Of the whole of the Psalms given to us by God, some are more familiar to the average Christian than others. If we were to poll the congregation this morning inquiring which of the Psalms could be recited from memory, we would almost certainly find this to be true. Under our consideration this Lord’s Day is one of the few Psalms which would likely appear on that poll, perhaps the most familiar, but more likely coming in second after the twenty-third Psalm. Our Psalm for today is the first Psalm; Lord willing we will be greatly blessed in our meditations on it today, but in order to glean the most from God’s word this morning, a short Hebrew lesson is in order.
We begin with a question: What are the common features of English language poetry or lyrics? I’ll give you a moment to think of a familiar poem or song. Consider what makes it work at a basic level. If you recognized either rhythm or rhyme, you would be correct; those are two fundamental elements of poetry and lyrics in the English language. These conventions are so engrained, we don’t really think about them. When my children try to make up songs, as I do at home, they almost always adopt these two facets of rhythm and rhyme. Anything else is not really poetry or lyrics, at least not to our western and English tastes.
Now, the Old Testament was not written in modern English, it was written in ancient Hebrew, and this is where parallelism comes in. People still wrote songs, and they still wrote poetry, but they did so without the emphasis on rhythm or rhyme that we are so accustomed to. This is why the first time we hear psalms put to music with little to no paraphrasing employed, it seems a bit strange, even jarring initially – it is almost completely lacking of the rhythm and rhyme that we are so used to. But if it doesn’t have rhythm or rhyme, what does it have? A significant (if not the primary) literary feature of ancient Hebrew is that of parallelism, whereby successive lines in the poetry or song are used to convey the same idea in a different way. Usually in pairs of lines, but sometimes in triplets, the author will say a thing in the first line and then repeat, expand, or emphasize the idea in the second and sometimes third lines. When recognized, the many varieties of parallelism begin to add a significant depth of meaning for the reader, who, by the way, will begin to find them almost everywhere in the Psalms, Proverbs, and prophetic utterances of the Old Testament.
Another poetic device which you may be more familiar is chiasm, or chiasmus. Chiasm can occur in parallel lines but can also occur across much larger portions of text, in these cases they are referred to as extended chiasm.  Chiasm places the climax of the text at the center, with the text at each step toward or away from the center on either end containing ideas corresponding to each other. Literarily chiasm reads like a journey up and down a mountain, with a common theme at each altitude on either side of center. So the first and last sections will correspond, the second and second last will also correspond, and so on, approaching the thematic climax at the center, which may be a pair of corresponding concepts itself or a solitary central concept. Like parallelism, chiasm is commonly found in poetic sections of the Old Testament: Psalms, proverbs, prophetic utterances, and so on.
Armed now with a basic understanding of parallelism and Chiasm lets examine our text for this morning. Instead of proceeding from beginning to end, we will examine the parallelism and the corresponding sections in the chiastic schema of this text.
- THE BLESSED WAY CONTRASTED
The purpose of the Psalm is made clear immediately, this is a song describing the one who is blessed. “Blessed is the man.” It is interesting that having established the subject of the psalm, ‘the blessed man’, the Psalmist’s first lesson for us does not reveal something the blessed man is or does, but what he does not do. The blessed man is thrice contrasted by negative examples that we are to understand as being antithetical to the way of blessing. While they may be considered individually, our newfound grasp of parallelism informs us that these three contrasts are substantially connected. Furthermore, while we may initially assume the Psalmist is merely repeating the same concept in three different ways, upon closer inspection we will find that each line functions to develop the thought before it, there is a certain progression the author wishes to convey to the reader or singer.
The first contrast is against the counsel of the wicked. Counsel refers to general instruction for life or specific advice pertaining to a particular circumstance. Now, we must recognize that it is a rare instance where one wills to live by foolish or detrimental principles; generally people will choose as a course of life what seems wise to them and accords with their desires, regardless of whether those desires are informed by God’s demands and promises or those of the world, the flesh, and the devil. All this to say, the blessed man does not take the wicked to be so dull as to have nothing to offer him by way of counsel or advice; he does not think them beneath him by purely intellectual metrics. On the contrary, he perceives that the wicked have an abundance of intelligent and sophisticated counsel to give, but himself knows it to be vain and so does not himself walk in it. In this, he his blessed. Blessed to know the vanity of the wisdom of the wicked and blessed with strength of conviction to purposely avoid such paths. Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.
The second contrast is against the way of sinners. While walking in the counsel of the wicked speaks of walking in wisdom that is contrary to God while maintaining an appearance of propriety, standing in the way of the sinner is an image of one who is a participant in moral error, it is accepting a life that is categorized by missing the mark, falling short of the goal, and transgressing the wisdom and law of God. ‘To stand’ – that phrase conveys an degree of fixity. It does not carry the idea of an accident or temporary nature. When I think of what it means to stand, I recall the famous words Martin Luther is supposed to have spoken at the diet of worms, while refusing to recant of his writings: “I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience… Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” It was with a fixed mind he said those words: “Here I stand.” Consider then what it means to stand in the way of sinners – this is more than resignation, this is resolution, only instead of resolution for the truth as in the case of Luther and countless others today and down through the centuries, it is resolution to sin and error.
The final contrast is against the seat of the scoffer. The seat in scripture is commonly used in reference to judgment, and the one who sits on it as a judge. That it is a seat of a scoffer tells us precisely what type of judgment is being issued – a self-righteous denigration of truth, wisdom, sincere faith, and godly conduct. The scoffer is wise in his own eyes, taking pleasure in the judgments he delivers, and in this way is like unto a fool. Scoffers are not content to leave others to what they perceive to be error, they are vocal ambassadors for their own view. It is here at the seat of the scoffer that the journey of worldly wisdom concludes. Think about the journey of life as a person walking forward. They encounter the worldly wisdom of the wicked and being to walk in the counsel of the wicked. On this path, they fall into sin, and become as those who are no longer progressing, but standing still, in the way of the wicked, first resigned, then resolved in their sinful way. Perceiving others as they continue walking, though not on his way, toward some distant destination, he wonders why they are progressing while he is not. He grows anxious initially, that he is missing out, but soon perceives that he is the wise one while those who continue are the fools. So he begins to speak his mind, validating his own course of life and justifying himself by casting doubt upon those who do not share his view or circumstance, mocking them for their effort which he believes to be vain and unnecessary at best or dangerous at worst. In this final state, he has completely abandoned any prospect of progress in life and is firmly entrenched in the spot he has chosen. He has become a scoffer, opining loudly and speaking hastily. There is more hope for a fool than for him. 
Blessed is the man who does not start down this path. 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.”  The corresponding thought is found at the conclusion of the Psalm – “…the way of the wicked will perish.” Not only will the wicked themselves perish on the path, but the very way of life they lead will ultimately perish as well. It is a nothing path that offers nothing, and is worse than nothing when compared to the prospect of what could have been, a blessed life on the blessed way.
- THE BLESSED RELATION TO GOD CONTRASTED
To that way we now turn. First the negative, now the positive. “but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”  Note which line this contrast is aimed at. Is it the counsel of the wicked? It is the way of sinners? Is it the seat of scoffers? It is the counsel of the wicked – the Law of the Lord is contrasted with the counsel of the wicked. Both touch upon wisdom for life, the principles that govern our lives, the ideas and thoughts that underpin our ethics and day to day morality…are they going to be worldly philosophies or Godly revelations? Is it going to be the counsel of the wicked or the Law of God? For the blessed man, there is no mixture or combination, it is the Law of God alone, he will not walk in the counsel of the wicked.
We see another parallelism in play here: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Do you see the connection? The second line expands the first, it tells us what it means to delight in the law of the Lord. Consider now with me an alternative reading, one that God did not author. If we read “His delight is in the law of the Lord, he speaks of it occasionally when with friends”, that would teach us something different would it not? It would give us a different impression of what it means to delight in the law of the Lord. How about this: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, he hears it read on the sabbath.” That again is different from what God has given us. I bring these alternative readings up in order to emphasize how the blessed man is dominated by interest in God’s law – it is not a passive or secondary interest! The psalmist is telling us not only that the blessed man delights in the law, but that delight is pervasive, powerful, constant; it occupies him both day and night! There is a challenging question for us arising from this verse; we will broach it in due time. At present, let’s examine the corresponding thought in verse five. “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous”  The righteous and wicked are compared here and the contrast is stark indeed. The righteous continue in a life defined by interest in the law of God, while the wicked are without standing before the Lord; while the righteous remain in fellowship with God and with each other, the wicked are removed in judgment and sinners will have no place in that blessed arrangement.
- THE BLESSED ESTATE CONTRASTED
We have now arrived at the conceptual center of the Psalm. Some chiasmic structures feature a single thought at the apex, in this instance we have two deeply opposed images. Vivid and inspiring, they both utilize common familiar scenes even contemporary audiences can imagine with little difficulty. I will read this slowly, and I would like you to close your eyes while I do. Let your mind take these words and paint them on a canvas so to speak, bringing forth images to match the Psalm. “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.”  Let me tell you my friends, the colors and landscapes that fill my minds eye when slowly reading verse three are glorious. A lush green field sloping gently toward a clean clear river with breakers sparkling in the blazing light of the sun, sounds of birds filling the air, the faintest breeze bringing fresh air rich with the scent of spring. My eye catches a bird in flight, I follow its path as it glides happily toward a towering tree with a trunk thicker than my embrace. It rises on the horizon brown bark and vibrant green leaves, hardly to be seen a space between the branches. As I look closer I see spots of color flashing out from behind the green, some unknown fruit ready to be gathered and tasted, bursting with flavor and nutrients. Then, as though with X-ray vision, I look at the base of the tree, peering right through the grass and soil to gaze at a root structure running as deep and as far as the tree is tall itself, even further. In a moment the scene changes, the sun is smothered by dark ominous clouds, a wicked wind whips up out of nowhere, heavy and cold. Rain begins to fall harder and harder, smashing against the tree and pummeling the earth. The storm seems to go on for hours, even days. The branches bend, the tree sways ever so slightly, and then in a moment it all begins to subside. The sun returns, lighting up the landscape and drying up the rain, the sound of birds fills the air. I see the tree, even after so fierce and dark and vicious a storm as just passed, there is not the faintest sign of disturbance. It remains as strong, tall, and vibrant as ever.
The scene changes. I’m on a construction site now and I see a man at the end of a cutoff saw, he’s been cutting boards to frame a house. He’s made several cuts and the sawdust has piled up on his left boot. A breeze picks up, and the dust scatters off his boot and into the dirt. Another gust of wind picks up the dust, blowing it away without a trace.
Perhaps your scenes looked different than mine. I share mine to highlight the power of imagery and metaphor in developing these ideas, to emphasize the utter contrast between the righteous and the wicked, and to provide an example of one way to meditate on the word of God. You’ll notice my image was slightly different for verse four where I substituted sawdust for the chaff mentioned in the word. Some farmers here may have more real life experience with chaff than you or I do. I know enough about chaff to recognize it as the byproduct of agricultural work that is roughly equivalent to dust, it ultimately gets left behind in a quasi pile or area around where the work of threshing is happening or blown away. My mind makes the substitution for construction work, where the dust gathers around various spots on the job site. It would be interesting to hear what images you had in mind here, and I hope some of you will ask that question of someone else in the foyer or on the trip home today. Nevertheless, as I said previously, when meditating on these images, the disparity between these images is vast! A tree, majestic, fruitful and full of health, and then a pile of dust that offers no resistance to the slightest breeze. A whole production system, roots, trunk, branches, leaves, fruit, whole and functional, verses a tiny spec of dust, no interworking parts or systems. A tree visible for miles weighing multiple tons verses a piece of wood barely visible unless you’re looking for it. A tree so firm it will damage anything running into it, or a bit of sawdust you would never notice stepping on.
I could go on, but the point is made by now. There is no similarity to be had here, the realities represented here are polar opposites no matter which angle you approach them. The Psalmist specifically refers to the continuation element – season after season the tree remains and is fruitful at its appointed time, whereas the wicked will not last an hour. The righteous will enjoy God’s enduring fellowship, the wicked will be judged and removed in an instant. The righteous will prosper in all he does, the wicked will perish no matter what he does.
APPLICATION: FOCUS OUR AFFECTIONS
At the very heart of this psalm, the apex point, the righteous and wicked are presented in an evocative juxtaposition. The psalm’s first and last words, ‘blessed’ and ‘perish’ have been expanded and given a dramatic picture-book contrast, leaving us with much to ponder, and I believe two pointed questions to answer.
The first question is, which person am I? Several portraits are offered throughout the psalm, various depictions of a certain spiritual estate, and invariably each one of us will find ourselves in our inner being identifying with one of them. This is no mere poem, this is the very Word and Breath of God. It searches each one of us. Which person are you? Which portrait matches your disposition, your behavior, your desires? What does your soul and spirit tell you even now under the illumination of God’s mighty word? Lord God if there be any who have been seduced by the counsel of the wicked here, if there be any who are standing comfortably and resolutely in the sinners way, if there be any self righteous scoffers here, O Lord, make it plain to them they are perishing in the perishing way! If there be any who have no favor or fellowship with you, Lord reveal it to that one, that they might seek you anew and find you who enables sinners to stand in the judgment and join the congregation of the righteous, never to be put out! There is a blessed way that remains open, and no one delighting in your word, your law, your gospel can ever fail to find it, O that someone would find that way today!
Second question, how deep is my delight in the law of God? How deep is my delight in the ways and words of God found in the pages of this precious book? Is it an occasional interest? Does it rank third or fourth? Seventh? Eleventh? If we do not delight in God’s law, is it because we have forgotten its pleasures or is it because we have yet to taste them in the first place? O Lord, might even now, in this very sermon, the sweetness of your words and ways be made known to some soul here for the first time? Lord would you even now grant the spiritual sensitivity to perceive the true measure of your word! Make us to delight in your law once again, or for the first time, may it be O Lord! Lord may our experience be such that all other pleasures and treasures be made dull and boring compared to this! Grant us repentance unto a renewed satisfaction in your holy Word!
We might consider asking the question ‘how much fruit are you bearing?’, but this would be to ask amiss. Fruit bearing is not the act of the righteous in this psalm, it is the byproduct. The act is delighting in God’s word and meditating on it day and night. To the psalmist, there is nothing else to do but this, and if it is done, prosperity will permeate every other act. The fruit will come. So to ask whether one is bearing fruit or how much fruit they are bearing might lead some to believe they ought to bear more fruit and cause them to strive toward this end. While this goal may not be wrong, it is doomed to fail if the main point of the psalm – delighting in and meditating on God’s law is the path to certain blessing – is missed. Additionally, the blessed man is like a tree bearing fruit in its season. Lack of fruit does not always mean you aren’t a tree, it might mean its not the fruitful season right now! The fruit is not the focus. We don’t meditate on fruit. The focus, the invitation, the gateway to every blessing is to delight in and meditate on the law of God day and night.
It is instructive to take the time to see these connections, to witness the logic and wisdom and glory of God in these words. As we consider them, they do their work in us, rewiring us, transforming us. How interesting to think that as we are considering this psalm about the blessed man we are in fact becoming the blessed man! As we read that the blessed man delights in God’s law, meditating on it day and night, are we not at least in this very moment doing precisely that? If you have found any measure of delight or been moved at the prospect of such a blessed life, know that this is just one of one hundred and fifty psalms that await you in the Word of God, and that is just the beginning. Proverbs, Prophets, Gospels, and more are there for your pleasure, what men of other times and places have longed for with a longing we can only imagine you have at your fingertips in more formats than you can count! And every word of it is the very breath of the living God. Delight in it to your unending blessing or dismiss it to your mortal peril.
May you be blessed and built up this Lord’s day and renewed in your desire for the things of the Lord and his most precious and Holy word! Amen.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.
Fuhr, Al, and Andreas J. Kostenberger. 2016. Inductive Bible Study: Observation, Interpretation, and Application through the Lenses of History, Literature, and Theology. B&H Publishing Group.
Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.
Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Paterson, John H., ed. 1994. New Bible Commentary. 4th ed. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
Wenham, Gordon. 2013. The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Wilson, Gerald Henry. 2002. Psalms Volume 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 391.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Pr 29:20.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 1:1.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 1:2.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 1:5.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 1:3–4.