Last year’s reading of the Book of Psalms inspired me create a new series of posts. I’m going to call this series “Sunday Psalm,” where I’ll perform an analysis of a psalm. I would love to write up a post for each of the 150 psalms, but that’s rather daunting. If I posted one every week it would take me nearly three years, and I could never keep that pace. More realistically at one per month it would take me twelve and a half years. That’s forever! So for now I’ll start in series and then we’ll see where it takes us. I’ll probably will have to pick and choose and jump around. This post, which is going to be longer than what I expect the others to be, includes an introduction to the Psalms and will start with the first Psalm.
The Psalms are extremely rich, and there’s a lot to say, but let’s say up front I’m not an expert. But I will fall back on a few noteworthy books to bounce off the thoughts I have. Nonetheless, take everything I say with a grain of salt; I’m not a Biblical scholar or a theologian. I’m just someone that reads, and that can be very dangerous and very wrong. But I will approach this as honestly as I can and with humility.
Perhaps the best way to start is to state what psalms are. From Meriam-Webster’s Dictionary:
Etymology: Old English psealm "psalm," from Latin psalmus (same meaning), from Greek psalmos "psalm," literally, "twanging of a harp," from psallein "to pluck, play a stringed musical instrument"
1. a sacred song or poem
2 capitalized: one of the hymns that make up the Old Testament Book of Psalms
Word History The Greek word psallein originally meant "to pull" or "to pluck." It then came to be used with the meaning "to play a stringed musical instrument." From this verb came the noun psalmos, which literally meant "the twanging of a harp." Since harp music often accompanied singing, psalmos took on the meaning of "a song sung to harp music" and later simply "a song or poem." It was borrowed into Latin as psalmus and came into English as psalm.
Let’s get specific and go to the Hebrew understanding. From Wikipedia:
The Book of Psalms, Tehillim in Hebrew (תְּהִלִּים or תהילים meaning "Praises"), commonly referred to simply as Psalms or "the Psalms", is the first book of the Ketuvim ("Writings"), the third section of the Hebrew Bible.
So in psalms we have the notions of a song, poem, and “praises,” and by praises I think it means to say prayer.
The authorship of the Psalms has been commonly attributed to the Old Testament King David, and while some of the psalms may been written by him, there is no evidence that he actually did, and it is clear that for many of them he could not have, since they refer to events after his death. The psalms span a vast array of time. Psalm 29 could have been written by the Canaanites who preceded the Israelites and later readapted by the Israelites for the Jewish God. I find that rather interesting. There are two possibilities that I see here in locating the cultural roots of the form of the psalms. It’s possible the Israelites could have adapted the form from the Canaanites or it’s also possible that given the Canaanites were also a Semitic people the form could have been passed down from a proto-Semitic culture. I don’t know if the scholars have an answer to provide, but it’s certainly a question I would have for them.
There are 150 psalms, and over the centuries the numbering has been in dispute. The reasons for the numbering disputes are two fold from what I see. It can be questionable where one psalm ends and another begins in the original sources. They were not nicely laid out in a Bible text as they are now. Second, when third century B.C. Jews had their scrolls translated into Greek for the widespread Jews who had migrated into the Greek world, that text came to be known as the Septuagint, and the numbering of the psalms for the Septuagint Bible were already muddled from their origin, and so subsequently various religious groups numbered their psalms differently. Jews stuck with the original Hebrew scroll numbering, Catholics and Orthodox with the Septuagint numbering, and Protestants I think wanting to distance themselves from Catholics went with the Hebrew numbering. I think today most religious groups have come to an agreement on the numbering and division of the psalms. Ah, religious harmony.
It’s quite clear than many if not all the psalms were originally used for Jewish Temple liturgical service. Several of the psalms allude to a Jewish festival or a sacrifice. It’s not known exactly how they were used in the Temple liturgies. In today’s services, both Jewish and Christian, the psalms are either read or sung. But it’s possible that in the Temple they had some incantation type of function, a spoken prayer that effects the nature of a situation, sort of like the process of transubstantiating bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in Catholic and Orthodox services.
The arrangement of the collection of Psalms is not haphazard or in the sequence they were written. While David certainly didn’t write all the psalms (it’s not even know definitively if he personally wrote any), David is a character that progresses through the psalms. The Psalms traditionally seen to be divided into five parts, mirroring the five parts of the Pentateuch. Each section ends with a doxology, calling to a close that section. Scholars call the sections books, just like the books of the Torah. Here are the traditional divisions between the psalms:
Book 1: 1-41
Book 2: 42-72
Book 3: 73-89
Book 4: 90-106
Book 5: 107-150
Though I agree with the divisions, it’s not clear to me what the divisions signify. Some have suggested a historical progression through the psalter. The first two books span David’s Kingship, the third the fall of the two kingdoms (Judah and Israel), the fourth the Babylonian exile, and the fifth the return and the rebuilding of the temple. As I read through it last year, I can’t say I was able to discern that narrative, but perhaps by going one by one I’ll be able to see it now.
What makes that or any narrative hard to discern is that none of the psalms are explicitly narrative. They are lyrical in form, and so narrative needs to be deduced from jumps in situation from one psalm to another. There seems to be many themes thorough out the psalms: the enthronement of God, the royalty of the king, the appeal for protection, the deliverance from enemies, the covenant with God, the wisdom of faith, thanksgiving for God’s bounty and creation, and Jewish peoples historical situation.
Taking the psalms to a higher level of conceptualization we can classify the psalms into forms or genres. Some simplify the psalter into two forms: psalms of praise and psalms of lament. I think I saw somewhere that 60% of the psalms are of the praise form and 40% of the lament. I can’t verify it but I don’t have anything to dispute it. While psalms of praise and lament both run throughout the psalter, it is generally agreed that the psalms of lament tend to be denser at the beginning, while those of praise toward the end.
I can’t say I fully agree with the classification of the forms to be only of praise and lament. It seems to me that there are psalms that are neither, and it seems to me that there are psalms that carry both praise and lament. I would classify the forms threefold: praise, lament, and theological. By theological I mean psalms that preach a theological point or exhort a religious maxim.
This introduction has gotten long. I’ll have more to say as I post on them. So let’s get to the first Psalm. I’m going to use the NAB translation.
1 Blessed is the man who does not walk
in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the way of sinners,
nor sit in company with scoffers.
2 Rather, the law of the LORD* is his joy;
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree
planted near streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season;
Its leaves never wither;
whatever he does prospers.
4 But not so are the wicked, not so!
They are like chaff driven by the wind.
5 Therefore the wicked will not arise at the judgment,
nor will sinners in the assembly of the just.
6 Because the LORD knows the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked leads to ruin.
As you can see this is neither a praise nor a lament form. This is exactly what I mean by a psalm that professes a theological maxim. It’s only six lines long and has a theme—blessed is the man who follows the Torah’s law—and a contrasting theme, wicked are those that do not. The psalm is actually a beatitude: “blessed is the man,” and you can see where Christ came up with his beatitude form (Matt 5). At the heart of the psalm is a simile, the man who follows the Torah is like a tree, firmly rooted in the ground and delivering fruit, the fruit of God. The wicked in contrast are like chaff, unrooted so they blow with the wind and produce nothing. Robert Alter points out in his translation and commentary, The Book of Psalms, that in a desert climate trees only take root by water, so this image would be very familiar to one living in an arid land. The water also connects to the significance of water as a blessing in Judaism (flood, Red Sea. Ablution ritual), which leads to Baptism in Christianity. The tree and the fruit beside the stream can also be alluding to Eden.
What is striking to me is that first sentence is phrased as a negation. The psalmist could have said, “blessed is the man who does good or the man who keeps in the company of the good,” but he says “blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked… nor sit in company with scoffers.” It’s as if the psalmist is warning his son about the influence of bad friends. I just checked. In none of Christ’s beatitudes does he phrase any of them in the negative.
Of all the translations, and I scanned a good dozen of the most prominent translations, the NAB is the only one that creates two stanzas. I don’t know why they do that, and I wonder if the original does. Several of the Revised Standard translations, including the Catholic Ignatius translation title this psalm “The Two Ways.” While that may be an appropriate title, I don’t think it’s in the original.
Charles Dollen, in his book, Prayerbook of the King: The Psalms, also a commentary on each psalm, points out that the tree is an allusion to the cross. I should point out here as part of the introduction that we Christians see in the Old Testament a prefiguring of the New, both in typology and prophecy.
So here’s a quick summary of Psalm 1:
Theme: Follow God’s law
Length: six lines.
Key imagery: tree, fruit, stream, chaff.
Christian typology: cross. Baptism.
Favorite lines: “He is like a tree planted near streams of water that yields its fruit in season.”