The Two Ways (Psalm 1:1-2)

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the torah of Yahweh, and on his torah he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).

Psalm 1 introduces a major theme of the Psalms as a whole, and indeed of the Bible. The theme is the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. This contrast was well known in ancient Judaism and often referred to as “the two ways.” Let’s examine this verse more closely to consider what the psalmist is saying.

“Blessed is the man.” Translations have either “Blessed” or “Happy.” In our culture, though, “happy” is simply an emotion of euphoria or well-being. Here in Psalm 1 the Hebrew term ʾašrê implies a state of deep contentment in the midst of any circumstance. So “blessed” would be the better choice.

“The man (hāʾiš)” as I suggested in the last post is not intended as any person, but an ideal one, even a specific one, Jesus Christ. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve prior to their sin were blessed, but when they gave in to the counsel of the wicked (the serpent), that blessedness ended. The psalmist envisions “the man” as the ideal of perfect love and obedience in contrast to everyone else. The only one in history to ever fit this description was Jesus who arrived many hundreds of years later. “The man” prior to Jesus was the ideal model for all who desired God and ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. Anyone may be “blessed” in the pursuit of the ideal, but Jesus Christ is the model to be emulated in that pursuit.

“Who does not walk…” “Walk” “stand” and “sit” are three states ranging from active to passive that describes us virtually every waking minute apart from active exercises. The psalmist joins these states with three actions distinct from the way of Yahweh and those who would follow Him: “walk in the counsel of the wicked,” “stand in the way of sinners,” and “sit in the seat of scoffers.” Rebellion against God can be active or passive. But what does the psalmist picture with these phrases? These descriptors may seem self-evident, but on closer consideration are more complex than meets the eye.

First, “the wicked (ršāim),” “sinners (ḥaṭṭāʾı̂m),” and “scoffers (lēṣim),” are all plural, in contrast with “the man.” Though not always the case, enemies of the psalmist and Yahweh are almost always plural throughout the Psalms. Rebellion is not an individual, but a collective act, usually at the expense of another, who gets blamed for everything. I will spend a great deal of time in the next months unpacking this statement as other psalms show this phenomenon more specifically. (For those who know the writings of René Girard on imitation and violence, what I say is quite clear, but I will take pains to explain to all about mobs and scapegoats down the way).

Second, the psalmist joins these groups of people with “counsel,” “way,” and “seat.” Once again these words shift from active to relatively passive. “Counsel” is the active plan the wicked conjure together for their advantage and injury to others (see Ps 2:2). “The way” seems so general, but is a term that sums up a complex of almost reflexive actions that a group takes to prevent the self-destruction of the group through conflict. “The way of sinners” always results in some sort of violation of another to maintain an advantage, whether bodily, emotionally, reputationally, politically or otherwise. The person or persons violated do not deserve the violence, yet get blamed to maintain the power structures of the status quo. Expulsion is often the result. This “way” is illustrated again and again throughout the Psalms in many various formulations. The prophets not only describe this way but were victims of it (as was Jesus). A “scoffer” is a person who heaps criticism upon another person, and scoffers together form a critical mob, sitting in judgment of others. The entire combination of “counsel of the wicked,” “the way of sinners,” and the “seat of scoffers,” describes the world of humanity apart from God. The entirety of human relations is a vortex that sucks people into these actions. What is more, we do not even know it is happening apart from the instruction of the Scriptures—the Torah—that reveals these human realities for what they are.

The state of “Blessed” is to not be caught in this vortex, but to be simply and fully delighted in Yahweh via the Torah and to meditate/consider/mull over/think about (Hebrew yehgê) the Torah day and night. The one who perfectly did this was Jesus (see Matthew 5:17-20); we are called to imitate him. 

Yet Jesus did more than actively delighting in Yahweh; he exposed the wicked, the sinners, and the scoffers for who they were. That is the concern of the next post in this series.

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