While wisdom in the Hebrew Bible may refer to one who is a skilled craftsman or artisan (cf. 1 Kgs 7:14), what we mean by Hebrew wisdom is found in the section of the Bible known as the “Wisdom Literature.” So how we define biblical wisdom will focus on what these particular writings have to say.
The following is a helpful definition for biblical wisdom: “skill in the art of godly living, or more fully, that orientation which allows one to live in harmonious accord with God’s ordering of the world. And ‘Wisdom Literature’ consists of those writings that reflect on or inform that orientation.”[i]
The passage we will focus our attention on in this chapter actually comes from the book of Psalms, not one of the wisdom books. Most of us think of a psalm as a poem. And this is true. But psalms may also be categorized according to their type or theme. Psalm 1 is generally regarded as a wisdom psalm. And so while it isn’t part of Wisdom Literature per se, its emphasis on what a wise person looks like makes this a natural selection for this essay’s theme, “The God Who Is Wise.”
Let me say a quick word about how to read the Psalms and all Old Testament poetry. Hebrew poetry is not like English poetry, in that the driving force behind it is not rhyme or meter. Rather, the dominant structure of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Parallelism is the grouping of two (sometimes three or four) lines of text to express one thought. There are different types of parallelism in the Psalms. For instance, synonymous parallelism means the second line echoes or mirrors the first line of text. One example is Psalm 19:1:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
The synonyms are: (1) “heavens” and “skies”; (2) “declare” and “proclaim”; and (3) “glory of God” and “the work of his hands.”
Two Ways to Live
The world is full of people who seek to live their own way. If you were to ask someone, “How many ways are there to live?” you would probably hear of several. Cultural relativism, which dominates the West, teaches that there are many different ways of understanding how the world works and how we live within it. The rightness or wrongness of one’s perspective is of little concern. Our community determines what is right and wrong.
However, this is not the case in Scripture. Psalm 1 reveals that there are really only two ways to live: godly or ungodly. This two-path theme is found elsewhere in Scripture. Psalm 37, a rather lengthy psalm of David, describes the way of the godly and the wicked, “The days of the blameless are known to the Lord, and their inheritance will endure forever … But the wicked will perish” (Ps 37:18-20). Or take Adam and Eve. They were given the choice to eat of any tree in the Garden and to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen 2:15-17). In the New Testament, Jesus teaches that there really are only two ways to live. Take the wise and foolish builder (Matt 7:24-27). The wise (or godly) person who builds ones house on the rock and perseveres is likened to one who hears Jesus’ teaching and does it, while the foolish (or ungodly) person who builds ones house on the sand and perishes is like one who hears Jesus’ word but does not obey it. It is this theme, this understanding of the way the world really is, that the psalmist wants the reader to understand right from the onset of the Psalter. He does this by describing and contrasting the ways of the godly and the ungodly.
The Way of the Godly (Ps 1:1-3)
The godly is described first by stating what he is not like, then what his passion is, and finally what he is like by way of a metaphor. First, what the godly is not like. This person “does not walk in step with the wicked.” This is someone who takes advice from those who are ungodly. Further, this one does not “stand in the way that sinners take.” This Hebrew idiom is similar to our “stand in someone’s shoes.” Finally, the person does not “sit in the company of mockers.” This is someone who derides or ridicules the way the godly live. They poke fun at the things of God. Take note of the progression of the ungodly: someone who moves from only listening to doing to mocking the very things of God.
Next, the psalmist describes what this godly person is passionate about: the law of the Lord. The word of God is their passion and “delight,” so much so that they “meditate” on it “day and night.” When they wake up they think about the Lord. When they go to bed they are thinking about him. And this is not some sort of drudgery, but their delight. They enjoy reading the Bible and thinking God’s thoughts after him. They want to study Scripture to understand what it says, because in it they find the words of life and come face-to-face with the very God who grants life.
Thirdly, this one is likened to a “tree planted by streams of water.” That the tree is planted suggests a planter. A tree planted by the stream is able to have its roots sink down deep in the soil. It is stable, unshakable, and will grow. This person is transplanted to a place where they will thrive and be fruitful. This person “yields … fruit in season.” Their life is not one that takes and is self-absorbed, but one that gives so that others might be blessed. This is what gives them joy. This person also perseveres; their “leaf does not wither.” The Lord sustains them and keeps them.
This same person prospers in whatever they do. The psalmist leaves this broad to include anything that is done for the Lord. Notice again verse 2, blessed is the one “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” The prosperous person is one who first and foremost reads and meditates on the word of God. The Lord sustains and keeps the blessed person. They do so through his living word (cf. Hebrews 4:12).
The Way of the Ungodly (Ps 1:4-5)
However, the way of the ungodly is not so. Rather than being planted firmly, the wicked are “like chaff that the wind blows away.” Neither do they produce anything of any value. Chaff is the part of wheat that is removed during threshing. Farmers only want the kernel, which falls to the ground, while the chaff is blown away by the wind. It is worthless. In the end, the life of the wicked does not produce anything that is of lasting value (cf. 1:6).
Because of this, the wicked “will not stand in the judgment nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.” The “judgment” here could refer to that which takes place in this world or the final judgment that happens on the last day (cf. Matt 25:31-46; Rev 20:11-15). In either case, God will judge the ungodly and they will be found wanting. They have no place “in the assembly of the righteous.”
Summary of the Two Ways (Ps 1:6)
The psalmist concludes with a final contrast between the two ways to live. The Lord “watches over the way of the righteous.” The term for “watches over” is translated “knows” (Hebrew, yada’) in some versions (ESV). The idea is not that the Lord is unaware of the wicked. He certainly is, since he is the one who does and will judge their ways (Ps 1:5b). The emphasis is on the result of the knowing or watching over. The way of the wicked will not stand; it “leads to destruction.” There is no lasting value. There is no chance such a one will enter into the joy of the Lord. However, the righteous the Lord sees. He affirms their work and dedication to the will and way of God. They will stand among the assembly of the righteous and will be preserved unto glory.
Theological Reflection & Application
We’ll close out this stage in the history of redemption with two extended reflections.
- Notice that this passage is a comparison of two ways to live and their consequences. You live either like the blessed person or like the wicked person. If this is the case, then meditation on the Bible is not optional for the godly person. This doesn’t mean there isn’t more that characterizes a blessed/godly person, like caring for the poor or ministering to the body of Christ. But one of the characteristics of the blessed person is definitely biblical meditation.
- This Psalm also serves to remind us of our own moral responsibility. We make choices every day, some good and some not so good. God holds us accountable for the choices we make. It is our choices that the Lord will judge us for on the last day, and if we are like the ungodly person, we will be found wanting. Apart from Christ, the Christian would come to the same end as the ungodly; for while we may do many good things, we can never do enough good to cover our sin against God. But so that our many sins might be covered and forgiven, God the Father sent his one and only Son, Jesus Christ to be born, to live a perfect life no other person could live, to die our death for us—God’s just punishment against our sin—and to be raised victoriously, so that all who repent of their sin and believe that Jesus alone is able to atone for their sin against God are forgiven and brought into the family of God. So on the last day, when the Lord would judge the Christian, he will look and see not our own righteousness that is no better than filthy rags, but the perfect righteousness of Christ. This is because for the Christian, Jesus is our righteousness. And as a result, when God looks at us, he doesn’t see the various ways we’ve sinned against him; rather, he sees RIGHTEOUS.
[i] David J. Reimer, “Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Literature,” ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 866.