Psalm 1 and the Law of Yahweh

Recently I’ve been reading through the Psalms. As I was reading through the first poem of the book a thought popped up in my head that I wanted to share. First here’s the text as presented by the ESV. I like the ESV when reading the poetry in the Bible because it keeps the genre in mind when it translates the Hebrew text. Translations like the NLT are great for prose and narrative but they often sacrifice a poetic quality to their translations in order to make the text easier to comprehend. There is no such thing as a perfect translation. Psalm 1 reads,

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

This poem is a call to Israel to renew its commitment to observing and obeying the Torah, the law given by Yahweh through Moses after the Exodus. The author (traditionally King David) creates a foil for the observant Israelite in the wicked person. The wicked person are chaff that is blown away by the wind and will perish. The wicked does not prosper. The obedient Hebrew, the one who meditates on and delights in the Torah, is like a tree that doesn’t wither; it produces its fruit and prospers. The righteous Israelite, the one obedient to the Torah, doesn’t perish. The wicked is cast out from the congregation of the righteous while the righteous is known by Yahweh.

The normal Christian interpretation of this text is to live out the Bible–both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Christian New Testament. The “Law of Lord” is a stand-in for all of the Bible, sometimes called a synecdoche. If you obey the Bible you become the tree and walk the path of the righteous that is known by the Lord. If you don’t obey the Bible you’ll be the wicked person who is driven away like chaff in the wind and will perish outside of the congregation of the righteous.

But I’m not so certain of this reading of the poem. First of all, reading the word torah as “law” in our western sense of law is not the most accurate way to understand the Hebrew. Torah is instruction or teaching. So when a teacher teaches his students about a particular subject, he is giving torah. When a boss tells her employees how to do a particular job or task, she is giving torah. There is a sense in which the Torah is the law as we mean in our own modern, western culture. But the poem doesn’t bear this out.

Torah for the Israelite was what defined them as Israel, as Yahweh’s covenant people. Those who followed the Torah were his “My people” and those who didn’t were not his “My people.” Furthermore, the Torah was given to Israel. This giving of the Torah marked them out and distinguished them from all the other nations on the earth. The Torah was a cultural marker to Israel. It wasn’t simple rules and laws for their society. The Torah defined them as a people, both corporately and individually. The Torah made them God’s people.

When we read the Hebrew Bible we see certain attitudes present. I think of David describing Goliath as “uncircumcised” (1 Samuel 17:26). I think of the prophet Habakkuk who saw both disobedient Israelites and the Babylonians as wicked (Habakkuk 1:4, 13).  In Isaiah 2 the prophet indicts Israel for living like her gentile neighbors. There is being an Israelite and there is being a gentile. To fail to obey Torah is to be like a gentile. So that the “wicked” in our poem looks different than we normally see him.

So if Torah is that which defines Israel as Israel, does this mean the Bible defines the Christian as Christian? Thus, should we read the poem to say, “Blessed is the man [whose]…delight is in the Bible, and on the Bible he meditates day and night”? Or is there another way to read this poem that is more appropriately Christian?

How about, “”Blessed is the man [whose]…delight is in the Messiah, and on Jesus he meditates day and night”? In other words, does the Bible or Jesus fill the role of Torah among Yahweh’s people today? Loyalty to and communion with Yahweh were expressed by obedience to Torah. Does this mean for the Christian we must be obedient to the Bible to be loyal to and in communion with God?

In the poem, the one who delights in the Torah and meditates upon it day and night is on the way of the righteous and is part of the congregation of the righteous. Thus intimately being known by God comes to those who observe torah by delighting in it and meditating on it. God’s presence is mediated by the Torah. God is present with those who delight in his Torah. I’m not so sure people who delight in the Bible are the people with whom God is present. God is not present in the Bible.

Rather, it is Jesus who is referred to as Immanuel, “God with us,” in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 1:23). In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus promises to be with those who make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that he commanded them and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When two or more of Jesus’ followers gather in his name he is present with them. In John’s Gospel and first epistle it is the Spirit of God, sent by the risen and ascended Jesus, that mediates his presence. Paul argues all throughout his writings that we are united to Jesus and belong to him. Jesus defines Yahweh’s “My people.” Just as the Torah defined Israel in the Old Testament Jesus defines Israel in the New Testament.

This doesn’t mean that we do away with the Bible. Rather the Bible presents the story of Yahweh, his people and their Messiah. Prayerful reflection and meditation upon the Bible is needed. I love the commitment of the Baptists to the Bible. I strive to reflect upon it as they have taught me to do so. But in many ways, Baptists can come across as more loyal to the Bible than to the Messiah we read about in the Bible. It’s why I love my Methodist brothers and sisters for their Quadrilateral (Scripture, reason, tradition, experience). It keeps the Bible in perspective and reminds me that it is Jesus who defines me as Christian, not the Bible.

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~ by hankimler on November 4, 2013.

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