In this commentary on Psalms 1–44, readers will find encouragement and inspiration as they encounter the psalmists’ passionate pursuit of God.
About the Author
James Johnston (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor of Tulsa Bible Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma and a visiting faculty member at Jordan Evangelical Seminary. He has led workshops on expository preaching for over 15 years and is an instructor for the Charles Simeon Trust. He and his wife, Lisa, have four children.
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
Blessed Is the Man
WHAT WILL MAKE YOU TRULY HAPPY? You have probably thought about this even if you haven't put it into words. Everyone wants to have a good life. What will make you truly blessed? Actually the Bible encourages us to look for true, lasting happiness.
The first words of the Psalms pull us in with the possibility of having this kind of life — a life that is blessed by God: "Blessed is the man ..." (v. 1). This blessing means being supremely happy or fulfilled, a deep sense of well-being. His Word carries much joy, and some versions translate these words, "How happy is the man ..." This is not superficial happiness that comes and goes but a deep sense of joy from God's grace in my life.
Isn't that what we all want? Psalm 1 offers us true, lasting happiness by presenting a series of contrasts between the righteous and the wicked. It describes two kinds of people living two kinds of lives with two different outcomes. When we see the blessings of the godly next to the emptiness of the wicked, this stark contrast is supposed to make us choose life. The blessings God pours out are so beautiful and compelling that any sane man or woman would want them.
Psalm 1 is the introduction to the Psalms. The blessings God promises those who love his Word are supposed to whet our appetites to take in and to ponder every word of the Psalms.
We will walk through this psalm by asking three questions. Who is this blessed man? How is he blessed? And why is he blessed?
Who Is Blessed?
First, who is this blessed man? Psalm 1:1, 2 describe an ideal man, the kind of person God is looking for.
The Blessed Man Does Not Sin
This ideal man is known first by what he does not do.
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. (1:1)
There is a downward spiral in these three negative descriptions. A man or woman settles into sin by stages — he walks, then he stops and stands, and finally he sits down. First he is influenced by the sinners, then he identifies with them, and finally he spreads sin to others through his laughter and sarcasm.
Sin will take you from bad to worse. First, you will be influenced; you start by listening to what the wicked say. You laugh at sin on talk shows and movies. You look up to an ungodly woman at work. You admire a celebrity who is far from God. You spend more and more time with a questionable friend. You listen to music that makes sin sound appealing. As you listen to sinners, you want to be like them. You meditate on sin, although you might not call it that. You begin walking "in the counsel of the wicked" (v. 1).
Next, you identify with sinners. You stop and take your stand with them. The word "way" refers to a lifestyle, a path you follow through life. Their sinful lifestyle becomes your lifestyle; their attitude is your attitude; their habits become your habits.
Then there is one step further as you sit "in the seat of scoffers" (v. 1). Scoffers are funny — they'll make you laugh as you turn away from God. Mockers are missionaries of wickedness. They tell jokes as they call good evil and evil good. They want to make you feel stupid for trying to follow God. If you listen to them long enough, you will walk in their counsel, you will take your stand with them, and you will become like them.
This first verse presents us with a problem that we cannot ignore. If we are honest, you and I will admit that we do listen to the counsel of the wicked all too often. We have stood with sinners. We may have laughed and made fun of someone who is obeying God. To say it another way, you and I are sinners (1 John 1:8).
This is a problem because the grammar of verse 1 requires complete obedience. The blessed man has never sinned. Willem VanGemeren, a noted Old Testament scholar, points this out.
The perfect mood of the verbs in each case emphasizes that the godly are never involved with anything tainted with evil.
So the blessings of Psalm 1 are for those who are and always have been separate from sin. Who can inherit this blessing? Who can hope to have the truly happy life this psalm lays out for us? Is the psalmist tempting us with something we can never have?
In fact, only one man in history has lived out the reality of Psalm 1. Augustine, the great North African theologian of the fourth century, says boldly about this verse, "This is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ." From Adam onward, no other man has lived up to Psalm 1:1.
A man named Joseph Flacks was visiting Palestine in the early twentieth century. He had an opportunity to address a gathering of Jews and Arabs and decided to speak on the first psalm. He read it in Hebrew and discussed the verb tenses. Then he asked the question, "Who is this blessed man of whom the psalmist speaks? This man never walked in the counsel of the wicked or stood in the way of sinners or sat in the seat of mockers. He was an absolutely sinless man."
Nobody spoke. So Flacks said, "Was he our great father Abraham?" One old man said, "No, it cannot be Abraham. He denied his wife and told a lie about her."
"Well, how about the lawgiver Moses?" "No," someone said. "It cannot be Moses. He killed a man, and he lost his temper by the waters of Meribah."
Flacks suggested David. It was not David; he committed both murder and adultery.
There was a long silence. Then an elderly Jew arose and said, "My brothers, I have a little book here; it is called the New Testament. I have been reading it, and if I could believe this book, if I could be sure that it is true, I would say that the man of the first Psalm was Jesus of Nazareth."
Amazingly, the very first verse of the Psalms points to Christ. Ancient Jews who read this psalm would recognize that David and the kings after him did not live up to the ideals of this opening psalm. Like this elderly Jewish man, Psalm 1:1 would prompt them to look for the kind of messiah who did please the Lord and who did not sin against him. Now that Jesus has come, we can see that he is the only one whose sinless life and delight in God's Word has earned him God's blessing. He is the one truly and supremely happy man (cf. 45:7). Jesus is the blessed man of Psalm 1!
So where does this leave us? The good news, the gospel, is that all the blessings of Psalm 1 become ours through his obedience. We have been joined together with Jesus by trusting in his death and resurrection. If you are in Christ, your life is wrapped up in him, and his life is wrapped up in yours. On the cross he took our sin and gave us his righteousness. The Scriptures say,
For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
God gives us Jesus' righteousness — his obedience is counted as ours. And since Jesus' righteous obedience is imputed to us, then all the blessings of Psalm 1 are ours as well. Not only so, but if the Spirit of Christ is living in us, Christ himself will help us turn away from sin, delight in his Word, and meditate on his Word. To live out Psalm 1, we need to become like Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Blessed Man Loves God's Word
The description of the blessed man continues in verse 2. God blesses the one who constantly and intentionally focuses on his Word.
[B]ut his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night. (1:2)
This was supremely true of Christ, of course. As a child, he amazed the teachers in the temple with the depth of his knowledge and understanding. When he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus answered each time with the Scriptures. Jesus began and ended his earthly ministry teaching the Scriptures (Luke 4:14–21; 24:44–47).
This is also true of everyone who belongs to Christ. Those who inherit the blessings of Psalm 1 are known by their heart and their head. First, their hearts delight "in the law of the LORD" (v. 2). One important sign that someone has genuinely come to faith is that he or she has a new hunger for God's Word. He or she loves to read it.
The word "law" is the Hebrew word torah, which means instruction. This often means the Law of Moses, but in this context it refers to the Scriptures as a whole and especially the Psalms. The blessed man finds unspeakable joy in God's Word because he loves God and he wants to learn how to please God. You will only delight in God's Law if you already delight in God himself.
Some people do not delight "in the law of the LORD" (v. 2) because they are not humble enough to be taught. "The law of the LORD" (v. 2) is his instruction, and they don't want anyone to tell them what to do. If you are full of yourself, the captain of your soul, it will be impossible for you to love God's Word.
Some people do not delight "in the law of the LORD" (v. 2) because they assume they already know God. When I was in high school, our football coach gave us a chalk talk before games on Saturday morning. He would always end by giving us a moment of silence to pray to God "however we understood him to be." No judgments — pray to the God you choose for yourself.
If you imagine that you can know God just by looking inside yourself, you are like a man looking down a well. The reflection you see is your own face. You assume that God is like you (Psalm 50:21). But God's ways are high above our ways; he dwells in unapproachable light. We can only know him if he reveals himself to us (Isaiah 55:8, 9; 1 Timothy 6:16). This is why we need the Bible. Some people don't love God's Word because they think they already know him.
God's blessing is for those whose hearts love his Word. If your heart is engaged, your head will be engaged too: "and on his law he meditates day and night" (v. 2). The word "meditate" means to murmur or to mutter. This has the sense of talking to yourself, speaking under your breath as you ponder God's Word. This is also an imperfect verb, which suggests that this is an ongoing action; we ponder God's Word "day and night" (v. 2) like a program running constantly in the background on a computer. The Word of God releases its flavor as we chew on it over time.
How can we meditate on God's Word? The foundation is to spend time reading God's Word. You cannot be deeply influenced by something you don't know. As we read, we can reflect on God's Word in a number of ways. When I pray at the end of my devotions, I try to pray two or three things that stood out to me. This helps reinforce some things I can think about all day. We can write down a verse or two on a Post-it and keep it in our pocket. Music is a powerful way to meditate on God's Word for both children and adults. My family has a set of CDs called Good Seed that are Scripture put to music, and we know all the words. Some people set an alarm on their watch to remind them to think about God's Word throughout the day.
And, of course, there is no substitute for memorizing God's Word. When I wake up at night worrying, afraid, or feeling sorry for myself, God sends me light in the darkness through the Word that I have committed to memory.
The goal of meditating on God's Word is to look at it long enough so that we see its beauty and our hearts catch fire. Pondering the Psalms will wake up our hearts to find joy in Christ. Our goal is not to master the Psalms but to be mastered by them.
Who is this blessed man of Psalm 1? The true blessed man is our Lord Jesus Christ. Every man or woman who belongs to Christ also receives these blessings through him. And if we belong to him, we make it our goal to live out the pattern God sets for us in this psalm. Blessed is the man who turns away from sin to find joy in God's Word.
How Is the Godly Man Blessed?
This leads us to our second main question. What does this blessing look like? How was Jesus blessed through his obedience, and how are we blessed in him? What does God's favor look like?
The psalmist paints a picture of the green and growing blessings of the righteous. These blessings are even more compelling because they stand in contrast with the empty wasteland of the ungodly.
The Blessing of Life
The blessings of the righteous remind us of the beauty of the garden of Eden.
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. (1:3)
The image of a flourishing tree is a rich image to describe a believer's life. There are five specific blessings in this picture.
First, this tree doesn't merely grow; it is "planted" (v. 3). Trees grow randomly in a forest; it takes a landscaper or gardener for a tree to be planted. A landscaper plans where to plant her trees for height, for color, for shade, and for a host of other reasons. In the same way, God chooses where to place us for our good to bring order and beauty in this world. There is a purpose and plan to the life of a believer. Nothing in your life is haphazard. The Scriptures say,
all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:16 NIV)
This sense of God's planning grows in the second blessing. This happy man or woman is planted "by streams of water" (1:3). The word "streams" is literally "canals." This tree is intentionally planted by not one but several irrigational canals that flow with life-giving water.
The third blessing of this tree is that it "yields its fruit in its season" (v. 3). As you delight and meditate on God's Word, you will produce fruit in every season of life. The psalmist doesn't name these fruits because they are innumerable. The godly man or woman produces thanksgiving in seasons of plenty, faith in seasons of doubt, patience in suffering, peace in turmoil, mercy when wronged, gentleness when falsely accused, strength in temptation, humility in leadership, and prayer in all seasons.
The fourth blessing of this tree is, "its leaf does not wither" (v. 3). In the middle of summer, the grass might be brown as the sun beats down and turns the land into a skillet. But this man has roots that go below the surface to drink from the waters his gardener supplies. When an unbelieving world sees a man put out leaves while he is torched by the hot winds of life, there can only be one explanation.
I think of a dear friend, Don McKinzie, whose "leaf did not wither." As his cancer advanced, Don continued to work security at the door of the church. When I left in the late afternoon or came back in the evening, Don was always upbeat, even after a hard day of chemo. Deep beneath the surface, his roots drank from streams of living water.
The fifth blessing comes at the end of verse 3, "In all that he does, he prospers" (v. 3). Prosperity preachers read this verse with dollar signs in their eyes. But the Hebrew verb translated "prospers" means "to succeed, to accomplish the work you set out to do." Jesus, the truly blessed man, accomplished his work through the cross; he succeeded through suffering and death. Isaiah says this about him:
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied. (Isaiah 53:10, 11)
In God's economy, the work he gives us often prospers through our own suffering and humiliation. The blessing, though, is that this pain and confusion is not pointless. The work God gives us to do in the place he plants us will prosper as we faithfully turn from sin, delight in God's Word, and meditate on the Word.
The Wasteland of the Wicked
The psalmist contrasts the blessings of a godly man with the wasteland of the wicked. The life of the ungodly is futile.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away. (1:4)
The picture here is of the threshing floor during harvesttime. First the heads of wheat were crushed to separate the kernel from the husk. Then it was tossed in the air so that the wind would carry away the lighter husks, the chaff, while the heavy kernels fell back down to the ground. To picture chaff today, think of a combine harvesting a Kansas wheat field. Dust and bits of straw blow in a cloud across the open prairie behind it.
Nothing could be farther from the picture of the blessed man. Instead of a solid tree, the wicked is a hollow shell. He doesn't produce fruit; his life is a husk. He has no roots to hold him steady and reach the water. He is blown by the wind. The wicked are rootless, weightless, useless, worthless. In fact, chaff is in the way; you have to remove it to find the useful grain.
An empty husk is not always obvious on the surface. Many who are chaff mask it well, even some who go to church. But eventually the winnowing and the winds will reveal the truth. Sometimes a crisis hits them or one they love, and they do not survive spiritually; the wind blows them away. And ultimately a final judgment is coming.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. (1:5)
Excerpted from "The Psalms"
Copyright © 2015 James A. Johnston.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Word to Those Who Preach the Word 11
Introduction: The Lord Reigns! Opening the Book of Psalms 13
1 Blessed Is the Man (Psalm 1) 23
2 Let Earth Receive Her King (Psalm 2) 33
3 God Save the King (Psalm 3) 43
4 Trusting God in a Bad Economy (Psalm 4) 53
5 The God Who Hears Prayer (Psalm 5) 63
6 How Long, O Lord? (Psalm 6) 73
7 A Prayer for Justice (Psalm 7) 83
8 How Majestic Is Your Name! (Psalm 8) 93
9 Praise Him for His Justice (Psalm 9) 103
10 God, Where Are You? (Psalm 10) 113
11 Faith or Flight? (Psalm 11) 123
12 Deliver Us from Deception (Psalm 12) 133
13 How Long? (Psalm 13) 143
14 I Am the Problem (Psalm 14) 153
15 The Ultimate Question (Psalm 15) 163
16 An Easter Psalm (Psalm 16) 173
17 Lord, Hear My Prayer (Psalm 17) 183
18 The Lord Is My Rock (Psalm 18) 193
19 The Skies and the Scriptures (Psalm 19) 203
20 The Faith of Israel (Psalm 20) 213
21 Jesus' Joy (Psalm 21) 223
22 The Psalm of the Cross (Psalm 22) 233
23 The Lord Is Christ's Shepherd (Psalm 23) 243
24 The King of Glory (Psalm 24) 253
25 He Will Never Let You Down (Psalm 25) 261
26 The Man of Integrity (Psalm 26) 271
27 My Light and My Salvation (Psalm 27) 281
28 My Strength and My Shield (Psalm 28) 291
29 The Lord of the Storm (Psalm 29) 297
30 Resurrection Song (Psalm 30) 307
31 Be Strong and Wait for the Lord (Psalm 31) 317
32 The Blessing of Forgiveness (Psalm 32) 327
33 Shout for Joy! (Psalm 33) 337
34 Taste and See (Psalm 34) 347
35 My Savior Will Defend Me (Psalm 35) 357
36 God's Steadfast Love (Psalm 36) 367
37 Don't Envy the Wicked (Psalm 37) 377
38 A King's Confession (Psalm 38) 387
39 Waiting in Silence (Psalm 39) 397
40 He Set My Feet on a Rock (Psalm 40) 407
41 The Blessing of Christ (Psalm 41) 417
Scripture Index 453
General Index 465
Index of Sermon Illustrations 469
What People are Saying About This
“Johnston is a pastor who rightly deserves the title ‘pastor-scholar,’ and his scholarly abilities and studies, as well as his pastoral sensibilities and sensitivities, are on full display in his commentary on the Psalms. As Johnston helps you exegete, illustrate, and apply the heart of the Old Testament in light of the person and work of Christ, I trust that your heart—like the men on the road to Emmaus—will burn within.”
—Douglas Sean O'Donnell, Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies and Practical Theology, Queensland Theological College; author, The Beginning and End of Wisdom
“While being sensitive to the original historical context of the Psalms as the prayer and songbook of the Jews, Johnston is keenly aware that there is a Christocentric end to which the Psalms point and a Son in whom they find fulfillment. Because of this, Johnston recognizes all the Psalms are messianic, and understood in this way means the Psalms are also the Christian’s prayer, song, and life book. Reading this commentary results in thanksgiving and worship. Johnston’s excellent commentary is a great addition to the Preaching the Word series. I commend it to you as both an aid to your preaching and as a companion to your devotional reading and praying of the Psalms.”
—Gregory C. Strand, Director of Biblical Theology and Credentialing, Evangelical Free Church of America
“Psalms will be a treasured volume in this series. The original text is taken seriously and the gospel is made clear. In reading it, my own affections for Christ were delightfully energized. Johnston weds his love for God’s poetry to his heart, which is so joyfully pledged to God’s people.”
—David R. Helm, Pastor, Holy Trinity Church, Chicago; Chairman, The Charles Simeon Trust
“More excellent fodder for sermons from this first rate resource for preachers.”
—Josh Moody, Senior Pastor, College Church, Wheaton, Illinois; author, Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent