Thoughts on the Meaning of the Psalm

The first psalm is a wisdom psalm, dealing primarily with the temporal effects of living as a godly or ungodly person. But especially in the case of the latter, the psalmist shows there are eternal consequences to be faced at the end of the road as well (vs. 5-6). (And there are fundamentally only two roads from which to choose, cf. Matt. 7:13-14.)

Life is a matter of believing, behaving, and belonging. For the righteous, this describes his relationship to God and His Word. For the wicked, the pattern is the same, but different beliefs lead to different behaviour, and an identification with a distinctly different group. The initial point of divergence is what a person believes–what he delights in and meditates upon. Above all, then, let that be the inspired, infallible Word of the living God. The terminal effect of our choice will be either growth and fruitfulness, or waste and irretrievable loss, either prosperity or perishing, life or death.

Vs. 1-2. Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.
“Blessed”–meaning enriched, contented, and fulfilled–is the one who delights in the Word of God (vs. 2). It is a plural word, this first word of the psalter. It might be translated, “O the blessednesses of...!” And of course the opening declaration means more than taking pleasure in the Bible as a piece of literature, or as a book of formulas guiding religious ritual. This is far more than an intellectual approach to the Scriptures, as one might treat Homer or Shakespeare. The promise is given to the one who lives a Bible-centred life. The same word begins both the Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3), because the one who appropriates and assimilates the Word of God is one who will live by the principles of the kingdom the Lord Jesus presents.

To “meditate” means, literally, to mutter! It sounds a little strange, but it is referring to talking God’s Word over with oneself. Another word we sometimes use of this process is “ruminate.” That pictures a cow chewing its cud. The cow regurgitates what has been previously swallowed and chews it over and over. Meditation on God’s Word should be our daily habit. “Better one verse really masticated than a whole chapter bolted” (F. B. Meyer). The delight of the godly in the Word leads to a deep study and meditation on its message (cf. Jer. 15:16).

By “the law of the Lord” the psalmist means the books of the Law of Israel (Genesis through Deuteronomy, called the Pentateuch). These books were the Bible of that day, and we can rightly think of the term as applying now to the entire Bible. The psalmist is describing a search for truth, with the intention of making a personal application of it. Nor is the process complete until actual application takes place. Cf. Josh. 1:8, “Meditate in it day and night that you may observe to do...” And see Ezra 7:10, which includes the further step of a communication and sharing of the truth–“to do it, and to teach.”

The New Agers and some cults recommend “meditation” too, but what they have in mind is not the same. Practitioners are told to clear their minds of all rational thoughts. To assist with this, they are sometimes given a secret word to chant over and over, like “A-a-ahm... A-a-ahm...” What some do not realize is the danger of demonic attack, when we purposely try to empty our minds in this way (cf. Matt. 12:43-45). Far from clearing our minds of conscious thought, meditation on the Scriptures teaches us to think God’s thoughts after Him, so that we begin to see all of life consistently from His perspective.

The Amplified Bible has the latter clause of vs. 1 as: he is not one who “sits down [to relax and rest] where the scornful [and the mockers] gather.” This is the seat where arrogance and presumption is enthroned. “A proud and haughty man, ‘scoffer’ is his name; he acts with arrogant pride” (Prov. 21:24). The danger described in this opening verse of the first psalm is that we will accept the advice (the moral counsel) of the ungodly, then go on to adopt their standards, and finally assimilate their attitudes toward the righteous.

We are in the world (Jn. 16:33; 17:11) but we are not to be of the world (Jn. 15:19; 17:14). We do business in the world, and bear witness in the world, but our intimate associations, as Christians, our friends and companions (and our chosen marriage partner!) ought to be godly individuals with whom we share a spiritual kinship. We soon begin to think, talk and act like those with whom we regularly keep company. “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed” (Prov. 13:20; cf. Ps. 119:63). “Do not be deceived: evil company corrupts good habits” (I Cor. 15:33; cf. Acts 2:42).

The passage gives us three terms (walk, stand, sit) describing the danger of increasing entanglement with the unbelieving world as the individual (perhaps naively, at first) is drawn into a web of corruption. It is the path of the backslider.

1) Adaptation to: He allows himself to be guided by the “wisdom” of the wicked. There is accommodation to the ways of the world, following worldly advice, incorporating a worldly philosophy.

2) Identification with: He adopts their priorities and values–if tentatively at first. (As one version has it, he loiters in the way taken by sinners.) He takes his stand with the ungodly world, willing to be counted as one who agrees with and supports the ways that characterize our humanistic society.

3) Assimilation by: He willingly and decisively becomes one of their number. (“[He] joins the company of scoffers,” Moffatt) He is seated with the worldlings in the place of instruction and judgment, counted as one of their own.

There is a sad downward slide here. Compare Lot’s entanglement with wicked Sodom: beginning by Sodom (Gen. 13:12), then living in Sodom (Gen. 14:12), and ultimately becoming of Sodom (Gen. 19:1). It will be seen that at each level there is more of the ego involved, and more to give up if repentance and a return to the right course is to occur. Better to not walk that way in the first place! (Cf. Prov. 1:15; 4:14-19.)

And compare the use of the same three terms in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

1) Seated with Christ in the heavenlies (2:6) describes our eternal position in Christ.

2) Walking worthy of our calling (4:1) describes our need to behave like the Christians we have become through faith in Him.

3) Standing firm (6:13) has to do with remaining steadfast to Christ and contending for the truth in the face of spiritual assault.

The terms are used differently in the two passages, but they effectively portray two distinct life courses–one of consistent godliness, the other of dangerous drift and ensnarement in this world.

Vs. 3. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper.
It is said that D. L. Moody was challenged on one occasion to debate an atheist. Moody agreed, on the condition that the atheist be accompanied by ten people who could testify to the fruit and benefit of atheism in their lives. Moody promised to have at least a hundred on the platform who could tell how Christ had delivered them from drunkenness, debauchery, and slothfulness, and transformed them into shining examples of virtue, usefulness, and happiness. Not being able to produce the required ten people, the atheist withdrew his challenge.

Coming where it does, this psalm might well be considered a comment on the experience of Job. His three friends defined prosperity mainly in temporal terms, insisting that it was the invariable reward of godliness. And they proposed a theory of “instant justice,” insisting that God’s response to man's behaviour must be immediate. But, as vs. 4-6 of this psalm goes on to show, the resolution of injustice (and the prospering) may have to await God’s “season,” and may even be postponed or invisible until eternity. The prosperity of the godly is seasonal–at least in observable ways, and God Himself establishes the seasons.

God's “prosperity” (and “success” in life, Josh. 1:8) is not defined in terms of mansions or bank accounts, but by the fulfilment of His purpose for that person’s life–spiritual fruitfulness. (This includes the inward fruit of Christ-like character, and the outward fruit that results from faithful service for the Lord.) Vs. 3 is not presenting a “prosperity gospel” guaranteeing undiluted health, wealth, and happiness. The “prosperity” spoken of is first of all spiritual--though it may manifest itself in other ways. It consists of having God’s approval, bearing God’s likeness, and fulfilling God’s purpose.

“A tree planted by rivers of water”–what a beautiful image! Literally this is a tree “transplanted by the channels of water.” It suggests a purposeful activity in two respects. Channels have already be dug to provide life-sustaining water for the land, and the tree has been planted nearby. In the figure, God’s Word is the water provided to sustain our spirits. And the Lord Himself planted us by the waters when He saved us. Now, we must continue to send down deep roots to draw in needed moisture. Fruitfulness requires a life rooted in the Word. Note too that planting and growing a tree is a long-term project, requiring diligent care in its formative years. This is a project not for a day, but for a lifetime.

The one who meditates on the Word of God (vs. 2) will gain spiritual refreshment and vitality, as well as a rooted stability, and fruitfulness. An associate pastor I once worked with used to call the radio Thought for the Day, done by local pastors, “Moments of Medication.” The pun has a point. Meditation on the Scriptures provides spiritual medicine. A life nourished daily by the water of the Word (Eph. 5:26) will be a healthy, wholesome life, a consistently vital and growing life, a fruitful life, and a successful life (in God’s definition of that term). Even though, like Job, our “prosperity” may not be immediately evident, it is certain to come (cf. Job 23:10; I Pet. 1:6-7).

Vs. 4. The ungodly are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind drives away.
Several things are suggested by this graphic image.

1) Chaff is the dried husk of the grain and it is relatively worthless when compared to kernel (vs. 3). It is refuse to be disposed of. Similarly, the sinner who rejects God finds himself outside of the gracious purposes of God and destined for eternal ruin.

2) Chaff is unstable in comparison to rooted trees (vs. 3). It has no anchor, nothing to sustain it in the storms. In the same way, the sinner is without a soul-anchor in life (which the Word, and ultimately Christ, provides).

3) Chaff is impermanent, here today and gone tomorrow. Vs. 4 seems to suggest not only the instability of it, but the swiftness of its end. In the words of an old hymn, “Life at best is very brief, / Like the falling of a leaf.” Sinners may struggle to hold on to it, but in an instant this mortal life is gone. Keith Brooks says, “Those who are without God are hurried to a terrible doom.”

Vs. 5-6. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish.
Harry Ironside defines “standing” here as “the ability to abide divine scrutiny.” As Christians, “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” to give an accounting (Rom. 14:10; cf. Ps. 5:5). And some ancient manuscripts unite Psalm 1 and 2, making one psalm of them. That suggests a possible link between 1:6 and 2:1. Since “the way of the ungodly shall perish,” it is all the more puzzling why “the nations rage and the people plot a vain thing [devise and empty, foolish scheme] against God. The Lord holds our eternal destiny in His hands. Why rage impotently against Him, instead of submitting humbly to Him?