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Bible Commentaries

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

Psalms 1


The first psalm has no title prefixed to it, which is the case, also, with many others, Psalms 10:0; Psalms 116:0; Psalms 117:1-2, and others. It is now in vain to attempt to search for the cause of this omission. On the origin and authority of the titles prefixed to the Psalms, see the introduction, Section 4. Some have supposed that the reason why no title was affixed to this psalm was that the general title, “The Psalms of David,” was prefixed to the whole book, and that that was a sufficient indication of the author of this the first in the series. But this is mere conjecture, and this reason would no more make proper the omission of the title to the first psalm than of any other that came under that general title. In some manuscripts (2 codices of Rossi) this psalm is not numbered; in some others (4 codices of Kennicott, and 3 codices of Rossi) it is united with the second psalm, and the two are reckoned as one.

It is, however, manifestly a distinct composition from the second psalm. It has a unity of its own, as the second has also; and there are almost no two psalms in the whole collection which might not be united with as much propriety as these. It is impossible now to ascertain the authorship of the psalm, though the common opinion is probably the correct one, that it was composed by David. But on what occasion it was written it is now equally impossible to discover. There are no historical allusions in it which would enable us to determine the occasion on which it was written, as there is nothing in it which certainly determines its authorship. The terms employed are of the most general character, and the sentiments are applicable to all times and all lands. It has all the marks of being a general introduction to the Book of Psalms, and of having been designed to express in a few sentences the substance of the entire collection, or to state the great principle which would be found to run through the whole of it - that a righteous life will be attended with prosperity and happiness, and that the life of the wicked will be followed by sorrow and ruin. This was the great principle of the Jewish theocracy; and was of sufficient importance to be stated clearly in the commencement of a book that was designed to illustrate so fully the nature and the value of true religion. Compare Deut. 27–28.

The psalm is designed to describe the blessedness or the happiness of the righteous man. This is done “literally and figuratively, positively and negatively, directly and by contrast, with respect both to his character and his condition here and hereafter.” - Prof. Alexander. It is not, however, as Prof. Alexander supposes, a “picture of the truly happy man;” it is a description of the blessedness of the righteous man, in contrast with the condition of the unrighteous. The righteous man is indeed prosperous and happy; and it is one design of the psalm to show this. But it is not the happy man, as such, that is in the eye of the psalmist; it is the righteous man, and the blessedness of being righteous.

The psalm is properly made up of two parts - the blessedness of the righteous man, and the unblessedness, or, the German word, “ungluck” (DeWette), of the wicked or ungodly man.

I. The blessedness of the righteous man, Psalms 1:1-3. This consists also of two minor parts:

(1) His character Psalms 1:1-2, and this is described also in two forms - negatively and positively.

(a) Negatively. He does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of the scornful, Psalms 1:1.

(b) Positively. He delights in the law of the Lord, and he has pleasure in meditating continually on his truth,Psalms 1:2; Psalms 1:2.

(2) his prosperity, as the result of being righteous, Psalms 1:3. His condition is compared with that of a tree planted in a well-watered place, whose leaves are always green, and whose fruit never fails; so whatever he does shall prosper.

II. The condition of the unrighteous, or the strong contrast between the unrighteous and the righteous, Psalms 1:4-6. Their condition and destiny are expressed in three forms:

(1) They are like chaff which the wind drives away, Psalms 1:4.

(2) They shall not be acquitted in the judgment, nor have a place among the righteous, Psalms 1:5.

(3) They shall not be approved by God, but shall perish, Psalms 1:6.

Verse 1

Blessed is the man - That is, his condition is a happy or a desirable one. The word used here, אשׁר 'esher means properly, “happiness” or “blessedness.” It is found, however, only in the plural form and in the construct state, and takes the nature and force of an interjection - “ O the happiness of the man!” or “O happy man!” Deuteronomy 33:29 : “happy art thou, O Israel!” 1 Kings 10:8 : “happy are thy men, happy are these thy servants!” Job 5:17 : “happy is the man whom God correcteth!” Psalms 2:12 : “blessed are all they that put their trust in him!” See also Psalms 32:1-2; Psalms 33:12; Psalms 34:8; Psalms 40:4; Psalms 41:1; Psalms 65:4; Psalms 84:4-5, Psalms 84:12, et al., where it is rendered “blessed.” The word is of the most general character, and, in itself, would embrace all that is supposed to constitute real happiness. The particular kind of blessedness referred to here, as explained in the subsequent part of the psalm, consists in the fact that he avoids the companionship of the wicked; that he has pleasure in the law of the Lord; that he will be prospered in this world; and that he will not perish at lasts. The word “man” here, also, is of the most general character, and is designed to include all people, of all times and of all conditions, who possess the character referred to. The term is applicable to the poor as well as to the rich; to the low as well as to the exalted; to the servant as well as to the master; alike to the aged, the middle-aged, and the young. All who have the character here described come under the general description of the happy man - the man whose condition is a happy and a desirable one.

That walketh not - Whose character is that he does not walk in the manner specified. Prof. Alexander renders this, “Who has not walked.” But it implies more than this; it refers to more than the past. It is the characteristic of the man, always and habitually, that he does not thus walk; it has not only been true in the past, but it is true in the present, and will be true in the future. It is that which distinguishes the man. The word “walk” is often used in the Scriptures to denote a way of life or conduct - since life is represented as a journey, and man as a traveler. Psalms 15:2 : “who walketh uprightly.” Compare 1 Kings 9:4; Deuteronomy 19:9; Deuteronomy 28:9; Psalms 81:12-13; Isaiah 33:15.

In the counsel - After the manner, the principles, the plans of this class of men. He does not take counsel of them as to the way in which he should live, but from the law of the Lord, Psalms 1:2. This would include such things as these: he does not follow the advice of sinners, 2 Samuel 16:20; 1 Kings 1:12; he does not execute the purposes or plans of sinners, Isaiah 19:3; he does not frame his life according to their views and suggestions. In his plans and purposes of life he is independent of them, and looks to some other source for the rules to guide him.

Of the ungodly - The wicked. The word used here is general, and would embrace all kinds and degrees of the unrighteous. It is not so specific, and would, in itself, not indicate as definite, or as aggravated depravity, as the terms which follow. The general sentiment here is, that the man referred to is not the companion of wicked men.

Nor standeth - This indicates more deliberation; a character more fixed and decided.

In the way - The path where they are found, or where they usually go. His standing there would be as if he waited for them, or as if he desired to be associated with them. Instead of passing along in his own regular and proper employment, he stations himself in the path where sinners usually go, and lingers and loiters there. Thus, he indicates a desire to be with them. This is often, in fact, illustrated by men who place themselves, as if they had nothing to do, in the usual situation where the wicked pass along, or where they may be met with at the corners of the streets in a great city.

Of sinners - חטאים chaṭṭâ'iym. This word means literally, those who miss the mark; then, those who err from the path of duty or rectitude. It is often used to denote any kind or degree of sin. It is more specific than the former word rendered “ungodly,” as denoting those who depart from the path of duty; who fail in regard to the great end of life; who violate positive and known obligations.

Nor sitteth - This implies still greater deliberation and determination of character than either of the other words employed. The man referred to here does not casually and accidentally walk along with them, nor put himself in their way by standing where they are ordinarily to be found; but he has become one of them by occupying a seat with them; thus deliberately associating with them. He has an established residence among the wicked; he is permanently one of their number.

In the seat - The seat which the scornful usually occupy; the place where such men converse and sit together - as in a ball-room, or in a “club,” where wicked men hold their meetings, or where infidels and scoffers are accustomed to assemble.

Of the scornful - לצים lētsiym. This word properly means those who mock, deride, scoff; those who treat virtue and religion with contempt and scorn. Proverbs 1:22; Proverbs 3:34; Proverbs 9:7-8; Proverbs 13:1; Proverbs 15:12, et saepe. It denotes a higher and more determined grade of wickedness than either of the other words employed, and refers to the consummation of a depraved character, the last stage of wickedness, when God and sacred things are treated with contempt and derision. There is hope of a man as long as he will treat virtue and religion with some degree of respect; there is little or none when he has reached the point in his own character in which virtue and piety are regarded only as fit subjects for ridicule and scorn. We have here, then, a beautiful double gradation or climax, in the nouns and verbs of this verse, indicating successive stages of character. There is, first, casual walking with the wicked, or accidentally falling into their company; there is then a more deliberate inclination for their society, indicated by a voluntary putting of oneself in places where they usually congregate, and standing to wait for them; and then there is a deliberate and settled purpose of associating with them, or of becoming permanently one of them, by regularly sitting among them.

So also it is in regard to the persons with whom they associate. They are, first, irreligious men in general; then, those who have so far advanced in depravity as to disregard known duty, and to violate known obligations; and then, those who become confirmed in infidelity, and who openly mock at virtue, and scoff at the claims of religion. It is unnecessary to say that, in both these respects, this is an accurate description of what actually occurs in the world. He who casually and accidentally walks with the wicked, listening to their counsel, will soon learn to place himself in their way, and to wait for them, desiring their society, and will ultimately be likely to be feared identified with open scoffers; and he who indulges in one form of depravity, or in the neglect of religion in any way, will, unless restrained and converted, be likely to run through every grade of wickedness, until he becomes a confirmed scoffer at all religion. The sentiment in this verse is, that the man who is truly blessed is a man who does none of these things. His associations and preferences are found elsewhere, as is stated in the next verse.

Verse 2

But his delight - His pleasure; his happiness. Instead of finding his happiness in the society and the occupations of the wicked, he finds it in the truth of God. The law or truth of God is not distasteful to him, but he so delights in it as to desire to become more and more acquainted with it, and to have its truths impressed more and more on his heart.

In the law of the Lord - The law of Yahweh - the small capitals in the translation indicating here as elsewhere that the original word is Yahweh. The word law in the Scriptures is used in a considerable variety of significations. The Hebrew word תורה tôrâh, properly means instruction, precept; and then, an injunction, command, law, in the usual sense of the word. It was applied particularly to the Pentateuch, or law of Moses (compare the notes at Luke 24:44), as containing the first written and recorded laws of God; and then the word came, in a more general sense, to be applied to all the books of the Old Testament, as being an exposition and application of the law. Here the word undoubtedly refers to the written revelation of the will of God as far as it was then made known. On the same principle, however, the declaration here made would apply to any part of a divine revelation; and hence, the sentiment is, that a truly pious man finds his highest delight in the revealed truths of God. This is often referred to as characteristic of true piety. Compare Psalms 19:10; Psalms 119:97, Psalms 119:99.

And in his law - On his law, or his truth. “He doth meditate.” The word used here, הגה hâgâh, means properly to complain, to mutter; then, to speak; then, to utter in a low complaining voice, as is often done by a person in deep meditation; hence, in the usual sense, to meditate on anything; to think of it. So Joshua 1:8 : “Thou shalt meditate therein (the law) day and night.” Psalms 77:12 : “I meditate on all thy work.” Proverbs 15:28 : “the heart of the righteous meditateth what to answer.” The meaning here is, he thinks of it; he endeavors to understand its meaning; he has pleasure in reflecting on it. It is not a subject which he puts away from him, or in respect to which he is indifferent, but he keeps it before his mind, and has satisfaction in doing it.

Day and night - That is, continually - as day and night constitute the whole of time. The meaning is:

(a) he does this habitually, or he intentionally forms the habit of meditating on divine truth, by disciplining his mind in order that he may do it;

(b) he takes time to do it - designedly setting apart suitable portions of each day, that, withdrawn from the cares of life, he may refresh his spirit by contemplating divine truth, or may become better acquainted with God, and with his duty to him, and may bring to bear upon his own soul more directly the truths pertaining to eternal realities;

(c) he does this in the intervals of business, the moments of leisure which he may have during the day - having thus an unfailing subject of reflection to which his mind readily reverts, and in which, amid the cares and toils of life, he finds relaxation and comfort; and

(d) he does it in the wakeful hours of night, when sick and tossed upon his bed, or when, for any other reason, his “eyes are held waking.” Psalms 63:5-6 : “my soul shall be upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night-watches.” Psalms 119:54 : “Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.” Compare Psalms 119:23, Psalms 119:43; Psalms 143:5. It is probable that the psalmist had the injunction in his mind which is contained in Joshua 1:8.

Verse 3

And he shall be like a tree - A description of the happiness or prosperity of the man who thus avoids the way of sinners, and who delights in the law of God, now follows. This is presented in the form of a very beautiful image - a tree planted where its roots would have abundance of water.

Planted by the rivers of water - It is not a tree that springs up spontaneously, but one that is set out in a favorable place, and that is cultivated with care. The word “rivers” does not here quite express the sense of the original. The Hebrew word פלג peleg, from פלג pâlag, to cleave, to split, to divide), properly means divisions; and then, channels, canals, trenches, branching-cuts, brooks. The allusion is to the Oriental method of irrigating their lands by making artificial rivulets to convey the water from a larger stream, or from a lake. In this way, the water was distributed in all directions. The whole land of Egypt was anciently sluiced in this manner, and it was in this way that its extraordinary fertility was secured. An illustration of the passage may be derived from the account by Maundrell of the method of watering the gardens and orchards in the vicinity of Damascus. “The gardens are thick set with fruit trees of all kinds, kept fresh and verdant by the waters of the Barady .... This river, as soon as it issues out of the cleft of the mountain before mentioned, into the plain, is immediately divided into three streams, of which the middlemost and largest runs directly to Damascus, and is distributed to all the cisterns and fountains of the ciy. The other two, which I take to be the work of art, are drawn round, the one to the right, and the other to the left, on the borders of the gardens, into which they are let out, as they pass, by little rivulets, and so dispersed over all the vast wood, insomuch that there is not a garden but has a fine, quick stream running through it.” Trav., p. 122.

A striking allusion to trees cultivated in this manner occurs in Ezekiel 31:3-4 : “Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon, with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of a high stature, and his top was among the thick boughs. The waters made him great, the deep set him up on high, with his rivers running round about his plants, and sent out his little rivers unto all the trees of the field.” So Ecclesiastes 2:4 : “I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees.” No particular kind of tree is referred to in the passage before us, but there are abundant illustrations of the passage in the rows of willow, oranges, etc., that stand on the banks of these artificial streams in the East. The image is that of a tree abundantly watered, and that was flourishing.

That bringeth forth his fruit in his season - Whose fruit does not fall by the lack of nutriment. The idea is that of a tree which, at the proper season of the year, is loaded with fruit. Compare Psalms 92:14. The image is one of great beauty. The fruit is not untimely. It does not ripen and fall too soon, or fall before it is mature; and the crop is abundant.

His leaf also shall not wither - By drought and heat. Compare Job 8:16, note; Job 15:32, note. It is green and flourishing - a striking image of a happy and a prosperous man.

And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper - This is a literal statement of what had just been put in a figurative or poetic form. It contains a general truth, or contains an affirmation as to the natural and proper effect of religion, or of a life of piety, and is similar to that which occurs in 1 Timothy 4:8 : “Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” This idea of the effect of a life of piety is one that is common in the Scriptures, and is sustained by the regular course of events. If a man desires permanent prosperity and happiness, it is to be found only in the ways of virtue and religion. The word “whatsoever” here is to be taken in a general sense, and the proper laws of interpretation do not require that we should explain it as universally true. It is conceivable that a righteous man - a man profoundly and sincerely fearing God - may sometimes form plans that will not be wise; it is conceivable that he may lose his wealth, or that he may be involved in the calamities that come upon a people in times of commercial distress, in seasons of war, of famine, and pestilence; it is conceivable that he may be made to suffer loss by the fraud and dishonesty of other men; but still as a general and as a most important truth, a life of piety will be followed by prosperity, and will constantly impart happiness. It is this great and important truth which it is the main design of the Book of Psalms to illustrate.

Verse 4

The ungodly are not so - literally, “Not thus the wicked.” For the word ungodly, see the notes at Psalms 1:1. The statement that the “wicked are not so,” is a general statement applicable alike to their character and destiny, though the mind of the author of the psalm is fixed immediately and particularly on the difference in their destiny, without specifying anything particularly respecting their character. It is as true, however, that the ungodly do walk in the counsel of the wicked, and stand in the way of sinners, and sit in the seat of the scornful, as it is that the righteous do not; as true that they do not delight in the law of the Lord, as it is that the righteous do; as true that the wicked are not like a tree planted by the channels of water, as it is that the righteous are. This passage, therefore, may be employed to show what is the character of the ungodly, and in so applying it, what was before negative in regard to the righteous, becomes positive in regard to the wicked; what was positive, becomes negative. Thus it is true:

(a) that the wicked do walk in the counsel of the ungodly; do stand in the way of sinners; do sit in the seat of the scornful;

(b) that they do not delight in the law of the Lord, or meditate on his word; and

(c) that they are not like a tree planted by the waters, that is green and beautiful and fruitful.

Both in character and in destiny the ungodly differ from the righteous. The subsequent part of the verse shows that, while the general truth was in the mind of the writer, the particular thing on which his attention was fixed was, his condition in life - his destiny - as that which could not be compared with a green and fruitful tree, but which suggested quite another image.

But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away - When the wheat was winnowed. This, in Oriental countries, was commonly performed in the open field, and usually on an eminence, and where there was a strong wind. The operation was performed, as it is now in our country, when a fan or fanning-mill cannot he procured, by throwing up the grain as it is threshed with a shovel, and the wind scatters the chaff, while the grain falls to the ground. See the notes at Matthew 3:12.

This very naturally and appropriately furnished an illustration of the destiny of the wicked. Compared with the righteous, they were like the worthless chaff driven away by the wind. The image is often found in the Scriptures. See Job 21:18, note; Isaiah 17:13, note. Compare also Psalms 35:5; Isaiah 29:5; Isaiah 41:15; Daniel 2:35; Hosea 13:3. The idea here is, that the wicked are in no respect like the green and fruitful tree referred to in Psalms 1:3. They are not like a tree in any respect. They are not even like a decaying tree, a barren tree, a dead tree, for either of these would suggest some idea of stability or permanency. They are like dry and worthless chaff driven off by the wind, as of no value to the farmer - a substance which he is anxious only to separate wholly from his grain, and to get out of his way. The idea thus suggested, therefore, is that of intrinsic worthlessness. It will be among other things, on this account that the wicked will be driven away - that they are worthless in the universe of God - worthless to all the purposes for which man was made. At the same time, however, there may be an implied contrast between that chaff and the useful grain which it is the object of the farmer to secure.

Verse 5

Therefore - Because they are thus worthless.

The ungodly - See the notes at Psalms 1:1. The wicked in general; the wicked of any kind or degree.

Shall not stand - Compare the notes at Psalms 1:1. The idea is, that they will not be found among those who are acquitted by the Judge, and approved by him. The idea seems to be derived from the act of standing up to be tried, or to receive a sentence.

In the judgment - The Aramaic Paraphrase renders this, “in the great day” - understanding it of the day of judgment. The Septuagint and Vulgate render it, “the wicked shall not rise - ἀναστήσονται anastēsontai - resurgent - in judgment.” Most of the Jewish interpreters, following the Aramaic Paraphrase, understand this as referring to the last judgment. Rosenmuller, in loc. The truth stated, however, seems to be more general than that, though that is probably included. The meaning is, that they would not share the lot of the righteous: in all places, and at all times, where character is determined, and where the divine estimate of human character is manifested, it would be found that they could not stand the trial, or abide the result, so as to have a place with the righteous. Their true character would in all such cases be shown, and they would be treated like the chaff that is driven away. This would be true alike in those situations of trial in the present life when character is determined, and at the last judgment, when the sentence will be pronounced which will determine the final doom of mankind.

Nor sinners - See the notes at Psalms 1:1.

In the congregation of the righteous - Be reckoned or regarded as belonging to the righteous. That is, in all the places where the righteous, as such, are assembled, they will have no place: where they assemble to worship God; where they meet as his friends; where they unitedly participate in his favor; when, in the last day, they shall be gathered together to receive their reward, and when they shall be assembled together in heaven. The sinner has no place in the congregations of the people of God.

Verse 6

For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous - This is given as a reason why the wicked would not stand in the judgment with the righteous. The reason is, that the Lord, the great Judge, fully understands the character of those who are his friends, and can discriminate between them and all others, whatever pretences others may make to that character. Only those whom God approves, and loves, as his friends, will be able to stand in the day when the great decision shall be made. No one can impose on him by any mere pretensions to piety; no one can force his way to his favor, or to the rewards of the just, by power; no one can claim this in virtue of rank and station. No one can be admitted to the favor of God, and to the rewards of heaven, whose character is not such that it will bear the scrutiny of the Omniscient eve. Compare the notes at 2 Timothy 2:19. Man may be deceived in judging character, but God is not. When it is said that “the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous,” the word “way” seems to be used to denote the whole of life - the manner of living (Notes, Psalms 1:1), and hence, the whole character. Perhaps there is included also the idea that the Lord knows the result of their manner of life - the issue to which it leads - and that, therefore, he can properly judge the righteous and assign them to that place in the future world, to wit, heaven, to which their actions tend.

But the way of the ungodly shall perish - The way or manner in which the ungodly live shall tend to ruin; their plans, and purposes, and hopes, shall come to nought. Their course, in fact, tends to destruction. None of their plans shall prosper in regard to religion: none of their hopes shall be fulfilled. In this, as in all other respects, they stand in strong contrast with the righteous, alike in this world and the world to come.

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Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 1". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". 1870.