Psalm 1: Loving the Law

Marrieds with a Ministry Sunday School Class
Two Rivers Baptist Church
Nashville, TN, USA

For Sunday, 21 October 2001

Handout: Loving the Law (PDF file, 8K)


Red: question for class

Bright blue: term from Scripture (to be defined)

Green: on hand-out

Ink: words to be filled in on hand-out


Ps. 1 may have been written as an introduction to the whole collection. It sounds basic themes found throughout the Psalms1, including:

  • The joy of the righteous
  • The sorrow of the wicked
  • The preeminence of God's Law
  • The brevity of life
  • The sovereignty of God

v. 1a: How blessed!


  • Exclamation of overwhelming joy: The Hebrew word ashrey (or 'esheray) is in the plural form, literally "Blessednesses" or manifold blessings. It's an exclamation, the joyful outburst of one overwhelmed by thought of something marvelous or beautiful2. To amplify, it might be rendered, "In how many ways successful, and how great the prosperity, of" this man.
  • True success: There is no one good English word for blessed. The best solution is to learn what is meant by it in Scripture and use it with that understanding. The core idea of the Hebrew word is going straight; that is, the blessed person's life is guided so as to avoid obstacles3. He is sure-footed and has his bearings. It implies unhindered accomplishment; proceeding steadily and confidently without having to turn aside due to distraction, disturbance, or stumbling. As a result, it also includes gladness and peace. The traditional Hebrew concept of blessedness also includes beholding beauty, and specifically the unsurpassable beauty of the face of God. To see God's face and not be ashamed is the ultimate blessedness. The blessed man is proceeding confidently toward that goal, and nothing keeps him from it.
  • Oracle of blessing: "Blessed" is the signal for an oracle of blessing. The oracles were messages sent from God to Israel through the prophets. In that sense, "blessed" is the opposite of "woe," the signal for an oracle of curse.4 If God's favor does not rest on you but rather His justice, that is woe to you. If God's grace is extended to you, then blessed are you. That is why the blessed man stands in the judgment while the ungodly perish.
  • Grace: Blessed is often translated "happy" in modern translations. But that word doesn't do a very good job because it comes from the pagan idea that success and joy happen to you, that they are the effect of lucky circumstances. If one is blessed, OTOH, that implies that Someone is blessing you - the source of blessedness is external to you. That is, blessedness is the effect of God's grace.

Happiness implies that joy comes from blind luck. Blessedness implies that joy is given by God.

v. 1b: Avoiding the downward spiral

Why is this person so successful? What does he find so beautiful? Through what has he received God's grace?

Before he tells us what leads to success, he's going to tell us what doesn't, what is not beautiful, what is opposed to the grace of God. After beginning with a great positive climax, the verse immediately rises to a second but this time negative one, which is outlined in mathematical symmetry - 3 X 3 - and shows a downward slide, each step lower than the last--from bad to worse to worst. In Hebrew poetry this negative form "Blessed is the man who does NOT" indicates contrast: the miserable fumbling and blundering of the one who does these three things is as great as the joyful, sure-footed success of the one who does not.5

It's all downhill from here:
The PracticesThe VenuesThe Companions
Walkingin the Counselof the Ungodly
Standingin the Pathof the Sinners
Sittingin the Seatof the Scornful
  1. The Practices
    1. Walk: hâlak - to be in the habit of, to be comfortable with.6
    2. Stand: 'âmad - to hang out, to take your coat off and stay awhile, to loiter, to enjoy the company. Implies giving approval.7
    3. Sit: yâshab' - most specifically to sit as a judge, or to lie in wait, but more generally to inhabit, to establish a place of residence. By implication, to settle in, to marry.8 There is a sense of commitment, of permanence.
  2. The Venues
    1. Counsel: 'êtsâh - advice, plan, purpose.9 It's what you listen to.
    2. Path: derek - a way of life or mode of action, a manner.10 It's what you do.
    3. Seat: môshâb - the judge or chairman's seat from which he oversees proceedings, or an abode11 - a man's castle (as we say metaphorically in English). It's where you're in charge.
  3. The Companions
    1. Ungodly: reshaim - morally bad, unjust12, withholding what is due13. These people are defined by what they don't do. They may not seek to hurt others, but they fail to meet their obligations under God's Law; to pursue holiness; to give credit where credit is due. Romans 1:18-21
    2. Sinners: chattaim - transgressors, those who violate the boundaries set by God's authority. These people intentionally do what they know is wrong. They may do it surreptitiously, when no one is looking but they try to get away with what they think they can.14
    3. Scornful: metsim - mockers, those who think religion is a crock, who treat God's name and Law with disrespect. They have no fear of God, openly violating His commands.15

The blessed person avoids:

  • Walking in the counsel of the ungodly: becoming comfortable with talk that comes from the mindset of those who do not glorify God as God.
  • Standing in the way of sinners: tacitly approving evil by taking pleasure in the company of those who try to get away with doing wrong.
  • Sitting in the seat of the scornful: using one's influence and resources to instigate sacrilegious and immoral activity.

There is a striking parallel between this passage and the last half of Romans chapter 1. The order is the same in both places: 1) ungodliness (idolatry, religious perversion), 2) unrighteousness (immorality, lawlessness, moral perversion), 3) impiety (hearty approval and overt promotion of all kinds of perversion).

The progression implies a slippery slope. One sin leads to another. The person who becomes comfortable around empty talk later lets himself enjoy being around wicked deeds, and finally ends up hosting corrupt activities, leading others to join him. Toleration of the presence of sinful talk (media) leads to sinful thoughts; sinful thoughts lead inevitably to sinful habits; sinful habits lead to a cynical rejection of Truth. Bad company corrupts good character. I Cor. 15:33 It's impossible to remain forever merely contented with the company of those who are ambivalent to holiness. Eventually immoral habits will begin to take over our lives; before we know it, we will find that we have settled down in the anti-church, involved in persuading others to ignore God's Law and openly treating it with scorn.16

This happens not only in society, but also even in the church itself. The teaching that God's moral laws no longer bind the conscience of Christians is called antinomianism; it is the Christianized version of sitting in the seat of the scornful.

Eve followed this progression in the Garden: 1) listened to ungodly advice, 2) did what she knew was wrong by taking and eating of the forbidden tree, 3) used influence to corrupt others in giving to Adam.

So, to find the sure path to true prosperity,

  1. Don't listen to the advice of people who don't live holy lives. Avoid the advice of those who fail to give God His due, and to give man his due. Listen closely to Bible teachers and inspirational writers. Whose work do they emphasize most, God's or man's? To whom do they give most credit for what happens, God or man? Whose will is portrayed as sovereign over the other, God's or man's?
  2. Be careful whom you sympathize with and whom you approve as a worthy person. Never excuse or rationalize a friend's sin. Confront with the truth in love. Be careful what ideas your family and friends get about who you think are good role models.
  3. Cultivate in yourself a fear of the LORD and a respect for holy things. Submit to God and carefully obey Him.

Now we know what does not bring success, and what is not joyous, beautiful, and cooperative with God's grace but we still haven't answered the questions in the affirmative.

v. 2a: Delight in the Law

Delight: chephtso - pleasure, desire, value - words of the heart. This is neither the titillation of physical stimulation nor the headiness of intellectual pursuit, but affection - love.17

Law of the LORD: tôrâh yahweh - a Hebrew phrase referring to Scripture generally, but idiomatically to the whole of the five books of Moses. When the word "torah" has a definite article in the Hebrew, it refers specifically to the Books of Moses; otherwise, it can refer to a specific set of regulations within the Law, or can include the rest of Scripture.18 Here it does not have the definite article. The Torah Yahweh tells the stories of the creation, the fall of man, the Great Flood, the dispersal of the nations across the earth, the call of Abraham, the events of the lives of Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve sons of Jacob, and the history of the tribes of Israel up to the point that they are ready to enter the Land of Promise. But it is dominated by the Law, the precepts dictated to Moses directly by God Himself. Does it seem strange that the Psalmist points to the Law as the source of greatest joy? Do you find yourself wanting to say, "That's fine for you, buddy, but I'll get my kicks some other way, thank you very much"?

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) - sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, book The Wrath of Almighty God. Why would anyone write such a book?

Without the bad news, the Good News is no news.

The Law magnifies God's grace. The more you understand who God is, what He requires of you, the extent to which you have failed, His penalty for failure, and what He has done to rescue you from that penalty, the more you will rejoice in His grace. The historic Christian position, widely abandoned in the last century, is that it is necessary to teach both the Law and Gospel. Disregarding the Law cuts the heart out of the Gospel.

v. 2b: Continual meditation

Meditation: hâgâh - to talk to quietly to ones self, by extension to ponder, ruminate; sometimes translated "imagine."19 This is not the Eastern religious meditation of sitting cross legged on the floor trying to clear one's mind of all thought, but the diligent application of the mind, heart, and imagination together, focusing intently.20

Day and night: What time frames are not included in day and night? This does not mean that you spend all your time sitting around thinking like Winnie the Pooh™. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 It does mean that it is the constant refuge of your thought. What does your mind go to when you have a moment to think about whatever you want? If it goes to the Scriptures, you are blessed.

The blessed person responds to God's Law with delight through meditation.

v. 3: God's orchard

Planted: shaw-thal' - transplanted.21 The blessed person did not grow up naturally by rivers of water. The LORD transplanted him there. None of us is a blessed person by nature. We are born in a state of sinfulness and corruption. Only by God's grace are we brought to the streams of living water.

Rivers of water: peleg - Notice that the tree is planted not by still water such as a pool or lake, but by running water. Running water brings a constant stream of fresh nutrients to a tree on its bank.

This is not the most common Hebrew word for river. Its root means "divided," as in a system of ditches or channels cut in the ground. You might recall the fellow in Genesis 10 who was named Peleg because "in his day the earth was divided"--possibly meaning the land was divied up between the families of the earth. When pertaining to water, it is used of small streams and of irrigation canals.22 This reinforces the idea of blessedness as a gift of God, not a work of man. This is not just some river that happens to be running nearby; rather it was dug for watering an orchard. The blessed person is not just some tree out in the middle of no where by a river. He is a tree planted by God in God's orchard, watered under His supervision.

Yields its fruit: consistent with the picture of an irrigated orchard of transplanted trees, this is no ordinary tree. What kind of tree is the blessed person like? A fruit tree. The fruit is righteousness. James 3:13-18 This tree's purpose is to produce fruit, provide nourishment, enjoyment, and seeds from which more fruit trees may grow. It gives up its fruit. It's transplantation and cultivation are not done for the sake of the tree, but for the sake of the Gardener.

In its season: 'êth - In due time, at the appropriate time. Not "season" of the year23, but "when sufficient time has passed." The bearing of fruit takes time. A transplanted tree does not immediately produce fruit. When you begin avoiding the counsel of the ungodly and begin meditating in the Law of the LORD, you will not begin accomplishing great things overnight. Be patient. Take the time necessary to soak up the nourishment of God's Word until you are mature. Bearing fruit is not your responsibility, but that of the Gardener. It will not come by trying to force it out the ends of your branches, but by being filled with the living water of the Torah of Yahweh. God is in no hurry to use you. His goal is to make you a blessed person, confirmed to the image of His Son. Let Him tend to you through His Word and you will bear fruit when you have reached maturity.

Its leaf = foliage; does not wither: nâbêl - used figuratively of shame, disgrace, dishonor, being exposed as a fool, amounting to nothing24. The blessed person, who makes God's Law the focus of his thought, has no worry of being ashamed when the Gardener comes to prune or to harvest.

This may hint at Adam and Eve using leaves as a covering in the Garden. The Psalms are arranged in five books, mirroring the form of the Books of Moses.25 Ps. 1 may go with the opening section of Genesis. There are some parallel elements:

  • ungodly advice leading the righteous astray
  • fruit trees
  • an orchard watered by rivers
  • leaves covering shame

In whatever he does: all.26 He can do nothing but prosper. Prosperity is inevitable for him. In all that he does, he prospers: tsâlach - like blessed, the core idea is of pushing forward, by implication overcoming obstacles to accomplish good things.27 This prosperity is not material wealth but righteousness, good deeds, that which pleases God. Until you have learned what pleases God, as He has revealed in His Law, you have no hope of living a blessed life. Once you are transplanted in the orchard and cultivated by the Master Gardener, your blessedness is assured.

v. 4: Dried up and blown away

The ungodly: in verses 4-6, same as in verse 1, those who neglect to glorify God as God. Note the extension of the agricultural motif. The chaff metaphor contrasts beautifully with the metaphor of the luxurious fruit tree. The ungodly are not given the dignity of being described as trees of any kind, not even naked and barren trees. Chaff is useless stuff, separated from the valuable wheat by a severe pounding, then offered to the wind. "All we are is dust in the wind"? True enough of the ungodly, at least in the sense of their ability to talk their way out from under God's judgment. Wind in scripture signifies breath--speech by extension, and spirit--often the Holy Spirit. John 3:8 Those offering ungodly advice are talking into the wind, wasting their breath. The ungodly may plan and scheme but in the end they are simply blown away like so much chaff.

v. 5: No longer standing

Sinners: also the same as in verse 1, those who try to get away with doing what they know is wrong. The blessed person doesn't stand in the way of sinners. The sinner doesn't stand a chance before righteous judgment.

The writer doesn't even bother to mention the scornful. Their fate goes without saying. But even apprentice sinners, so to speak, those in the earlier stages of the downhill slide, will suffer the dreadful sentence of death for their sins.

v. 6: God sees to it

The LORD knows: yâda' - to ascertain by seeing, implies observation with care.28 It is not simply the possession of information but an ongoing, intense scrutiny. It is the primary focus of the knower. God looks after His children.

  • This occurrence of the word is in the active voice29 - The LORD is not passively watching from a distance, but is at work in the lives of his children, working in us "to will and to do His good pleasure." Philippians 2:13
  • The word is also used of intimately knowing someone, even of sexual relationships. God looks after us because He loves us. His foreknowledge is fore loving.
  • It is sometimes translated "instructs,"30 which seems appropriate in this context where loving His law is the primary activity of the subject of the Psalm. Even when the context calls for the sense of a loving but intent oversight, the connotation of the overseer's instruction cannot be ignored.
  • The word is used of skill in hunting, sailing, and playing a musical instrument.31 God looks after us skillfully. He's good at it and by implication, enjoys doing it.

God knows your way. His deepest concern for you is your sanctification - your transformation into the image of the holy Christ. That is the focus of His work in you and on your behalf. If you are His child, He will accomplish it. You can go the way of the blessed person, guided straight and true, or you can go the hard way, encountering obstacles designed to show you the way back to the right path.

The way of the blessed person is to beware of and avoid the slippery path of worldly-minded people, and to embrace the Word of God, including especially the Law of God, diligently learning it and submitted to its instruction. The state of the blessed person is one of growth toward maturity for the purpose of fruit bearing. The destiny of the blessed person is eternal safety in the hands of a loving God.

But the way of the ungodly is straight downhill into the hands of an angry God, to bear the outpouring of His wrath forever.

Find books on Psalm 1:

1Cambridge Annotated Study Bible NRSV, © 1993 Cambridge University Press, Great Britain.
2Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the New Testament
3The Complete Word Study Old Testament, KJV, AMG Publishers, 1994, p. 2303.
4The Holiness of God, by R. C. Sproul, Tyndale House, p. 27.
5Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the New Testament
6The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, by James Strong, Riverside Book and Bible House, Iowa Falls, Iowa
13Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the New Testament
18The Complete Word Study Old Testament, KJV, p. 2380.
19The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Strong
20Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible
21The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Strong
25Cambridge Annotated Study Bible NRSV
26The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Strong
29The Complete Word Study Old Testament, KJV
30The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Strong
31The Complete Word Study Old Testament, KJV, p. 2321.

David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL