Before getting into any commentary, here is Psalm 1:
1 Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked
or take the path that sinners tread
or sit in the seat of scoffers,
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not soPsalm 1 – NRSV
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous,
6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Overcoming Judgmental Optimism
One way of reading this psalm is pretty judgmental. Anything that mentions “sinners” and “righteousness” flirts with a judgmental mentality. Given how quickly we tend to judge others, reading this text as permission to think in “black and white” terms about people’s lives would be easy. I’ll admit that my mind went there right away. Some commentary on Psalm 1 seems pretty happy to read the psalm that way. It had me pretty turned off by the text to begin with. Parts of it sound like the worst kind of religious sentiment. It feels both unhealthy and unhelpful to harbor and cultivate such judgmental thought.
That wasn’t the only reason I wasn’t feeling great about the psalm. The reading has a kind of naive optimism, too. All the talk of the wicked perishing and the righteous prospering seems to suggest that the world rewards good behavior in a true, overwhelming way. This nice thought is mostly the stuff of morality plays and after-school specials. Life is rarely so simple (or fair). This is a trite kind of optimism that doesn’t hold up to daily use. In fact, it could even highlight how unfair the world can seem. In the end, holding to this ideal too tightly is pretty depressing. The commentary Psalm 1 makes about life must be deeper than that.
What is a reader to do with this psalm then? First of all, if you haven’t agreed with the judgmental optimism I read into the psalm at first, good for you. I think there is more going on here, too. Listening more carefully and reading with more curiosity helped me. Once I could read the psalm without only hearing a thousand moral platitudes in my head, the text really opened up.
A tree by the river
The imagery in Psalm 1 is probably the first thing to open up after more reading. The tree by the river is not only beautiful imagery, but it saves the psalm from our (my) judgmental tendencies, too. Refreshingly, a tree by streams of water is not a flat moral image. Let’s dig into it a little bit.
Think about how trees are planted. How much intention do you think a tree has in where it grows? If we are talking about trees in the wilderness, it doesn’t seem like much. The wind blows the seed somewhere. An animal eats some fruit, then answers the call of nature. After that, quite a while later, a tree starts to grow. With sunshine and water (neither of which does it ask for or earn), the tree gets taller and stronger.
As in the image of the tree, consider the possibility that the prosperity that comes with the “right way” is more like the tree’s prosperity. It grows according to its circumstance and condition. The tree is active in its growth, but it gets what it needs from its source (the stream, the sun). The tree’s behavior doesn’t have much to do with how it grows. No one talks about moral trees. Trees just grow. The tree’s actions (if a tree can be said to act) don’t enter into the equation. It simply rests in the care it receives, a behavior encouraged in other psalms.
Perhaps some may say that I am taking an analogy too far, but this image of the tree is worth lingering over for a little while. If need be, we can be more concrete, so let’s look at what the “righteous,” who are like trees, are said to do.
Meditating in Psalm 1
Verse 2 of Psalm 1 mentions that the people who are like trees meditate on God’s law. The Hebrew word for meditate deserves a little mention. That word is hagah. Hagah, has a lot of meanings in addition to meditate. One of those meanings is to growl. In the book of Isaiah, hagah is used to describe the growl of a lion over its prey. Anger probably is not the right connotation for this growling. Think more like a growl of contented eating. James Limburg in his book on the Psalms, likens this growling to the worship of Israel in his commentary on Psalm 1. Specifically, Limburg comments on the reading practice where God’s people would read the text at same time (not in unison), out loud, on their own. Imagine that.
The meditation of the people who are like trees in Psalm 1 is a kind of contented enjoyment and “digging in” to the teachings of God. This meditation is hearing, listening, speaking, again and again, in different voices. How is this different from how we might normally look at the bible and the teachings within it? Well, we probably can’t read like I was at first. It won’t be too much help. Better to avoid reading and hearing the teachings with a lot of preconceived notions. Instead, we should really look at it, really dig into it, see how it tastes. Then, see what it teaches us.
It may teach us to look with the same curiosity at our daily lives. Then, we may learn to look at the world around us to find how we are receiving life and nourishment. Seeing that care, maybe it is easier to relate to a tree growing beside a stream.
Two paths to travel in Psalm 1
Even once you feel you can relate to the tree in this psalm, we’ve got more ground to cover. The image of the well cared for, happy little tree, is beautiful, but we still live human lives. Those lives are complex and full of choices. Sometimes knowing how to choose is difficult.
A common subtitle to Psalm 1 in a lot of commentary is “Two ways.” The implication, obviously, is that there is the way of righteousness and the way of wickedness, each of these ways is present as a kind of option. In this image, it is a pretty big deal which you are on.
The reality is little more complicated than simply saying, “Pick the way of righteousness!” Even if we knew in every circumstance which choices are the right ones, sometimes we would still fail to choose it. To err is human, as they say.
More than that, too. Who can say they can be sure what was right in one situation or another, even in hindsight let alone at the time of choosing. The moments were we are called upon to make big decisions can be immense sources of stress. That stress can take place before, during, and after those big moments take place. In other places in the bible, like Psalm 19, it sounds pretty clear that it can be impossible to know if you’ve chosen well.
The example of a career
Let’s consider the “two ways” of the psalm in an area that probably seems fairly far removed from its original context. What do these two paths look like when cultivating a career. Let’s start with the very basics.
What is your motivation for cultivating a career? Are you hoping for security, fame, or power? How likely is it that such a motivation will lead to a fulfilling vocation? What effect will it have on you? How much of a toll will these lofty aspirations take on you? Will it cost you friends, family, or a personal life to reach these heights?
What if your reason for having a career is more simple? Are you hoping your career will make you self-sufficient? A simple life has an appeal of its own. What can you do to achieve this? Is this enough of an ambition for the amount of time you’ll spend on your career? Even more, where do you draw the line on self-sufficiency? How much do you need and want? How will you draw the line between what you simply need and what you really want?
Let’s say your motivations are more altruistic. Are you hoping a career will serve the world around you? It is hard to argue with that motivation, but there are still questions. You know why you work, but does the organization you work feel the same way? Even if they do, do they live up their aspirations in what they do?
Every question is a fork in the road
There are a lot of questions in that example. It is a complicated matter, and one that you are bound to deal with more than once. Each question is important in its own way.
In keeping with the “two ways” of the psalm, the “wrong” answer to any of the above questions may leave you wondering if your choice of career is a good one. If you were to hold out for a career that you feel answers each question “correctly” you may never get your work life started. Likewise, you may find a career that seems to answer all your burning questions, but once you’ve been in it a while, things seem different.
With such complications in mind, it just might turn out that the “right” decision lies in taking path that you aren’t completely sure about, but you travel path in such a way that makes the path better. Life is more dynamic than we give it credit for.
The two ways in Psalm 1 are one life
As we think it through, it probably isn’t hard to see that living our lives are more complex than choosing between “right” and “wrong.” It will often feel necessary to think in terms of “right” and “wrong.” Thinking that way is helpful. If we take these thoughts too seriously, though, we may be in for a hard road, precisely because life is so complicated. Sometimes what we think should be “right” will be “wrong” and vice versa. In this way, we can trust the psalm that what is right will grow and what is wrong will pass away. There is some hope in that!
The path is in each step
Yet there is a way to think about right and wrong that doesn’t take such things too seriously or try to measure things out ahead of time. Look at your situation in each moment, let each circumstance help you find the right and wrong, and seek to what seems right.
Truthfully, this probably doesn’t seem so satisfying. It would be more satisfying to be able to say, “The bible says…” or “God commands…”, but the truth is that what the bible teaches and what God commands are only worthwhile in the actual living of your life. The way your life plays out is affected by so much more than you can realize.
Look at your life, without judging it ahead of time, and live in such a way that you can feel right about it. Meditate on the teachings of God, but don’t decide ahead of time how they get practiced, stay aware of your situation, pay attention, then wait and see how the teachings of God play out in your life. Trust that God, like the winding stream and shining sun is caring for you and guiding you.
So like that tree, whose leaves reach out to the sun and grow in its light, live fully awake and aware of each moment. It isn’t easy to do, but you can learn and practice this kind of awareness, just as much as you can think over the teachings in the bible. In the end, we can hope that the two become one.
While not specifically providing commentary about Psalm 1, check out this short prompt based on another psalm, I think it relates to what we find here.
Psalm 139 – Where is God?
"There is nowhere God is not." That sounds like an awkward phrase. I think it works better than the more straightforward "God is everywhere." There is a lack of intimacy to say it like that. A loss of intimacy would be a big loss for this psalm, too. The way the writer of the psalm describes their experience it sounds more like wherever you are, God is there. The writer asks rhetorically where they could go where God would not be present. The implied answer is nowhere.
Psalm 23 – a walk through the valley
To a wide range of people these are familiar words. Whether you are the church-going kind or not, there are likely a few phrases that ring a bell. If you've ever heard the 1995 Coolio song, Gangsta's Paradise, you've heard a line from Psalm 23. The song opens with "As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." which echoes the King James Version's "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...". In the New Revised Standard Version, the same verse gets translated as, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley...", which doesn't quite have the same ring to it, but still. Suffice it to say, Psalm 23 is a part of the common consciousness of (at least Western) culture.
Psalm 119 – A light on your way
Psalm 119 describes life as traveling a path. It is a pretty common metaphor. If you travel for any amount of time, you know the importance of having a good route in mind, so that you know where you are going. Whether that route takes the form of an itinerary, map, an experienced guide, or an actual road, it is helpful to have something or someone to help you navigate as you go. This psalm has a particular route prepared. Over and over in this psalm, the writer talks about walking in God's teaching, law, or instruction. For them, this teaching is the guide on the journey of life and a help for the turns life takes along the way.
Psalm 19 – Heaven and Earth Speak
Several years ago, I watched the sunrise over the hills of Kentucky. Cows lowed repeatedly and loudly in the minutes just before the sun's light peeked over the horizon. I was visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton lived and worked. It was at the end of a five-day silent retreat. My bags sat in the trunk of the car I had rented for the short drive between the airport and the abbey. Spending that much time in silence, then watching the sun come up was a funny experience.
Psalm 46 – Be Still
"Be still and know that I am God." Without a doubt, this is the verse that most people remember from Psalm 46. Most likely, more people can quote this verse than know it is from Psalm 46. The verse is beautiful. It deserves fame. Continuing to wrestle with it and live with the verse is still more beautiful. The words, though simple, don’t give up meaning easily. What does it mean to “Be still and know that [God is] God?”