Psalm 1

The happy man

Does not follow the council of evil men,

Nor remain on the sinner’s road

Nor judge in mockery

But his pleasure is in the laws of the LORD

He will think about these laws every day, and at night

He will be like a tree, planted at streams of water

Which gives its fruit in season

And its leaves will not wilt

All he does will prosper

But evil men are not like this

But are like chaff which the wind blows

This is why evil men will not rise in judgment

And sinners will not be in the company of the just.

Because the LORD reveals the path of the just,

But the custom of evil men is to destroy1.

1 אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי־הָאִ֗ישׁ 1:1 Μακάριος ἀνήρ, The man is happy: LXX=MT
אֲשֶׁ֤ר ׀ לֹ֥א הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים ὃς οὐκ ἐπορεύθη ἐν βουλῇ ἀσεβῶν who does not go in the council of evil men, LXX = MT
וּבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד καὶ ἐν ὁδῷ ἁμαρτωλῶν οὐκ ἔστη Nor stay in the sinner’s road LXX = MT
וּבְמֹושַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשָֽׁב׃ καὶ ἐπὶ καθέδραν λοιμῶν οὐκ ἐκάθισεν, Nor sit in the pest’s chair LXX supports MT

Greek is read “the seat of pests.” or “the seat of pestilence”

Holding a chair tells of holding power and respect. The happy man is not known for his antics – he is not known for his mockery. לֵצִים could also be read “translators.”

כִּ֤י אִ֥ם בְּתֹורַ֥ת יְהוָ֗ה חֶ֫פְצֹ֥ו 2 ἀλλ’ ἢ ἐν τῷ νόμῳ κυρίου τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ, But his pleasure is in the laws of YHWH LXX supports MT
וּֽבְתֹורָתֹ֥ו יֶהְגֶּ֗ה יֹומָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה׃ καὶ ἐν τῷ νόμῳ αὐτοῦ μελετήσει ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτός. He will think about his laws daily and at night LXX supports MT
וְֽהָיָ֗ה כְּעֵץ֮ שָׁת֪וּל עַֽל־פַּלְגֵ֫י מָ֥יִם 3 καὶ ἔσται ὡς τὸ ξύλον τὸ πεφυτευμένον παρὰ τὰς διεξόδους τῶν ὑδάτων, He will be like a tree, planted at streams of water LXX supports MT
אֲשֶׁ֤ר פִּרְיֹ֨ו ׀ יִתֵּ֬ן בְּעִתֹּ֗ו ὃ τὸν καρπὸν αὐτοῦ δώσει ἐν καιρῷ αὐτοῦ Which gives its fruit in season LXX supports MT
וְעָלֵ֥הוּ לֹֽא־יִבֹּ֑ול καὶ τὸ φύλλον αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἀπορρυήσεται· And it’s leaves will not wilt LXX supports MT
וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֣ה יַצְלִֽיחַ׃ καὶ πάντα, ὅσα ἂν ποιῇ, κατευοδωθήσεται. Everything he does will prosper LXX supports MT
לֹא־כֵ֥ן הָרְשָׁעִ֑ים 4 οὐχ οὕτως οἱ ἀσεβεῖς, The evil men are not like this LXX supports MT
כִּ֥י אִם־כַּ֝מֹּ֗ץ אֲ‍ֽשֶׁר־תִּדְּפֶ֥נּוּ רֽוּחַ2׃ οὐχ οὕτως, ἀλλ’ ἢ ὡς ὁ χνοῦς, ὃν ἐκριπτεῖ ὁ ἄνεμος ἀπὸ προσώπου τῆς γῆς. 3 But are like chaff which the wind blows {over the face of the earth} LXX supports MT

{–} not in MT

עַל־כֵּ֤ן ׀ לֹא־יָקֻ֣מוּ רְ֭שָׁעִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֑ט 5 διὰ τοῦτο οὐκ ἀναστήσονται ἀσεβεῖς ἐν κρίσει Because of this, evil men will not rise in judgment LXX supports MT
וְ֝חַטָּאִ֗ים בַּעֲדַ֥ת צַדִּיקִֽים׃ οὐδὲ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἐν βουλῇ δικαίων· Nor will sinners [be] in the company of the just. LXX supports MT
כִּֽי־יֹודֵ֣עַ יְ֭הוָה דֶּ֣רֶךְ צַדִּיקִ֑ים 6 ὅτι γινώσκει κύριος ὁδὸν δικαίων, Because YHWH knows the path of the just, LXX supports MT

I prefer to reads YHWH will reveal the path of the just – however this does not match the LXX, reading יוֹדֵעas a Hipial imperfect.

וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים תֹּאבֵֽד׃ καὶ ὁδὸς ἀσεβῶν ἀπολεῖται. but the path of evil men is destruction. LXX supports MT

In Hebrew, the word for destruction is also the word for lost.

The Psalm appears to take a rhetorical form. It consists of two sections: the first describing the happy man. The second part contrasts wicked and the happy man.

The description of the happy man first lists the things that he avoids. Second it tells the source of the happy man’s joy, and tells of the happy man always focusing on the source of his joy.

The second part contrasts the stable happy man to the unstable wicked. It first contrasts the tree to the chaff blowing in the wind. The poem ends with a clear antithesis comparing the definite known path of the happy man, and how the wicked have a path to “lost.”

This Psalm can be outlined as followed.

  • The happy man
    • <Avoids kill-joys>
      • Does not go in the council of evil men,
      • Nor stay in the sinner’s road
      • Nor sit in the pest’s chair
    • But his pleasure is in the laws of YHWH
      • He will think about his laws daily and at night
  • <Contrast>
    • <Happy man>
      • He will be like a tree, planted at streams of water
        • Which gives its fruit in season
        • And it’s leaves will not wilt
      • Everything he does will prosper
    • Evil men are not like this
      • But are like chaff which the wind blows {over the face of the earth}
        • Because of this, the evil men will not rise in judgement

Nor will sinners [be] in the company of the just.

  • Because YHWH will reveal the way of the just,

But the way of the evil men is to destroy.

The Happy man is singular, while the wicked and sinners are plural. This brings the reader to question the identity and significance of the “happy man.” Augustine for, for example, in his Expositions on the Psalms, tells us that the happy man is Jesus, and Jesus is thus contrasted with sinful man4. In contrast, Hilary treats the identity of the Happy man as the faithful Christian5.

Hilary rejects Psalm 1 as messianic because of logical difficulties. First: How can the happiness of the Lord of the Law be dependent upon the Lord of the Law submitting to it? Second, Hilary rejects the simile between the tree and the happy man being unworthy of Christ’s divinity. Because of this he concludes that the happy man is that man who submits himself to the laws of Christ.6

For the purpose of this translation, I will consider the happy man to be devout, and not Jesus. Thus I must work to translate it in such a way that the hearer realizes that the happy man is a class, and not an individual. I must read it in such a way that the hearer wishes to be the happy man.

The next section describes what the happy man does not do 1. He does not walk in the council of the evil man, 2. He does not stand in the way of sinners, 3. He does not sit in the seat of the pest. It is important to establish both the relationship and the meaning of the following phrases:

  1. הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים
  2. בְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד
  3. בְמֹושַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשָֽׁב

What does it mean to “Walk in the council of wicked men, to stand in the sinner’s road, to sit in the pest’s seat?” The translation depends upon which view the reader takes. If the Psalm is messianic for example, then these relate to Christ’s position on Earth. If the Psalm is general advice to the faithful, then these descriptions relate to those things eschewed by the faithful.

Augustine interpreted the “one who…” as a contrast to Jesus. Often he gave these an identity. Augustine feels that the one who walked in the council of the wicked was Adam when he listened to his wife and ate of the fruit, and thus Christ is compared to Adam7. He continues by explaining Christ did not “stand in the way of sinners” because the world has no hold upon Him8. Augustine was however divided on the identity of the person who sits in “the seat of pestilence,” as he wrote both of the human ruler full of powerlust, and the teacher of hurtful doctrine9.

Augustine also examined the significance of the progression of “went away, stood, sat.” writing as follows:

The order too of the words must be considered: “Went away, stood, sat.” for he “went away,” when he drew back from God. He “stood,” when he took pleasure in sin. He “sat,” when, confirmed in his pride, he could not go back, unless set free by Him, who neither “hath gone away in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of pestilence.”10

Hilary on the other hand reads the evil men as “undutiful11,” the sinners as sinners, and the last as “pestilence.” Hilary reads this description as running from worst to best… Worst is to walk in the council of the undutiful:

Not every man that is a sinner is undutiful: but the undutiful man cannot fail to be a sinner. Let us take an instance from general experience. Sons, though they be drunken and profligate and spendthrift, can yet love their fathers; and with all these vice… may yet be free from undutifulness. But the undutiful, though they may be models of continence and frugality, are, by the mere fact of despising the parent, worse transgressors then if they were guilty of every sin that lies outside the category of undutifulness…

Thus, all the counsel of these men is wavering, unsteady, and vague… They have never in their system risen to the doctrine of a Creator of the world… they press in ceaseless motion round the circle of this godless argument… There are besides, other counsels of the ungodly… Their ungodliness consists in measuring God not by His own revelation, but by a standard of his choosing12.

Second worse is to “stand in the way of sinners”:

There are many whose confession concerning God, while it acquits them of ungodliness, yet does not set them free from sin; those, for example who abide in the Church but do not observe her laws; such are the greedy, the drunken, the brawlers, the wanton, the proud, hypocrites, liars, plunderers… It is for this reason that the man who has not stood in the way of sinners is happy, for while nature carries him into that way, religious belief draws him back13.

The least damaging practice is to sit in the “seat of Pestilence.” Hilary held that this seat was the seat of government, and that public office managed to corrupt even the most pious of men, thus the happy man avoids pubic office and instead lives a simple private life14.

I agree with Hilary that the progression begins with the worst, and with his treatment of the “sinners,” however I disagree with both Augustine and Hilary concerning the identity of the “evil men,” and the “mocker.” I feel that I can find better interpretation within the meaning of the Hebrew words, though the Psalms were unknown to early Christians except in translation.

הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים

This I read as “He walks in the council of evil men.” The evil man is no less than a criminal, who spreads destruction in his wake. Evil men serve as the contrast to the just. Proverbs 4 reads:

“Do not set foot on the path of the wicked, or walk in the way of evil men… For they cannot sleep till they do evil; they are robbed of slumber till they make someone fall. They eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.

Evil men are a source of suffering in this world. They are the antithesis of the Just man, who’s way is reviled by the LORD. Their purpose is to destroy thus their council is conspiracy to cause destruction to advance their own greed. While the just show compassion on those who cannot bring them gain, the evil do nothing but visit the world around them with evil. To walk in their council is simply to take part in their conspiracy. It is to join in both evil goals and methods, living life as a robber, or a murderer, or an oppressor.

I interpret the phraseבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד as “he remains in the habits of sinners,” or that he maintains his sinful lifestyle. To stand in the way, which is the more traditional English translation is clumsy and difficult to interpret. The Hebrew verb עָמָ֑ד can properly be rendered “to remain.” The word דֶ֣רֶךְ can be rendered as custom or habit. The happy man does not maintain his life in sin, but instead goes out and lives a holy lifestyle, becoming a just man. The man who meditates upon the laws of the Lord day and night, and who lives by these laws, such as to love his neighbor and to feed the widow and orphan cannot be anything except a just man.

Last, consider the seat of a mocker.בְמֹושַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשָֽׁב Oddly enough, I could easily argue that the Hebrew supports Hilary’s view that this is against taking public office, for the term לֵ֝צִ֗ים speaks of diplomats and official translators. However, in this context it most certainly refers to “mockers.” The word itself speaks of those who “make mouths,” or faces. It speaks of a rather annoying infantile habit of displaying the utter contempt the mocker has for the speaker. As the writer of Proverbs observes: “Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult.15” This is true because the mocker establishes himself in a seat of judgment, and he judges that the words of his superiors is only worthy of contempt. He then proceeds to let those around him know the contempt he holds for them – to speak truth to someone who makes faces is to watch him make is infantile faces. The mocker is guilty of immaturity, and his only hope is to grow up.

Last we should visit the final lines of the Psalm16. “Because YHWH will reveal the path of the just, but the way of evil men is to destroy.” In this the Psalm ends in a nice couplet. This is a difficult section to render, as I could read it in several ways:

Because YHWH will reveal the path of the Just

But the path of the evil men is lost

The idea of the path as lost shows finishes the idea of the stability of the happy man men in contrast to the evil men. However, the picture of the evil men leaving destruction in their wake, that their habit and purpose is to destroy places this a direct contrast to the life and purpose of the just man. For this difficulty, I will choose the reading “The habit of the evil man is to destroy,” and place as a footnote: “This line could also read “but the path of the evil man is lost. This allows the reader to choose which reading best suits the purposes of the day. It is most unfortunate that I cannot come up with a similar double meaning phrase.

Psalm 1 appears to this reader to be a non-messianic rhetorical Psalm, the purpose of which is to encourage holy living. First it clearly marks the avoidance of causing harm, remaining in sin, and gross immaturity. Second it encourages the study and practice of the divine laws. Finally in contrast the wicked to the devout, marking devotion to God as a source of happiness, stability, and direction.

1This line can also be read: “But the path of the sinners is lost”

2LXX adds מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה

3Underlined not in MT

4“This is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord Man ‘… that has not gone away in the council of the ungodly’ as ‘the man of earth’ did. ”

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Expositions on the Book of Psalms, Ed: Coxe, A. Cleveland, D.D. Hendrickson, Peabody MA, 1888 reprint 1999, 1

5“And so, since these words are understood to be inapplicable to the divinity of the Only-begotten Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, we must suppose him, who is here extolled as happy by the Prophet, to be the man who strives to conform himself to that body which the Lord assumed and in which He was born… This is the necessary interpretation which will be shown as the exposition of the Psalm proceeds.

St. Hilary of Poitiers, “Homily on Psalm 1,” Tr: Rev. Watson, E. W., MA, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers V. 9, Hendrickson, Peabody MA, 1899, reprint 1999, 237

6Ibid

7…”[He] consented to his wife deceived by the serpent, to transgressing the commandment of God.”

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Expositions on the Book of Psalms, Ed: Coxe, A. Cleveland, D.D. Hendrickson, Peabody MA, 1888 reprint 1999, 1

8“He came in the way of sinners, by being born as sinners are; but He “stood” not therein… the enticements of the world held him not.”

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Expositions on the Book of Psalms, Ed: Coxe, A. Cleveland, D.D. Hendrickson, Peabody MA, 1888 reprint 1999, 1

9“He willed not an earthly kingdom, with pride, which is well taken for ‘the seat of pestilence;’ for… hardly anyone… is free from the love of rule, and craves not human glory… A pestilence is disease widely spread… Yet ‘the seat of pestilence’ may be… understood of hurtful doctrine; ‘whose word spreadeth as a canker.'”

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Expositions on the Book of Psalms, Ed: Coxe, A. Cleveland, D.D. Hendrickson, Peabody MA, 1888 reprint 1999, 1

10Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Expositions on the Book of Psalms, Ed: Coxe, A. Cleveland, D.D. Hendrickson, Peabody MA, 1888 reprint 1999, 1

11We would read Agnostic

12St. Hilary of Poitiers, “Homily on Psalm 1,” Tr: Rev. Watson, E. W., MA, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers V. 9, Hendrickson, Peabody MA, 1899, reprint 1999, 237-238

13St. Hilary of Poitiers, “Homily on Psalm 1,” Tr: Rev. Watson, E. W., MA, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers V. 9, Hendrickson, Peabody MA, 1899, reprint 1999, 238

14“Although they bring to the discharge of their duties a religious intention, as it is shown by their merciful and upright demeanor, still they cannot escape a certain contagious infection arising from the business in which their life is spent. for the conduct of civil cases does not suffer them to be true to the holy principles of the Church’s law, even though they wish it… hence this title, the seat of pestilence… by its infection it poisons the very will of the religiously minded.”

St. Hilary of Poitiers, “Homily on Psalm 1,” Tr: Rev. Watson, E. W., MA, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers V. 9, Hendrickson, Peabody MA, 1899, reprint 1999, 238

15Proverbs 9:7 NIV

16The section on the tree and the chaff are clear, I can only figure out one way to translate them.

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