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Psalm 1
(with suggestions for Psalm 47 set for Ascension Day)

This psalm plays a role in the whole of the Book of Psalms that defies its brevity. Along with Psalm 2, it provides a gateway into the whole book. These two psalms set up the themes of righteousness verses wickedness, and of Israel’s king, supported by Yahweh, against their common enemies. These themes return again and again in the book. Moreover, Psalm 1 suggests that the one who is to pray the prayers to follow is naturally one who meditates on the torah or ‘teaching’ of Yahweh constantly.

The psalm is built around two contrasting images, that of a tree planted by streams of water and that of chaff in the process of winnowing the grain. The former is an image of the righteous, the latter of the wicked. The former person is ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’, the latter is perishing.

What is meant by ‘happiness’ is spelled out in the course of the psalm. First (v. 1), we see what it is not. The ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ person does not follow (lit. ‘walk in’) the advice of the wicked, associate (‘stand’) with sinners, or sit where scoffers sit. These expressions cover all possible forms of illicit endeavour, from the active to the intellectual. The movement (‘walk’, ‘stand’, ‘sit’) implies a movement toward permanent residency or stability.

Then we hear what the blessed person does do (v. 2). They delight in the torah and constantly recite it. The Hebrew indicates not so much activity as an attitude, an orientation of life, a focus on that which gives direction to deeds; it is a desire for the torah, giving it constant attention and rehearsing its content that is the hallmark of this person’s life.

This person is ‘like a tree planted by streams of water’. Like such a tree this person prospers from being in a place that constantly nourishes them, ensuring their growth and stability. As one planted, they are sustained and cared for by another, Yahweh, whose torah is their constant focus. The source of the prosperity of this person lies not within themselves but elsewhere, in the streams that feed them, and in the hand that planted them. The metaphor, therefore, speaks of a reality not evident to others, especially the wicked. This same reality, expressed more explicitly in Christian terms, is what has been talked about in the Gospel metaphor of Jesus as the vine and his people as the branches which has been the focus of the Gospel readings this last couple of weeks.

The image of a tree planted by life-giving streams recalls the idea of the divine dwelling place with its life-giving waters and supernatural trees. There are similarities with the description of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:4b-3:24) but more particularly with the temple precincts and images of trees planted within them (Pss 52:8; 92:12-14; and especially Ezek 47:12). However, the stress in this passage is on the torah observance of the person. The torah or ‘teaching’ functions in this psalm in the same way the temple does elsewhere, as the ‘place’ of divine presence and the source of human security and life.

In strong contrast to the person ‘like a tree’, the wicked are likened to chaff (v. 4). They are devoid of life sustaining water and are blown by the wind (cf. Hos 13:3). They are under the influence of others, unlike the blessed one who is not so influenced. It is the wicked who in the end (v. 5) will not stand, either in justice or in the company of the righteous. There is no way for them to rise from their scoffer’s seat in v. 1. What seemed to be secure and stable proves to be a snare from which there is no way out. Just as the blessed person did not join the company of the wicked in v. 1, so now the wicked cannot join the company of the righteous.

The psalm ends in v. 6 with the statement that ‘Yahweh knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked perishes’. It draws the argument of the psalm to a conclusion. It gives a theological assessment of the two ways outlined in the psalm. The blessed person of vv. 1-3 is not mentioned individually again, but is among the righteous of v. 6.

The ‘way of the righteous’ is what has been described in the activities of this blessed person. It incorporates delight in the law, constant recitation, and avoiding detrimental associations. What it means for Yahweh to know the ‘way of the righteous’ can be gleaned by going back to the image of the tree sustained by the streams of water in v. 3. The verb ‘to know’ implies a commitment to a special relationship. By contrast, the ‘way of the wicked’ (cf. ‘way of sinners’ in v. 1) perishes, recalling the lifeless, blown chaff of v. 4. Just as the verbs ‘know’ and ‘perish’ appear at opposite ends of v. 6, so too the outlook for each of these ways stands in stark contrast to the other.

Of course, any observant reader will recognise that what is described here does not coincide with experience. Sinners do not simply perish. In fact, v. 1 with its description of what the blessed person does not do, presumes that the wicked are ever present to tempt them. Verse 6, therefore, demands an eschatological interpretation, and suggests the same for the ‘judgment’ and the ‘company of the righteous’ in v. 5. These terms suggest a future hope, but one which is grounded in present experience, at least in part. The perishing of the wicked may not yet be a reality, and who is as yet able to say who the wicked are/will be. On the other hand, the happy state of the blessed one is already part of their experience.

Psalm 1 relates to each of the other readings today, although in different ways. The Acts reading (Acts 1:15-17, 21-26) tells of the election of a replacement for Judas among the disciples, in order that the witness to the resurrection may be maintained. 1 John 5:9-13 speaks of the one who believes in the Son of God having the testimony of God ‘in their hearts’. And in the Gospel (John 17:6-19) Jesus prays that the Father will protect his disciples, even as Jesus has looked after them and passed on the truth and teaching given to him by the Father. The ‘teaching’ of Psalm 1 becomes in these readings the news of the resurrection, the testimony to Jesus, and the word given by Jesus. In each case Psalm 1 stands as testimony to the way God nourishes and sustains his people through this ‘teaching’.

Suggestions for use of this psalm in worship:

Psalm 1 could be adapted for use as a penitential litany and a declaration of forgiveness as follows:

Bless us, gracious God, for we have sinned.
We have walked in the counsel of the wicked, lingered in the way of sinners and sat in the assembly of the scornful.

Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy

We have not delighted in your law, nor meditated upon it. We are like chaff blown in every direction by the wind.

Christ have mercy
Christ have mercy

Bring us to stand in the judgement, in the congregation of the righteous.

Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy

All who delight in the way of the Lord
are like trees
planted by streams of water.
They yield their fruit in season,
their leaves do not wither,
and in all they do,
the Lord watches over their way and prospers them.
I declare to you in the name of Jesus,
your sins are forgiven.
Thanks be to God.

Thursday, 21 May is Ascension Day. A brief litany using the words of the psalm set for Ascension Day, Psalm 47, could be used as a call to worship on Sunday 24 May if not on Ascension day itself.

Psalm 47:5-7

God has gone up with a merry noise,?
the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.

O sing praises to God, sing praises;?
sing praises to our King, sing praises.

For God is the King of all the earth;?
sing praises with all your skill.

Verse 10a of Psalm 47 could also be used as a response in the prayers of the people.
“For the powers of the earth belong to God”,
therefore, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
This psalm text is from the Psalter in Uniting in Worship 2 which is taken from Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, London: Church House Publishing, 2000. Kind permission has been given to use this Psalter, which is a revised version of the Psalter published in the Standard Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church in the USA, prepared by the Liturgical Commission of the General Synod of the Church of England. Permission is given to reproduce the psalms in that Psalter for non-commercial use in local orders of service with this acknowledgment.

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