How do you start a book like Psalms? Do you start it with praise or prayer? Do you shout it or whisper? Or maybe you just start it with silence.
A Psalm of silence
1 [be silent]
Psalm 1 would go down as the shortest and easiest chapter in the Bible to memorize.
The psalms don’t start with praise or prayer. They start with preparation and posture…the posture of our heart. Here is how Eugene Peterson said it,
“Psalm 1 is not a prayer, exactly, but the preface to a prayer. We do not begin by praying but by coming to attention. Psalm 1 is the biblical preparation for a life of prayer. Step by step it detaches us from activities and words that distract us from God so that we can be attentive before him. Psalm 1 provides a kind of entryway into the place of prayer.” – Eugene Peterson, “Psalms: Prayers of the Heart”
This psalm is a reminder that there are only two paths to pick in this world. You can pick the path of the LORD or you can pick the path of the unrighteous, the godless, the mockers and the wicked. That’s it. There is no third option of “do what’s right in your own sight and be a good person and everything will be okay.” Plain and simple. No mincing words. No beating around the bush…the way of the LORD is superior and is the only way to live. It is the way that leads to the assembly of the righteous, to be able to stand in the judgement and be watched over by God…it is the way that makes you fruitful, productive and your leaf unchanged by the seasons of life. Pick the way of the LORD.
What jumps out at me in reading Psalm 1 is that it reads like an introduction to the major characters of the rest of the Psalter. We are introduced to,
- The Righteous – Over the next 149 psalms we will find the righteous praising and lamenting, calling for justice and calling for God’s covenant faithfulness.
- Unrighteous – They will show up time and time again throughout the rest of the psalms as those who oppress the righteous, who mock and gloat and who have no regard for the LORD or his word (Torah – Psalm 1:2).
- Law of the Lord – Psalm 1:2 literally says, “Torah of the Yahweh”. The Law is mentioned nearly 60 times in the Psalms. It is the word of life, the light to our path and
- The LORD – In 1:6 we are introduced to the key person of the psalms, the LORD. You have probably noticed by now that I am using LORD instead of LORD. If you look at your English Bible you will find it all caps. That is how English translations translate the proper name of God YHWH (see picture below). YHWH is mentioned over 700 times just in the Psalms! It is Yahweh who intercedes on behalf of the righteous, transplanting them by streams of water…he is the one who is praised, called on, criticized, pleaded with, repented to, and rested with in the Psalms.
Two ways to pick from
The book starts with a progression of what not to do with the wicked and each step gets you more connected with their ways. Don’t walk with them, stand with them or sit with them. It is a progression of how much you identify and agree with them. Walking with someone isn’t as committal to their ways as standing with them and sitting with them is the ultimate posture of agreement and connection. Standing will come up again in 1:5 only this time applied to the wicked. They will not stand in the judgment. That means they, being judged, won’t be present to pass through the judgment.
Torah of Yahweh
Instead of the ways of the wicked, the righteous will follow the ways laid out in the “Law of the LORD”, again, literally the “Torah of Yahweh” (Torah being Genesis-Deuteronomy, the Law of Moses). What I don’t understand about modern translations is that they switch up the word order here. The word order in Hebrew is “In the Torah of Yahweh is his delight”. That puts the emphasis on the Law and not on the man instead of the other way around. It is a subtle difference but I think that carries more weight.
How does one who delights in the Law of the Lord act? They meditate on it day and night (hyperbole for “all the time”). That word “meditate” is actually a word for reading aloud. It is more like “recite”. It is vocal. In the ancient world, the belief is, people didn’t read silently. They read out loud for the benefit of anyone present. If you delight in God’s Word you will find yourself reading it over and over. You won’t be able to get enough of it. The righteous person will immerse themselves in the Word of God and not just slavishly obey its decrees and commands but delight in what they find there…to walk, stand and sit not with the wicked and their ways but with Torah and the LORD’s ways.
Like a tree
That consumption of scripture gives us roots. It makes us like a tree, not planted by streams of water, but literally transplanted by the streams of water. The word of God takes us from one place (the place of the wicked) and moves us to a new and better location (by the water of life – a little interpretive freedom there, but it works for me here). This person always produces and always thrives. His leaves don’t wither when the winter comes. Can you imagine seeing a tree in full bloom in the middle of the snow? That is how the righteous should appear in the world…making people wonder what is happening and how they can have so much life and vitality when the rest of the world seems dead.
Contrast the unrighteous
What about the unrighteous? They aren’t like a tree, firmly rooted in streams of water. They are like chaff…the shell of the grain that is thrown into the wind and blows away. They have no hope. They have no future. Ultimately the Lord will bring them destruction but to the righteous, he will bring his presence and provision (1:6).
Preparing for liftoff
That contrast will play out throughout the rest of the psalms…a cry on God to make good on verse 6! And so the psalms begin…not with a song but with a concrete declaration of how the world is supposed to work and how God is supposed to act. The rest of the psalms will be a cry to the LORD when life doesn’t seem to go according to plan, for God to re-align life with Psalm 1. When life follows this pattern we find joy and peace and praise. Psalm 1 is like an astronaut preparing for liftoff, getting things straight, orienting and calibrating the instruments to make sure they are accurate and aligned correctly because there is turbulence ahead! So get ready for liftoff because the rest of the book of Psalms is one wild ride!