Psalm 1

Dear Reader,

I would like to begin my series on the psalms at the beginning–psalm 1. I have already discussed the first verse of this psalm in my introductory post here. 

Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm. It contains practical advice and dwells on the topics found in wisdom literature (like the book of Proverbs). There is a string contrast between the two paths a man may take, that of the fool and that of the wise man. There is reference both to God’s revealed word (his torah in verse 2) and to the natural world (verses 3-4).

Here is what I wrote in my earlier post on this psalm:

From the first verses of the first psalm, we find the typical Hebrew parallelism. Psalm 1:1 reads (all translations are my own translations of the Hebrew unless otherwise noted):

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked

and in the way of sinners does not stand

and in the dwelling of scorners does not sit.”

The parallelism here, I hope, is obvious. There are three clauses to this verse. The initial phrase “blessed is the man who” is not repeated but then what follows “does not X in the Y of Z” is paralleled in the latter two parts by similar phrases only with the order reversed (“in the Y of Z does not X”). There is more than mere repetition going on here though. What changes between the versets is significant. Notice that in the first part the man walks. He is moving (or not) along with the wicked. In second he is standing, and in the final third he sits. His interaction with the sinners becomes more and more intimate as the verse progresses. There is an escalation.

How does the psalter render this verse? I think it obscures the parallelism and therefore misses the beauty and some of the meaning of the Hebrew. Psalm 1A (1B is not identical but is similar in its approach to this verse) in the new psalter (the Book of Psalms for Worship) reads:

“That man is blessed who does not walk as wicked men advise, nor stand where sinners meet, nor sit where scorners pose as wise.”

The formula of “does not X in the Y of Z” (or in the second two-thirds “in the Y of Z does not X”) has been lost. The man is not longer the primary actor and the focus is not on his action. Instead the wicked or scorners or sinners are all active. This may be subjective and perhaps others will not see it, but to me the Hebrew puts the focus on the man: will he walk, stand, even sit with the wicked? The Psalter loses this when it turns nouns into verbs. It is not that what the Psalter says is wrong or theologically incorrect. It may well reflect truths stated elsewhere in the Bible. But it does not to me reflect the spirit of this psalm.

Moving on to verse 2, we find a contrast. While the first verse talked about that bad ways a man might go, this verse talks about the right behavior he should choose. While the first verse had three parts, this one contains two:

“But rather in the law (torah) of the Lord [is] his desire,

and in his law (torah again) he meditates day and night.”

The word we translate “meditate” in Hebrew means to mumble. It is actually a fairly modern thing for people to read in their heads. The scholar of God’s law would no doubt have been moving his lips and muttering to himself as he recited the law.

While vv.1-2 presented the bad path and then the good, vv.3-4 come full circle by presenting the good and then the bad. This time the end result is in focus rather than the path walked (or not walked). Here is how they read:

“For he is like a tree planted by streams of water

which its fruit gives in its season and its foliage does not wither

and all which he does will flourish.

But not the wicked

But rather [he is] like the chaff which the wind scatters.”

The word I have translated as “flourish” in verse 3 may also be “succeed.” I think in the context though that the image is of a tree that grows well. It is  a matter of, well, flourishing, of growing well. The psalter versions I think obscure the image. Pslam1A reads, “In all he does he will succeed,” and 1B says, “In all that may his hands employ, he will prosperity enjoy.”

Revisiting the issue of translations, you will see that though I am trying to be as literal as possible, I have added some words in brackets. Hebrew manages to say things without little words like “is” that English requires. Obviously, our translations have to account for this. There are also times that Hebrew has some little words that are awkward in English. For example, the last part of verse 4 in Hebrew would more literally say: “which scatters it the wind.” In English we do not need the object “it” repeated. And in English we need the subject to come before the verb so I have switched the words around to get “which the wind scatters it.”

Another issue is the repeated phrase “but rather” which appears in verses 2 and 4. In Hebrew this marks a clear contrast between what comes before it and after. The repetition serves to tie the set of 4 verses together. This may not be a hugely important point and is probably hard to incorporate into the singable English versions, but neither psalm version in the new psalter gets this.

Verses 5 and 6 again contain a contrast. To me they sound different from the rest of the psalm, less poetic. Here is how they go:

“Therefore the wicked will not arise in judgment

and sinners in the congregation of the righteous

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous

but the way of the wicked will perish.”

You can see that though there is parallelism here, the pattern in different from in the rest of the psalm. There is reference again to paths as at the beginning of the psalm, but it is in a more abstract sense. The psalm began with warnings not to walk, stand or sit in the company of the wicked. But in the end it is the wicked who will not be able to stand in the company of the righteous.

My final observation  is that verse 5 shows nicely how Hebrew parallelism often looks. The first half contains three elements, subject, verb and a prepositional phrase. The second half contains only two of these, the subject and prepositional phrase, but the latter is expanded so that both halves are the same length. This is common in parallelism; one thing is left out but another is added.


One response to this post.

  1. […] is clearly used to communicate as well as to give the psalm shape. I tried to show this in Psalm 1. What changes between the first and second halves of parallel clauses may be significant. Or the […]


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