September 19, 2020

Psunday Psalms: Psalm 1

King David, Chagall

Psunday Psalms
Devotional Thoughts on the Psalms

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Psalm 1
Happy is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked,
or taken the path of sinners,
or joined the company of the indolent;
rather, the teaching of the Lord is his delight,
and he studies that teaching day and night.
He is like a tree planted beside streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season,
whose foliage never fades,
and whatever it produces thrives.

– Psalm 1:1-3, Tanakh (JPS)

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The Book of Psalms, a five-fold collection of worship songs, has been transformed by its introductory psalm into a book of torah (God’s instruction). Though it is always appropriate that God’s people sing the psalms, their primary use, according to Psalm 1, is that we study them day and night.

The word “study” in verse 2 is often translated “meditate.” The word means to “murmur,” to “recite,” to “speak to oneself” repetitiously. When I was in college and seminary, learning Biblical languages by memorizing vocabulary and various forms and principles of grammar and syntax, I would use memory cards. I would pace for hours at a time, working through those cards, speaking aloud what was written on them, repeating them over and over again in rhythmic patterns as I attempted to carve grooves in my brain that I could recall on the exercises and tests our professor gave us.

The Book of Psalms was compiled and edited to encourage this kind of meditative reading. The individual texts have been arranged into groupings that share common words and themes. As we read through the book from psalm to psalm, we hear these shared thoughts over and over again and it prompts contemplation.

One traditional Christian practice of Bible reading is known as Lectio Divina. This ancient practice follows four steps:

  • Lectio—hearing the Scriptures
  • Meditatio—ruminating on the Scriptures
  • Oratio—praying, having conversation with God through the Scriptures
  • Contemplatio—letting the Scriptures lead us into the love of God

Psalm 1 encourages us to let this kind of conversational relationship with God form us as people. The alternative (vs. 1) is that we may find ourselves accepting and being conformed to other voices — voices that lead us along unhealthy and unwise paths, that harden rather than soften our hearts, that put us in the center of the universe rather than the One who created and redeemed us.

The Lord knows us (see vs. 6), which means he understands what is good for us and oversees our lives in such a way that his goodness and mercy follow us each day (Psalm 23:6). In the Book of Psalms, the first psalm says, God has given us a resource by which we may know him better through having regular contemplative and prayerful conversations with him.

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For further reading: Meditating on Scripture


  1. petrushka1611 says

    Interesting point about murmuring, repetition, and ruminating. God’s word is often referred to as food, and we are nourished when we take a small piece of food and chew it repeatedly. Dumping a large plateful of food down our throats would be disastrous, yet that’s how I, at least, have always approached Bible reading. I know every analogy breaks down at some point, and we probably wouldn’t read any other book that way, but I may try going verse-by-verse and repeating it several times before going on.

  2. David Cornwell says

    Excellent piece here Chaplain Mike. This kind of practice is transformational at every level. I can’t help but think of what might happen in the church if we as followers of Christ took this seriously. For me, of the utmost importance is this: “Contemplatio—letting the Scriptures lead us into the love of God.” May it be so.

    Sometimes when some song that I really don’t want running around in my head refuses to leave, I just start saying a Psalm or hymn until that shallow thing leaves.

    Also, I very clearly remember the the process of learning Greek. I made most of my own memory cards because writing it down seemed to be an additional process to the learning. I started using a memory association process to learn the words. Later when my daughter was struggling with some subject in Middle or High School I taught her to use a process like this in her study. She’s a teacher now, and still talks about this good method.

  3. “Though it is always appropriate that God’s people sing the psalms, their primary use, according to Psalm 1, is that we study them day and night.”

    I know I’m being nitpicky here, but where in Psalm 1 does it say this? I see that it says to meditate on Torah, but I don’t see it mention the psalms.

    • Thomas, you have to step back and look at the Book of Psalms as a whole and how it is put together. The book is arranged into five “books” and Psalms 1-2 are introductory psalms to the book as a whole. I’m not going to go into details about this in this series, but you might look at a few words I wrote about this in an earlier post:

      Any good commentary on Psalms will help you here too.

  4. Very encouraging post – I love Psalms 1! So often we think it is up to us to solve everyone of our problems, and this will often lead us to taking the counsel of the wicked!

    Colossians 3:2 – ?Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth…

  5. Epiminondas says

    I have tried all my life to read various religious tomes, Christian and otherwise. I have read the book of Psalms and the New Testament book of John all the way through. I have read works by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Almost without exception, I found them boring. That is not to say that I did not gain anything, or that I disliked these works, or that I did not find something about each that was inspirational. It’s just that I found the exercise of reading these materials to be boring and tedious. It was hard to concentrate. I love religious music and art. Indeed I spend most of my trips to Europe in Cathedrals and museums contemplating these amazing works. And yes, I do get a genuine spiritual feeling from seeing and hearing religious art and music. But please don’t ask me to absorb myself in reading overtly religious literature or sitting around listening to someone else talking about it. I’d rather watch grass grow.

    • petrushka1611 says

      Which is…why you’re reading a blog about religion?

    • David Cornwell says

      You might not be that unusual. I’m not sure how you change your predilection to find truth in other ways, and you really may not need to. Someone else may have a better idea. But for many centuries people came to find spiritual nutrition in ways that seem to come more natural to you. The great cathedrals, art, and music speak in their own way about the same eternal themes. We really have no idea about how many of Jesus’ disciples could read the Psalms. Nevertheless they came to know the Truth. The Gospel message has always found ways to enshrine itself in in these wonderful and lasting forms.

  6. I¡¯ve also been thinking the identical thing myself lately. Grateful to see another person on the same wavelength! Nice article.

  7. “The word “study” in verse 2 is often translated “meditate.” The word means to “murmur,” to “recite,” to “speak to oneself” repetitiously.”

    Which is why, I believe, the monks in their cloisters began chanting their psalms. I’d chant the psalms, but my wife would think I was going nuts in the morning. So instead, I may inflict this murmuring at my church on Sunday. Still debating whether it is possible to teach evangelicals to chant. But chanting does sort of regulate the pace with which you process text. I’ve heard it helps to slow down and appreciate subtle nuance more fully.

    I do believe that just like flash cards can form grooves in our brain to help us learn another language (Japanese is my project right now, not Hebrew), the Psalms can re-pattern our thinking after the mind of Christ. What is it that comes out when we’re under pressure? For Christ, it was Psalm 22. For me, it might be much more colorful or less profound murmuring. But the more I immerse myself in this book, the more it seems I respond to trials with trust. Even the provocative, accusing “Why, God?” can be an expression of trust, because the Lord does not despise a broken and contrite heart. Beating this language into our skulls through disciplined, methodical meditation is, imo, the best way to learn how to pray, and prayer is the expression of trust. I’m certainly no expert, but the authors of these prayers were. The fact that Jesus used them is about as high an endorsement as any prayer book could expect to receive.

    If I had only one book of the Bible, this would be it. But being a musician, I may be somewhat biased.