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Psalm 1 and Poetic Forms

May 20, 2012

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.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2012 10:20 pm

    This Psalm (like most of the psalms) was heavily revised in last year’s NABRE (New American Bible Revised Edition) version:


    1 Blessed is the man who does not walk
    in the counsel of the wicked,
    Nor stand in the way* of sinners,
    nor sit in company with scoffers.

    2 Rather, the law of the LORD* is his joy;
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

    3 He is like a tree
    planted near streams of water,
    that yields its fruit in season;
    Its leaves never wither;
    whatever he does prospers.


    4 But not so are the wicked,* not so!
    They are like chaff driven by the wind.

    5 Therefore the wicked will not arise at the judgment,
    nor will sinners in the assembly of the just.

    6 Because the LORD knows the way of the just,
    but the way of the wicked leads to ruin.


    * [Psalm 1] A preface to the whole Book of Psalms, contrasting with striking similes the destiny of the good and the wicked. The Psalm views life as activity, as choosing either the good or the bad. Each “way” brings its inevitable consequences. The wise through their good actions will experience rootedness and life, and the wicked, rootlessness and death.

    * [1:1] The way: a common biblical term for manner of living or moral conduct (Ps 32:8; 101:2, 6; Prv 2:20; 1 Kgs 8:36).

    * [1:2] The law of the LORD: either the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, or, more probably, divine teaching or instruction.

    * [1:4] The wicked: those who by their actions distance themselves from God’s life-giving presence.

  2. May 21, 2012 10:26 am

    The formatting of the English translation(s) of the Hebrew Psalm does show the structural poetry of the latter somewhat. The Greek translation of the Hebrew (with the additions by the Septuagint translator[s]) does have its own poetic elegance, I think. One might format it thusly. And notice how necessary both “ἀπὸ προσώπου τῆς γῆς” and the repeated additional “οὐχ οὕτως” seem:

    (A) Μακάριος ἀνήρ

    οὐκ ἐπορεύθη
    ἐν βουλῇ ἀσεβῶν

    ἐν ὁδῷ ἁμαρτωλῶν
    οὐκ ἔστη,

    ἐπὶ καθέδραν λοιμῶν
    οὐκ ἐκάθισεν

    (B1) ἀλλ’

    ἐν τῷ νόμῳ κυρίου
    τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ

    ἐν τῷ νόμῳ αὐτοῦ
    μελετήσει ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτός

    καὶ ἔσται ὡς
    τὸ ξύλον τὸ πεφυτευμένον

    (B2) παρὰ
    τὰς διεξόδους τῶν ὑδάτων

    τὸν καρπὸν αὐτοῦ δώσει ἐν καιρῷ αὐτοῦ
    τὸ φύλλον αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἀπορρυήσεται
    πάντα ὅσα ἂν ποιῇ κατευοδωθήσεται

    (A’) οὐχ οὕτως οἱ ἀσεβεῖς
    οὐχ οὕτως

    (B1’) ἀλλ’

    ὡς ὁ χνοῦς ὃν ἐκριπτεῖ ὁ ἄνεμος
    ἀπὸ προσώπου τῆς γῆς

    διὰ τοῦτο
    οὐκ ἀναστήσονται ἀσεβεῖς
    ἐν κρίσει,

    οὐδὲ ἁμαρτωλοὶ
    ἐν βουλῇ δικαίων

    (M) ὅτι
    γινώσκει κύριος ὁδὸν δικαίων
    ὁδὸς ἀσεβῶν ἀπολεῖται

  3. May 21, 2012 1:51 pm

    I have a book coming out on ‘Seeing the Psalter’. Scheduled publication date is 1Q2013. I find that there is a real danger of imposing structures on the text based on conceptual similarities. I think it is important to separate the relatively objective ‘word recurrence’ from the relatively subjective ‘assessment of parallelism’.

    I have laid out this method in the book including a full analysis of the recurrence patterns in all the psalms. For Psalm 1, minimizing the wicked will not hold. HaShem is immensely interested in the wicked. The whole poem, agenda-setting as I noted elsewhere, is framed by wicked-way-sinners. The focus is on the righteous, but the frame is the wicked. Imagine the picture as the first in the gallery. btw – I use instruction for Torah. Never ‘law’. In our litigious society, ‘law’ is completely misunderstood. I have also never used the word ‘soul’ though I love it as word. So you could say my translation is soulless.

    I would welcome criticism of my 99% complete text with full index and my own glossary and other things available online. (Particularly if Theophrastus is going to review it after publication, maybe I should subject the text to his perceptive scan beforehand!) I have the 450 pages + 75 pages of index and glossary available online if there is interest. Maybe I will postpone publication for 7 years as Jacob did when he discovered Rachel was not in his marriage bed. (contact bobmacdonald at gx dot ca).

  4. May 21, 2012 8:00 pm

    Bob: Congratulations on your forthcoming book. I’m happy to help out with proofreading — will contact you offline about it (probably next week).

  5. May 21, 2012 11:00 pm

    Thanks, all, for your comments. Bob, your book sounds great – I look forward to seeing it. You said “I find that there is a real danger of imposing structures on the text based on conceptual similarities” — could you elaborate on that a bit more? Do you see a distinction between imposing structure, and perceiving structure? Or are you primarily concerned with obfuscating structure that is based on verbal similarities by over-focusing on conceptual similarities?

  6. May 22, 2012 1:30 am

    Do I see a distinction between imposing structure, and perceiving structure?

    The short answer is yes. I strongly suspect that I impose on the text based on my own experience. But what can I see in the text that is relatively objective? I can see the words that are repeated and another observer will likely be able to repeat my observations. On the other hand, A synonymous parallel a,b,a’,b’ may be there but two observers may not agree on where one or other begins or ends.

    I can see in this complex gem with which the Psalter begins, that I would have trouble holding my thesis against the translators of the NAB. For they have ignored the pillars in this poem: the paired repetition of כִּי אִם which they have rendered once as ‘rather’ and the second time as not translated.

    In some ways I am only just on the playing field and observing the boundary lines and the goal posts. The play of the game will be complex and hard to manage. But I find the NAB out of bounds with phrases like ‘survive judgment’. In this case, I think they have over interpreted and have thus obscured the conceptual parallel between ‘in the judgment’ and ‘in the assembly of the just’. We need to translate what the poet wrote not what we think the poet meant. Then I think we can be clear on both verbal repetition and conceptual or antithetical parallel.

    In the case of your suggested chiasm, I have some difficulty seeing it as a structure that would be observed by independent observers. Verse 6 is grammatically and logically connected to verse 5. I can’t see separating it as ‘a moral’. In this case, the translation has interpreted ‘know’ as ‘watch over’. If the poet wanted to say that יְהוָה watches over the way of the righteous, he or she had a perfectly good word to use: שׁמר. But the poet picked ‘know’, ידע a word of critical intent – compare Psalm 139:1 – יְהוָה you have examined me and you know. This is quite different from the role of a watchman.

    As an aside, I think there are very few morals in Scripture, if any. Perhaps Jonah 2:9 (Hebrew numbering) qualifies. I would pick this verse because none of its words recurs in the book of Jonah (except 1 חסד – see Jonah 4:2, alluding to Exodus 34:6). The verse seems quite out of place. And as a moral statement, it concerns humanity, not יְהוָה.

  7. June 2, 2012 6:40 pm

    Theophrastus, I am very grateful for your offer of help. Even the offer alone is a stimulus and encouragement. Over the last 15 days I have proofed all 250000 words. There is a brief outline here. I am now going on a bridge holiday!

  8. June 3, 2012 3:17 pm

    Bob — congratulations! Let me know when you are back on the Internet.

  9. June 3, 2012 4:19 pm

    Always online w my bb torch 🙂

  10. June 4, 2012 11:16 am

    Yes, congrats, Bob! You say The [Hebrew Psalm 1] focus is on the righteous, but the frame is the wicked. Imagine the picture as the first in the gallery. Is there any reason to believe the MT leaves out anything there from older version(s) of the poem/lyrics? Victoria wondered, for example, if the Dead Sea Scrolls might have been closer to the LXX with its apparent additions. Do you think the Greek translation changes your focus/frame perceptions?

  11. June 4, 2012 12:28 pm

    Kurk – the question is a good one and I admit that I did not pursue it fully. It is certain that words got left out of the MT in some cases. The missing Nun verse of Ps 145 is obvious. In the case of Psalm 1, the additional words in the LXX have little impact on the recurrence structure of that psalm, either on its frame or on its focus. The extra words (given my limited Greek) are in verse 4. Using NETS, we see a new repetition, not so surrounding the wicked. This reinforces the frame a little. And we see fling from the face of the land. Face/presence and land/earth are not repeated elsewhere in the poem so they have no foreground impact. As additional words they might be seen as parochial – focusing on the land (local) rather than the earth (universal). And they might have been dropped since the people were no longer in the land. But that is conjectural.

    I admit, while I am looking at structure, I almost think I am more into inner conversation than the science of structure. I hope this is evident – I assume it is. Some years ago, someone named James Dunn wrote on an ancient email list that I was ‘coming through loud and clear’ (I wonder!).


  1. Psalm 1 and Poetic Forms | Gaudete Theology
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