Is Psalm 1 Prescriptive?
It is easy to look at Psalm 1 prescriptively, but this is not because the text lends itself primarily to such an interpretation. No, it is because we are sinful and see ourselves first, and think of Christ only as an afterthought. We approach the Word of God looking to do that which Christ alone could do, and has done, for us, namely: fulfill the Law of God. We see the blessing attributed to the man who is described in verses 1-3, but we fail to see the Lord’s description of the man who is his opposite: He is not so. This is not to be brushed over lightly as if it were nothing more than a passing comment. This is a profound description of the man who will not stand in the day of judgment (v.5a), who will not partake of the joys of heaven and will not be fellowshiping with the saints (v.5b), who is like the chaff that the wind blows away (v.4). The blessed man takes all of his counsel from God’s Word, lives according to all that is written in God’s Law, and who will stand (both now and in the day of judgment) – but the wicked is his opposite: He is not so.
That the wicked is not so does not mean that he is somewhat unlike the righteous man. No. He is not so. He does not bear these characteristics. He does not always meditate upon God’s Word day and night. Nor does he delight in the Law of God day and night. He is not so, in every sense. And this is why we should stop when we encounter this psalm and really ask ourselves: Who am I? Am I this righteous man who lives and breathes Scripture? Whose every step is in accordance with the Law of God? Whose mind does not waver from the Scriptures? Who seeks the counsel of the Almighty and not the counsel of wicked men? If am not so, then I am not blessed. And if I am not blessed, then I will not stand in the judgment. And is this not what we hear when the Lord Jesus says: “Be perfect, therefore, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48)? Note that the Lord Jesus does not say, “Be perfect insomuch as you are capable of attaining perfection.” He says: just as. But this is the problem, we are not so.
Then how, we must ask ourselves, can we come to this text and seek to fulfill the requirements measured out here for our blessedness? What can we hope to attain to, when the very condition given to us for blessedness has already been broken by us? We have not dwelt day and night in the Word of God. And we still don’t. We have not meditated upon His Word day and night. And we still don’t. We have not loved the Law of God and delighted in it day and night. And we still don’t. “All of our righteousness is as filthy rags” in the sight of God, and we are not this blessed man whom the psalm describes. No. We are not so. We are the ungodly and the sinner who is not so, and who, therefore, will not stand in the judgment. For God requires perfect obedience to His law, and this is exactly what we lack.
“If we say we have no sin,” John writes, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Yet it is the sinner who will not stand in the judgment, who is not blessed by God, and who will be utterly lost. So I ask again: Who are you? Can you look at this text and see in it a prescription for blessedness first and foremost? Because, as a sinner who has been shown his own wickedness before the ineffably holy Law of God, I cannot. I see myself in the second class: an ungodly wretch, a sinner, a man who is not blessed but awaiting condemnation. As one who wavers day and night in the promises of God, as one who sins and does not always delight himself in the Law of God, as one who stumbles in many ways, I see no hope in reading this psalm as a prescription for blessedness first and foremost, for it demands perfection – and I am not perfect.
The situation is pretty hopeless, if we are to be honest with ourselves, and leaves us with no question as to who will be blessed by God: The man who is perfect in his thinking, not seeking the counsel of the ungodly; the man who is perfect in daily activities, not standing in the path of sinners; and the man who is perfect in his relationship to other men, not associating with the wicked but being led solely by the Word of God. The blessed man in psalm 1 is the perfect man in whom there is no blemish. Who are you? I read psalm 1 and hear the words of Paul, when he says: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those that under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore, by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for by the law is knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19-20). Are you not included in this universal condemnation of sinners? You are.
Then how, we must ask again, do we come to psalm 1 and see in it primarily a prescription for blessedness? We are sinners whose sinfulness is made plainly manifest in the fact that we don’t see ourselves as bad as we really are. We are sinners who do not understand the depth of the Law’s demand – in a word, perfection or nothing. We are sinners who think that we, despite all that God tells us about ourselves, think we can do something to earn the favor of God. We are sinners who think that our good deeds, as reactionary and self-serving as they may be, have an inherent purchsing power before God. Beloved, do not be deceived – they don’t. You cannot purchase God’s favor. If psalm 1 is prescriptive for you, then you have not felt the thunder this tiny phrase describing the wicked man: He is not so. If you see in this psalm a prescription for righteousness and blessedness first and foremost, then the words of our Lord to the rich young ruler have not touched even the surface of your soul. For the rich young ruler sought this blessedness by doing, and what did the Master say? ONE thing you lack. ONE thing. He was not so.
But Christ was, is, and forever will be the only perfect Man. It is Christ who delighted in the Law of God, for it is written of Him:
“…Behold, I come;
In the scroll of the book it is written of Me.
I, O My God, delight to do Your will
and Your Law is within my heart.”
(Psalm 40:7-8, my italics)
And it is He who said that He came not to destroy the Law and the prophets but to fulfill it (cf. Matt 5:17). And it was He who said at His own baptism that what He was doing was necessary to fulfill all righteousness (cf. Matt 3:13-15). And at these words, as the Lord was submerged beneath the waters of baptism, and was raised to begin ministering even unto the cross, it was the Father who said: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17b).
This same Jesus is that blessed Man. And it is in Him we stand, not in any of our good works. For the wicked, which we are apart from His mercy, are not so. We need an alien righteousness to clothe us, to make us acceptable before God, to make us blessed before the eternally thrice holy God before whom even one offense is eternally punishable. We need to see Jesus Christ the righteous in psalm 1 before we even dare to see ourselves. For it is He and He alone who is the Man who is truly blessed, and it is in Him and in Him Alone that we can stand at the judgment. Not our good works. Psalm 1 forces us to scrutinize ourselves and to reckon with the truth: We are not so. But it then promises us that there is a Man who is, who is blessed, and who will never be moved: Jesus Christ the righteous. By His grace we stand. Apart from His grace, we fall.
Let us look to this psalm and see Christ fulfilling all righteousness, for if all we see in it is a prescription for our own blessedness, a means to purchasing God’s blessing by our doing, then we are legalists who do not see that God’s blessed Man is perfect, and we are Not So. Let us remember that “…when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (cf. Ro 5:6 & Ps 1:1a, 4-5a). And not only this, but “…while were still sinners, Christ died for us” (cf. Ro 5:8 & Ps 1:1b, 5b), for it is in this Gospel that we stand (cf. 1 Cor 15:1).
Christ is that blessed Man who, in His perfect obedience to the Law of God, gave Himself up for us so that we too could share in the blessedness He alone deserves. And this is the reason why, I think, Paul tells says “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the Blessed Man, “who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing” – where? – “in the heavenly places in Christ” (cf. Eph 1:3). We can understand psalms like these, I believe, if we are in Christt, for it is only as children of God that we can see how guilty we truly are before the Law of God, but how blessed we are in Christ. Let us, therefore, stand in the day of battle, knowing that He endured these same things, even unto the cross in order that we might be a kind of firstfruits (cf. James 1:18b), children of God who would one day be fully conformed to the image of His Beloved Son – undeserving and ungodly sinners who have been shown mercy and granted perfect righteousness by grace alone.
[For a more detailed analysis of the Psalm, see More Notes on Psalm 1]