Psalm 1 is series of beatitudes and woes very much like the beatitudes and woes of Jesus which make up the opening section of the sermon on the mount (Matt. 5:1ff; Luke 6:17ff). Both of these are in different ways condensed versions, in poetic verse, of the fundamental principles of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). They outline the blessed life in contrast to the cursed life and call the individual into the former. The Blessed man is first of all distinguished by the philosophy of life (counsel) he adheres to. He does not follow worldly thinking but remains distinct in the way he views the world and his own life in relation to God and others. Secondly the blessed man is distinguished by the general direction and goal of his life upon which all his actions and choices are based. His path is going in a completely different direction to that of those who have no regard for the directives of God. Thirdly the blessed person will not join with the world in making a mockery of life as God intended it to be. In fact he would rather live God’s way and be mocked than be one who mocks.
The blessed life is conceived by one simple but profound spiritual activity: That of meditating upon the ‘Law’ of Yahweh. In other words the blessed man is preoccupied by reading, thinking over, and applying the scriptures. The terminology here should be noted carefully, that is, the terms ‘law’ and ‘meditate.’ The term law is important because it says something about the view that the psalmist has of scripture which will then be important for how we understand what ‘mediation’ entails in this case. The Hebrew word here is ‘Torah’ and it is correctly translated in the English word ‘law.’ It is important however to understand what kind of ‘law’ the scriptures actually are. If you open your bible to the first title page you come to you are likely to find the word ‘testament’ there somewhere. That, in actual fact, is what the Bible is. The Bible is a testament or a ‘covenant’ (basically the same thing) in two parts. A covenant, we should note, is a legal agreement or oath that is binding on those who are a party to it. What the Bible records is the covenant between God and his people. This is not just what the bible describes, it is what the bible actually is, it is the actual covenant document issued by God to mankind. But what is also important to note is the nature of the covenant between man and God. It is an intensely relational covenant, like marriage. When two people get married they do so because, in their love for one another, they wish to make vows of love that will be binding upon them for better or for worse. Love comes to a point when it wants to make vows of love and be bound by covenant to its beloved partner. In God’s covenant with his people (and whoever has given their life to Christ has entered into a covenant with God) both sides have obligations. We make vows to God and he makes vows to us. This is why the bible often uses marriage to describe the relationship of the Christian or Israelite to God. The bible is ‘the law’ in this sense, that is, in the sense that it describes the relational obligations we have lovingly entered into. But note this. It is not only the law for us. It is in a very significant sense also the law for God. It is the law for God in the sense that God records here the obligations by which he has bound himself. So we should not see the word ‘law’ here and read it in a one sided or legalistic sense. It is two sided and intensely relational. The law referred in that time to the first five books of the bible which was as much of scripture as they had at that time. So the word ‘law’ is equivalent, by way of applying this today, to the bible as a whole and so in our version we use ‘the Word’ and ‘Law’ interchangeably.
Let’s now think about the word ‘meditate.’ It is interesting that, in the psalms, this is the only word that is used with respect to what we are to do with the bible. They always say ‘meditate,’ never just ‘read.’ This is appropriate for our times since it is a notable problem nowadays that people are generally very passive recipients of all kinds of media, not least of all literature. Actually the sensational multi-sensory contemporary mass media has made things that way. The first thing an advanced reading course will teach you is to learn how to read actively again. The teacher will tell you that in our day most people do not read actively and so use only a fraction of their intellectual capacity in the process and naturally become bored with reading itself. Psalm 1 gives a perfect key to active reading of scripture which requires a special type of spiritual activity, that of meditation. The Hebrew word indicates that meditation is a kind of speaking to yourself, tossing something over in your mind. But this activity is specifically defined by what the bible is. I have already shown how the bible is to be viewed as the covenant document. This means you should not read it as you read a novel, a history book or a manual. It contains stories, and history as well as practical guidance but its significance goes much deeper than all these precisely because it is a covenant. Meditation on a covenant would mean that we consider the words always in relation to ourselves. We read to see whether we are being faithful to the covenant we have entered into and whether we are living in the fullness of what God has promised. We begin not just to read but to actively search the bible for what we can use before the throne of God, what we can appeal to (since this document carries great weight before the throne of God). This is faith: faith comes by hearing the word (Rom. 10:17) and faith does something with the word. We meditate on our situation in the light of scriptures to understand our life’s purpose and to understand the world and even ourselves in the light of what God says. Many people live incorrectly, pray faithlessly, and expect things they have no grounds to expect simply because they have not searched it all out in scripture. They have not learned to think biblically by massaging the words into their hearts through the act of meditation on the text.
The fact that the bible is a covenant explains why David says so enthusiastically here and in many other psalms that he ‘delights’ in the Word. It is because the word is efficacious, it works! God listens and commends us when we pray according to his promises and ask him to fulfil what he has said. He delights in God’s word because God speaks to him in it and does things to him and through him by means of the text. As an aside we should note that the Torah was not commonly available in text form to the Israelites. It was to David and others, but in most cases it was communicated aurally and, more significantly, using music. Actually this is exactly what this psalm was used for. It is the principles of the Torah in lyric form to help the people to meditate on it (by singing it) and more importantly to remember it.
The person who delights in the word of God and who meditates upon it will see the effects of that in their life. They will be like a tree planted near a stream bearing fruit (vs. 3). In other words they will live out their full potential as a human being. They will live life to the full and achieve all that God put in them to achieve. As a result they will be commended on the day of judgement in contrast to the ‘wicked’ who by ignoring God’s word become as useless and as futile as chaff that the wind blows away (vs. 4). The righteous are distinguished from the wicked therefore primarily in their delight for applying the covenant directives and promises to their lives thus becoming the people that God intended them to be. Anyone who does otherwise will be judged harshly for living a futile life (vss. 5-6).