The Psalter has been a source of devotion and meditation for Christian believers throughout the centuries. Its importance to Christianity can hardly be understated. Some report that this poetic book has garnered more attention from Christians, including New Testament writers, who frequently quoted it or made allusions to it, than any other Old Testament book. The Psalter contains prayers, praises, and much more as we shall see.
Through the use of a poetic styling, the Psalter provides us with “a cross section of God’s revelation to Israel and of Israel’s response in faith to the Lord.” The 150 psalms are divided into five “books” of unequaled length reflecting an external structure, in theory paralleling the five books of Moses. The theory has long been assumed that an editor marked the internal divisions within the Psalter by the presence of doxologies found at the end of certain “seam” psalms (41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48), however there is a sense of extreme pessimism toward this view by some. In defense of this view Wilson stresses, “a careful study of the use of psalm-headings to group the psalms of the Psalter indicates that the doxologies mark real, intentional divisions rather than accidental ones.” McCann Jr. states, “it is a nearly unanimous consensus that Ps.1 was either written or very intentionally chosen to be the introduction to the Psalter, and many interpreters also conclude that Pss. 1-2 constitute a paired introduction.” Wilson believes these intentional divisions, indicated by what he terms “seam” psalms, help to reveal the editorial structure and to signify the editorial agenda. If the “book” divisions and the introduction of Pss. 1-2 are indeed intentional, then we must assume that the editors placed Pss. 1-2 to introduce an interpretative program for the entire book. Robert Cole agrees,
Understanding the meaning of the first two psalms of the Psalter is essential in any attempt to describe the message of the book as a whole. In their role as introduction to the Psalter, one’s reading of them should be determinative for the interpretation of subsequent psalms.
This view follows in the path of the Jewish rabbinical tradition of the Talmud (Berakhot 9b) which describes Pss. 1-2 as one unit based on Berakhot 10a, “David began and ended every passage of which he was particularly fond with the word ashrei – ‘happy. He began with ashrei, as it is said (Ps. 1:1) ‘Happy is the man,’ and he ended with ashrei, as it is said (Ps. 2:12) ‘Happy are all who put their trust in Him.’”
If that is true, then we must mine the meaning of Pss. 1-2 as if it were a very precious diamond in order to arrive at a correct holistic understanding of the Psalter. Jesus claimed that things in the Psalter were written about Him in order to be fulfilled (Lk. 24:44), therefore the Christian must approach this book, belonging to the third division of the Old Testament, the Writings, with great reverence and interpretive care.
Psalm 1 Exegesis
As noted, Psalm 1 is important to the entire outworking of the Psalter. According to Wilson, there is undisputed manuscript evidence to support Psalm 1 being placed as a preface to the Psalter, indicating “the use of a thematic or programmatic composition to provide an interpretative introduction.”
There are a wide variety of views as to what the editorial “thematic or programmatic composition” is designed to achieve. J.C. McCann sees Psalm 1 as inviting the reader to view all that follows it as encouraging the reading of the Psalter as a source of God’s instruction, torah, for righteous living. Brueggemann recommends that “it announces that the primary agenda for Israel’s worship life is obedience, to order and conduct all of life in accordance with God’s purpose and ordering of the creation. VanGemeren suggests an alternative reading,
The placement of Psalm 1 is significant in that it sets forth God’s “ideal” person…The Psalter is not predicting Jesus as the Messiah, but it is instructing the godly to look for the kind of messiah with whom the Lord is pleased (40:8) and who does not sin against the Lord (40:12)…Both Israel and the Davidides failed to live up to this ideal. The best of the godly Israelites and of the Davidides were unable to bring in the state of happiness and peace to which Psalms 1 and 2 (cf. Ps.72) witness. The apostolic reading of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in the light of the Psalter helps the modern reader see how the Psalter witnesses to Jesus as “the human” who alone has pleased God and by whom alone redemption, happiness, and peace are secure.
It appears that all three readings have merit. The strength of Psalm 1 may lay in the fact that it accomplishes all three; however, it appears more likely that VanGemeren is on the more solid interpretive path. With this in mind, Psalm 1 must be interpreted at two separate levels: first as an individual psalm and then in its relation to the entirety of the Psalter.
Psalm 1, as a didactic poem, by virtue of its language and content, must be classified as a wisdom psalm. As Miller notes, “the poetry of Psalm 1 is reflected not only in the rich parallelism but also in the structure and movement of the psalm as a whole and the two similes of the tree and chaff that stand at the center of the psalm.” VanGemeren suggests, “the structural divisions bring out the discriminating way of the godly, who live on earth with a constant consideration of the future when the Lord shall judge the wicked and reward the godly.” He suggests the following chiastic structure:
A The Discriminating Way of the Godly (vv.1-2)
B The Future of the Godly (v.3)
B’ The Future of the Wicked (vv.4-5)
A’ The Discriminating Way of God (v.6)
He also proposes the structural chiasm (ABB’A’) is found at the beginning and end as an inclusio as follows:
A Dissociation from the Wicked (v.1)
B Association with God (v.2)
B’ God’s Association with the Godly (v.6a)
A’ God’s Removal of the Wicked (v.6b)
Miller highlights a progression of movement from an individual to more of a community aspect as we move through Psalm 1.
The Way of the Godly (1:1-2):
The godly are introduced as the “blessed” or “happy.”The phrase “Blessed is the man” is composed in the formula of a beatitude, as is noted by the use of the term ashre implying that it is pointing to and commending the conduct and character of a person, rather than baruk, which is customarily found in passages where the blessing is invoking the support of God. Being undeserved, this blessedness is a gift from God that is promoted by two forms of conduct: dissociation from the wicked and association with God. The first form of conduct represents the righteous negatively, by what they do not do.  The three lines of v.1 form a synonymous parallelism relating differing ways (not walking, not standing, and not sitting) that the godly are to avoid the conduct of evil company (the counsel of the wicked, path of sinners, and seat of scoffers.) The second form of conduct is recommended to be a constant meditation on torah, meaning instruction, which grows out of a joy in it and reverence for it. Torah defined more specifically is the instruction given to humanity through the revelation of God for the purpose to serve as a source of delight.  The term translated delight, hepso, indicates all that makes the godly happy is similar in thought to the delight of the godly in doing God’s will on earth as a result of a special relationship with the Lord (Mt. 6:10). Miller presents a nice summary of this special fear of the Lord as he notes,
…that under discussion here are not just two ways of conduct but a celebration of a life that takes real pleasure in living according to God’s will, that finds itself thus under the care and guidance of God and so is the object of true envy on the part of all who look upon it.
The Future of the Godly (1:3) In Contrast to the Future of the Wicked (1:4-5):
The contrast of the two futures is painted in two images of the tree and the chaff. The happy estate of the godly is presented in the simile of the transplantation of the tree from an area of dryness to an area where water never ceases to flow, therefore allowing it to grow healthy and bear good fruit. Craigie suggest that this simile also makes a theological point in that “the state of blessedness is not a reward, rather it is the result of living a righteous life reflecting the wisdom of the life lived according to the Torah. This blessedness should not be confused with success. As VanGemeren reminds, “success is not an unmistakable token of God’s presence, for the wicked may also prosper (Ps. 37:7); rather the righteous live with the hope of God’s blessing.”
The contrast appears in the fact that the wicked have no hope of God’s blessing as is revealed in the phrase “The wicked are not so.” The psalmist uses the imagery of chaff to convey the idea that the wicked are like the worthless debris left over from the procedure of winnowing to get the worthwhile grain; they are temporary or transient and then blown away by the wind during winnowing process. Craigie adds, “the wicked are thus depicted in the simile as lightweights, persons without real substance or worth.” The conciseness in the portrayal of the wicked in v.4 is in direct contrast to the fuller portrayal of the godly in v.3.
The word “therefore” at the beginning of v.5 clearly indicates that a conclusion has been made, namely, the wicked will not stand up under the judgment of God nor will they be allowed into the assembly of the righteous.
The Discriminating Way of God (1:6):
Psalm 1 teaches without question that the two ways of conduct presented have very different future outcomes. There is certainty in the judgment to come because God knows the affairs of his people. The difference lies in the fact that God allows his people to decide how they are going to follow him. The “way of the righteous” is marked by a love for God, a delight in his Torah, and a readiness to live a godly life. The “way of the wicked” however, reveals that they are grounded and guided from within themselves as they spurn the truth of God, and therefore they have no connection with the source of life and will therefore perish.
Psalm 2 Exegesis
Psalm 2 is classified as a royal psalm, or more specifically a coronation psalm, consisting in a structure of four sections including: (A) Rebellion of nations and rulers against God and His king (2:1-3), (B) God scoffs at the rebellious rulers as He installs His king (2:4-6), (B’) The Davidic king declares the words of God (2:7-9), and (A’) God warns the nations and rulers of His wrath and of the consequences of his anger and pleasure (2:10-12). It is primarily concerned with the relation of authority between the kingdom of the LORD and the kingdoms of the earth and their rulers. VanGemeren argues that “the position of Ps.2 after Ps.1 and before Ps.3 suggests that the inspired editor place the idealized image of God’s care for the godly person (see Ps.1) as a model for the Davidic dynasty.”The theological significance of the Psalm is found in the hope that it entails for Israel. Miller proposes,
The fundamental and deepest question addressed by the psalm is whether the disorders of history are an indication that the forces of chaos still control, and whirl is king, or whether there is a power ruling in the cosmos that can bring order out of disorder and overcome the inevitably self-seeking and ultimately tyrannous character of all human powers.
Rebellion of nations and rulers against God and His king (2:1-3):
The psalmist begins by asking ‘why,’ as in ‘why do they bother,’ do they try and unite together in rebellion against God and his anointed, though he already knows their attempts are in vain. The psalmist does not appear to be referencing any particular event in history; rather he seems to be reflecting upon the reality of an opposite perspective to the theological ideal of God’s kingship and his appointed sovereign. It is clearly seen in v.3, as the rulers desire to insolently break away from the “cords and fetters” or the yoke of God’s kingship, that the ruler’s goal in rebellion is lordship over themselves.
God scoffs at the rebellious rulers as He installs His king (2:4-6):
God is obviously not too worried about this feeble rebellion as He is portrayed as sitting on His throne in heaven laughing at the rulers of the earth. The psalmist is comforting Israel, by reminding them of the one who is still sovereign, the one in whom their confidence should rest. The psalmist uses dramatic imagery to warn the nations and rulers to be terrified of God, not by any direct threat, but simply with the announcement that he has established his king, the anointed one, in Zion, upon His holy mountain. The assertion here is that the entire process of the king’s designation and coronation was a sacred enactment of the choice of the LORD who installed him.
The Davidic king declares the words of God (2:7-9):
The king heralding “the decree of the LORD” is assumed to be referring back to Nathan’s oracle in 2 Samuel 7:14. The essence of this decree is the covenant concept of sonship.  Craigie argues, “the king’s sonship carried privileges, but the privileges were to be asked of God (v.8a), who would then willingly grant them. These three verses remember and understand God’s covenant with David and rightly broaden the ideal Davidic rule to the ends of the earth. The rule of this king will bring stability, even if he must shatter his vassals if they rebel, even though he will hope that he will not have to resort to such action.
God warns the nations and rulers of His wrath and of the consequences of his anger and pleasure (2:10-12):
The sovereignty of God’s rule is illustrated by his patience toward the nations and their rulers who are allowed the opportunity to respond favorably to the authority given to the new king. The only appropriate response to the king would be complete submission and servitude to him, shown by the act of doing homage to or kissing the son. The wise thing for them to do if they want to avoid destruction is to worship and serve the LORD with fear. Everything becomes clear at the end, as the Lord, through the anointed one, reigns supreme over all. Mays concludes,
The final line of Psalm 2 instructs the readers who have to live with the tension of the “not yet” in the midst of the perils and threats of the powers at work in the world. They are tempted to be afraid and discouraged, tempted to believe that the powers are the only reality, even in danger of submitting and trusting life to the purposes of the powers. The word to them is, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
The title of the Psalter, tehillim, in the Hebrew Bible, meaning songs of praise, is not a literary classification, but it does correctly reflect the purpose of the praise of God in the theology of Israel as it testifies to a new theocentric understanding of the continuing life of the people of God found in the Psalter. Psalm 1 is designed in such a way that it promotes a mind-set of continuous delight in, and meditation on, the Torah as the guide to life rather than to death for the ancient Israelite. Psalm 1 presents a concern for the vindication of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. Psalm 2 addresses the idea that God has chosen His king, and will give him the nations for his inheritance.
In light of these two psalms is the new theocentric understanding of the Psalter. God has revealed Himself and His plans to His human creatures. In that revelation we have the path to righteousness and life. God gave the revelation freely; therefore it is a free gift and not a reward. He did not have to do this. Those who would delight in God and his revelation would be preserved. Proverbs 2:6a, 8b, state “For the Lord gives wisdom…preserving the way of his faithful ones.
God has clearly laid out a plan for the installation of a Davidic king who would one day rule everything. Cole asserts,
It becomes increasingly clear that Psalms 1 and 2 at the head of the Psalter do not present two differing themes of wisdom and/or Torah and kingship respectively, but rather both depict the ideal kingly warrior who enjoys complete domination of his enemies…In conclusion, the Psalter’s introduction has as its principal subject matter a righteous and royal figure who is granted complete military dominance over wicked rulers from his heavenly throne.
Therefore, the Psalter is a book of remembrance that also looks forward. It is a book of lament, prayer, praise, and ultimately hope for a people living in a fallen reality. Wilson reminds us, “Like Israel, the reader of the Psalter is called to encounter God as the eternal king enthroned on the praises of his people. To experience God in his majestic kingship.”
 Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction To The Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 237.
 VanGemeren, Willem A, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 23.
 Ibid., 47.
 Gerald H. Wilson, “The Shape of the Book of Psalms,” Journal of Interpretation 46, no. 2 (April 1992): 130-131.
 Ibid., 131
 J. Clinton McCann Jr, Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 2008), 159.
 Wilson, 133
 Robert Cole, “An Integrated Reading of Psalms 1 and 2,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 98 (2002): 75.
 Amos Hakham, The Koschitzky Edition, The Bible: Psalms 1-57 with the Jerusalem Commentary (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 2003), 2.
 Wilson, 132.
 Ernest C. Lucas, A Guide to the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, Exploring the Old Testament, vol. 3 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 31.
 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 38-39.
 VanGemeren, 77.
 Peter C. Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, Psalms 1-50 (Waco: Word Book Publishers, 1983), 58-59.
 Patrick D. Miller, Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 81.
 VanGemeren, 77.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 77.
 Miller, 84.
 James L. Mays, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 40.
 VanGemeren, 78-79.
 Lucas, 34.
 Craigie, 60.
 Mays, 41.
 Craigie, 60.
 VanGemeren, 80.
 Miller, 82.
 Ibid., 83.
 Craigie, 60.
 Ibid., 61.
 VanGemeren, 82.
 Lucas, 35.
 Craigie, 61.
 VanGemeren, 82.
 Ibid., 82-83.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., 84.
 Mays, 44.
 Craigie, 64-65.
 Mays, 45.
 VanGemeren, 90.
 Ibid., 91.
 Miller, 88.
 VanGemeren, 91.
 Craigie, 66.
 VanGemeren, 92.
 Ibid., 93-94.
 Craigie, 66.
 Mays, 47.
 Lucas, 36.
 Craigie, 67.
 Ibid., 67.
 VanGemeren, 95.
 Ibid., 96.
 Ibid., 97.
 Craigie, 68.
 Lucas, 36-37.
 Miller, 91.
 Mays, 48.
 Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 514.
 Wilson, 137.
 Hill, 347.
 Cole, 80, 88.
 Wilson, 142.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.
Cole, Robert. “An Integrated Reading of Psalms 1 and 2.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 98 (2002): 75-88.
Craigie, Peter C. Word Biblical Commentary. Edited by David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Psalms 1-50. Waco: Word Book Publishers, 1983.
Dempster, Stephen G. Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible. New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson, no. 15. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Hakham, Amos. The Koschitzky Edition. The Bible: Psalms 1-57 with the Jerusalem Commentary. Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 2003.
Hill, Andrew E. and John H. Walton. A Survey of the Old Testament: Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Longman III, Tremper, and Raymond B. Dillard. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2006.
Lucas, Ernest C. A Guide to the Psalms and Wisdom Literature. Exploring the Old Testament, vol. 3. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Mays, James L. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Psalms. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994.
McCann Jr., J. Clinton. Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament. Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 2008.
Miller, Patrick D. Interpreting the Psalms. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
VanGemeren, Willem A. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition. Edited by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Psalms. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
Wilson, Gerald H. “The Shape of the Book of Psalms.” Journal of Interpretation 46, no. 2 (April 1992): 129-142.
Written By: Rev. M. Wayne Sullivan