|Written by Timothy Edwards|
|Saturday, 10 April 2010 12:07|
This brief article is designed to reveal some of the aspects of Psalm 1 which may not be readily apparent to the reader of an English translation, or anyone unfamiliar with the inside workings of biblical Hebrew poetry.
א. אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים לֹא עָמָד וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב:
1. Blessed the man that has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful.
Any student of biblical poetry will be familiar with the idea of parallelism, and James Kugel’s succinct explanation of how the second half of a parallel line (B) is related to the first half (A): “A and what’s more B” with B repeating, expanding, concentrating (or numerous other possibilities) A. Verse 1 of Psalm 1 has a tri-cola structure A... B... C and raises the question of how the three parts are related to one another. Is it three ways of saying the same thing?
Or are the three expressions giving variations on a single theme? Is it suggesting some form of progression? Or are they unrelated situations that need to be avoided? Irenaeus, On The Apostolic Preaching (Preface 2), clearly read them as different realities, based on the three different words for the wicked – ‘ungodly,’ ‘sinners’ and ‘pestilential’:
And since man is a living being composed of a soul and body, it is fitting that this [following the right path] should happen... Therefore the Holy Spirit says through David, ‘Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly...,’ that is the counsel of the nations that know not God... ‘Nor stands in the way of sinners...’ for the sinners are those who have the knowledge of God, but do not keep his commandments, that is, the disdainful – ‘nor sits in the chair of the pestilential...’ for the pestilential are those who pervert not only themselves, but others also, by evil and twisted teaching, since ‘chair’ is a symbol of a school; and such are all heretics, they sit in the chair of the pestilential and <corrupt> who receive the poison of their teaching.
For Irenaeus the righteous are not to follow any of the three examples of unrighteousness – the pagan nations, those who despite knowing God do not obey Him, and finally the heretics bent on spreading their false teaching. The righteous need to be aware of all three dangers and avoid them. What the Psalmist left in general terms Irenaeus fleshes out much more specifically.
Another completely different interpretation is found in the Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 18b) where we find this exposition attributed to the third generation Palestinian Amora Shimon Ben Pazzi:
דרש ר''ש בן פזי מאי דכתיב אשרי האיש אשר לא הלך בעצת רשעים ובדרך חטאים לא עמד ובמושב לצים לא ישב (תה' א.א) וכי מאחר שלא הלך היכן עמד ומאחר שלא עמד היכן ישב ומאחר שלא ישב היכן ללומר לך שאם הלך סופו לעמוד ואם עמד סופו לישב ואם ישב סופו ללוץ ואם לץ עליו הכתוב אומר אם חכמת חכמת לך ואם לצת לבדך תשא (משלי ט יב)
R’ Shimon ben Pazzi expounded, why is it written Blessed is the man that does not walk in the council of the wicked nor stand in the way of sinners nor sit in the seat of the scornful (Ps.1:1)? How after he has not walked can he stand and after not standing can he sit even scorn? It says to you that if he walks it will lead (lit. its end) to standing and if he stands it will lead to sitting and if he sits it will lead to scorning and if he scorns it is written about him saying If you are wise you are wise for yourself if you are a scoffer you bear it alone (Prov. 9:12).
R’ Shimon ben Pazzi here takes the scriptural verse further than the text goes. He clearly sees the text as communicating a progression in wickedness. Whereas in the MT the man who does not sit with scoffers is blessed, r’ Shimon ben Pazzi  reads the verse as a progression and extends it so it does not end with sitting with scoffers rather with becoming a scoffer ( סופו ללוץ).
Such a conclusion seems to have also been reached in the collection of Aramaic poems (eds. Sokoloff and Yahalom), 5-8: 43 בני מערבא שירת
געה ואמר \ טובוי לגוברא
Burst forth and say / blessed is the man
This last line clearly ‘fleshes out’ what the ‘sat in the seat of the scoffers’ means – becoming associated in their association - the Aramaic root חבר strongly implying a very close relationship – being joined to them.
The Aramaic Targum of Psalms does the same thing:
1. טוביה (טובוהי) דגבר דלא הליך במלכת רשיעין ובאורחת (ובאורח) חייבין לא קם ובסיעת ממיקני לא איסתחר (יסתחר):
1. Blessed is the man that has not walked in the counsel of the wicked nor stood in the way of sinners nor sat at table with the company of scoffers.
The use of ‘sit’ and ‘table’ again implies a closeness of relationship not necessarily explicit in the biblical text.
Initially one senses that all these interpretations are adding to the 'text', however when we analyze the Hebrew poetry more closely we realize that these interpreters are simply making explicit what is there implicitly. Not only does the progression (rather regression) walk...stand...sit imply, as R. Shimon ben Pazzi explains, that one action leads to another (more of that below); the specific use of language alongside these actions indicates an increasing association. So walk ( הלך ) and counsel ( עצה ), and stand ( עמד ) and way ( דרך ) bear no etymological elation to one another, whereas, sat ( ישב ) and seat ( מושב ) come, as in the English, from the same root. In other words the choice, placement and association of the words, as in all poetry, is central to the message. The first verse is not a generalize warning not to be ungodly, rather a specific warning as to the eventual outcome for the faithful who do not take heed how they ‘walk.’ These ancient Jewish interpreters of the text open our eyes to the details that our superficial reading often miss, and as such the verse not only communicates the cause of blessedness it also contains a strong warning against the end result of a Christian who lives according to the counsel of the ungodly – eventually you will become a scoffer – sin is not something to trifle with.
Yet the use of walk... stand... sit also communicates the idea of ‘at all times’ and ‘in all places.’ In other words holiness is not a ‘pick and mix’ option in the life of the faithful. This language echoes the Shema in Deut. 6:4-9
ד שְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד:
ה וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ:
ו וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל לְבָבֶךָ:
ז וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ:
ח וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל-יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ:
ט וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל-מְזֻזוֹת בֵּיתֶךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ:
4. Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one.
The psalmist, I would suggest, purposefully echoes Deut 6:7 and in doing so brings the intent and purpose of ‘Hear O Israel’ into mind. What does not walking, standing, sitting look like – loving God with all one’s heart, soul and strength, etc. This connection leads us nicely onto verse 2, which is exactly what it was meant to do; yet before we progress to the next verse, we must also bear in mind the effect of this initial verse in our reading of subsequent psalms.
Recent scholarship has highlighted the value of reading the psalter as a book, not simply a collection of individual psalms, although this idea has been stretched to unreasonable ends, it still has merit, and we should not forget that the psalms were and are read consecutively. This being the case, for example, the first blessedness of ‘not walking in the counsel of the wicked, etc.’ will be fresh in one’s mind when one arrives at Psalm 5: 9-11.
ט יְהוָה, נְחֵנִי בְצִדְקָתֶךָ לְמַעַן שׁוֹרְרָי הושר) הַיְשַׁר (לְפָנַי דַּרְכֶּךָ:
י כִּי אֵין בְּפִיהוּ נְכוֹנָה קִרְבָּם הַוּוֹת קֶבֶר-פָּתוּחַ גְּרֹנָם לְשׁוֹנָם יַחֲלִיקוּן:
יא הַאֲשִׁימֵם אֱלֹהִים יִפְּלוּ מִמֹּעֲצוֹתֵיהֶם:
9. O Lord, lead me in your righteousness on account of my enemies; make straight your path/way before me:
These highlighted links, alongside those in v.2 ( הגיגי - lit. my meditations), and v.5 ( חפץ - desire/ delight), encourage us to return to Psalm 1 and re-read it with these latter echoes ringing in our ears – how foolish to walk in the counsel of those whom God will punish and cause them to fall in their own counsels and whose mouth, throat and inward parts are nothing but waywardness, destruction and an open tomb (that spreads defilement to all who come in contact with it). Better to walk in God's way - the way of righteousness. The attentive reader of Psalm 1 will always return to it when he hears an echo in another book, or later in the psalter and reread it in the light of that echo so as to discover more treasure or more developed warnings hidden within it.
Moving on, v.2 describes the righteous man in positive terms – he delights in the Torah of the Lord and meditates in it day and night – with Deuteronomy 6 in the background the meaning of ‘delight’ and ‘meditate’ is fleshed out and it is far from our traditional ideas of warm fuzzy feelings and silent contemplation, but rather involves impressing it on children when walking, lying down or sitting, binding it on our doorposts and on our foreheads – in other words at all times and in all places God's word is to be in our hearts and mouths and guiding our thoughts, actions and words. This is the foundation of a happy/blessed/fortunate even jaunty walk through this world. Connecting this with verse 1 makes complete sense – the man who delights in Torah is someone who loves God with all his mind and so does not walk according to the counsel of the ungodly, but rather allows the torah to guide his every thought, word and deed.
The Psalm then goes on to describe the righteous in terms of being a fruitful tree. Images are very important to the message of the psalter and we would be wise to take heed. Too often we draw a message from the image and forget the image and as a result the message is all the poorer. The image is a part of the inspired text and we should delight in it, meditate on it and allow it to feed us – it is not the box in which the gift comes. It is part of the gift. With this in mind we should take time to realize the significance of the image in the cultural/geographical context of biblical Israel. Water courses are not an everyday occurrence in the Levant, so the hot, wilderness experience of many is in the background – fruitful trees which do not wither stand out in a dry climate. Hence the righteous will flourish and stand out in the same way. Trees not only provide fruit, but trees with leaves provide shade, again the righteous should serve as a blessing for those seeking refuge from the shadeless heat of the secular / false religious wilderness. This image also adds further depth to v.1 where the counsel of the ungodly, the way of sinners and seat of the scornful can only be described as a waterless wasteland where nothing grows!
Beyond these general applications one also notices an Edenic imagery in this verse, a link that has been noticed for centuries, hence some manuscripts of Targum Psalms have: ‘he will be like a tree of life...,’ a link that Eusebius also makes. The connection between this verse and the tree of life appears to come from prov. 3:18 where wisdom is said to be a tree of life; yet the actual association between the righteous and the tree of life is bold even if connected to his increase in wisdom. Yet the association is not unwarranted given the Edenic imagery and so we should accept the remarkableness of what the psalter is saying. In fact if we recall the description of the camp of Israel in Numbers 6, with the tabernacle in the centre surrounded on all 4 sides by the Levites and they in turn surrounded on all four sides by the twelve tribes and then read the description of that scene by Balaam in Numbers 24:6-7 we see the same thing – here is Israel ordered according to the word of the Lord being described as a restored Eden – the same is true for the Church. As the righteous live in this world according to Ps.1:1-2 God restores Eden – we become (or should become) a taste of the world to come.
This description of the righteous is followed by a description of the wicked in v.4. The fruitfulness of the righteous stands out all the more when compared with the depiction of the wicked as chaff – fruitless, rootless and transitory. The contrast is stark and should remain with us, especially in an age when the wicked prosper and appear so impressive. Kipling’s words are relevant here:
And we confess our blame—
‘That noise which men call fame, that dross which men call gold’ would not be held so high in our esteem if we viewed it as the psalmist – ‘chaff.’ The Psalmist clearly encourages us to look at our world through new eyes. Our foot will slip, or be in danger of slipping if we do not consciously apply God’s verdict on the ‘impressive’ and ‘influential’ wicked of our age. Note also that the form of the poem is also part of the message, not only is the contrasting imagery very powerful, the way this is expressed is part of the message – the righteous are described at some length for a short poem, whereas the wicked have only an extremely terse, almost dismissive, description. The message and the form of the message are in union in teaching us God’s perspective on the righteous and the wicked. There is a permanence (in God’s economy) to righteousness and the righteous, whereas the wicked are here today gone tomorrow – just like chaff in a gale!
The consequence of wickedness is then described in v.5, which in both Jewish and Christian tradition has been interpreted eschatologically. However before dealing with its reception history, we need to deal with the Hebrew text itself. The ‘judgment’ in which the wicked will not stand is in parallel to the ‘company of the righteous’ and therefore perhaps suggests that the wicked will not be vindicated (‘not stand’) in the judgment and hence will not be present among (second meaning of the verb ‘stand’ that carries over from the first half of the verse) the company of the righteous. Combine this with the language of standing in the temple courts and the need for holiness in Psalm 24:
מִי-יַעֲלֶה בְהַר-יְהוָה וּמִי-יָקוּם, בִּמְקוֹם קָדְשׁוֹ:
Who may ascend the mount of the Lord? And who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.
And so there is a possibility of some form of ‘temple’ imagery going on in Psalm 1 – the wicked will not be acquitted in the [place of] judgment (i.e., the Temple courts) nor be in the presence of the righteous who gather there. The idea of the temple as the place of judgment is made clear in Psalm 122:
א ... שָׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהוָה נֵלֵךְ:
1. ... I rejoiced with those who said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord:
It would seem therefore that Psalm one has a link with Jerusalem and the temple, as well as a heavy emphasis on the Torah of the Lord.
How does this fit with the eschatological reading in Jewish as well as Christian tradition? Quite easily - the temple is a ‘pattern’ of the heavenly realities and so judgment in the temple courts can serve as a type of the final judgment – this is especially true when it is in parallel with ‘the company of the righteous.’ Whether this is the impetus for the eschatological interpretations found in the early Church is difficult to prove or disprove. However, having such an interpretation presented both Jewish and Christian interpreters with a problem – the Psalm now seems to suggest that there is a group of people who will not even stand at the final judgment but will descend straight to Hades/Sheol. Such is the position of the Syrian Church Father, Aphrahat. In his Demonstrations 9 (p.432 in Wright’s edition) he juxtaposes this verse with Ps. 9:17 and concludes that the wicked are not brought to judgment but are raised only to descend directly to Sheol. Some Western Church Fathers however stress that the wicked are judged before the great judgment because this verse suggests that they do not stand in the great judgment.
These ‘problems’ are either caused by a literal Greek translation of the Hebrew root ‘to stand’ – ανιστημι; or a literal reading of the root, as in the Syriac, which retains the same root. However, some manuscripts of the Targum of Psalms depart from this literal approach and translate with the root זכי (vindicate). Contextually this is a perfectly acceptable translation as our discussion earlier has made clear, although as a translation of the whole verse it falls down because the meaning ‘vindicate’ does not carry over into the second half of the verse.
Finally on this verse, we should note the irony of the situation communicated in a little word play between ‘counsel’ and ‘company – the righteous are blessed in v.1 for choosing not to walk in the counsel ( עצה ) of the wicked and in turn the wicked are refused access to the company ( עדה ) of the righteous – the righteous choose not to walk whereas the wicked are not given the choice of where they will be. The image of 'standing' is also a link back to v.1, although different Hebrew roots are used - the righteous choose not to stand in the way of sinners, whereas the wicked haven't got a foot to stand on in the place of judgment.
Verse 6 rounds the psalm up beautifully, and like v.5 takes as back to v.1 and almost sums of the Psalm - there are 2 paths - one cannot walk on both. One leads to vindication and the company of the righteous and is 'embraced' (lit. known) by God. The other will perish along with those who walk on it. The reader is left with a simple choice – which path will you take?
 Readers should note that this is not intended to be a comprehensive study on the Psalm.
 There are numerous translation ‘issues’ in this first verse: the first word אַשְׁרֵי deliberately echoes the Hebrew אֲשֻׁר (step). To preserve that poetic device in translation would be difficult – ‘Jaunty’ is possibly the closest fit, although in current usage it does not represent a state of being; however, it originates from the French word from which we get gentle, as in 'well bred' - the original idea behind a ‘gentleman.’ In this sense it fits well, for those who trust in Christ, i.e. the righteous. To quote Shakespeare, ‘be he ne’er so base this day shall gentle his condition’; the righteous have become ‘sons’ to the King - a ‘gentling’ of one’s condition beyond anything human kings (or even bards can offer).
The alliteration of the first phrase, אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר (ashrei haish asher) is not repeated in the first phrase of the English, but is replaced by alliteration in the final phrase – sat … seat … scoffer. I have translated with the past tense specifically to allow this alliteration to work to its fullest, although present tense throughout is appropriate as well.
 This final phrase could be translated: ‘all it produces succeeds’ (i.e., every bud blossoms and produces fruit), as in the Targum of Psalms. Such a translation clearly seeks to continue the illustration, rather than abruptly return to the ‘righteous man.’
 The suffix is 3rd m.sg, relating to ‘chaff.’ The English however requires ‘them’ to remain smooth.
 Following R. Alter, The Book of Psalms (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, London, 2007).
 C.f., Midrash Tehillim 1:7 where the same passage appears with little variation. Interestingly, this exposition by ben Pazzi is immediately followed by a discussion on the seriousness of the sin of scoffing, a discussion that r’ Eliezer concludes with: קשה הוא שתחילתו יסורין וסופו כלייה (It [scoffing] is grievous in that it incurs affliction at first and destruction at last). This quote closes this section of nicely especially with the repeat of סופו that occurs in the exposition of ben Pazzi. This ending also fits in well with the structure of Psalm 1 that also ends with the destruction of the ‘way of the wicked’ and thus the wicked as well.
 We are given no clue as to the identity of the wicked, sinners and scoffers in this passage, although the implication is it is gentiles. The association between this passage and the gentiles is strengthened when examining passages that explicate the identity or location of these three excluded areas/activities. In fact on the same Talmud page ben Pazzi is attributed another exposition on this verse that identifies the wicked as theatres and circuses (as does Tertullian De. Spect. 1, Strom. 2:68, and Clement of Alexandria Ped. 3.76:3), the sinners as shows containing wild animals, and the scoffers as evil company ( תחבולות ). This last identification is of interest in that Symmachus translated the Hebrew ‘scoffers’ as επιθετων (plotters), which provides an interesting comparison to ben Pazzi’s evil company. All this simply serves to suggest that it is gentiles and not unfaithful Jews that are not to be associated with in this case. In 4Q174 this verse is used in an eschatological Midrash, linked with other passages of scripture, but here the identity is clear – the unfaithful Jews from whom the righteous community have had to depart (c.f., Irenaeus quoted above). For some church fathers, however, this verse, on occasions, is used to describe the Jews who where involved in the trial and death of Jesus, e.g., Justin Martyr Apology 1:40, Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 4:42
 Interestingly we find that Symmachus translates ישב in v.1 with κεκοινωνηκε (have company / fellowship with), which also implies a much stronger relationship than simply ‘sit’ does, and also provides an interesting comparison to both this poem, Ben Pazzi's interpretation and the translation in the Targum (discussed below).
 מְאֹדֶך is notoriously difficult to translate – the traditional Jewish interpretation dating from the late second temple period was ‘your wealth’ (c.f., Jesus answer to the rich young ruler which echoes Deut. 6 and this interpretation), alongside ‘thoughts’ for heart and ‘life’ (i.e., martyrdom) for soul. I have followed the usual English rendering – ‘strength’ which can include the idea of ‘wealth’ in a broader context.
 ‘Teach them incisively’ is a somewhat clumpy translation for one Hebrew word, however, literally it reads ‘you shall sharpen them,’ hence using the term ‘incisive.’
 11. J. Schaper, Eschatology in the Greek Psalter, J.G.B. Mohr, Tubingen, 1994, discusses this verse in the LXX and concludes, based on the verb ανιστημι, which appears in the imperfect tense (intransitive) in this verse, that it ‘clearly confers the idea of ‘rising from the dead’, ‘be resurrected’ … the idea of a last judgment is implied in the Greek of Ps. 1:5’ (p.47) It seems that the evidence, both linguistic and textual, brought to support these conclusions do not provide sound basis for such certainty. It is quite possible that the LXX does refer to some form of eschatological scenario where the wicked are not judged because they have not been resurrected, but the choice of verb cannot prove his conclusions as it is a normal translation for this Hebrew root.
 This whole discussion only serves to highlight the difficulty of translating biblical poetry!
 The LXX translates both עצה (counsel) in v.1 and עדה (company) in v.5 with the same Greek word - βουλη (council).
|Last Updated on Saturday, 10 April 2010 13:09|