The Way of the Righteous, pt.1
Psalm 1:1–6 1 How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
There are several preliminary remarks we should make as we begin our exposition of the Psalter. We should speak about the significance of psalm one, the divide between the righteous and the wicked, the issue of God’s blessing, and the Christocentric nature of the Psalter.
The First Torah Psalm
Psalm one is significant for many reasons and none greater than that it prepares the reader for a life of obedience to God’s Law in the context of covenant life. Also to appreciate the sheer evangelical thrust of this psalm, we are reminded of Spurgeon’s introduction to his exposition of the Psalms (the largest ever written!) The Treasury of David. Spurgeon writes, “It is the psalmists desire to teach us the way of blessedness, and to warn us of the sure destruction of sinners” (vol. 1, p.1). Even further back into in Reformed thought, Calvin also emphasizes the evangelical thrust of this psalm:
“The sum and substance of the whole is, that they are blessed who apply their hearts to the pursuit of heavenly wisdom; whereas the profane despisers of God, although for a time they may reckon themselves happy, shall at length have a most miserable end.” (John Calvin and James Anderson, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 1).
It is this “heavenly wisdom” that the psalm is setting before us. Psalm one is called a “Torah psalm” because of its emphasis on the “law of the Lord” (v.2). In fact, as many have shone, Psalm one is foundational to the future more comprehensive ‘Torah psalms’ such as Psalm 19 and Psalm 119 that also focus on God’s Law. As a Torah psalm, this sets the covenantal background of the psalms. While the psalms are devotionally precious to us, they were not written to us or about us per se. They were however written for us, that is, for our benefit for our spiritual vitality and our spiritual maturity. However, we must remember that the psalter is a composition of covenant songs which are sung in covenant with God under the Mosaic economy.
Although this will become essential for hermeneutics and interpreting the psalms, this does not at all take away from our capacity to benefit from the Psalter itself. A proper covenantal framework will only enhance and enrich our ability to profit from the riches of the Psalter in our own day and we study it for that end.
The Great Divide
Another practical aspect of the psalms has to do with the importance of the righteous and the wicked respectively. This introduces us to the covenant worldview of the psalms and the necessity for holiness. This dividing line is being blurred today. I recently had an encounter with a young Methodist man who asked if I believed Mormons “knew” Jesus. Of course my answer was in the negative since Mormonism preaches a “different Jesus” than that taught by Scripture. But this young man assured me that he had met many loving Mormons who he is certain have a relationship with God! On the broader scale and because of the influence of our post modern culture, the issue of homosexuality has become all but a “shibboleth” moment for the Church, many are continually compromising, losing their grip on biblical vocabulary, conceding what are considered small compromises, or folding on the issue all together.
Add to the influence of humanism and the psychology of self-esteem in our culture (which has given rise to radical narcissism) and speaking about people as “wicked” or “righteous” is considered emotionally abusive. The worldview of the Psalms is quite difference however. In the Psalms, God will shatter the teeth of the wicked (Ps. 3.7), He will bring the evil of the wicked to an end (Ps. 7.9), the wicked will go to Sheol/grave (Ps. 9.17), the wicked strut about in the midst of vileness (Ps. 12.8), the wicked and the one who loves violence God hates (Ps. 11.5), God hates wicked people for their deeds (Ps. 5.5). And of course in Psalm one the “wicked” are like chaff who will not stand in the judgment, and will ultimately perish (Ps. 1.4-6). The Psalms remind us of the glorious blessedness of the righteous and the high and privileged position we have in Christ, and that by grace.
There Is A Man That Retains The Blessing Of God
This brings us to the subject of the righteous and in particular to the concept of “the blessed man” (1.1). I pause here only to point out the obvious or the not so obvious. What is obvious is that the psalm opens with the line, “how blessed is the man…” What is not so obvious or at least what we often tend to forget is the reality that there is a man that retains God’s blessing. That should excite us and provoke us to understand who and how that takes place. Who is the person(s) that God blesses and how does God bless them? These questions may seem elementary however, in light of our own personal experience where because of trial, because of past failure, sin and the ever encroaching battle with condemnation (cf. Rom. 8.1; 1 John 3.20), I think we are prone to lose sight of this simple truth. Here are two ways to think of this biblically and then of course this will also become clear in the exposition of the psalm.
The positional blessing of God
Of course when we think about God’s blessing, this take place positionally through our union with Christ by faith. Here we are thinking of all that comes to us in Christ on the basis of His infinite merit:
Ephesians 1:3 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,
These are “the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2.7) that God has blessed us with. These blessings are for every believer who has truly trusted in Christ for eternal life. Therefore we can say that a person retains the ultimate blessing of God by faith in Jesus Christ and in no other way.
The practical blessing of God
There is also the practical aspect of this where practically speaking we are dealing no so much with the blessing of union with Christ, but communion. This communion shows us that our union with Christ is what is called a vital union because imparts life to us and sustains life in us. That is, our ongoing experience and blessedness of fellowship with the Lord. This is much more the focus here in Psalm one. It is the way of spiritual vitality. We are looking at how we can not only live as Christians but flourish in Christ. This is no different than what the NT teaches about flourishing in Christ:
John 15:5 5 I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit [communion], for apart from Me [union] you can do nothing.
Romans 12:1–2 1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
This psalm reminds us that we are called to live in the way that is pleasing to the Lord (cf. 2 Cor. 5.9; Eph. 5.10), in a way that is worthy of our calling (cf. Col. 1.10), in a way that reflects that we have been called out and separated from the world and the sinful lifestyles of the world (cf. 1 Pet. 4.1-4). Now in order to accomplish this, the psalmist employs a very simple series of metaphors i.e. walking, standing, and sitting. These metaphors become indicative of a person’s worldview, their life choices and their ultimate and final moral, philosophical and spiritual commitments. Thus, we are looking at the description of the lifestyle of “the blessed man.” With this metaphor the psalmist highlights the direction, decision, and disposition of the blessed man. This lifestyle is set forth in the negative. In other words, it begins by what the righteous does not do before elaborating upon what he/she is to do (v.2).
The Christocentric Nature Of The Psalms
Finally, the last preliminary thing we should point out is the Christology of the Psalms. The subject of the Christocentric nature of the Psalms is not up for debate since Christ himself says as much in Luke 24:
Luke 24:27 27 Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
Luke 24:44 44 Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
The typological connection to David, the overt Messianism of the psalms, prophecy, NT use of the Psalter e.g. Ps. 110, the inseparable connection between covenant worldview of Israel, the function of the psalms as wisdom and poetry— all of which are inseparable from Christ; all of these issues point us to Christ. Like all other parts of Scripture, we can say that the Psalms do not find their fullest theological implications until they have connected in some fashion to the person and work of Jesus Christ. In our study of the Psalms we will seek to connect to Christ in responsible ways that stay true to the original text and consider the psalms canonical implications.
The Righteous Do Not “Walk” With The Wicked (the direction)
We should not overlook the fact that when people think about what they need to do to be happy (or “blessed”), man will pursue just about anything. They will try anything- any drug, any program, any lifestyle, any philosophy, even attempting to oscillate between genders. Any experience or achievements that present the potential for happiness man will do it. But the psalmist begins with what those who are truly blessed, truly happy do not do. This is because true joy involves prohibition because God’s Law is rooted in prohibitions like, ‘do not lie, do not steal, do not murder.’ To account for this, we need look no further than our own hearts to know that depravity is real and our natural course is not the path that God would have us to take. We want to take our own path. As Paul is describing the human condition in Romans, it is no surprise than that he quotes the Psalms (cf. Ps. 14.1-3):
Romans 3:10–12 10 as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.”
Therefore, the righteous person, the person who is truly blessed refrains from wickedness and turns his/her feet from evil turns towards God’s testimonies (cf. Ps. 119.59). When we fail to do this it is our own happiness that we are forfeiting. Later the psalmist declares, “I have restrained my feet from every evil way, That I may keep Your word” (Ps. 119.101). But here the blessed man also has a very comprehensive view of this way of the righteous. When David says, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1.1a); he is rejecting the totality of an unbelieving worldview. The focus is surrounding the wicked and their schemes. The Hebrews word, “counsel” (עֵצָה) does not simply mean ‘advice’ but literally ‘plan’, or ‘scheme.’ It refers to a well thought out course of action that is rooted in lawlessness. This is later referred to as, “the way of the wicked” (1.6b).
This is a plan that is built on an entire system of standards contrary to God’s. As Derek Kidner has pointed out, “Law… basically means ‘direction’ or ‘instruction.’” Therefore, what the wicked are offering us in their carefully constructed schemes for worldliness is a counter law to God’s Law, an antithetical direction to life, a man-centered instruction for conduct and thought. Paul refers to this as, “the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2.2). Ultimately the wicked are such because they stand in total antithesis to God’s Law, the Law that reflects God’s own moral perfections. Thus, to stand against God’s Law is to stand against God himself— God takes offense at the transgression of His Law.
We should also consider with this opening line, the identity of what the NASB and other EVV render as “wicked” (רָשָׁע). The Hebrew term, as has been pointed out, the word is a bit broader and includes anyone who is not in covenant with God and particularly in a saving relationship with God manifested in true obedience and faith. That is important because, sometimes the counsel of the wicked may come from those we may not overtly deem as terrible wicked people with the stereotypical reputation of mass murders, rapists or immoral folk. It refers to anyone who is not walking in the path of salvation through faith in God’s Anointed Messiah as Psalm 2 will make abundantly clear (cf. Ps. 2.12). In the end nothing but wickedness comes from the wicked because the wicked do not glorify God with their lives. In the OT the wicked are those who break God’s Law (cf. Ps. 119.53), who live lives of immorality (cf. Jer. 14.20), who persecute the righteous (cf. Ps. 17.13), and who deserve God’s judgment here and now and forever more (cf. Ps. 139.19). Speaking of the range of the term “the wicked,” Allen Ross comments:
“The “ungodly” may be capable of truly wicked acts, but they may also seem to be pleasant and kind. They may even be members of the congregation (Ps. 50:16), whose presence in the worship service is therefore hypocritical— they have no intention of obeying God’s word but are more comfortable associating with adulterers and thieves and are themselves malicious slanderers (among other things)… Some of these people may seem to us to be good people, but as far as God is concerned they are “wicked” because they have rejected their creator and chosen to live in violation of his laws and refuse his provision of salvation.”
The Righteous Do Not “Stand” With The Wicked (the decision)
The next step in the digression into apostasy comes with a decision. In other words, this is when someone would make a conscious decision to stop and listen to the counsel of the ungodly so as to now willfully be brought under their influence and unify with their schemes. This is what it means to “stand in the path sinners.” This is the path of temptation (cf. Jam. 1.13-16). The term here “sinner” (חַטָּא) refers to the wicked in their general disobedience to God’s Law. This can describe either a person who ignorantly or willfully sins against God and violates His rules, standards and His revealed will in His word. The person who retains the blessing of God does not fall prey to “sinner’s” godless indifference to God’s Law. Instead we are called to be vigilant:
1 Peter 1:13 13 Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
While the “path of sinners” is a reckless disregard for the revelation of Jesus Christ, we are called to be “sober in all things” (2 Tim. 4.5).
The Righteous Do Not “Sit” With The Wicked (the disposition)
Finally, as the sad progression towards apostasy is negatively described, the final metaphor in the picture we are given comes with a new disposition. If one does not turn away from listening to the wicked and willfully being influenced by the wicked, you will become wicked! Once that takes place, there is a metamorphosis of the heart. There is a new disposition, a new opinion, a new “law”, and a new antagonism towards all things holy and in keeping with God’s Law. This is captured by the term, “scoffer.” The person who sits with the wicked will, by necessity, become a mocker of God and His people. Ross points out that the term “scoffer” (לֵץ) speaks of the activity of ‘interpretation’ (cf. Gen. 42.23). These then are people who use their powers of discernment to mock God and His people. The warning of this verse is that if we do not guard our hearts from listening to the wicked we may end up becoming wicked ourselves and indeed sitting in their sin.
Scoffing is going beyond gullibility and ignorance, its going beyond simply being overtaken by sin; it is a highhanded sinful rejection of God’s Law. Is it any wonder that Scripture says, “the scoffer is an abomination to men” (Prov. 24.9) and that God will himself “scoff at the scoffers” (Prov. 3.34) showing the utter rejection of the wicked by God. They are an abomination to men because the scoffer solicits other men to high crimes against heaven bringing God’s curse upon those who dwell on earth (cf. Ps. 12.8; Is. 32.6). Derek Kidner summarizes the progression found in this psalm well:
“Yet certainly the three complete phrases show three aspects, indeed three degrees, of departure from God, by portraying conformity to this world at three different levels: accepting its advice, being party to its ways, and adopting the most fatal of its attitudes— for the scoffers, if not the most scandalous of sinners, are the farthest from repentance.”
If we return to the opening of the verse, we are reminded of the great potential for the complete opposite of all this. The path of the righteous leads to innumerable and unspeakable blessing(s). In fact, the word, “blessed” is actually an abstract plural and thus refers to the manifold blessings (or happiness[es]) that come from a life that is untainted by the world’s false joys (cf. Heb. 11.25-26; Jam. 1.27).
CONNECTING TO CHRIST
Jesus uses ‘the blessed man’ formula in the Beatitudes:
And in the spirit of the psalmist who wrote of Him, Jesus also teaches the path of blessing by opposing the wicked and their schemes. The wicked would say, ‘you are a good person’, Jesus would say, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” The wicked would say, ‘avoid sorrow’, Jesus would say, “blessed are those who mourn.” The wicked would say, ‘glut yourself on worldly pleasure’, Jesus would say, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” The wicked would say, ‘look out for yourself’, Jesus would say, “blessed are the merciful.” The wicked would say, ‘you have no soul’, Jesus would say, “blessed are the pure in heart.” The wicked would say, ‘seek vengeance’, Jesus would say, “blessed are the peacemakers.” The wicked would say, ‘stand up for yourself’, Jesus would say, “blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” Jesus takes the blessedness of the righteous man to its ultimate Kingdom perspective (Mt. 5.1ff.).
Jesus as center of all spiritual blessing:
The NT takes the issue further with the progress of supernatural revelation. As God’s word reaches its Christological apex, we come to understand that a truly blessed life is found exclusively in Christ. He is life itself and has come so that we can have life abundantly because in reality the life that He gives is eternal (John 10.10; cf. 1 Cor. 1.30; Eph. 1.3-4; Phil. 3.7-9; Col. 2.2-3).
Jesus as the prototypical blessed/righteous man:
Finally, as the Psalter teaches us repeatedly, the Psalms were written Messianically (cf. Luke 24.27, 44) with Christ as their ultimate interpretive key. The reality is, none of us will live up to Psalm one as we should. We will never truly abide in God’s Law as we should, we will never perfectly refuse the influence of the ungodliness around us. But Jesus Christ lived as the prototypical righteous man under the blessing of God Anointed and perfectly under the guidance, influence and power of the Spirit of God (cf. Lk. 4.18). That is why Jesus could say about the Father, “I always do the things that are pleasing to Him” (John 8.29). In this particular text, it is the “blessed man” and his untainted character that points us in the direction of Jesus’ own moral perfection and righteousness as one who was “separate from sinners”:
Hebrews 7:26–28 26 For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; 27 who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. 28 For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.
In reality this Christocentric path is the path of the gospel since the gospel itself revolves around the sinless life of our great High Priest who obtained redemption for us in His blood (Heb. 9.12-15).
Questions For Theological Reflection:
1. Why does the psalmist begin his discussion about being happy in the negative?
2. What is a Torah Psalm and what other psalms fall into this category?
3. How important is it to maintain the biblical vocabulary of “the wicked and the righteous” and how does the loss of such terms impact our worldview?
4. What are the metaphors the psalmist has chosen for teaching us about the wisdom of avoiding an ungodly life? How do you see each metaphor of walking, standing, and sitting play out in the world around you and in your personal experience?
5. How does Psalm one lead us to the person and work of Jesus Christ? Discuss any NT texts that support the moral perfection of Jesus Christ.