At the outset it might appear that Psalm 1 is a relatively simple text. After all it is reasonably short as biblical psalms go and it makes no historical reference. Though it contains metaphors these do not appear to be too obscure to the contemporary reader. Notwithstanding these observations, it will become clear that this apparently simple psalm takes on a much more complex dynamic when broader issues are considered.
Eaton’s Psalms of the Way and the Kingdom provides a useful insight into the plurality of interpretation of Psalm 1. Eaton helpfully surveys ten commentators from the period 1859–1978 who he judges to be the most influential. He draws attention to four key areas on which there is disagreement: (i) dating, (ii) textual criticism, (iii) form criticism and (iv) the thought and piety of Psalm 1.
The proposed date for the authorship of Psalm 1 varies widely because of the lack of clear data. Views on date tend to be made on the basis of presuppositions about the nature of the wisdom teaching found in the psalm. Of course in texts like this any attempt at dating is dependent on conclusions regarding meaning and vice versa—the interpretative circle is just that, a closed circle, due to the lack of firm data.
Many commentators make significant emendations to the text on the assumption that they can detect later glosses or copying errors. Sometimes these are based solely on philological grounds such as comparisons with other Semitic languages. On other occasions it is on aesthetic grounds, for example, Briggs and Briggs make metrical symmetry a priority, so much so that they dismiss verse 3 and thus the tree metaphor as a late editorial gloss.
The discussion in the commentaries surveyed by Eaton regarding the piety of Psalm 1 depends on an exegetical decision regarding the meaning of torah in verse 2. Torah in verse 2 is taken, by some interpreters, to be a reference to legalism in the sense of the application of the Pentateuch to the minutiae of daily life by some. Others see the term in a much broader sense of ‘instruction’—this is its simple meaning in Hebrew. This exegetical decision has arguably more to do with judgements about the nature of the development of Judaism (and of course date). Gunkel, for example, is credited by Nogalski (in the preface to the English translation of Gunkel’s Introduction to the Psalms) with the view that the ‘Israelite religion climaxed in the works of the great prophets, and then degenerated into a legalistic religion overly influenced by the law’.
Closely connected with any decision about the meaning of torah is the understanding of the judgement referred to in verse 5. It might refer to judgement in the present upon both individuals and nations. Others argue that it refers to an eschatological expectation.
This initial focus on the views of critical scholarship until c.1978 regarding Psalm 1 indicates a plurality of views regarding the date of the psalm, its textual integrity, its main subject (what is torah in this context?) and the nature of the blessing and judgement which is the key motivational aspect of the psalm if it is rightly identified as being didactic in purpose. Historical-critical scholarship is, by its very nature, based on the proposal of rival hypotheses and testing their success in explaining the data. This sounds scientific and yet there are some questionable presuppositions inherent in much of the work reviewed by Eaton. Unless the presuppositions are made clear there is little hope of choosing between the plethora of proposals.
For example, Gunkel and several other interpreters held a very negative view of late Old Testament period Judaism which colours their view of the meaning of the word torah and the nature of the piety that is being advocated in Psalm 1. I suggest that Barth had a point when arguing for a ‘hermeneutic of trust’ against the hermeneutics of suspicion of some historical-critical work. This is not to suggest a return to pre-critical interpretation but rather in this specific case to:
1. Hear the text’s spirituality rather than assuming a priori that we have a deficient piety at work.
2. To examine the imagery and metaphors without assuming that we can create a better poetic aesthetic by altering or deleting parts of the received text.
Some aspects of modern scholarship cohere with such an approach. It is no longer the case that historical-critical goals must dominate interpretation—literary and theological aspects of interpretation are no longer an optional extra. For our purposes an open presupposition that our text is Scripture is acknowledged. What do we find if we attempt such a hermeneutic of trust rather than one of suspicion? Is such an approach fruitful? Most importantly of all, is it not that case a hermeneutic is the central claim of Psalm 1 itself?
Some commentators do of course pay close attention to the metaphors and their interplay. Thus Delitzsch, for example, notes the interesting contrast between the static tree and the highly mobile chaff in the wind and is commended by Eaton for his care. The text itself, if it claims anything about interpretation, anticipates that the correct method is lengthy, i.e. day and night meditation. It is often argued that hegeh means a meditative murmuring of scripture. Although interestingly a more ‘negative’ interpretation sees this murmuring as mindless legalism. If we follow the positive trajectory the psalm would appear to commend reflective and imaginative interpretation. This would appear to make the metaphorical language and didactic purpose cohere with reflective readings. Is this perhaps condoning intratextual connections, rather than either naïve devotional readings or modern linear systematic analysis?
It is also important to note at this point that Psalm 1 makes claims (e.g. ‘whatever he does prospers’) that contradict both ‘the life of faith’ and the passionate cry of the psalmist elsewhere in the Psalter. In this sense Psalm 1 needs to be tempered in some way by some sort of intertextual context or dialogue unless we want to argue either that it is paradigmatic in teaching a ‘prosperity gospel’ or it is wrong in its claims.
There is little controversy over Psalm 1’s identity as a Wisdom Psalm. As such it has a clear didactic purpose. Its claims regarding the centrality of meditation upon Yahweh’s instruction beg the question over whether its claim is to worked out in the 149 compositions that follow. Such a view is natural (though not necessarily proven) once we recognise the collection as Scripture, but was this the understanding of the editors of the Psalter? Further, to what extent does the role of editors define our interpretation of the psalms? We will return to these questions in a later post, once we’ve had a preliminary look at Psalm 2.
C. A. Briggs and E. G. Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms: Volume 1, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1906.
F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms: Volume I, translated by Francis Bolton from the second German edition, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1871.
J. H. Eaton, Psalms of the Way and the Kingdom: A Conference with the Commentators, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.
H. Gunkel, An Introduction to the Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel, completed by J. Begrich, translated by J. D. Nogalski, Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1998.