosperity which is promised in the light of the imagery of the tree.
The tree prospers from the water by “yielding its fruit in season.” In other words, the tree prospers by fulfilling its purpose of bearing fruit. In the light of the New Testament teaching on spiritual gifts, I believe it is safe to say that Christians are various kinds of “trees,” depending on their specific gifts and calling (cf. Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:7-16; 1 Peter 4:10-11). A peach tree prospers by growing to maturity and bearing peaches. A shade tree prospers by growing tall and strong and producing shade. A godly man who abides in the Word of God prospers by growing to maturity and becoming what God has intended him to be and producing the spiritual fruit He has ordained.
Notice that the tree bears its fruit in its season. Just as water does not produce instantaneous growth or fruit in a tree, so the Word of God does not immediately bring us to maturity and fruitfulness. God has ordained that this is a process which takes time, indeed, a different time for each individual. I have several peach trees in my yard and none of them have fruit which matures at the same time. Each Christian has his own timetable for growth and productivity. The measure of my prosperity is not necessarily determined by what I am doing at this very moment (although my present status is important).
Prosperity is seen in another way in trees. A tree prospers by surviving adverse conditions. The same wind which drives away the chaff does not topple the tree whose roots are sunk deeply into the soil to obtain water. And when dry spells come it is the tree whose root system is too shallow that is subject to drought. Its leaves wither and fall to the ground. This is not so with the tree that has an abundance of water. Adversity and testing cannot destroy the tree or its productivity. So, with the saint, if we are deeply rooted in the Word of God, adversity may well come our way, but it need not hinder our growth or ministry.
Do you see now how it is that the psalmist says the saint will prosper if he abides in the Word of God and avoids the way of the wicked? The prosperity is not so much material as it is spiritual. We prosper by growing in grace, coming to maturity, and bearing fruit. Material prosperity is not the principle focus of this text.
Notice one other interesting thing as we leave verse 3: The fruit which the tree bears is not the same as the water which produced it. The fruit of a peach tree may be mostly water, but it isn’t water. The water is transformed in and by the tree into another, even more delightful, form.
If trees were like us instead of us being like trees, the trees would not have fruit—they would have faucets! A faucet on a tree might make water available to men, but it would not have changed it from the way it was received. Such a tree would simply be a kind of leafy pipe. While it is true the Word of God should transform us (cf. Rom. 12:2), it is also true that the Word of God should be transformed in us. Each believer should be sustained by the Word and then that Word should be manifested in a variety of beautiful “fruits” which would benefit others. Too many of us are simply containers of the truth. When we see a brother or sister in need of help, we quote Scripture verses to them. We put out Scripture in exactly the same form that we take it in. That is not what trees do.
The Way of the Wicked (1:4-6)
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. (NIV)
Verses 4 and 5 contrast the blessedness of the righteous against the backdrop of the peril of the wicked. The first line of verse 4 signals us that a contrast is at hand: “Not so the wicked!” The nature and destiny of the wicked are contrasted with that of the righteous by a change of figures from trees to chaff. Trees and chaff differ in several significant ways. First, the tree is different from chaff in its nature, for the tree has life. The reason why water benefits trees is because trees are alive. You can water chaff day and night, and it will not grow. It cannot grow because it has no life. Just so, the Word of God has hardly any beneficial effect on the wicked, for they have rejected not only the Word, but the God who revealed it. The only thing water does to chaff is make it wet.
Second, chaff differs from trees in its value. Trees are of great value. The value of property takes into account the value of the trees it contains. This is even more so in a land which has a scarcity of trees—a land such as Israel. I have read that the verbal contract between a buyer and seller of land in the Ancient Near East included an enumeration of the trees, which adds interest to our reading of Genesis 23:17. Because trees serve to break the force of the wind, offer us shade, cooler temperatures and fruit, we value them. Chaff, on the other hand, is considered a nuisance. It is the waste or residue remaining from the harvesting and winnowing of grain. Our only concern is to get rid of it. When grain was winnowed it was often done on a hilltop so the wind could blow the chaff away. This is the picture which is drawn in verse 4.
Third, chaff differs as to its destiny. I have been told that in some places in Texas the chaff of rice is used to fire furnaces which then produce electricity. What a frighteningly accurate picture of the fate of the wicked! Verse 5 further explains the future of the wicked, clarifying the allusion to the judgment of the wicked in verse 4. The wicked, we are told, “will not stand in the judgment.” From the vantage point of the New Testament saint it is easy to see a reference to the ultimate judgment of the wicked by means of eternal damnation (cf. 2 Thes. 1:6-10; Rev. 20:11-15).
From the picture of the chaff (as contrasted with the tree) the judgment of the wicked involves removal. The wind blows it away (v. 4). The last statement in verse 5 describes this removal as the exclusion of the wicked from the “assembly of the righteous.” Just as the righteous could not be blessed by congregating with mockers (see above), neither could the wicked be found in the assembly of the righteous.
In the Old Testament we are supplied with abundant examples of divine judgment where God removed sinners from the congregation of the Israelites—examples with which the ancient Israelites who read the Psalms were very familiar. In Numbers 16 we read of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who rebelled against the leadership of Moses. The Lord gave Moses these instructions: “Say to the assembly, ‘Move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’” (Num. 16:24).
The Lord then caused the ground to open up and to swallow Korah, Dathan and Abiram alive, along with their families. Moses then wrote these words: “They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community” (Num. 16:33).
I believe it is safe to conclude from this and other instances of judgment in the Old Testament that the Israelites understood divine judgment to involve a removal from the congregation, which excluded an individual both from fellowship and from worship. Even ceremonial uncleanness brought about separation. The point was clearly made by this that sin results in separation from the congregation.
The same principle abides in the New Testament. Sin in the life of the saint, which was willfully maintained, even after a rebuke, was to bring about discipline. Thus, the man who was living with his father’s wife was to be excluded from the church, at least for a time (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-13; perhaps also 2 Cor. 2:5-11). Later on, in 1 Corinthians 11 we read that irreverent behavior at the Lord’s Table resulted in the death of some (v. 30). Sin is judged by a separation from the congregation. This is even true of an unbeliever; whose eternal punishment is to be banned from the presence of God (2 Thes. 1:9).
An Explanation (v. 6)
The psalm concludes with an explanation for the different destinies of the righteous and the wicked. Verses 1-5 have described some of the critical differences between the righteous and the wicked. Verse 6 explains why the fate of the two differs.
Did you notice something unusual about the statement in verse 6? It does not say that the Lord watches over the righteous and punishes the wicked. It says, rather, “… the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Why this emphasis on the ways of the two rather than on the people themselves? I believe the answer is simple, yet profound in its implications. Men are blessed or condemned on the basis of only one decision—the way in which they have chosen to walk. There are only two ways from which to choose and every person is in one way or the other. The judgment some will receive is the result of their decision to walk in the way of the wicked. The blessings others will obtain are the result of their decision to walk in the way of righteousness.
While some of the particular signs along these two ways have changed, the same two ways exist today, along with the same two destinies. If the way of righteousness was chosen by a rejection of evil men and obedience to the Word of God in the Old Testament, men from the time of Christ until now choose to walk in the way of life by obedience to the living Word, Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Men choose to remain in the way of the wicked by rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ and His atoning death.
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:14-18, NIV).
God does not show favorites. He blesses some and condemns others on the basis of the way in which they have chosen to walk. Would you desire the blessing of God in your life, my friend? Then you must walk in His way. Some people, Christians included, seem to think that God’s blessings are capriciously or haphazardly dispensed to men, or through some kind of magical or mystical process. Psalm 1 tells us that the way of blessing is the way of righteousness, which involves negatively the avoidance of worldly wisdom, worldly actions, and worldly fellowship (not contact, but intimacy and worship), and positively entails the pursuit of intimacy with God through His Word.
This psalm informs us of the promise which every other psalm in the Psalter assumes: God is the rewarder of those who trust and obey Him. The imprecatory psalms which urge God to judge the wicked simply request that God act consistently with what Psalm 1 assures us will happen to the wicked. The psalms of lament express the bewilderment of the righteous at the delay of God in bringing the blessings which Psalm 1 assures us will come to the righteous.
While this psalm expresses the underlying assumption of all the psalms, it is no new revelation. If you would, it is merely a poetic summary of the Old Testament law and, particularly, of its teaching on the blessings and cursings of God in response to Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant made with God. The blessings and cursings spelled out so graphically in Deuteronomy 27 and 28 are now summarized in these words of Moses:
This day I call heaven and earth as witness against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut. 30:19-20, NIV).
The Contribution of This Psalm to the Psalter
As we have seen, the message of Psalm 1 is not a new one. We will also discover that it is one frequently found in both the Old and New Testaments. Let me merely mention several passages for you to consider in connection with your study of Psalm 1.
In Jeremiah 17:7-8 the words of the prophet very clearly reflect a familiarity with Psalm 1. I would encourage you to study this passage in Jeremiah in its context, to see how it enhances your understanding of the message of the psalm and its application to daily life.
In Matthew 5–7 in the familiar Sermon on the Mount, our Lord Jesus frequently employed the term “blessed” which introduces Psalm 1. How did the interpretation which the scribes and Pharisees gave the Old Testament law keep it from being a blessing to men? How did Jesus differ in His interpretation and application of the Old Testament law? What should this do for your own understanding of the Old Testament?
Finally, consider John 15:1-17 as a commentary on Psalm 1. How is the tree of Psalm 1 like the branch of John 15? In what are we to abide in both passages? How are we to abide? Consider the two areas of human responsibility and divine sovereignty. How does each passage contribute to your understanding of the other?
It seems likely that this psalm was specially composed as an introduction to the whole Psalter. Certainly it stands here as a faithful doorkeeper, confronting those who would be in ‘the congregation of the righteous’ (5) with the basic choice that alone gives reality to worship; with the divine truth (2) that must inform it; and with the ultimate judgment (5, 6) that looms up beyond it.
Psalm 1 summarizes the essence of the law, which puts before men the choice of following God through obedience to His Word and receiving His blessings, or rejecting Him and His Word and facing His judgment. The psalm, while not what might be thought of as worship, certainly tells us the kind of person who is qualified to worship. Just as 1 Timothy 3 lays down the qualifications for church leaders, Psalm 1 sets down the qualifications for a worshipper. While the other psalms provide us with the material for worship, this psalm describes for us the one who is able to worship. Worship, then, is not just a matter of what we say and do, but of what kind of person we are. The wicked will not be in the congregation of the righteous, which is the very place where the psalms were used for corporate worship. If we must be in “the way of the righteous” to be blessed, we must also be in this “way” to worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).
While the Samaritan woman of John 4 believed in worship, she was uninformed about the proper way to worship. The issue, ultimately, was not one of place, but of person. It was not until she had come to accept the Lord Jesus as the promised Messiah that she could worship in spirit and in truth. Worship is not primarily a matter of form, but of faith, and that faith must be in the Lord Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth, and the life.”
What better note on which to begin our study of the Psalms than that which has been struck by Psalm 1. If the man who is blessed of God is the one who chooses to abide in the Word of God, let us begin abiding in the Psalms. The blessed man was not the man who read commentaries about the Scriptures or who listened to sermons, but the man who was personally studying the Word of God for himself.