Holiness in Psalm 1
We don’t always think of the Psalms as being a source of moral teaching. Generally we turn to this part of the Bible when we need some encouragement, or are trying to find the right words to praise God. The English word “psalm” in fact means a religious song, so this is an understandable feeling. But there are many lessons in the Psalms that might unintentionally get passed over if we only turn there when we’re looking for a song. As a good example, I’d like to look at the very first Psalm and what it teaches us about holiness.
The Sum of Human Activity
The first verse goes like this: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers!”
Three postures are mentioned here: walking, standing, and sitting. These three actions basically encompass all human activity. Walking represents full action, sitting represents passivity, and standing is somewhere in between. Of course, there are other postures or actions that aren’t mentioned, for example running or lying down, but these are just extensions of the active walking and passive sitting. After all, it is a psalm and so it uses symbols and representations to convey ideas. Its goal isn’t to make a full exposition of human activity. Rather, it uses examples of passive and active postures to teach us that whether we are actively engaged in something or are currently inactive, we should avoid the habits of the ungodly.
Let’s look at each posture a little more closely.
First, we read that the blessed person does not walk in the counsel of the wicked. The root of the word “counsel” in Hebrew is etzah. It could also be translated as “advice” or “plan”. Walking in the counsel of the wicked involves actively seeking out and following immoral instruction from those who have no fear of God. In Isaiah 47:13, we see that astrology is one source of wicked counsel: “You are wearied with your many counsels; let now the astrologers, those who prophesy by the stars, those who predict by the new moons, stand up and save you from what will come upon you.” The counsel of the wicked is juxtaposed against the counsel of Wisdom (Proverbs 1:24-25), which comes from God’s Torah, His instructions contained in the Bible. Wicked counsel comes from a twisted mind with no thought to God or His righteousness, while good counsel is founded upon those very principles.
Next is standing in the path of sinners. Standing is passive in a sense, but with an eye toward action. Notice that the warning is against standing on the path rather than walking along it. To stand in the path of sinners is to wait along the road where the sinners tend to travel, maybe hoping that they happen to come by and invite you to join them. Even if one doesn’t have the impulse to join the wicked initially, they might stand in the paths of sinners out of curiosity. The imagery of the path can only take us so far, so here is what this means on a practical level: don’t meet temptation halfway. The Psalmist warns that this is a destructive action, it cannot be blessed. Inevitably, standing on the path of sinners becomes walking along the path with them.
Lastly the verse mentions sitting in the seat of the scoffers/mockers, in this context those who mock God. One example of such scoffing could be someone who justifies their sinful lifestyle by saying that God hasn’t struck them with lightning yet, so He must not care about their sin. Another example, from Psalm 42, is a person who sees a believer’s suffering and concludes that God is too weak to help them: “They scoff, ‘Where is this God of yours?’” The Psalmist says we should not even associate with those who are insolent. Even if it seems like you take an inactive role by merely sitting among them, this is not the case. You are listening, reacting to their words, and slowly you yourself will be shaped by those words.
In sum, this first verse says that spending time in close association with the ungodly, listening to their mockery, and observing their sinful behaviors cannot end in blessing. In other words, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). Or, as Proverbs 23:17 puts it, “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but live in the fear of the LORD always.”
What To Do Instead
The first verse we looked at talks about what not to do. But what are the positive actions that we should take? Verse two explains that the blessed man, shunning the ways of the wicked, delights in the Torah of the Lord: “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.” It is constantly fixed in front of his eyes and is firmly planted in his imagination. Both “day and night” he contemplates his path and consciously steers himself away from ungodly actions. The righteous person takes to heart the counsel of Joshua 1:8: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.”
The righteous person "walks not in the counsel of the ungodly," because they know the difference between the way of life (holiness) and the way of death (sin). They do not "stand in the path of sinners," but rather they despise the cursed road that leads to death. Lastly, they will not "sit in the seat of scoffers." On the contrary, as we see in verse 5, the blessed person "stands in the assembly of the righteous." All of this only comes from familiarity with God's commands and His wisdom.
In contrast with the activities of the wicked, the righteous meditate on God’s teachings. This is an action you can do anywhere, whether you are walking, standing, or sitting.
It is important to note that meditating on God’s teachings is not simply an exercise of the mind. If we direct our thoughts to be on God and His will, then our actions will follow as the Spirit works in us. We will find that our actions are bearing the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
For this reason, the Psalm continues to say of this righteous person that, "he is like a tree firmly planted by streams of water" (Psalm 1:3). The water, being the Spirit and wisdom of God which nourishes the soul, mind, and heart, gives life and sustenance to the man who sends his roots deep into its soil. Doing this, he will "yield fruit in season." The fruit of righteousness will grow in his life, being ever-more apparent to himself and to those around him. Meditating on God's law results in action and good deeds. Just like a tree that soaks up the nourishment from good soil and enough water, the person who continuously meditates on God and his Word will never be spiritually hungry or thirsty, for the Lord His God will be to Him daily sustenance, the Bread of Life. As Yeshua says, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35).
Those who engage in unfruitful behaviors, however, are painted in a far less verdant hue. As for the wicked, "they are like chaff which the wind drives away." They are dried up, of no benefit, and in the end are destroyed. As John the Baptist said, announcing the coming of Yeshua, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). Their pursuits and pleasures were transient and fleeting, and so they shall inherit wind. Not only the ungodly, but their paths with them will be destroyed, as verse 6 says, “the way of the wicked will perish.” As a result of the life they lived standing in the paths of sinners, “the wicked will not stand in the judgment” (verse 5). They have chosen their standing place, and this is the decision they will have to live with.
When we really break this Psalm down we see that it is giving us instructions in holiness. There is a sharp distinction between the righteous and the wicked. There are certain behaviors that each engage in. And when all has been said and done, each will receive the reward that their life warranted. As believers, we must be completely separate from the world. While the world walks down the paths that lead to death, we are called to walk the straight and narrow path. The only way this is possible is by anchoring our souls in the Living Water, meditating on Him and living in relationship with Him daily. The person who does this, indeed, is truly blessed.