Continuing on the series of Psalms, I would like to reflect today on a psalm whose full depth and profundity escaped me until very recently. In doing so, it is necessary not only to talk about the psalm, but also about a pattern of number meaning that helps make the psalm and its deeper matter more plain. Additionally, the psalm has a great deal of relevance packed into six short verses dealing with a variety of matters–the beginnings of mankind, the ultimate choice faced by all human beings, and the ultimate destiny of both the righteous and the wicked. Psalm 1, despite being very well known, is vastly deeper than meets the eye.
A Personal Introduction
I would like to comment as well that this song as a great deal of odd personal relevance for me. When I was a child–I could have been no more than four or five–I was deeply mortified and anxious about the line in the hymn “Blessed and happy is the man, who does never walk astray.” Being a small kid and not aware of the meaning of astray, I thought that the song was condemning those who walked stray dogs.
Even as a small child I was deeply aware of sin and wrongdoing, and deeply concerned to avoid being evil myself. When I was still smaller, about two or three, and still in Western Pennsylvania, I adopted a stray dog I called Tagger, because he liked to follow me around. He was a very beautiful dog–a red and white haired freckled Brittany Spaniel, friendly and affectionate and a clever and remorseless hunter of groundhogs. He was the sort of animal one both cherishes and respects. I imagine it was gently explained to me that the song did not condemn the adoption of worthy stray animals such as Tagger, but that the song condemned instead those who turned away from the way of God. My mortifying concerns allayed, I thought little more of the overplayed psalm, long neglecting its depth because it was sung so often and with so little analysis.
A Brief Detour Into Biblical Number Meaning
It is significant that Psalm 1 is the beginning of the book of Psalms. It is a little understood fact that the Book of Psalms is itself organized into five books, a fact that is noted in almost every Bible, but seldom remarked upon in examinations of the book of Psalms. The number five is generally taken to mean grace and redemption in terms of biblical number meaning, but of particular interest here is the fact that Psalm 1 is the first psalm of the first book (of five) of Psalms. To uncover its depth meaning will require a brief examination of other matching biblical patterns. For the purposes of brevity, let us examine four other patterns of five and examine how this particular psalm connects with those patterns.
The first pattern of five, and the most obvious one in scripture, is the pattern of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, typically called the Torah (or teaching, law) in Hebrew. We would expect that if the symbolic identity held, that Psalm 1 would deal with God’s law and also make a reference to Genesis. We will not be disappointed, for that is precisely what we find as we examine the psalm in greater detail. Our first pattern therefore points us to the beginning of Genesis and the question of God’s law.
If we examine the next most obvious pattern of five we have a double pattern of the Ten Commandments. The first five commandments deal with honoring God with all one’s heart, mind, and spirit, and the second five with loving others as one’s self. The first commandment is “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” (see Exodus 20:2-3). We might therefore, correctly, assume that Psalm 1 deals with the question of ultimate authority. Likewise, the sixth commandment, states, “You shall not murder,” (see Exodus 20:13), and so we might also accurately assume that questions of life and death arise from this psalm, and therefore take its point very seriously.
The third pattern that one can find, though someone less obvious, that this psalm refers to is the pattern of historical books that follow after the Torah. There are five books that form a pattern of five that mirror the concerns of the law themselves. These are the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, which mirror the concerns of authority/beginnings, deliverance, order, judgment upon an unworthy people, and renewing the covenant, entry/re-entry into the promised land with a special focus on priests and Levites. And that is what we find in those five books. Of particular interest for this study is the most important part of Joshua, the covenant made by Israel at Shechem to serve God only, obey His law, and be loyal and faithful to Him. Again, we see the pattern and question of authority–who is in charge?
Finally, let us note as well that this psalm also deals with another double pattern of fives, albeit in a very curious way, the pattern of Egypt’s plagues. Like the first plague, this psalm deals with a river. Like the sixth plague (the plague of boils), this plague deals with ashes, the ashes of eternal judgment. Therefore having examined how this song, so superficial at first, deals with very deep and serious matters by virtue of biblical patterns, let us now examine the song in the depth and seriousness which it deserves.
Two Trees, Two Ways of Life
Psalm 1 is a contrast between God’s way and Satan’s way, the way of righteousness, and the way of unrighteousness. We see this pattern of contrast throughout the entirety of Psalm 1, and it is a subject of considerable interest in other parts of scripture also. Nonetheless, because we wish to make this study a suitably brief one, we will limit our analysis to Psalm 1 and its direct allusions. In doing so we will provide enough of a hint of its deep meanings to allow others to examine even deeper waters.
Psalm 1:1-3 reads as follows: “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 the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. 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.”
Let us first examine the contrast this passage makes between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked before we follow the allusions of this passage into other parts of scripture. For one, let us note that this particular passage pronounces a blessing on those who do not walk in the counsel of the ungodly or sit in the seat of the scornful. The dangerous wicked of this world are often smooth-tongued and as wise as the serpent that tempted Eve, with flatteries and lies that go down easily to those who wish to be deceived. Likewise, the wicked sit in the seat of the scornful, heaping blame and abuse upon God’s people, God’s ways, and God’s laws, considering them a burden instead of delightful freedom from sin and destruction, speaking evil of righteousness and the righteous, and speaking evil of righteous authorities from which they wish to rebel, full of dark desires and evil thoughts.
In contrast to the deceptive and rebellious ways of the wicked, who follow after their father and master Satan, the father of lies and rebellion, the righteous reflect on the laws and teachings of God day and night, obeying God through His Holy Spirit and developing within themselves the character of God, so that they may be truly seen and recognized as having the image and likeness of their Father in heaven, and their elder brother, Jesus Christ. The righteous delight in God’s law, because God’s law reflect His perfect and unchanging character, and because Jesus Christ perfectly followed that standard on this earth and left behind His footprints for us to follow along the road to salvation in the Kingdom of God over which He will rule as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
A Tree Planted By Water
The reference to a tree planted by water brings to mind a passage in Revelation that points to the ultimate destiny of the righteous. Let us turn to this passage, for immediately upon recognizing the reference David makes in Psalm 1, we become immediately aware of the psalm’s deep eternal significance. Psalm 1:3 tells us of a tree planted by rivers of water whose leaves do not wither and of those whose ways will always prosper. To understand better this allusion, let us turn to Revelation 22:1-2: “And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its streets, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
Here we see that the tree planted by the river is the Tree of Life, and that those who are righteous are like the Tree of Life, whose fruits (righteous deeds) serve to help heal the nations and restore them to wholeness and righteousness through the redemptive power of God and the obedience to God’s law that springs from genuine faith. The fact that the righteous become like the tree is itself very significant, because it demonstrates that the righteous choose to eat from that tree and therefore become like it in their thoughts, words, and actions. Those who eat and drink of eternal life are fitting messengers of the way of life to others. We cannot give to others what we do not have ourselves. Did David Himself see a vision of the New Jerusalem to know the eternal fate of the righteous, as well as the restoration of paradise in that city to the believers of God? Maybe–he at least left that understanding open through his divinely inspired psalm, which points to the future, making Psalm 1 a prophecy of future blessing or condemnation rather than merely a song about physical life.
Let us now examine the other reference, a historical one, that David could be returning to. Let us turn to Genesis 2:8-10: “The Lord God planted a garden eastern in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it departed and became four riverheads.”
We see that in the Garden of Eden, there were two trees planted by the river in Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But in the New Jerusalem (and in Psalm 1) the only tree referred to is the Tree of Life, because only those who have chosen God’s way over Satan’s way will enter the New Jerusalem and be planted securely in eternal life in the Holy City, while those who reject God’s ways are condemned to the darkness of eternal death.
I Have Set Before You Life And Death
This would suggest that the choice between the two trees is not only something that Adam and Eve faced, but is a choice in the life of every human being who walks this earth. Deuteronomy 30:19-20 tells us: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you lie and death, blessing and cursing therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”
In short, if believers are to become like the Tree of Life, they must have had the opportunity and the willingness to eat from that fruit, if not from a literal tree than through conversion and obedience to God. Repentance, baptism, and the laying on of hand amount therefore to drinking of the water of life and eating of the Tree of Life, as we become a new creation through the indwelling and work of God’s Holy Spirit, creating an unborn child of God through the mixture of genuine faith and godly works led by God’s Spirit within us.
This is very serious business, for it means that the reverse is also true. It means that the rejection of God’s ways, if not repented of, will lead to death and judgment. Just as repentance and obedience lead to eternal life, pride and rebellious disobedience lead to eternal death, for there is nothing eternal and immortal within mankind itself. This whole physical existence was designed to be temporary, just as was Adam and Eve’s time in the Garden of Eden, a temporary period designed so that mankind could be tried, tested, and refined before it was time for his judgment.
But The Way of the Ungodly Shall Perish
Psalm 1:4-6 explains precisely this view of eternal judgment as we would expect from a thorough examination of the matter. Psalm 1:4-6 reads as follows: “The ungodly are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. 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.”
This is very serious business that ought to be taken more seriously than it if often is. For one, let us note that Psalm 1 considers the wicked to be like the chaff the wind drives away. The chaff is the worthless part of a grain that cannot be eaten, and so it is left as unprofitable rubbish for the wind to sweep away after a harvest, when the fruit is separated out. This gives the serious image of eternal judgment, the wheat being separated from the tares, the good fruit from the chaff. If man is fruit, then chaff are those who did not bear good fruit and are denied entry into God’s kingdom and family.
Let us also note the connection between chaff and ashes as a symbol, in looking at Ezekiel 28:16-19: “By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within, and you sinned; therefor I cast you as a profane thing out of the mountain of God; and I destroyed you, O covering cherub, from the midst of the fiery stones. Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor; I cast you to the ground, I laid you before kings, that they might gaze at you. You defiled your sanctuaries by the multitude of your iniquities, by the iniquity of your trading; therefore I brought fire from your midst; it devoured you, and I turned you to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all who saw you. All who knew you among the peoples are astonished at you; you have become a horror, and shall be no more forever.”
This passage clearly points out that the fate of all wicked and rebellious ones–whether human or angelic–unless they repent, is to be destroyed by fire, to be ashes upon the earth trodden on by the righteous or blown like chaff in the wind, to be no more forever. Eternal destruction, the blackness of darkness forever (Jude :13), is reserved for those who rebel against God’s ways and do not repent of their arrogance and rebellion. To sin against God is to be a self-murderer, to commit suicide, and also to be a murderer of Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of all. To sin is also to make Satan our god (in some fashion), instead of our Creator, and is therefore an act of rebellion and treason against God’s authority. Psalm 1 therefore securely refers to a great variety of biblical patterns of an extremely serious nature. Small wonder it is not examined more often in the depth it deserves.
Therefore, in conclusion, let us note that Psalm 1, despite being a commonly sung song, is a psalm whose depth escapes most of those who sing it by rote. The depth of Psalm 1 is such that it refers to both the beginning of human history in the Garden of Eden and the ultimate fate of mankind either to be destroyed or to be resurrected into eternal life as part of the family of God. In its pointed reference to the righteous as being like the Tree of Life planted by the crystal river in the New Jerusalem, Psalm 1 serves as a major connection in scripture between history and prophecy, between our way of life here and now in our physical existence and our eternal fate if we obey God or persist in rebellion against Him. For to us too has been given the choice of life or death, blessing or cursing, and the same call to choose life, so that we and our descendants may life.