Psalm 1 and Poetic Forms
Psalm 1 was one of the scriptural texts that I was assigned in my first exegesis class. While engaging with this text, I discovered to my surprise and delight that much of what I had learned about the explication of poetry (primarily from the good folks of Eratosphere, from whom I also learned almost everything I know about translating poetry) was directly applicable to the structural and detailed analysis of scriptural texts. And, just like explicating a poem, the practice of this kind of analysis generates not only a deeper understanding of the text but also a sense of fond familiarity, similar to encountering a piece of choral music that I’ve sung. Out of that fondness, I thought I’d share what I learned of Psalm 1.
First, a structural analysis, informed by my informal study of formal poetry. Formal, metrical poetry is rather out of vogue these days, compared to free verse, but its craft is very rewarding. Formal, metrical poetry takes advantage of received poetic forms (sonnets, rondelets, limericks, and the like) as well as metrical patterns of verse (iambic pentameter, double dactyls, and so on) to create rhetorical and aural structure that sets up an expectation in the reader (or, really, in the listener, as all poetry is really meant to be heard). The craft of such poetry is to effectively build those structures and expectations; the art is to satisfy, foil, or play off those expectations. In this way, the form of a poem really does convey more than the words alone.
Parallelism and symmetry are common structural elements in poetry, and the chiasm or envelope form (ABBA, as in the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet) is a common type of symmetry especially for poems that want to compare or contrast something, as psalm 1 contrasts the just and the wicked. What I see in psalm 1 is an interestingly broken chiasm, followed by a moral. In the NAB translation,
(A) Happy those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked,
Nor go the way of sinners,
nor sit in company with scoffers.
(B) Rather, the law of the LORD is their joy;
God’s law they study day and night.
(C) They are like a tree
planted near streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season;
Its leaves never wither;
whatever they do prospers.
(C’) But not the wicked!
They are like chaff
driven by the wind.
(A’) Therefore the wicked will not survive judgment,
nor will sinners in the assembly of the just.
(M) The LORD watches over the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked leads to ruin.
(Although the NAB translates Torah as “law”, in general I prefer to leave this powerful Hebrew word untranslated, as it seems to carry as many rich connotations in Judaism as “gospel” does in Christianity, so that no single English word can do it justice.)
Part A uses multiple images to present a multitude of unrighteous people (“wicked,” “sinners,” “scoffers”). The “happy” (NAB) or “blessed” (NIV, RSV) ones are to avoid the company of these people.
Part B provides a contrast: happy people spend time with the Torah rather than with sinners, and the Torah is what makes them happy.
Part C describes the result of living in the way of the Lord. Nourished by their Torah study, they are not only fruitful and prosperous, but their lives are firmly grounded (“like a tree planted”). This is the largest part of the psalm, which implicitly emphasizes the abundance that will be experienced by the blessed ones who keep God’s law.
In contrast, the corresponding C’ is shockingly brief. The wicked are like chaff – worthless husks, producing nothing, light enough to be blown about by the wind (perhaps the winds of change, or fashion). There is nothing more to say about them.
Thus, there is no corresponding B’: the Torah is entirely absent from their lives.
In part A’, we see sinners attempting to survive God’s judgment by hiding among a multitude (“assembly”) of the just. While the just must avoid contamination from sinners, sinners cannot hope for a reverse contamination to save them; God will find and judge them. The company of the just presented here is smaller than the company of the wicked presented in part A, suggesting that the psalmist might be writing for a people surrounded by unbelievers (either Gentiles or lapsed Jews).
The psalm closes with a moral that explicitly compares the way of the just with the way of the wicked: God knows the former, but the latter leads to doom.
This psalm is a cautionary tale, presenting an appealing picture of a faithful, Torah-following person on the one hand, and a pitiless picture of the wicked on the other. “Wicked” is implicitly defined here as “non-Torah-following;” there is no appeal to an external standard of morality, on which people of many religions might be able to agree. The just are those who live by the Torah; the wicked are everyone else. The hearer is exhorted to keep apart from the wicked, and hold fast to the Torah.
You can see why in this analysis, I find the briefer form of verse 4 in the Hebrew text more poetically compelling than the expanded form in the Greek: whereas the Greek underscores the annihilation of the wicked with words, the Hebrew does so with silence.
Now let me go back for a detailed look at one word in part B, the verb hagah. This is rendered in the NAB translation above as studies, and by the RSV, NIV, and NASB as meditates. But the more poetic sensibility of the NJB renders this verb as murmurs. This verb frequently has a meaning of quiet speech elsewhere in the Bible; that meaning here would reinforce the aural imagery of the “streams of water” in v3. The gentle sounds of a flowing stream are like the blessed one murmuring over the Torah (as Catholics today murmur over the rosary, or Muslims the Qu’ran), and it is this constant, quiet meditation on the Torah that gives life.