The book of Psalms is the first book of the writings and sometimes the whole of the writings is referred to simply by the title: Psalms. Thus Jesus said, “that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). And Jesus was referring to the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. And yet those who pay close attention to the Greek note that the article is missing before Psalms — “the law of Moses and the Prophets and Psalms.” Thus they would argue that the Psalms are being elevated to the level of the Prophets.
The Psalms clearly are prophetic, though they are not among the Prophetic books. The New Testament Gospels and Epistles treat the Psalms as prophetic.
And yet something more is going on in the Old Testament itself. The book is not just prophetic (see Psalm 2) but wisdom (see Psalm 1).
The divisions of the Hebrew canon into three parts is supported by the texts of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Malachi and Psalms. Deuteronomy and Malachi end in similar ways – the former with the statement that the prophet greater than Moses has not yet come and the latter with the statement that Elijah the Prophet will come before the great and awesome day of YHWH comes. Malachi is taking the end of Deuteronomy one more step. Interesting for our purposes with the Psalms is that Joshua and the Psalms open in similar ways.
The end of Deuteronomy already began to imply that Joshua would be a wisdom teacher as it says, “And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the Spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him” (Deut 34:9a). This ending makes Joshua sound more like a wisdom teacher than a prophet. And the beginning of Joshua, even though it is the first book of the Prophets, reinforces this idea. The effect of making Joshua a wisdom teacher is to make the whole of the Prophets wisdom literature, this point is further highlighted by giving the Prophets a wisdom 3+1+3+1 shape.
Joshua 1:7-8 uses wisdom language like “being careful to do according to all the Torah that Moses my servant commanded you, do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it, for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” This language of having “good success” is wisdom language, the idea of the two paths (the Torah or turning from it) is common to wisdom literature.
And then note how this language sounds like Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man who…his delight is in the Torah of YHWH, and on His Torah he meditates day and night.” This wisdom psalm also emphasizes the idea of the two paths – the path of the wicked and the path of the righteous. Wisdom literature emphasizes study of the Torah. Remember though that the word Torah simply means instruction. So the reference to Torah in Psalm 1 is actually meant in a double sense – it refers to the Books of Moses but it also refers to the Book of Psalms.
While we are looking at the big picture here for a moment note this as well – the Torah of Moses has five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and the Book of Psalms is also divided into five books. This is surely intentional. The Psalms are a Torah.
But the Psalms are first wisdom literature and then secondly prophetic literature. All of the Psalms are Messianic Psalms – that is, they are all pointing to Jesus and are all prophetic.
And all of the Psalms are wisdom psalms – to be sure only some would we strictly categorize as “wisdom psalms” as a sub-genre identification. But all of the Psalms are meant to help us live into harmony with the divine pattern of “creation-order” for life. Wisdom has to do with everyday living.
Pocket New Testaments that include Psalms and Proverbs at the end instinctively realize this about the Psalms – they are not only prophetic but they are wisdom literature.
With that by way of introduction we are going to explore in more detail Psalms 1 and 2. These two Psalms are intentionally included in the beginning of the Psalter. And neither has a subtitle in the text as we have it – no doubt because these are meant to introduce the whole of the book.
Psalm 1 is a typical wisdom psalm. The ESV footnote appropriately notes, “The singular Hebrew word for man (ish) is used here to portray a representative example of a godly person.” Thus on one reading the Psalm can be talking about any of us who are numbered among the righteous (whether a man or a woman). Some translations that are more dynamic equivalent in nature have therefore changed the grammar and read: “Blessed are they” instead of “Blessed is the man.” The problem is that the Psalm is also Messianic and “the man” who is the representative example is Jesus Christ.
“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; BUT his delight is in the Torah of YHWH, and on His Torah he meditates day and night.”
I have capitalized the contrasting conjunction because the contrast is being set up between the counsel of the wicked / way of sinners / seat of scoffers and the Torah of YHWH and the contrast between walking / standing / sitting in the other path and meditating on YHWH’s Torah.
We have already discussed the two opening verses at some length in previous posts, so let us continue:
“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. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”
Note the vivid imagery similes being contrasted now in the reverse order.
The blessed man whose delight is in the Torah and who meditates on Torah day and night (merism: all the time) is like (simile) a tree transplanted by a canal of water that yields its fruit and leaf does not wither. The wisdom phrase interprets the image: “In all that he does, he prospers.” This word “prospers” is a common word in wisdom literature.
And this simile is contrasted with the simile of the wicked being like chaff driven away by the wind.
The rest of the Psalm reads, “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for YHWH knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:5-6).
Here we come to the heart of the contrast – not only the end of the wicked (not able to stand in the judgment) but the end of the way of the wicked is being contrasted with the end of the way of the righteous. The road that the righteous is on is known (relationship term) by YHWH but the road that the wicked are on will perish.
Thus the end of the Psalm serves to make explicit what the opening two verses of the Psalm were saying. And the middle of the Psalm is two “parables” (two similes) making the same point. One might argue then at the very center are the lines; “in all that he does, he prospers, the wicked are not so.” Thus the Psalm is a chiasm with a special relationship of this center and the opening and closing cameos.
Psalm 2 then is about the human king of Israel – it is clearly Messianic. Verse 7: “YHWH said to me, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’” is quoted in Acts 13:33, Heb 1:5, 5:5. The first two verses (“Why do nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together, against YHWH and against His anointed”) are quoted in Acts 4:25-26.
The second Psalm is made a pair with the first by its concluding verse: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12). Note the similar language to Psalm 1 of “perish” and “way” and “blessed.” This Psalm also is picturing the final judgment as was the first — “Why do the nations rage?” could be rendered: “Why do the nations noisily assemble?” They are assembling for the final battle. The counsel of the wicked in Psalm 1 is in Psalm 2 the rulers taking counsel together against YHWH and against His anointed (Hebrew: Messiah).
I would argue that generally there is a reason for most Psalms to be where they are in the Psalter. Sometimes they are put together because of a common theme or key word. And there are other reasons. But this is especially true for Psalms 1 and 2, which are an introduction to the Psalter. The close relationship of these two Psalms is accented by the inclusio at the beginning and end regarding the one who is blessed as well as the lack of a subtitle before the second Psalm.
It has been said, “The didactic generalization that the righteous prevail over the wicked (Psalm 1) is fleshed out in salvation history as happening through I AM’s anointed king in Psalm 2. In Psalm 1 the righteous trust I AM to uphold his Torah, and in Psalm 2 the faithful trust I AM to uphold his anointed king.” The same author says that Psalm 2 also functions to transition to the rest of the Psalter as Psalms 3-7 are David’s prayers asking YHWH to establish His kingdom despite the great opposition coming from various people. (Waltke and Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship, p.161)
It is also worth noting that some of these royal psalms (clearly being interpreted as Messianic psalms) fall at key places in the Psalter. Psalms 2, 72, 89, and 144. For example, Psalm 72 is the last Psalm of Book 2 and Psalm 89 is the last Psalm of Book 3. And in the Psalter we see that the historical David falls short, but the Psalter also longs for the coming of the messianic David – who we know is Jesus Christ. This is part of the reason for the close identification of King David and the Psalter.
Psalm 2 has four parts each with three verses. The first and last parts have to do with the kings set against YHWH and His anointed. The parts at the center have to do with the anointed king. Thus one can argue that Psalm 2 is also a chiasm.
While not technically a wisdom psalm by sub-genre as we have said the whole Psalter is a wisdom book and so the wisdom theme of the two ways shows up here. It is folly to take counsel against YHWH and His anointed.
One more connection between the two introductory Psalms that gets lost in translation is that it is the same verb for meditating on Torah in Psalm 1 as for the peoples plotting in Psalm 2. Thus the nations are being contrasted with the blessed man of Psalm 1. The Psalm, like Psalm 1, exhibits parallelism throughout. The nations gathering together noisily (Psalm 2:1a) is advanced to saying that the peoples plot in vain. In verse 3, the kings are saying that they want to first break their bonds and then throw them away.
In verse 4 we see “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” In the parallelism it would suggest that the Lord of Psalm 2:4b is the one who sits in the heavens. It is not the divine name YHWH being translated Lord here. So the point being emphasized is that YHWH is Lord – He is King. Verse 6 notes, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
The language of “today I have begotten you” is the language of installation. The King is the Son of God. “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.”
“Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:8).
The theme of wisdom is even mentioned in the final set of three verses: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.” Being wise is the general admonition and being warned is more specific.
So the Book of Psalms then is a wisdom book that is prophetic. It is also a book of Torah – instruction – but Torah (instruction) for wise living. A wise way of life for the ancient Hebrew is one where you study Torah and you long for the coming Messiah.
We are going to proceed through the Psalms looking at one book at a time for a total of at least five more posts. Book One is Psalms 1-41, Book Two is Psalms 42-72, Book Three is Psalms 73-89, Book Four is Psalms 90-106, and Book Five is Psalms 107-150.