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Psalm 1: The Two Paths: Wisdom and Folly

            Psalm 1 introduces the Psalter, the Hebrew book of worship.  It is a wisdom psalm and describes the nature and consequences of two different lifestyles—the choice between wisdom and folly.   Therefore Psalm 1 asks us as we enter into worship what kind of person we are.  There is no more important question that we can ask, and it deserves to be pondered deeply and at length.

            The wise person is described in verses 1-3.  Above all he is “blessed,” a crucial word in the Psalms as shown by the fact that of its 44 Old Testament occurrences 26 are in the Psalms.  It means one who enjoys a positive relationship with the Lord, whose manner of life is approved by God and who thus receives benefits from God.

            Such a person bases his way of life on principles and attitudes that are different from those who do not trust in God.  He “does not live according to the wisdom of the wicked, commit himself to the lifestyle of sinners nor join the company of the scoffers.”  Rather than scoffing or mocking the counsels of wisdom, “he delights in the instruction of the Lord and ponders his instruction day and night.”  (The Hebrew word “torah” is commonly translated as “law,” which can be misleading.  “Torah” is meant to describe God’s instruction or word.)  The wise person takes pleasure in God’s word or instruction and so makes it the constant subject of his thought or meditation. 

            The wise man enjoys a prosperous or successful life.  He is compared to a tree that has been planted by water and so bears fruit and does not wither and die in the dry season.  What we often miss in verse 3 is the element of conscious decision upon the part of the wise.  More literally, we could translate the first phrase of verse three as, “He is like a tree that has been transplanted by canals of water.”  Someone moved the tree from a dry place and replanted it in a place where water had been brought in because someone dug an irrigation ditch.  The wise man, then, is one who in faith has decided to commit himself to the lifestyle that God has revealed.  He does not merely avoid the false wisdom of the wicked but rather takes positive action to daily expose himself to God’s wisdom revealed in his word.

            Verses 4 merely states that the wicked described in verse 1 are not like the wise. Not only do their lifestyle and attitudes contradict the way of wisdom, but neither does their life prosper.  They end up being useless like chaff that the wind drives away.  Their life comes to nothing. 

            Also, in contrast to the wise or righteous, the wicked will not be able to withstand the test of the judgment day (verse 5).  This is because God knows or approves the way of the righteous.  He accompanies them throughout their life and blesses them.  The wicked live without God and so are destroyed by a lifestyle or a way that perishes (verse 6).

            I recommend memorizing Psalm 1.  As you memorize and ponder it day by day, questions will arise in your mind about why the way of the wicked seems to prosper, but for now let the word of God question you.  Which person are you?  The wise or the foolish?

32 thoughts on “Psalm 1: The Two Paths: Wisdom and Folly

  1. Great thoughts, Bill. How easy to slip back into foolish ways of responding to life, and therefore how vital to keep thinking about God’s way of responding. How many times a day are we choosing between God’s way and the foolish ways of our culture? Being intentional has to be so important. Thanks!

  2. Bill,
    One of the ‘smaller’ Psalms, and being the first one surely it maps out the path that the wise should take.
    The wisdom contained in those six small verses is of paramount importance to the believers daily walk.
    I heartily agree with you. We should all memorize Psalm 1! I will start tomorrow!
    God bless you.

  3. Can you explain how you got the idea that he was “transplanted” by streams? When I read it, I understood it as he was naturally planted there by the seeds blowing to that point and then growing there. When you say “transplanted” are you speaking about the person who has to make the decision to plant their roots in the faith?

    1. This is a good question, Sydni. First the expression “streams of water” most likely refers to irrigation or canals not regular rivers or streams. The same expression is used in Proverbs 21:1 in which the king’s heart is a stream of water that the Lord turns as he wills, just like a farmer would set the course of the canal according to his purpose. The word for “streams” is related to the verb “divide,” like Peleg in Genesis 10:25 who was named Peleg because the land was divided in his day. Dividing in Psalm 1 would point to the digging of a canal or irrigation ditch. The verb for planted is used in Ezekiel 17:8, 10, 23, 23 to describe how God transplanted the house of Israel like a vine to bear fruit. What I understand from this is that being like a tree by the water is not something that just happens put takes planning and effort. So in our spiritual life we need to decide (as you say) to plant our spiritual roots close to the water to be nourished. Here, the tree by water stands for the decision to meditate on God’s law day and night.

  4. What struck me while studying this psalm was the stark contrast between the wise and wicked men, particularly how they were compared to nature. The differences in their lives are as pronounced as the difference between a tree with roots by the water and a handful of chaff that is scattered by the wind. Like you said, the wise man made the active choice to be established in his position, never being persuaded by the words of the foolish. The wicked man passively does whatever is easy, going along with the plans of others, which is why his punishment of being driven by the wind is so fitting.

  5. Wouldn’t a person who livea his life morally, but without God to guide it, at least have a life that resemblea a man who follows God?

    1. Good question, Michael. In some ways they would, but being moral is the only point. It is following God. Such a person would not be worshiping God and would most likely think that their moral life is due to their own efforts. Remember, morality and godliness are not two separable categories.

  6. As you said, the word ‘blessed’ is stated and emphasized many times throughout Psalms. However, I’m confused by your definition of blessing. I believe you stated it as, “one who enjoys a positive relationship with the Lord, whose manner of life is approved by God and who thus receives benefits from God.” And although I think that makes sense,I have a question about it. If someone doesn’t receive benefits from God, even though they are living their life the way God would want, are they still blessed? Do those two things go hand in hand?
    I think the thing that stuck out to me the most was the realization that there is no easy way out of a Christian walk. There aren’t any shortcuts to heaven. Only those who persevere and live a wise life will get to heaven. Those who live foolishly and therefore take the easier road will not go to heaven.

    1. Good question, Maddie. We will be dealing with this, but I could mention a couple of principles. First, not all the benefits, maybe not even the most important, are physical. Many have to do with the sheer joy of knowing God. See Psalm 84:10.

  7. Reading this passage and your further explanation of it has caused me to relize how important it is to study God’s word and ultimately live the life of the wise man. The most difficult part of it is the amount of discipline required to study the Word of the Lord daily. I was a little confused about “the wicked will not stand in the judgment” Does it mean withstand? Because to me it sounded like the wicked will not be present in the judment which I know is not true but I wasn’t sure about the use of the wod stand

    1. Thanks, Gabby. I think that the challenge of studying God’s Word would be to start with small portions and only take a few minutes. Too often we decide to study God’s word and try to have a very long time with him and then we stop. Take some small steps first and the Lord will help you to make it a habit.
      Yes, I think “withstand” could be a way of understanding it. The notion is that on the Judgment Day they won’t be able stand. They will fall. It’s not that they won’t be present.

  8. I liked how you focused a lot on the imagery in this Psalm. I especially enjoyed your thoughts on how the tree and water were purposefully placed so that the tree would get the best nourishment possible. I had not thought of it in that way before. But i think that is one reason why God tells us to meat together in fellowship, so we can see His word in new ways and thus gain more from it.

  9. I like that you stress the importance of asking ourselves which of these two people we are. Even so, I think that it is very easy to look at this and say you’re the blessed man because you know you aren’t necessarily a wicked person, but if we look closer, there are a lot of qualifications for being the blessed man. I think that a lot of times we kind of gloss over that and say that, because we’re not wicked, we’re the blessed man. I’m sure that I don’t always reach everyone of those requirements, and I fell like this kind of thinking is an easy error we can make. I’m not saying we’re all wicked; it’s just that there’s more to being the righteous man than we might realize.

    1. Yes, Elisabeth, we can and do so easily deceive ourselves. One useful study that would help us evaluate ourselves better would be to see how the Bible describes a righteous person. The Psalms, indeed the whole Bible, could be a kind of mirror in which we see our soul as we are and as we should be. James 1:22-25 employs this image, although negatively.

  10. An interesting post. I see, as you stated, why this would be such an important launch point into the rest of Psalms. Something that I know I need to do more, and having a prayer partner helps, is pondering and thinking about God’s law and what it really means to me. This class seems to put forward some ways of how exactly to do that.

  11. I thoroughly enjoy the first Psalm,especially the 3rd and 4th verse, because it just touches my heart in a way that has never been done before. I intend to be more righteous and closer to God after finishing this course, also having a better understanding of the Psalms.

    1. Thanks, Joe. I think the image of the tree by the waters is so vivid that it does touch the heart more. I trust the Lord will give you the grace to continue to grow in him.

  12. Ive never thought about how the ” tree ” got near the water. But now that you say it, it makes so much since

  13. I know that often times i err on the side of that wicked. It has been a had process to understand what is wicked and what is wise. Much of the time i forget to rely and trust in God and that is one of my major shortcomings. I took this course so i could develop my relationship with God, and at the moment memorizing and studying Psalm 1 has brought me to a different understanding of the scriptures and there structure. The exegesis that you brought forth of the transplant was a real eye-opener to some of the things God does and did that i take for granted.

  14. In the metaphor of the tree, how are we moved to the stream? Are the benefits obtained by faith alone? And can a person be wise without God?

    1. Well, I think the point about the transplanting of the tree and the digging of the canal is that it takes a decision to expose oneself to the nourishment God provides for us. Of course, none of this could be without faith because we trust that God is the one who can supply our needs and help us to flourish. On wisdom, remember Proverbs 1:7 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and Psalm 14:1; 53:1 “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” This doesn’t mean a person who doesn’t believe in God is stupid. It means that they are choosing a way that opposes God and ends in destruction.

  15. Wow, I had never thought of the tree’s origin before. That was an extremely enlightening thought. Thank you so much for highlighting that part and explaining it better!

  16. I have been reading Psalm 1 regularly this week. It seems to me that the Lord’s message is fairly straight forward, but the thing I have been struggling with is that scripture states that before time began God had predestined who was going to Hell, so I don’t understand how we can determine whether we will be “blessed” or scoffers.

  17. I certainly hope that I take the path of wisdom rather than folly, but it is a daily struggle to take that positive action like the tree transplanted near the water.

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