I am reading On the Book of Psalms by Nahum Sarna. After the introduction he took nine Psalms to look at more closely. He began with Psalm 1.
This Psalm is peculiar because it is not devotional in the way other Psalms are. That is, the writer does not pour out his soul, praise God, lift up a lament or express the human condition. Instead, Sarna labeled this song: The Moral Individual–The Immoral Society. It deals with living according to the Torah, and approaches this from the point of view of the Wisdom Literature.
It is about how humans flourish like watered plants when nourished by the Torah, and how they shrivel when cut off. In other words, the singer says that you will do well when you live by “the teaching of YHWH” (v. 2). On the other hand, it states that “the way of the wicked is doomed” (v. 6).
Why did this Psalm end up at the threshold of the Psalter? Sarna believed that starting with the theme of Torah observance positioned the Book of Psalms within the Hebrew canon. The Psalms are mostly prayer, not revelation. They are mostly people disclosing themselves and their longings and deepest feelings to God, while the Torah and the prophets are about God disclosing himself to the people. The Psalms constitute a book of worship within a collection of books that reveal God. So the first Psalm positions the whole book as part of the word of God addressed to humanity, even though most of the Book of Psalms is the word of humans addressed to God.
There is a standard Hebrew word for blessing that is usually used as the opposite of the word for a curse. But this Psalm speaks of blessing with a different Hebrew word, ashrei. This word usually describes the blessing of the nation, the people, or the land. Thus, it is about happiness in this world, not escaping a curse or condemnation in a future judgment. It fits with the wisdom theme of flourishing and being happy in this life.
Another important term in the 1st Psalm is “the wicked”, resha’im. This term gets used throughout the Psalms. The psalmists often cry out against the wicked. They are the people who constitute the immoral society. They are proud and greedy, cruel to widows and orphans. They may be religious and offer sacrafices, but their indifference to ethical behavior turns these religious acts into something that offends God.
Also, the psalmist refers to sinners and scoffers. These categories may be less blameworthy than the wicked, but because they habitually behave (sinners) or speak (scoffers) in ways that do not contribute to the moral life, you should avoid them.
The psalmist uses the phrase “the seat of scoffers.” This gives us a picture of intellectual pretenders who hang around the city or village gate and talk trash. City gates may have had benches, like one excavated at Tel Dan, where groups would sit to discuss civic affairs or just to gossip.
A clear piece of advice from this Psalm is to steer clear of social situations that may pull you down. Today, I guess, a “seat of scoffers” might be a coffee shop or a web site. On the other hand, the way of happiness is to delight, or as Sarna thought was a better translation of the Hebrew “to become fully absorbed”, in the teaching of the LORD, the torah of YWHW.
Sarna noted that this Psalm’s approach to the law was similar to that of Deuteronomy. The teaching is not called a book. Rather, it is something to be recited and meditated upon. It may be a book, but its contents need to get internalized and become a part of the individual’s mind.
So most of the Psalms are prayers, but this first Psalm speaks of the devout as not just someone who prays, but also, in keeping with strong Hebrew tradition, as someone who focuses upon the word or teaching of God. Sarna pointed out the rule at the Dead Sea Scroll community that for every group of ten, at least one of them would always, day and night, be studying the Torah.