The choice we make (Psalm 1)

Psalm 1 is about two kinds of people: wicked and righteous. The point is not polarization (setting up an Us versus a Them, two fixed and opposed groups) but moral choice: the whole point is that we can, we inevitably do, decide which type to be, and we are being urged to be one way and not the other. If as we read this Psalm we see ourselves as a righteous Us over against a wicked Them, we are misreading. Every day we decide which we will be, and if we are not aware that we are choosing, and that we could choose amiss, then we are at risk of choosing amiss.

So Psalm 1 is on the surface about two kind of people, but for me today, and for you today, it is about two possible ways of being the one person that I am, that you are.

Accordingly, the subject of verses 1 through 3 is singular, not plural. The person making the choice is one person: “the man” in traditional English, meaning “the person.” Seen as a type, “the person” can be put in the plural, as the NRSV (“Happy are those” / their / they) and some other translations do. But in the Hebrew, followed by KJV and other English versions, the righteous in verses 1 through 3 is “the person” and singular verbs and pronouns. To choose amiss, or to fail, in bad faith, to recognize that one is choosing, is to give up one’s singularity and identify by default with the plural wicked/sinners/scoffers of verses 1 and 2.

So: the singular person chooses. But choosing, the individual becomes one thing or another, a member of one class or another, and so in verses 4 through 6, the wicked and the righteous are both plural.

So ultimately Psalm 1 is about two kinds of people. One kind is labeled at the outset (“the wicked”) and described by the provision of additional labels that refer to behavior (“sinners” and “scoffers”). The other kind is also labeled (“the righteous”) but only at the end, after their behavior and its consequences are described. At the outset, before being labeled as righteous, the subject of this psalm is identified by behavior, or, more precisely, according to discipleship: what leader(s)/teacher(s) will this person follow? The singular ish (Hebrew for human being) is identified negatively: by whose advice he/she does not heed, by not falling into line behind those other people, by not taking up residence with those other people in their place of scoffing.

That is the negative side of the identification of the one who is becoming righteous (not labeled at the beginning, but will be labeled righteous in verse 6): not simply falling into line with the plurality of the wicked. So would you then expect the positive side of the identification of the one who is becoming righteous to be: follows the advice of the righteous, falls in line behind them, takes up residence with them in the place of the respectful? Sure. But no. The one who will become righteous identified at the outset not as the follower of righteous people but as one who delights in the instruction provided by the one/singular Lord, who constantly ruminates on the Lord’s instruction, day and night.

Then contrasting similes: A tree (still singular) planted by streams of water, blossoming, bearing fruit, flourishing; or chaff (a singular, but it’s a word for undifferentiated plural stuff: the discarded husks of many grains of wheat) that is blown away in the wind, has no abiding identity or enduring utility.

But to be righteous is finally not to be an isolated individual. In the end, the righteous form a plurality, a congregation. Righteousness, and the blessedness accruing to righteousness, is inevitably individual at the outset in the standing of each before God, but it is aimed at creating a collective, a congregation, a people of God, whose collective fate is this: the Lord sees them, and continues to see them, to watch over them. The blessedness pronounced on the singular righteous person entails incorporation into the plural people of God, a plurality that does not obliterate but communes with the individual value of each singular member.

But wickedness begins with plurality, with mindlessly following the advice of the wicked crowd and joining in their mockery. It begins with absorption into a polarized Us that mocks an imagined Them, rather than with attending individually to the Lord and the Lord’s instruction. But ultimately the wicked stand, or rather prove unable to stand, before the one Lord. The fate of the wicked is to become neither many nor one but zero.

Psalm 1. A new month. Another opportunity to choose.

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