Chapter 1.
The Book of Psalms (Part I)

Psalms 1:1-6; 8:1-9; 19:1-11; 23:1-6; 51:1-13

Choose the Way of Righteousness (Psalm 1:1-6)

Establishing the Groundwork

If we were forced to "give up" 38 of the 39 Old Testament books, the one book we probably would choose to keep would be Psalms. More than one commentator has declared Psalms to be the single most important book in the Old Testament. As a window into the faith of ancient Israel, these "songs" still speak to us today. And the communication to which they witness is a two-way street: not only does God speak to humanity to reveal his will, but humans also speak to God in prayer and praise.

The book of Psalms is the largest book in the Bible, with 150 "chapters," 2,461 verses, and 43,743 words! Actually it is not so much a book with chapters as it is a collection of independent compositions, works written and collected over many centuries.

Above all, Psalms is a book of religious poetry and songs. David and others pour their hearts out to God in sometimes breathtaking expressions of devotion, praise, and inquiry. The most prevalent feature of Hebrew poetry is the balancing of line content known as "parallelism." Translators have always used this feature to gauge which particular spin on a word or phrase should be taken. Of course the extensive use of figurative language and emotional expression is the essence of poetry, and this fact should serve as a caution about basing controversial doctrinal views solely on such passages (see Psalm 51). Another prominent feature in the Old Testament is the use of alphabet poetry, with Psalm 119 as the most notable example.

All but 34 of the psalms have a tide or heading, 14 of which refer to events in the life of David. We believe that many of the psalm tides were added after the psalms were written, but how long afterward is not known. They certainly are ancient, dating at least several centuries before Christ.

David is identified as the author in 73 psalms (roughly half), while Acts 4:25 claims that he also spoke the words of Psalm 2 "by the Holy Spirit." A case can be made for Davidic authorship for several other psalms, such as 1, 10, and 33. Most of David's psalms are found in the first half of the book.

Various classifications of psalms have been offered as a way to get a handle on this massive, unsystematic collection. Terms such as petition, praise, penitential, pilgrimage, and predictive appear in scholarly discussion. A number of the psalms are predictive of Christ's coming and kingdom and are therefore also called messianic psalms (e.g. 2, 8, 16, 22, 40, 45, 69, 110, 118). Historical psalms, thanksgiving psalms, creation psalms, and wisdom psalms could be added here as could psalms of "imprecation" in which the wrath of God is called down upon a foe (18 psalms contain such language, e.g. 137).

In Jewish tradition Psalms is divided into five "books," reminiscent of the books of Moses. They are arranged as follows: Book I (1-41); II (42-72); III (73-89); IV (90-106); V (107-150). Other levels of organization also exist within the Psalter. We find Psalms arranged by author (e.g. David, Asaph, sons of Korah) and type (e.g. "Songs of Ascent," as designated in the headings of Psalms 120-134; and "Hallelujah Psalms," 111-118, 146-150).

In this chapter we examine Psalms 1, 8, 19, 23, and 51, in which we find important themes for Christian faith and life, such as obedience, dependence on God, trust, creation and providence, and repentance and forgiveness. Whatever one's views about the organization of the Psalms may be, the suitability of Psalm 1 for the first psalm is almost universally agreed upon. Godly living demands fundamental choices, and we are faced with the paramount choice between two contrasting ways as we open the book.

Examining the Text

I. Clear Choices (Psalm 1:1-2)

A. Avoid the Sinners' Way (v. 1)

1Blessed is the man

who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked

or stand in the way of sinners

or sit in the seat of mockers.

Psalm 1 has no heading to indicate the author's identity. One could make a case for its being Davidic, since it is likely that a book so much intertwined with David would begin with a song by "Israel's singer of songs" (2 Samuel 23:1) himself. This psalm could be classified as a "wisdom" psalm, joining, e.g., Psalm 19 and 119. It is a psalm about making right choices, following the wise path. The word blessed can mean "happy," but—as in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)—it really means so much more. We should understand it to suggest "fulfilled, content, or satisfied" in one's fellowship with God.

Taken together, the three verbs walk, stand, and sit serve as a good example of Hebrew parallelism, a technique used frequently in Scripture. Parallelism often enlists two or more slightly different words or phrases to say virtually the same thing. This parallelism also holds for the terms wicked, sinners, and mockers, which are synonyms.

Avoiding the counsel of the wicked, the way of sinners, and the seat of mockers requires what might be called "discrimination" on the part of God's people, who must choose not to associate with certain types of people. This is not like the discrimination of a racist, but is more like the discernment of a careful shopper. True and lasting happiness in life is found by those who discriminate in the latter sense, discerning right from wrong, good from evil, throughout their lives. Those who choose not to discriminate in this way end up standing in the way of sinners. This is more than mere association with non-believers; it implies some level of participation in wickedness.

We should note the ungodly progression walk, stand, and sit, possibly suggesting an increasingly comfortable association with evil. Joining the scornful in a mocking rejection of God's Word is ultimate folly. Happy—blessed—are those who avoid and abstain from such evils.

B. Delight in God's Law (v. 2)

2But his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

Delight is the personal pleasure of a godly person when reading, studying, and applying to life the revealed truth of God. Meditating on the law of the Lord should indeed be a delightful experience—a real pleasure. Actually, the law of the Lord includes far more than the Ten Commandments and other statutes delivered through Moses. The phrase embraces all of God's revelation, all of his truth. In providing this revelation, God has given us an unerring guidebook, a "map," for our journey. Consulting it often and following its directions grants comfort and security on the way and ultimately brings us safely to our eternal destination.

II. Clear Consequences (Psalm 1:3-6)

A. Produce and Prosper (vv. 3-5)

3He is like a tree planted by streams of water,

which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither.

Whatever he does prospers.

Water is one of the key ingredients in plants necessary to keep them green and growing. In a time when the vast majority of people were involved in agriculture in some way, the illustration of the fruit-bearing tree in this verse really hit home. Spiritual productivity and prosperity are promised to those committed and faithful to God's way. The prophet Jeremiah repeated this promise (Jeremiah 17:7, 8) to those who trust and hope in the Lord. The metaphor of a luxuriant tree was commonplace in the Ancient Near East.

4, 5Not so the wicked!

They are like chaff

that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

The sinners and wicked are those people whose attitudes and behavior do not identify them as children of God, as members of his family. Through creation, of course, all humans are God's children in a sense, but many do not believe that God exists, nor do they trust that God rewards those who seek him. Therefore, it is impossible for them to please him (Hebrews 11:6).

Thus, millions of people are simply spiritual chaff: throwaway refuse. They will not find blessedness, and they will be held accountable for their wickedness. God will not consider them to be included in the assembly of the righteous—either as assembled for worship and fellowship on earth, or in the final gathering before God in Heaven.

B. Enjoy God's Protection (v. 6)

6For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.

Watches over (Hebrew, yada) literally is "to know," so the King James Version has "the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous." In context (viewing the last half of the parallel construction of the verse) it is clear that "know" in the sense of "care for" or "watch out for" is meant. Do we really live our lives with the continuous awareness that God knows and is watching over us and our way, and that he has the power to help us on that way?

At one point in Jeremiah's ministry, the prophet affirmed God's sovereignty and stated "Nothing is too hard for you" (Jeremiah 32:17). But a bit later God repeats Jeremiah's affirmation right back to him in the form of a question (Jeremiah 32:27) as if to say, "Jeremiah, I've heard you say such and such about me, but do you really believe it?" The blessed person being described in this passage does indeed believe it and live it.

Live As the Crown of Creation (Psalm 8:1-9)

Establishing the Groundwork

King David, who lived a thousand years before Christ, wrote Psalm 8 along with most (if not all) of the psalms in "Book I" (1-41). We are not entirely sure of its historical context; its address "for the director of music" is tantalizingly brief. It is one of several "creation" psalms (e.g. 19, 104).

Considering the way the writer of Hebrews uses Psalm 8 in the second chapter of that epistle, this psalm may also be listed among the messianic psalms. Because the Word became flesh, fully human, he represents us in fulfilling some of the language of this psalm.

Among C. S. Lewis's many works is a book entitled Reflections on the Psalms. In it he refers to Psalm 8 as a "short, exquisite lyric." As Lewis came to appreciate this psalm's depth of insight into the natures of God and mankind, so may we as well.

Examining the Text

I. The Majesty of God (Psalm 8:1-3)

A. God's Excellent Name (v. 1a)

1a O Lord, our Lord,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 8 begins with a celebration of God's name. Notice the appearance of Lord twice, spelled slightly differently. The first (seen with small capital letters as Lord) is Yahweh, a name so holy that the Jews eventually stopped using it, fearing that they would accidentally commit some blasphemy. The second word translated as "Lord" is Adonai, which means "master, ruler, governor." Translated in terms of how the original reader would have understood it, the phrase is something like "O Yahweh, our ruler."

In this brief phrase, then, David has addressed God by a very holy name (which he calls majestic or excellent in the phrase to follow), and has recognized one of God's most important functions. By implication, David is humbling himself as one who is to be governed.

Lying on his back under the open sky with his flock of sheep, the young David may have marveled at the arrangement of stars splashed upon the ebony canvas of the heavens above. He may have pondered his own apparent insignificance within the vastness of creation. Such thoughts may have inspired him to write the psalm.

B. God's Revealed Glory (v. 1b)

1bYou have set your glory

above the heavens.

This half-verse can be understood in two ways. First, there is a sense in which God's glory is revealed through that which we view around us. Although David's view of the heavens was not as complete as ours, he beheld God's glory nonetheless. As David looked into the night sky without the aid of a telescope, could he have had any inkling of the distance to those stars? To him, a star was likely a mysterious twinkling point of light in a dark sky. Yet even with that limited perception, David recognized the glory of God in creating such wonders.

A second way of understanding this half-verse focuses on the word above. To those who lived in the ancient world, what was visible in the night sky may have been merely a "preview" of what was above even that. The ancient mind may have sensed that there was a greater realm of glory known to God, but invisible to mankind. In either sense, God's creative power, even if incompletely revealed, compels us to recognize his glory.

One Christian writer has noted that even though God is your Father, he is not your "old man." We may want so much to have a personal relationship with God that we may lose sight of God's transcendence (that is, his "otherness"). God the redeemer is also God the creator.

C. Unsolicited Praise for God (v. 2)

2From the lips of children and infants

you have ordained praise

because of your enemies,

to silence the foe and the avenger.

Persuasive testimony comes from unlikely sources! At Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, children greeted him with shouts of "Hosanna to the Son of David" (Matthew 21:15). This acclamation irritated the chief priests and scribes. When they complained to Jesus about what the children were proclaiming, he quoted the first half of Psalm 8:2 to them (Matthew 21:16). Upon hearing this response, these "experts" in the law could hardly miss the unspoken jab from the second half of Psalm 8:2: Jesus was implying that they themselves were the enemies of God.

Earlier Jesus had taught that those who come to him need to do so in the manner of a child approaching someone he or she knows to be superior (Matthew 18:1-4). Compliance with that admonition calls for self-humility.

D. Visible Testimony to God (v. 3)

3When I consider your heavens,

the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

which you have set in place,

David's mind turns again to the night sky. Its splendor should remind the reader of its source. Unfortunately, the Israelite people got themselves into serious trouble at this very point. Early in their history, just before entering the promised land, Moses had warned them specifically not to bow down in worship of the created heavenly bodies (Deuteronomy 4:19). Yet some 800 years later, they would find themselves cast into exile because of doing just that (cf. Jeremiah 8:2; Ezekiel 8:16; Acts 7:42, 43). How ironic that such a majestic part of creation should have led God's people closer to him, but instead they allowed it to have the opposite effect!

II. The Mandate for Man (Psalm 8:4-9)

A. A Humble Question (v. 4)

4... what is man that you are mindful of him,

the son of man that you care for him?

In view of God's magnificent creation, man's role as the crown of creation creates within David a sense of wonder and awe. Many Bible scholars believe that this verse may have two "layers" of interpretation: David, in speaking of man in the strictly human sense, may at the same time be speaking prophetically of the Messiah, who was to come. Note the phrase son of man, which Jesus would later use to describe himself in the Gospels (cf. also Daniel 7:13). On the other hand, this phrase is also used extensively in the book of Ezekiel to refer to that prophet's frailty and mortality.

Here and frequently elsewhere the use of this expression probably is primarily another case of parallelism (man... son of man) with "son of" indicating "the category of." But the second level, a reference to the Messiah, cannot be ignored. The writer of Hebrews quotes from this section of Psalm 8 in a context that does ultimately apply to Jesus (Hebrews 2:6-8).

B. A Confident Answer (v. 5)

5You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings

and crowned him with glory and honor.

If David's question in verse 4 was full of humility, then his answer in verse 5 is full of confidence. God created us to be a little lower than angelic beings for a time. Remember that the Bible describes only humans as being created in God's image (Genesis 1:26, 27). Ultimately, we will sit in judgment on angels (1 Corinthians 6:3). In a related idea, Jesus was made "a little (while) low�