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The Two Ways and the Two Ends
Psalm 1. Like a signpost, this psalm points the road to blessedness. The opening word may be read, “Oh, the blessedness!” The psalm begins with the same message as the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5. Beneath the lintel of benediction we pass into the temple of praise.
Blessedness is obtainable in two ways: negatively, we may avoid the society of the irreligious; positively, we must enter the company of prophets and kings, of psalmists and historians, and especially of God himself, speaking in Scripture. Do not simply read the Bible; meditate upon it. Better one verse really masticated than a whole chapter bolted.
The rewards are, to be planted by rivers, to bear fruit, and to prosper. See Gen. 39:3, 4; 49:22. How blessed it is, also, to realize that God knows and loves! See Ps. 56:8. The sinner begins with ungodliness, goes on to scorning, and ends as chaff, Matt. 13:30.
Background and Themes
Beatus vir, “Blessed is the man …” in Latin, are the first words in the Vulgate Bible of both Psalm 1 and Psalm 112 (111). In illuminated manuscript psalters the start of the main psalms text was traditionally marked by a large Beatus initial for the “B” of “Beatus”, and the two opening words are often much larger than the rest of the text. Between them, these often take up a whole page. Beatus initials have been significant in the development of manuscript painting, as the location of several developments in the use of initials as the focus of painting.
Patrick D. Miller suggests that Psalm 1 “sets the agenda for the Psalter through its “identification of the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked as well as their respective fates” along with “its emphasis on the Torah, the joy of studying it and its positive benefits for those who do.” Stephen Dempster suggests that the psalm serves also as an introduction to the Writings, the third section of the Tanakh. Dempster points out the similarities between Psalm 1:2–3 and Joshua 1:8–9 (the first chapter of the Prophets) – in both passages, the one who meditates on the law prospers:
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.
Like many of the psalms, it contrasts the “righteous” person (tzadik צדיק) with the “wicked” or “ungodly” (rasha` רשע) or the “sinner” (chatta’ חטא). The righteous person is one who takes care to know the laws of God and so has good judgment and avoids bad company. The result is the ability to withstand difficult times in life supported by God’s protection. On the other hand, the wicked person’s behavior makes them vulnerable to disaster, like chaff blowing away in the wind. The point that the wicked and the righteous will not mingle at the judgment is clearly stated by the writer. The path the wicked have chosen leads to destruction, and at the judgment they receive the natural consequences of that choice.
The righteous man is compared in verse 3 to a tree planted by a stream. His harvest is plentiful, and whatever he does flourishes. The prophet Jeremiah wrote a similar passage: “But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.” He elaborated: “It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” Jeremiah implied that an advantage of trusting in the LORD was the ability to withstand difficult times.
Biblical scholar Alexander Kirkpatrick suggests that the “judgment” referred to in verse 5 pertains not only to the “last judgment”, “as the Targum and many interpreters understand it”, but also to every act of divine judgment.
Psalms 1, 2, 3, and 4 are recited on Yom Kippur night after Maariv.
Verse 1 is quoted in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:2), wherein Haninah ben Teradion explains that a group of people that does not exchange words of Torah is an example of the psalm’s “company of scoffers.”
Psalm 1 is recited to prevent a miscarriage.
In the Talmud (Berakhot 10a) it is stated that Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 were counted as one composition and David’s favorite as he used the word “ashrei” (“blessed”) in the opening phrase of Psalm 1 (ashrei ha′ish) and the closing phrase of Psalm 2 (ashrei kol choso vo).
In the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, Psalm 1 is appointed to be read on the morning of the first day of the month.
English poet John Milton translated Psalm 1 into English verse in 1653. Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a paraphrase of it, referring to “the man, in life wherever plac’d, … who walks not in the wicked’s way, nor learns their guilty lore!”
Some see the Law and the work of the Messiah set side by side in Psalms 1 and 2, 18 and 19, 118 and 119. They see the law and the Messiah opening the book of Psalms.
Book 1 of the Psalms begins and ends with ‘the blessed man’: the opening in Psalms 1–2 and the closing in Psalms 40–41. Theologian Hans Boersma notes that “beautifully structured, the first book concludes just as it started.” Many see the ‘blessed man being Jesus.’
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