Psalm 1:3-4

Psalm 1:3-4 (for the first post on this psalm, click here)

 First Impressions

The psalmist makes a transition from focusing on the wicked, the man who is not blessed, to describing the godly, the blessed man.  A very interesting aspect of verse three is the direct comparison made between the godly and the wicked.

The comparison starts with the image of a tree.  “He is like a tree.”  This ties in well with the way Christ uses the same imagery in Matt. 7:15-20: good trees bear good fruits, and bad trees bear bad fruits.  The psalmist has given us a pattern from which to work.

Whereas the ungodly “walk in the counsel of the wicked,” (v.1), the picture of the godly is of a tree, “planted by streams of water.”  The ungodly are constantly moving, forced to move, in fact, because of the terrible counsel of the wicked.  They are driven (as we will see in v.4) from one source of “wisdom” to the next.  The godly, however, take root where there is true nutrition.  They are anchored in the source of God’s Word, where they may be battered from without by the storms of life, but continue to thrive and prosper in faith because their foundation is built on, and rooted in, the Word of God (Eph. 2:20).

In verse one, an increasing level of comfort with a life of sin was described (walk, stand, sit).  The analogy is transplanted (no pun intended) to the life of the godly.  There is an increasing benefit from a life of godliness.  The blessed man is first “planted by streams of water,” then, as should be expected, he “yields his fruit in its season.”  When we receive the nutrition we so desperately need from God’s Word, we should expect that it would have an effect on us that even others can see.

The picture is completed with the phrase, “its leaf does not wither.”  In the case of the ungodly, the picture moves from activity (walks) to one who is sedentary (sits – has become a master/teacher) in sin.  The opposite is true for the godly.  The picture moves up a healthy tree, from its roots by a stream of water, to the fruit it bears because it has sufficient nutrition, now to the top of the tree and its leaves.  Luther here sees the picture of a palm tree, where the leaves exist at the top of the tree, above the fruit.  When a tree receives the nutrition it needs, not even the leaves, which are exposed to harshest attacks the environment has to offer, will wither and die.

In the image of the godly tree, Luther interprets the fruit as the fruit of the Spirit, and he interprets the leaves as the doctrines and teachings that a person believes.  This leads Luther to an interesting and important conclusion.  “And note that he describes the fruit before the leaves. Now it is the nature of the palm that it does not have its fruit between the leaves, as other trees do, but between the branches, with all the foliage on the top, so that one can see that it produces fruit before foliage; for we have said that this illustration was drawn from the palm tree. Yet the Spirit Himself instructs a preacher of the church, so that he should know that the kingdom of God is not in talk but in power (1 Cor. 4:20).”[1]

The psalmist returns his thoughts back to the wicked to complete his pattern.  “The wicked are not so,” as we have seen in verse one, “but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”  The godly are like a tree, planted and rooted deeply by a stream of water, not affected by the environment around it.  The wicked, however, have no root.  They have received no sustenance from the counsel they received from other wicked people.  They have no fruit to show from their lives, and as Isaiah says in Isa. 1:30, their leaves have withered.  They are nothing but chaff, worthless material, that the wind removes from the equation altogether.

Insights from the Septuagint

 3He will be as the tree

            which has been planted by streams of water

   which will produce its fruit in season,

            and its leaf will not fall off.

   In all things he does, he will prosper. 

 4Not so, the ungodly, not so,

            but they are like chaff, which the spreads abroad over the face of the earth.

There are two things from the Septuagint that I’d like to point out today.  First, the verb translated “has been planted” is in the perfect tense.  For those who don’t understand Greek, the perfect tense is away of expressing past action that has lasting results.  The idea here would be that it is God who roots us in our faith, and not a work of our own doing.  The lasting effects of that planting are described in the next couple of phrases.  Fruit is produced in its season and the leaf does not fall off.  With this verb in place, the entirety of our Christian life is based upon and flows from God’s action of justification.

Secondly, and much less significant, exegetically speaking, is that the Septuagint places an extra emphasis on the description of the wicked in verse four.  The double negation[2] is not present in the Hebrew.  The extra emphasis places the differences between the godly and the ungodly in stark contrast.  I like it.

Law & Gospel

I touched on it a little bit in the section on the Septuagint, but it’s good to point out again.  These verses are an excellent reminder that the basis for our Christian face is not in our efforts or our good behavior, but on the action and pardon of God in justification.  If you have faith in Jesus Christ, that he died for your sins and rose again, and believe God’s promise that He forgives your sins on account of this, you have been planted by God next to His streams of divine grace.  This is all we need to sustain our spiritual lives.  Luther said while commenting on these verses, “Is it not wonderful to grow trees in sterile ground, nourished only by flowing waters? And blessed is he who, as the world grows more sterile for him, thirsts all the more for the heavenly streams.”[3]

We must not miss the consequence of life lived in sin apart from faith in God.  The wicked are blown away by the wind.  They lack substance.  They lack nutrition.  They lack life.  We do well to remember the eternal consequences of being chaff that John the Baptist spoke of in Matt. 3:12, “But the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This should speak not only to the unbeliever in search of purpose and meaning in their lives, but also to the believer, to remind us that our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.  We must never let ourselves rest upon our own efforts or wisdom, but we need to seek nourishment constantly from the Word of God and the grace it provides.

We’ll wrap things up next time with verses five and six of Psalm 1.

[1] Martin Luther, vol. 14, Luther’s Works, Vol. 14 : Selected Psalms III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999),Ps 1:3.

[2] Double negation in Greek does not cancel out the first negation like in English, but rather it places emphasis on it.  “I did not not clean my room” in English means I did in fact clean my room.  In Greek, it would mean that I absolutely did not clean my room.

[3] Luther,Psalm 1:3.

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  1. #1 by Ryan on July 19, 2011 - 3:07 pm

    Great and thorough insight. Thanks for this.

  1. Psalm 1:5-6 « ophelimos
  2. Responding to Psalm 1 « ophelimos
  3. The Sweet Embrace – Psalm 2:10-12 « ophelimos

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