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Psalm 1

When I preach the Psalms, I almost always refer, explicitly or implicitly, to the 3 categories that Walter Brueggeman uses in his little book “The Spirituality of the Psalms” (and elsewhere), namely: orientation, disorientation and re-orientation. These categories are not hard and fast, but can be quite fluid, and more than one theme can be present in a psalm. But in general, psalms of orientation present the way that the world and life ought to be; the way the created cosmos is reliable, and equitable, and abundant and predictable. Seasons come and seasons go; things make sense. God’s in his heaven and all is right with the world. That’s orientation. And Psalm 1 is a perfect example of such a psalm.

In those psalms inspired by the Hebrew Wisdom tradition (like psalm 1), there’s a heavy dose of “orientation,” because the Wisdom tradition sees life and the whole universe as ordered and predictable and just. Things make sense, and there is a clear delineation between good and evil. The good and the righteous are associated with happiness and blessing and prosperity, and evil and the ungodly are associated with suffering and lack and misfortune. But just as there’s more to life than just the good times, there’s more to the Psalms than just the Psalms of Wisdom, and the way that the Wisdom tradition sees the world doesn’t always line up with the way we may be experiencing it. But the way the Wisdom tradition sees the world can be a good reminder that its point of view is the truth about life, the universe and everything in general, when you consider life as a whole, even though in specific terms, things may not seem to be going well. Things may not make sense. But as the modern psalmists Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs have reminded us in song, we can “know that the good times outweigh the bad.”

The sense of wholeness and unity that Psalm 1 provides is emphasized by its composition with a poetic structure often found in Wisdom literature. In the Hebrew, the first word of the psalm begins with the first letter of the alphabet and the last word of the psalm begins with the last letter of the alphabet, giving the psalm a sense of totality. And the overarching, totalizing message that Psalm 1 presents us with is this: there are two ways to live and they are in stark contrast to each other.

The psalmist begins by saying “happy are those who. . . .” The Hebrew is “esher,”and it not only means “happy,” but the word that it is derived from means “to go straight on, to advance, to move forward.” This sense of the godly as the ones who move forward with purpose, whose path is straight, continues through the Psalm; even in English we might talk about a person who is straight as opposed to crooked, and to “tell it to me straight” is to be honest, to get to the point.

The psalmist tells us about the godly who are happy, who advance, whose way is straight, but does so by contrasting the godly with those who are not: the wicked, and sinners, and scoffers. The psalmist tells us: “happy are those who do not do three things:” 1) follow the advice of the wicked—the word there is rasha, and this statement is about instruction; 2) happy are those who do not take the path that sinners tread, and the word for sinners is not rasha, but it refers to criminals, to those who are guilty. Happy are those who don’t move down the path that they have taken. So this is about behaviour. And 3) happy are those who do not sit in the seat of scoffers, those who mock and ridicule wisdom. Happy are those who do not plant themselves in one spot and critique an