Preface to the Psalms: Psalm 1

Written on: January 8, 2024

Article by: Thayer Salisbury

The preface to a book is normally the last portion the author wrote but it is the first portion read. The first psalm is a kind of preface to the Psalter. We do not know that it was the last psalm written. But, like the preface or introduction to a book, the first psalm helps orient us to the Book of Psalms. In a sense, it states the conclusion of the whole work. Psalm 1:1-2 states the central theme of this Psalm, of the Book of Psalms, and of the Bible as a whole.

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”

To profit from our Bible study, our relationship with God, or our involvement in the church, we must delight in the instruction of the Lord.

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We say “instruction” rather than “law” because many of us think of the term law too narrowly. The Hebrews used the term (torah) in a broader sense than the English word “law” is normally used. Genesis is a book that contains very few laws. Yet the Jews placed it first among the five books considered Torah. Even the other books of the Torah are not just a series of laws. The Torah contains the basic instruction needed to understand God, and to understand how to be an Israelite. There is as much history in this instruction as there is law (in the common understanding of that word).

Avoid Evil

To delight in the instruction demands the avoidance of evil (1-2).

There is a progression to sin. We first listen to the world a little bit. Then we begin to live in a worldly way a bit more. Over time, we become a regular member of a worldly circle. This progression in worldliness is poetically expressed in the Psalm in the terms “walk, stand, sit.” Attempts to translate the force of the terms vary, but they all point to the same danger, the danger of gradually coming under sinful influence.

We must resist this danger. The blessed believer is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked. Nor does he take the path that sinners travel. Nor does he take a seat in the company of sinners.

Sadly, some Christians give advice directly contrary to this psalm. About twenty years ago, the president of a Christian college advised the students in a chapel service to seek a seat at the table of the worldly influencers. He should have reflected on this psalm before speaking. Even if mature believers might sit in such a position without harm, it was dangerous to give such advice to young Christians.

Avoiding evil is not the same thing as delighting in God’s instructions. But it is an indispensable part of taking delight in God.

To delight means to “take great pleasure in.” There are many who attempt to study the instruction of God as an unpleasant duty. Only those who learn to take pleasure in his instruction are termed “blessed.”

No one who delights in the Lord’s ways will find pleasure in things the Lord hates. He will instead find such things hateful.

Fruitfulness

To delight in the instruction will result in life and fruitfulness (3).

He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

Other scriptures tell us the same thing.

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jer 17:7-8)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” (Pr 3:5-8)

Too many of us have just enough religion to make us miserable. We have not delighted in the Lord’s ways, and therefore we have not experienced the fruitfulness that his ways can bring.

Philip Yancey is a famous author. He often wrote magazine articles. In preparing these articles he often interviewed many kinds of people. To his surprise, he found that he did not envy those who were rich or famous. He found that most of them were unhappy. But he sometimes envied those who delighted in the Lord. Some of them served in difficult circumstances. Many of them served among the poor. Some of them were poor. But they were blessed by their delight in the Lord. These were the people Philip Yancey found had “received the ‘peace that is not of this world.’”1

It is not the climber who goes halfway up who experiences the joy of mountain climbing. It is the one who presses on to the top who knows the joys of mountain climbing. It is not the half-hearted believer who is blessed in his faith. It is the one who is completely faithful who will prove fruitful.

The End of Unfaithfulness

To fail to delight in the instruction leads to a dry, lifeless existence (4-5).

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;…

Other Psalms (37 and 73) admit that sometimes it appears that everything is going well for the ungodly. But it is not so in the long run; and the long run is what matters.

Worldly people want happiness now. They demand that life be constantly pleasant. They do not like to think ahead to what comes after this life. It may not sound like a good practise, but a part of our job as Christians is to make people unhappy. We must make them unhappy with their current state of existence, or they will never seek and find the life that is truly fruitful.

Obvious

What this psalm teaches should be obvious to Christians. But believing this and acting on it are two different things. Many of us might repeat these words, but do we live as those who delight in the Lord’s instruction?

Let us learn to delight in the Lord’s instruction. It will make a difference for us, and for everyone around us.

  1. Rebellion and Refuge

Psalm 2

The world is in rebellion. Thoughtful Christians are caused to ask, ‘Why is this allowed? Is God really in control?’ In the news we hear of terrible rebellion in our own country and in other places. Even if we ignore the news, we see evidence of man’s rebellion against God on every street corner.

Psalm 2 was written as a Royal Psalm. Although it has no heading to connect it with David, Acts 4:24 seems to attribute it to him.2 Psalm 2 is similar to a coronation song. It reflects that situation well.

There is nothing in the Psalm that the people of David’s day would not have applied to the king and his relationship with God. At the time it was written, it might not have seemed Messianic. But psalm 2 must have been included in the Psalter because of a Messianic hope. At the time of canonical compilation of the psalms, the Jews had no king, were having difficulty being independent, and certainly were not ruling others. The early church used this Messianic hope and applied the Psalm to Jesus.

The World Rebels

The psalm opens with a statement of the world’s rebellion against God’s anointed (1-3).

1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3“ Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”

The time of the coronation of a new king was frequently a time when vassal states would rebel, or neighbouring states would attack. If this psalm was intended for use at Solomon’s coronation, it would have served as a warning to the vassal states that David had conquered. They could not revolt just because David was dead. It was ultimately the Lord that mattered, not David.

For the compilers of the Psalms the opposition of the nations to God’s people was a very pressing daily problem. They had returned from exile in Babylon, but they were constantly threatened by the surrounding nations. Their freedom and even their lives were frequently threatened.

The situation had not change much in the New Testament. The believers in Acts had firsthand experience with the hostility of worldly people for God’s anointed. Jesus, God’s ultimate anointed one, had been crucified. His spiritual body, the church, was under constant threat.

So, we should not be surprised if we experience large-scale opposition to Christ. The opposition that we face is nothing new. It is what was common throughout biblical history.

God is in Control

As we look about in the world today, it seems that all the world leaders are ruling in opposition to God. Most governments operate in direct defiance of the limitations placed on them by scripture. It is easy to feel hopeless. It is easy to feel as it the world in out of control and that God is ignoring the situation. But this is nothing new. The same was the case when this psalm was written. God is aware and in control despite this opposition (4-6).

4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

The line of David was constantly opposed, both by other nations and by many within the kingdom itself. Very few of the kings of Judah came to the throne unopposed. Yet God’s promise to David was not forgotten. His promise to build an enduring house for David (2 Sam 7) came true.

The compilers of the psalms showed great faith by including this psalm. In worldly terms the restored kingdom was nothing. They had no military strength and poor leadership. It was an act of faith to include this psalm from an earlier time when Israel ruled a much larger area.

The New Testament use of the psalm also reflects great faith. The church was not powerful in human terms (I Cor. 1:26-31). Yet the early church believed that God was in control and moving things toward the certain triumph of his Son.3

Confidence

Despite the rebellion of the nations and all appearances as to strength, the king could take his throne in confidence (7-9).

7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.

8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.

9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Each king of Judah was seen as God’s son4 and should have ruled with confidence knowing that he was heir of all things. The king of Judah did not have the strength to overcome the nations around them. But, if they submitted to God, they would be enabled to rule.

The post-exilic Jews often saw this as a promise of future dominance over others. Many of them mistakenly thought it to be an unconditional promise of dominance.

To the early Christians it would have been a promise that, what began with 12 could reach the ends of the earth. They believed that a crucified man would one day have the world bowing at his feet.

We must never forget that our power and hope lies not in ourselves. Christ will achieve, and we can share with him in future glory. We trust in him and must model our sonship after his.

Take Refuge

Since God is sure to bless his anointed one, those who take refuge in him will be blessed (10-12).

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.

12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

To side with the new king was wisdom. Despite his weakness, God was with him.

In the canonical setting it refers to those who side with the Messiah.

1 Philip Yancey: Where is God When it Hurts?(Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1977, 1990), p.45.

2 Some scholars seem to think that Peter is using the name “David” as a name for the Book of Psalms rather than intending to indicate David’s authorship.

3 Acts 4:25-26; 13:33; Rev 2:27; 12:5; 19:15

4 2 Sam. 7:4; 1 Chron. 22:10; 28:6; Ps. 89:26-27