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Psalms 1-72

Psalms 1-72

by Richard J. Clifford, Dianne Bergant (Editor)

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Clifford differs from other commentators on the Psalms chiefly in his concern with the inner dramatic logic of the Psalms - how they organize the experience and desires of the "pray-er" and bring them to a proper conclusion. His primary concern is to help readers see the pattern and progression within the Psalms, while at the same time attending to the richness of


Clifford differs from other commentators on the Psalms chiefly in his concern with the inner dramatic logic of the Psalms - how they organize the experience and desires of the "pray-er" and bring them to a proper conclusion. His primary concern is to help readers see the pattern and progression within the Psalms, while at the same time attending to the richness of their words and the texture of their imagery.

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Liturgical Press, The
Publication date:
Collegeville Bible Commentary Series , #22
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5.10(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.30(d)

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Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1â"72

By Richard J. Clifford

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2002 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-02711-8


(PSALMS 1–41)

Psalm 1

Psalms 1 and 2 together introduce Book 1 and indeed the whole Psalter. Psalm 1 is concerned with the individual facing wickedness in the world, and Ps 2 is concerned with the king (representing Israel) confronting hostile nations. The two poems are linked in theme and vocabulary: Neither has a superscription (only Pss 10 and 33 in Book 1 are also without one); the declaration "happy are" opens Ps 1 and closes Ps 2; the Hebrew phrase rendered by NRSV "the way ... will perish" in Ps 1:6 occurs again as "perish in the way" in Ps 2:11; the verb hagah occurs in Ps 1:2 ("meditate") and Ps 2:1 ("plot"). In the Western Greek text of Acts 13:33 a citation from Ps 2 is attributed to "the first psalm." In the Talmud the statement is made that Pss 1 and 2 form one psalm (b. Ber. 9b).

Psalms 1 and 2 are structurally important in Book 1. Psalms 40–41 (a single poem), which close Book 1, echo sentiments and words from Pss 1 and 2. The beatitude "happy is/are" (1:1; 2:11) reappears in Pss 40:4 and 41:1. Psalm 40:8 reprises words from 1:2 in "I delight to do your will, O my God; / your law is within my heart."

Thematically, Pss 1 and 2 contrast the righteous individual with the wicked. The contrast of the wicked (usually plural) and the righteous (usually singular) is a feature of Wisdom literature and of several psalms. The contrast sometimes occurs as part of the metaphor of the "two ways." The "two ways" metaphor does not assign people to permanent categories of good and bad but rather dramatizes the moral life as two fundamental options that are in polar opposition. By their actions, people put themselves on one of two paths: the righteous (i.e., right with God) path or the wicked path. Each way has an inherent destiny or fate: Those on the right path flourish; those on the wrong path perish. Divine action affecting people on the paths can be expressed directly by verbs with God as subject or indirectly by impersonal or passive verbs ("the divine passive"). Psalms 1 and 2 portray the dualism in dramatic symbols—a flourishing tree versus dry and driven chaff; the true king of the world versus a group of plotting and doomed kings.

The antithesis between righteous and wicked is more frequent in Book 1 than in Books 2–5. Nearly half the Psalter's references to "the wicked" after Pss 1 and 2 occur in the next thirty-nine psalms. The theme of Ps 2—the Davidic king versus the world—occurs throughout the Psalter, as do royal psalms in general (e.g., Pss 18, 20-21, 45, 72, 101, 110, and 144). That the king is important in the Psalter is not surprising, for kingship is a central institution of Israel and symbolizes the kingship of Yahweh.

Literary Analysis

Psalm 1 develops logically from its opening beatitude "Happy are those." The declaration "happy is/are" (v. 1a, 'ašrê; Gk. makarios, Lat. beatus) should be distinguished from "blessed is/are," which is a blessing of someone. The latter uses a different Hebrew word (barûk; Gk. eulogetos, Lat. benedictus). A beatitude declares someone fortunate because of a quality possessed or a choice made; it is not a petition that God bless the person. The formula "happy is" occurs five times in Job and Proverbs and about twenty-four times in the Psalter. It is normally followed by the reason for the happiness, for example, "Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven ... / Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity" (32:1a-2a). Psalm 1:1-2 defines beatitude negatively in three cola (v. 1bcd) and positively in two cola (v. 2ab). Verse 3 elaborates the beatitude by the metaphor of a well-watered and productive fruit tree. Verses 4-5 elaborate the fate of the wicked by the metaphor of the wind-driven chaff. Verse 6 affirms the outcome of each way or type of behavior.

Verses 1-2 stretch out the "happy is" formula in an unusual fashion. Instead of mentioning the positive conduct declared happy (as in 32:1-2; 33:12; 40:4; 119:1-2), the verses list the actions the "happy" person has not done ("those who do not follow ... take ... sit"). Only afterwards is the positive action mentioned: "but their delight is in the law ... they meditate." Delaying the positive reason creates a tension in the reader's mind, making the traditional formula seem more forceful. Other instances of unconventional style in verses 1-3 are the repetition of "law" (tôrah) in verse 2 instead of its usual pairing with "word," and the repetition of "way" in verse 6 instead of one of its normal pairings (such as "path"). Also notable are the developed metaphors of the flourishing tree (v. 3) and the driven chaff (v. 4).

Exegetical Analysis

Happy is the righteous person (vv. 1-3)

As is usual in the Wisdom literature, the righteous person is in the singular number and the wicked are in the plural number in order to maximize the contrast between them. NRSV makes the righteous plural in order to make the translation gender inclusive. The primary reason for "happiness" in the psalm is removing oneself from the company of the wicked. The three clauses concerning the wicked in verse 1 make their effect cumulatively. The three activities, which are not sharply distinct, describe a way of life. The wicked are a group whose values and beliefs are not subject to God, so the righteous individual shuns them.

The translation of tôrah in verse 2 is problematic. Tôrah has several distinct meanings in the Bible: a priestly decision or "teaching," an instruction, legal material, and the Pentateuch. Most English translations render the word "law" (NRSV, REB, NIV). The NJPS rendering "teaching" is preferable, however. The antithesis to tôrah in the psalm is the instruction ("advice" and "path") of the wicked (v. 1 bcd), not their legal commands. In the Wisdom literature, which this psalm resembles, tôrah refers to traditional teaching handed on by the teacher and the parents, not to the law. In the Pentateuch, tôrah refers to narrative and poetry as well as to laws. When tôrah occurs in a fixed word pair, its parallel is often "word" (dabar, Isa 2:3; 5:24; Mic 4:2; Zech 7:12). Hence the rendering "law" is too restrictive. The context suggests that tôrah refers to the psalms that follow. The point of the introductory Ps 1 is to show that praying the psalms brings one wisdom and instruction.

"Meditate" (v. 2b) is, literally, to "mutter, recite." People in antiquity read aloud or at least moved their lips because the act of reading was not regarded as completely distinct from the act of speaking.

In verse 3 the righteous person is compared to a well-watered and fruitful tree. The same image occurs in Jer 17:7-8. By implication the metaphor compares God's tôrah to life-giving waters. The imagery contrasts the fruitful, firmly rooted tree and barren, driven chaff.

Unhappy are the wicked (vv. 4-6)

In the dramatic perspective of the psalm, the choice is either to follow the will of the Lord or to follow the will of one's own group, the wicked. Only the former are declared "happy" (v. 1), rooted, and alive (v. 3). The wicked, on the other hand, are unrooted, pursued by the wind that drives them away (v. 4). "Drives away" (v. 4b) connotes aggressive and usually hostile pursuit as in Deut 28:22; Jer 29:18; and Amos 1:11. Divine activity is expressed indirectly in the wind that pursues the chaff. God is ultimately the agent. The punishment looming over the wicked is that they "will not stand in the judgment" (v. 5a). Though interpreted by a few commentators as judgment after death, the meaning is general and this-worldly; the wicked will not be able to survive a divine visitation. Only the righteous survive, as in Prov 10:25: "When the tempest passes, the wicked are no more, but the righteous are established forever."

The final verse (v. 6) summarizes, differentiating the destiny of the two ways: The Lord knows the way of the righteous, whereas the way of the wicked perishes (divine passive). The verb "knows" expresses a relationship.

Theological and Ethical Analysis

The opening poem of the Psalter declares that person fortunate who shuns the company of the wicked and stays focused on God's word in order to live in accord with it. Just as one must reject profane and wicked conduct to enter a holy area (cf. Isa 55 and Prov 9:1-6), so one must reject wicked companions to pray the sacred psalms. The poem suggests that the teaching ("law," v. 2) includes the entire Psalter. Those who pray it will enjoy life, for they touch its very source. The pray-er becomes like a tree rooted in rich streams of water.

The Fathers of the Church gave much attention to Ps 1. One group of patristic authors viewed the psalm as referring to Christ, for he was the man referred to in verse 1 ("Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked" RSV). This is called the christological interpretation. Among those holding that the "man" in Ps 1 was Christ were Hippolytus, Jerome, Augustine, Cassiodorus, and the later Latin tradition generally. Origen's opinion is uncertain.

Other patristic authors rejected a christological reference because the psalm made Christ obedient to the law (v. 2). For them, the speaker had to be a human being. This is called the ethical view and it seems to have been the majority patristic opinion.

Fathers holding the ethical view include Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome's Tractates (disputed attribution), Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, and the Antiochene School. Most Greek commentators whose work survives, and Latin writers before Augustine, interpret the psalm as referring to human beings called to Christian discipleship. The later Latin tradition depends on Augustine's Sermons, which takes all the psalms as referring to the whole Christ.

Patristic psalm commentaries are not always a good indicator of the views of ordinary Christians, however. They tend to assume all psalms are christological and demonstrate that thesis in every psalm, often with esoteric ingenuity. Many citations of Ps 1 outside the commentaries take "the man" as every human being, for example, the letter of Ignatius to the Magnesians (XIII.1) and the Epistle of Barnabas (X.10). Such citations show that people then did what people do now: use the psalms primarily to express their own feelings in prayer. Only at a second level of reflection would people use the psalms to express their beliefs about Christ.

Psalm 2

As noted regarding Ps 1, Pss 1 and 2 serve as a preface to the Psalter. Several verbal links occur between the two poems. Psalm 2:11 ends with the same declaration ("happy") with which Ps 1:1 begins. The phrase "the way [of the wicked] will perish" in Ps 1:6 is echoed in Ps 2:11, "you will perish in the way." According to Ps 1, praying the psalms puts one on the right path and endows one with wisdom. According to Ps 2, Yahweh supports the Davidic king and defends Israel from the hostility of the nations.

Literary Analysis

Like Pss 18, 20–21, 45, 72, 101, 110, and 144, Ps 2 is a royal psalm. These psalms extol the king as the Lord's anointed and plead for the king in times of danger. Royal psalms cite the choice of the Davidic dynasty as a motive for God to intervene on the king's behalf. They appeal to the divine honor: Will you allow the nations to defeat the one you put on the throne?

In addition to traditions about the king, Ps 2 draws on traditions about Zion, the mountain of the Lord. Several songs of Zion (Pss 46, 48, 76, 84) tell how the holy mountain was attacked by enemy rulers and then miraculously saved. For example: "Then the kings assembled.... As soon as they saw [the divine splendor of Zion], ... they were in panic, they took to flight" (48:4-5); "[On Zion the Lord] broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword, and the weapons of war" (76:3).

Psalm 2 contains a scornful taunt (vv. 1-3) plus a command (vv. 10-11). An oracle (vv. 4-9) intervenes between taunt and command. The taunting question is contemptuous: For what reason would earthly kings rail against the Lord and his anointed? Verse 4 gives the reason for the contempt in the two titles of God: "He who sits in the heavens" and "the LORD." According to the first title, God sits enthroned as king. From the impregnable throne, God roars with a warrior's anger (v. 5, cf. Isa 42:13), reminding the rebels that the Davidic king is legitimately anointed (v. 6). As the Lord's regent, the king dwells on Mount Zion. The scene in Ps 2 is reminiscent of Ps 48:4, where kings similarly stand defiantly at the base of the mountain.

A speaker cites an oracle in verses 7-9. Phrased in the elaborate language of the royal court, the oracle declares the king is the Lord's son and legitimately exercises his rule. Verse 9 gives the mandate authorizing the king to rule the nations. The rebellion of the nations violates the legitimate rule of the king whom Yahweh has placed on the throne. Following the oracle, the command in vv. 10-11 warns the kings to cease rebelling and do obeisance to the king.

Exegetical Analysis

The attack of the nations and their rebellious cry (vv. 1-3)

The nations of the world (v. 1), represented by their rulers (v. 2), are vassals of Yahweh and the Davidic king of Israel. The vassalship of the nations' kings was decided at creation when each nation was given its own deity and Yahweh, the Most High, chose Israel:

When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord's own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share. (Deut 32:8-9)

The sovereignty of the Davidic king is derived from the primordial sovereignty of Yahweh (e.g., 89:1-37).

Yahweh's response and oracle (vv. 4-6)

The Lord laughs scornfully at the rebellion and repeats the ancient decree installing the Davidic dynasty: "I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill" (v. 6). The oracle of sovereignty in verse 6 counters the human statement of independence in verse 3. The identification of the Lord as "He who sits [yôšeb] in the heavens," means "the One who is enthroned in the heavens." The verb yašab means "to sit as a king" as in 1 Kgs 22:19; Ps 123:1; and Isa 6:1. God angrily denounces the kings as rebels. There is no report of a battle, however. Citing the decree suffices to end the battle. Verse 6 subtly underscores the divine will, as the first person pronouns I or my occur three times in the verse ("I have set," "my king," "my holy hill").

The divine decree installing the Davidic king (vv. 7-9)

After declaring the king to be the son of God (v. 7), the speaker declares that the Lord has given the lands of the nations to him. The king as God's son is mentioned in 2 Sam 7:14 ("I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me") and Ps 89:27 ("I will make him the firstborn, / the highest of the kings of the earth"). The Hebrew words for heritage and possession refer to land or territory. The Lord has complete and absolute ownership over the lands of the rebel kings!

The position of the king is extraordinarily exalted. In the ancient Near East, kingship belonged primarily to the gods, and the earthly king was the mediator and agent of the divine order. Elaborate royal ceremonies such as enthronements and anniversaries reinforced the claim to the heavenly origin of kingship. Some scholars postulate a New Year festival in which the kingship of Yahweh was celebrated; the Davidic king would likewise have been affirmed, since his power was derived from Yahweh. Some scholars are skeptical about such a festival, however. It is possible that this psalm is based on a ritual in which enemy kings (represented by officiants) stood outside the walls of the Temple or at the bottom of Mount Zion (cf. 48:4-7) and heard the kind of oracles and warnings found in this psalm. Such a ritual would explain the compact and elliptical descriptions in this and similar psalms (e.g., 46, 48, 114).

Kings of the world, be obedient to the Lord (vv. 10-11)

Since the king has a decree of authorization from the most powerful deity, the rebel kings should take note of it and behave accordingly, that is, withdraw from their impious campaign and submit to the king. They should act as wise kings: "serve the LORD with fear," that is, behave as vassal kings. The verb "to serve" here means political service as a vassal (e.g., Gen 25:23; Deut 28:48; 2 Kgs 25:24).

In verses l1b-12a, three of the four words in the Hebrew text are uncertain, though the general sense is clear from the context. NRSV adopts a common emendation, "kiss his feet." Kissing the feet of an overlord was a gesture of political obedience: "May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust" (Ps 72:9; cf. Isa 49:23 and Mic 7:17). The Assyrian king Sennacherib boasts that the kings of Syria and Palestine brought gifts to him and kissed his feet (ANET, 287b). The famous "Black Obelisk" of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III shows "Jehu, son of Omri" kissing his feet (ANEP, plate 351). If the nations do not submit to the Lord and his anointed, the Lord will destroy them in anger. His anger is already aroused (v. 5) and is liable to flame out again with dire consequences for them.


Excerpted from Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1â"72 by Richard J. Clifford. Copyright © 2002 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

2008: Boston College School of Theololgy and Ministry

2007: RICHARD J CLIFFORD is Professor of Old Testament, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambrdige, MA

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