Psalm 1

I have been away from looking at Hebrew for a while, and didn’t really get as far as I’d like before. Part of that was not having a Hebrew Bible to work through and an instructional text that expected you to… As I pick it back up, I wanted to try to focus on a book for translation. At first, I thought of doing something like Judges or Kings, which would have a lot of narrative – thus helping to look at the flow of thought and different verbal forms. But I am currently doing a NavPress study on Psalms, which got me thinking that Psalms might be great to work through. And so here we go, with a realization that I am a student, always the student.

אַשְּׁרֵי־הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים לֹא עָמָד וּבְמוֹשָׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב׃ Happy is the man who doesn’t take the advice of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the assembly of scoffers.
כִּי אִם בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה חֶפְצוֹ וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהגֶה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה׃ Because the law of YHWH is his delight and he dwells upon his law both day and night.
וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל־פַּלְגֵי מָיִם אֲשֶׁר פִּרְיוֹ יִתֵּן בְּעִתּוֹ וְעָלֵהוּ לֹא־יִבּוֹל וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂה יַצְלִיחַ׃ He is like a tree, planted near the irrigation  channels, which gives its fruit at the right time, and who’s foliage does not whither. Everything he does prospers.
לֹא־כֵן הָרְשָׁעִים כִּי אִם־כַּמֹּץ אֲשֶׁר־תִּדְּפֶנּוּ רוּחַ׃ Not so the wicked! They are like the chaff that the wind scatters.
עַל־כֵּן לֹא־יָקֻמוּ רְשָׁעִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט וְחַטָּאִים בַּעֲדַת צַדִּיקִים׃ So the wicked will be not successful in judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
כִּי־יוֹדֵעַ יְהוָה דֶּרֶךְ צַדִּיקִים וְדֶרֶךְ רְשָׁעִים תֹּאבֵד׃ YHWH knows the path of the righteous, and the path of the wicked perishes.

The first word of Psalm 1, אַשְּׁרֵי “happy, blessed”,  stands out to me. It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5. There, Jesus repeatedly uses the word μακάριοι, which has a similar usage and range of meaning. I imagine these are related with the Greek in the context of Matthew representing a Hebraism. If anyone is comfortable either confirming or denying the connection, feel free to leave a comment here! In any case, I expect to see this particular word again (and having already begun work on Psalm 2, can attest to seeing it again in 2.12).

The thought in 1.1 is carried along by three Qatal perfectives (here in green), “walk”, “stand”, and “sit”:

לֹא הָלַךְ בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים
וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים לֹא עָמָד
וּבְמוֹשָׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב

Notice that all are negated with the particle לֹא (here in red). Each verb governs a prepositional phrase beginning with ב, “in”; “in [the] counsel”, “in [the] way”, “in [the] assembly”. Each prepositional phrase is made of of a construct noun (here in yellow) preceding another noun (in the plural) signifying a particular group of individuals (in blue). All are obviously considered with some amount disdain by the man who longs for a “happy” life. The sequence shows an inversion of the verb and prepositional phrase between the first item and the remaining items.

I don’t see any problems with the English, “walk in the counsel of the wicked” – to take their advice. This is the sort of “peer pressure” that leads to compromising action that can end a career or devastate a relationship. The happy man knows to avoid such nonsense.

Nor do I see any problem understanding the third phrase, “sit in the assembly of the scoffers” – though that has some additional questions to be asked about what would have been the intent of “assembly” here. Is the assembly in mind a group of intimates sitting around likely to make light of God, of reverence, and intent on pleasing themselves? Or is this leaders assembled to make decisions, unwilling to base their direction on God’s will and counsel? Either way the thrust falls on the scoffer. To base our decisions on our own logic and interest, with no thought for God’s will and honor is foolishness.

But the second phrase, “stand in the way of the sinner” leaves me slightly worried. As an English expression, this could mean to “get in their way.” Though word for word matching the Hebrew, I don’t know for certain that that is what the Hebrew would be suggesting. None of the other  parallel expressions suggest conflict with the group in question, rather involvement or intimacy with them. Note that if the Hebrew  was translated as “path” or “road” rather than treated as a metaphorical “way”, we would not confuse the Hebrew with the English colloquialism. Then again, I’m not sure what else, “stand in the path of the sinners” would imply. Maybe standing to do business (by the gate into a town, for example)?  However, it is very true that the man who “stands in the way” of one who is bent on doing that which will end in ruin often finds himself in a bad position – the “party pooper”, so to speak. As I am on vacation, I don’t have any reasonable resources to make any decisive or reasoned decision between the options. Thoughts?

Then again, moving into verse two, maybe it would make sense to see these three as contrasted with taking delight in the instruction of YHWH. The one who is blessed or happy delights, neither taking advice from such, opposing their activities, nor being included in their activities. The best way forward lies in focusing on God’s law, day and night, leaving little time to engage in such needless affairs.

In 1.3, I struggled with the phrase וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל־פַּלְגֵי מָיִם. Immediately it brings to my mind irrigation ditches. Rather than just being planted along the edge of a stream, left to the whim of the weather, this plant is well irrigated, with intention. However, expressing that poetically is difficult – seeing as most people don’t think much of irrigation ditches. It is a big and clunky word. It seems counter to the beauty of growing and natural things in the popular mindset. But I think the idea of intentional planting for the best fruit development is on point. Irrigated thus, it fruits when it is supposed to and doesn’t whither for lack of water-supply. A person like this, watered liberally and regularly from God’s instruction, will find himself successful, God-pleasing.

Verse 1.5 has the word יָקֻמוּ, which suggests “rising”, being “lifted up” – the idea of success, victory, promotion. “Success” seems the only reasonable English translation that works with both the clauses associated to it. The first, בַּמִּשְׁפָּט, suggests that the wicked when judged will fail. They will not get the victory or promotion they seek. They will not be vindicated. Obviously, this is the hope! And second, בַּעֲדַת צַדִּיקִים, the wicked will not be promoted and looked up to in the congregation of the righteous. The righteous will see through slick words and clever machinations, and will not be fooled. What a blessed day that would be!

Why can we walk in confidence of vindication, of proper justice? Verse 1:6 brings all to its conclusion: YHWH “knows” the path of the righteous, while the path of sinners is temporary. This contrast of “know” and “perish” seems awkward, unless knowing implies an ongoing care and protection; an intimacy between YHWH and those of like character.

That last verse, 1.6, shows typical Hebrew sentence structure, with verb preceding the subject, and both preceding the object, כִּי־יוֹדֵעַ יְהוָה דֶּרֶךְ צַדִּיקִים. Note the reapplication of דֶּרֶךְ, “road, path, way”, contrasted with the way of the sinner in verse 1.1.

I would read this with all three categories of negative individuals being one and the same, just manifested in different situations. I do so because the first two categories are repeated for effect, but not all three, with no forced parallel between other expressions distinguishing the three possible groups. The wicked person is wicked because of their inappropriate counsel. The same is a sinner when engaged in activity the righteous knows to avoid. And the same is a scoffer when they fail to honor God by leaning on his counsel as they make decisions for themselves and others.

A good passage to meditate on as we begin a new year soon. Let us make this year one full of study and application of God’s law and character!

About George

I'm interested in theology, languages, translation and various sorts of fermentation.
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2 Responses to Psalm 1

  1. Pingback: Psalm 1 in Haiku | σφόδρα – exceedingly

  2. Pingback: Genesis 24:1-10 | σφόδρα – exceedingly

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