This is a teaching psalm, exploring what it means to belong willingly to God, and how we may find safety in that relationship. This isn’t the first psalm by accident - some scholars think that this isn’t a psalm at all, and that it was a kind of preamble, like an author’s prologue or foreword, introducing one of the themes of the whole collection of psalms.
This is a teaching psalm, exploring what it means to belong willingly to God, and how we may find safety in that relationship. This isn’t the first psalm by accident - some scholars think that this isn’t a psalm at all, and that it was a kind of preamble, like an author’s prologue or foreword, introducing one of the themes of the whole collection of psalms. That theme is the practice of a disciplined life which reflects on and happily embraces God’s intentions for us by showing obedience to God’s will as it is known in the Torah, the first part of the Old Testament as we have it in the Bible today.
Verses 1-3 are a positive affirmation, and we can see this right from the first word: “Happy”. The psalmist is implicitly asking, “What will make you happy in life? What will give you peace and contentment and satisfaction? What will make a holistic, safe, comfortable, worry-free existence possible?” The answer is Torah - God’s law. But before we get that answer, in verse 1 we get a warning. Happiness will not come from those who ignore God’s law, who imagine that they are self-sufficient and who live as though they have complete autonomy in the world. The psalmist tells us that a life lived in indifference to God’s intention for the world cannot end in well-being. A life lived as though you are the centre of the universe and have complete control will likely end in isolation, cynicism and destructiveness.
But verse 2 gives us an alternative to such a negative outcome. The alternative to a self-focused life
is to learn to enjoy studying and reflecting on God’s law, and to think constantly about what God is
doing in the world and what God intends for the world. You don’t have to go very far to find a longestablished Christian stereotype of “Jewish legalism” that imagines Jewish religious experience as a
practice of robotic rule-keeping. That kind of stereotype might be reinforced by a flat and unimaginative reading of this psalm. But that kind of reading distorts both this text and the experience of practicing Jews, and can lead us into a kind of unhelpful Christian moralism. Studying the law is not just about obeying rules. Walter Brueggemann wrote, “It is a playful, courageous interpretative act, whereby the community must decide about dimensions of God’s commands in new circumstances that are not explicitly on the horizon of the old commands (see Matthew 5:21-28). Thus Jews who study Torah, as old rabbinic practice indicates, engage in a playful activity, for the commands are not taken flatly and obviously, but always there are many interpretative options and choices. That is why ‘meditating’ is in order.” We would do well to remember this when it comes to interpreting any part of the Bible today: “for the commands are not taken flatly and obviously, but there are many interpretive options and choices. That is why ‘meditating’ is in order.”
The outcome of a life of reflection on and obedience to God’s commands is seen in verse 3. It’s about solidarity with others in being rooted in God, and it’s about fruitfulness. You can see that the psalm doesn’t promise outright health, wealth and happiness. The psalmist uses the metaphor of trees to demonstrate what happens when people choose to follow God’s law and intentions. This obedience will produce people who are like trees in an oasis. To get the full benefit of the metaphor you need to note its context. In an arid climate most vegetation is weak and vulnerable and grows low to the ground. Only at watering holes are larger, fruit-bearing trees available. So the Torah, God’s law, is like an oasis which provides sustenance and deep, long-lasting resources.
The alternative to a life oriented in God is portrayed as the life of the wicked (scoffers and sinners) who make light of God’s commands, who seek their own security, and who invariably end up in difficulty (see verse 4). The psalmist believes that autonomy is sure to end in disaster. He’s not making a threat, but probably an observation. This is how it is for those who want to run their own lives. The psalmist uses another metaphor here in verse 4 in order to sink into our subconscious. It’s not particularly a counterpart to the positive image of verse 3, but the psalmist uses the image of the threshing floor. In ancient times, grain was processed by throwing the loosened sheaves into the air. The heavier grain fell to the floor while the lighter chaff simply blew away, unnoticed, unvalued and soon forgotten. So the psalmist says, “This is what happens to those who do not choose to follow God’s law.” They’re not bad people. They are just not under the discipline of the Torah , and they have no loyalty beyond themselves, no concept of a higher power. These people whose only reference point is themselves will be “blown away” and soon forgotten.
Verses 5 and 6 sound a bit as though the teacher doesn’t quite trust his 2 metaphors (the trees planted by streams of water and the chaff that the wind drives away) to do the trick, so he adds a flatter, less playful conclusion. There will be a time of accountability - a final and concrete time of judgement - and a distinction will be drawn between those keep the Torah and those who mock it. Those who mock it, who choose to live apart from it, will be banned from the congregation and excluded from the life of the community. This conclusion is the consequence of their own choice to remain apart from God’s purposes and commands.
This psalm is not about heavy-handed moralism or legalism. It affirms that there is a moral shape to life in the world that cannot be disregarded. Those who resist and reject that moral shape, which we see as given by God, will not hurt or diminish God or God’s ways, but rather they will hurt and diminish themselves. Fulness of life is only possible when we choose to live in relationship with and obedience to God.
For further reflection…