Psalm 1 has always been one of my favorite Psalms, and with the rest of Scripture, there is a whole lot of theology packed into this short first Psalm. Scripture itself is inexhaustible. That is to say, even the most learned theological scholar is constantly learning more and more each day from the Word of God. There is truly no limit to Scripture’s teaching. Psalm 1 is certainly no different in this regard. I shall do my best to make sense of it here!
The obvious comparison being made by the Psalmist here is between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. There is a lot of good theology packed in to these six verses. The Psalmist uses God’s law as a marker of sorts here that distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked. The righteous man loves it, the wicked hates it. In fact, the wicked person can be described here as having no regard for God’s law and is one who is standing on his own merits. I think back to the book of Judges and the wicked rebellion of the Israelites, where the author of Judges concludes the book (as well as mentioning it another time) by saying “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) And isn’t that exactly the case? The wicked (best described here as the unregenerate) always do what is right in their own eyes. They follow sin, since they do not follow the law, and sin is defined by the law. It is the normal comparison made in Scripture - my way (wicked) versus God’s way (righteous). Simply put, the regenerate man (the righteous) loves God’s teaching and desires to follow what He commands. The unregenerate man (the wicked) could care less. He follows himself and does what is right in his own eyes.
The Righteous Man
We see from the Psalm a few things that mark the regenerate person. First, we see that he is blessed. (Ps 1:1) He is blessed not because of what he does, but because of what God does. The rest of the description of the righteous man describes what that righteous man’s response is. What does a righteous man look like? We see first a downward progression of sorts. Walks not in the counsel of the wicked. Nor stands in the way of sinners. Nor sits in the seat of scoffers. From walks to stands to sits. The man who is righteous avoids these things precisely because they are sinful and wicked in the sight of God. But, says the Psalmist, the righteous man also delights in the law of the Lord. In this instance, “law” is best described as “teaching” or “instruction,” which would include the whole of Scripture. In the broader sense, we can use the term “law” in Scripture (and it is employed as such) as “God’s commands.” Notice that the Psalmist never says that the man is righteous *because* he follows the law. Such is not the biblical report. In fact, the law can only command. It has no inherent power to save or to make a person righteous. However, I see clear evidence here for the third use of the law, as a norm for Christian life. There has been a lot of attack on the third use of the law in recent years, as if desiring to follow God by obeying His commands is somehow unspiritual. But this forces a false choice. Basically, they are saying that anyone who desires to follow God’s commands is not following the Spirit. But Scripturally, this is patently false. The regenerate man has the law burned on his heart and desires to obey God. Obeying God is only found in his commands (law) not by some anti-intellectual false spirituality. Flesh this out far enough and the result is relative truth and religion based on inner experiences and subjectivism. Oh wait, that's pretty popular now days isn't it?
That is not to say we follow the law in order to be sanctified (or worse, to be saved, since that would be salvation by pure works), but that the result of our being saved is a love for God’s commands, precisely because the Spirit that indwells us will lead us to desire to obey God’s commands. Verse two tells us as much. The righteous man’s delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night. The righteous man will desire to obey God. Even in the New Covenant this is the case. Ezekiel pictures it this way: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Eze 36:26-27) The regenerate person loves the law (teachings) of God. This of course does not put us under the law, for that would mean we are unregenerate in the first place. To be under the law is to have to perfectly keep it to gain any favor before God. Just breaking it once, and you’re guilty for breaking it all (Jam 2:10). Thus, God requires perfect obedience to His teachings precisely because God cannot command anything less because He is perfectly holy. We are not saved so we can live how we want to, for that is precisely how the wicked live. Rather, God ensures and promises in Ezekiel to give us a new heart and His Spirit, which will cause us to walk in His statutes, since we are unable to do so without God’s intervention through His descent in grace. Paul says that “on the contrary, we uphold the law.” (Rom 3:31) Thus, the third use of the law stands. It is a biblical idea and is in fact the result of a regenerate heart.
The choice forced is a false one (spirituality vs. your mind) precisely because of what following the Spirit looks like. When we follow the Spirit, He engages our mind and conforms us to the image of Christ. Christ perfectly fulfilled the law and obeyed God's commands to perfection. Therefore, to follow the Spirit will cause us (Ez 36:27) to walk in God's statutes. Forcing a choice between "Spirit" and "mind" is not the report of Scripture. The two go together and cannot be separated. Christianity is not based on inner mysticism and experience. It is based on God's Word. Therefore, when we follow the Spirit, we are driven to the Word of God (Joh 17:17), delight in His commands (Ps 1:1-2), and desire to obey Him since we have the law burned on our hearts (Ez 36:25-27). Our mind is renewed and engaged (Rom 12:1-2), not disengaged in favor of some higher false spirituality.
The Psalmist then makes an analogy, one that is repeated in a very similar manner in the New Testament. He compares the righteous man to a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season. Water is used all over the New Testament not only as the means of baptism, but also as a reference to regeneration. So says Ezekiel just one verse before the previously quoted ones: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” (Eze 36:25) The author of Hebrews picks this up in Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” And Paul says much of the same in 2 Corinthians 7:1and 1 Corinthians 6:11, and picks up a similar vein in Titus 3:5. Washing and water are very important analogies drawn in the New Testament. I don’t think this is exactly what the Psalmist is trying to say here, but washing and water and sprinkling with it are all ideas that Scripture is full of.
What comes next is a teaching picked up later in Scripture by Christ Himself. That righteous tree that is planted by streams of water bears fruit. Matthew 12:33-37 gives a good example of this. How can a bad tree bear good fruit? Jesus teaches more of the same in Luke 6:43-44. We know that in both places He also states that “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Mat 12:34, Luk 6:44) Whatever is in your heart will come out of your mouth. The mouth follows the condition of the heart. Therefore, a regenerate person (good tree) will bear good fruit (desire to follow God’s teaching and will do so) and the unregenerate (bad tree) cannot even bear good fruit, precisely because even our best efforts are polluted garments. (Isa 64:6) Thus, we can see a defense of the third use all over this passage (Psalm 1). The righteous man bears good fruit because He loves God’s law and meditates on it, precisely because he has a new heart and is regenerate. The best analogy we can draw in this instance is that the righteous man bears fruit like a tree in a stream because he is planted by God and always watered by the Spirit. Even when the tree is in the desert, if the stream waters it, it will bear fruit. The righteous man is like this. No matter where he is, the Spirit goes with him, and he bears fruit.
His fruit does not wither away and he prospers. Now, we must be careful here, since numerous false teachers (*cough* Creflo Dollar *cough*) would have us believe that the word prosper here refers to financial prosperity, but such cannot be the case, especially in light of all of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. Christians, simply put, are never guaranteed financial or worldly prosperity. To teach such is heretical nonsense. On the other hand, the Christian is said to prosper. Spiritually, that is. We prosper precisely because we are right with God. No longer judged by the law and held under its curse, we are now free to obey God in the law’s greatest intent by following the Spirit, who has put the law on our hearts.
The Wicked Man
You see from the Psalmist that the wicked man is quite the opposite of the righteous man. Verse 4 begins the short part on the wicked man, after seeing briefly what the way of the wicked is like in verse 1. There is a downward progression of sorts. The way of the wicked goes from bad to worse. Spurgeon had a great comment regarding this:
“When men are living in sin they go from bad to worse. At first they merely *walk* in the council of the careless and ungodly, who forget God -the evil is rather practical than habitual- but after that, they become habituated to evil, and they *stand* in the way of open sinners who willfully violate God’s commandments; and if let alone, they go one step further, and become themselves pestilent teachers and tempters of others, and thus they *sit* in the seat of the scornful. They have taken their degree in vice, and as true Doctors of Damnation they are installed.”
The progression ends, sadly, with sin being the way of life and being comfortable, evidenced by the sitting in the seat of the scornful. Sin has become comfortable and the way of life to the wicked.
The wicked do not delight in God‘s law, says the Psalmist. They have no desire for the law of God which essentially means they have no desire to obey God. They are like chaff that the wind drives away. Chaff is useless. After chaff is separated from grain it is blown away to be either trampled underfoot or burned. There are obvious correlations to judgment here. The wicked will not be able to stand before God, since they are doing what is right in their own eyes and have no desire to obey God. They have followed the way of the world and the way of sin that tells us that righteousness is no fun and that God is wrong. Just like Satan in the garden, the world preaches to us that we ought to do what we want and have fun! We will not surely die and we shall be as God! Not so, when we live worldly, and follow our own fleshly desires and vices that are sinful and disobedient to God, we are actually being as Satan and not as God. That road leads to death. We will surely die! Their own righteousness is filthy and is as useless as chaff in the wind before God. They hate His teaching, evidenced by the fact that they do not meditate on it and obey it. The New Testament picks this idea up as well, saying “Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” (Eph 6:13) The wicked will fail at this precisely because they do not have the armor of God and want nothing to do with it. Their eyes are blinded and their foolish hearts are darkened. (See Rom 1:18-32)
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
The Psalm is concluded with this thought. Very simply put, there are only two types of people and two ways of life. Either a person is in Christ, who fulfilled the law of God so we can be raised in newness of life, or a person is in Adam and still under the law as pertaining to salvation. In essence, the two ways of life are determined completely by one’s relation to Christ. Everyone has a relationship to God. Either they are in Christ and are regenerate or they are in Adam and are unregenerate. There are no stages of this and no third option. As Psalm 1 points out so clearly, it is completely an either/or question. Is the person regenerate, and therefore declared righteous, released from the law’s curse, raised in newness of life, and have a desire to obey God in the law’s ultimate intent, to please God? Or is a person bound to keep that entire law through their own merit and thereby unregenerate? Ironically, the wicked have no desire to do this anyways and others rely on their own works to merit favor before God, making their obedience wicked since it is done out of the wrong motive.
King Solomon commented on the way of the wicked, saying: “There is a way that seems right to man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Prov 14:12)
There are a few things that are easily pointed out in summation.
1. The righteous man loves the teachings of God. Oh how I love God’s law! Is the response of the righteous.
2. The righteous man does not gain favor from God by their obedience to His teaching, but loves to obey His teaching out of sheer love and thankfulness to the Triune God who saved him.
3. The righteous man bears fruit which will not wither away.
4. The wicked generally have no desire for the teaching of God. They in fact hate it.
5. Even those wicked who attempt to follow the law to gain favor from God (legalism) are still wicked in that they are required to keep it perfectly. They cannot do this as they must keep it perfectly. However, since they are attempting to keep it in order to merit before God, even that is regarded as wicked, as the heart and motives are wrong.
6. The righteous will prosper, but the wicked ways will be driven away like chaff in the wind.
7. The righteous will be able to stand in the judgment as declared righteous, the wicked will not.
8. The difference between righteous and wicked depends on one’s status with God. Are they regenerate or unregenerate? In Christ or in Adam?
9. The righteous are heirs according to the promise (See Gal 3:29, John 3:16, etc), the wicked will perish.
There is no in between, as Psalm 1 points out. A very beautiful and clear Psalm that we can all learn from as Christians. The way of the righteous is the way of Jesus Christ, who tells us plainly that He IS “the way and the truth and the life.” (Joh 14:6) The only way to be counted as righteous is through Jesus Christ by the descent of God in grace, not by law-keeping in order to gain favor. Such has always been the way. More than just poetic, it is packed with theology. Let us hear the Word of God and learn from it.