Last evening I was sitting with some friends discussing the meaning of the Hebrew poem in Psalms 1:1-3.  The question posed to me was this, “do you see in verses 1 through 3 a progression of sinfulness?”

Psalm 1:1–6 (ESV)
1 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;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 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.
4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Basically, what my friends saw in verses 1 through 3 was that when you surround yourself with the godless, things get progressively worse; first you are walking with the wicked, then you are standing with sinners, and then finally you are sitting down with mockers.

But I think that interoperation is rooted in a western mentality and I do not see it that way.  Unlike our Western culture that emphasizes the linear progression of thought, the Hebrew mindset was far more holistic.  What I see in this poem is a Hebraic chiasmus of though—that is a criss-cross pattern that is not bound by the linear. Let me illustrate what I mean by breaking down the Psalm by connecting the pattern of thought:

Chiastic Structure of Psalm 1

This criss-cross (chiastic) pattern shows that the main thrust of Psalm 1 is is that the Path to Prosperity is found only when we take delight in the teachings of YHWH.

Now for those who want to dig a little deeper, let me give a few highlights on what I find most interesting about the chiastic structure itself.

First, while the verses of this poem are sung or recited in order, the pattern of thought itself is non-linear.  Verses 1 through 3 make up the main thrust of the passage.

  • Part A goes with A’: The Passage is bounded by the ideal that Blessing & Prosperity are both the beginning and the end of those who walk in God’s counsel.
  • Part B goes with B’: The place we choose to put down roots, will determine the quality of our life.
  • Part C is the central meaning

Second, verses 4 through 6 help to reinforce the main thoughts already outlined in verses 1 through 3.  These later verses capture the meaning of the first verses and restate them for emphasis.

  • v. 1a goes with v. 6: God knows the path we chose to walk.  Blessing & Prosperity will be our reward for following after God.  Destruction will be our reward when we walk the path of the godless. The structure of v.6 reflecting verse 1a, indicates it is meant to be the overall moral lesson akin to the style of wisdom literature and proverbs.
  • v. 1b goes with v. 5: The poem creates a powerful contrast between the lifestyle of those who are blessed and those who will perish.  The blessed man/woman does not take a stand with sinners, but stands firm in the judgement of YHWH.  The blessed man/woman does not seat with those who mock righteousness, but sits with in the fellowship of God’s saints.
  • v. 3a goes with v. 4: The imagery here is powerful.  We are either planted firmly in soil that will produce fruit and eternal life or we will be blown about by winds that lead to destruction.

What is the Lord teaching you as you meditate on this poem and its chiastic structure?

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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