The Irrepressibility of Scripture: Psalm 1 between Jews and Christians

Mike Higton,
University of Exeter

1 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;

2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

3 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.

4 The wicked are not so,

but are like chaff which the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.

A Psalm lives in its repeated recitation. Generations of readers make it their own, reciting it as part of their own prayer, becoming now its author, now its audience. With such a text, it is easier to imagine that one’s task as an academic reader may not be to unearth its one, original meaning, but rather to explore the many meanings it has carried and generated in the contexts in which it has lived. Yet such an exploration requires more than a patient cataloguing of differences: the many recitations that echo through this Psalm have fed into, jostled, and reacted against one another; the Psalm has sometimes been more battlefield than sanctuary. [1] If meditation on this Psalm day and night is to make for fruitful, unwithered, well-watered life, its readers will need wisdom to know how their differences may be negotiated.

Psalm 1 is itself a text that implicitly asks where wisdom is to be found. It speaks in a tone of voice that an Israelite reciter might have recognised from wisdom literature, its basic form a contrast between two ways of life that would be familiar to any reader of Proverbs. We might expect such a form to contain, say, advice at once poetic and domestic on how an individual should live his life: advice from a father to a son, perhaps; advice on how to live a well-ordered, fruitful and peaceable life. Psalm 1, however, fills this sapiential form with slightly different content. Jerome Creach, focusing on verse 3a (‘He is like a tree planted by streams of water’), argues that Israelite reciters would have assumed this to be a tree planted and tended specifically in the temple precincts and then would have found that this temple-flavoured imagery had been used to speak about the security provided by Torah . [2] For an Israelite reciter, the Psalm might have suggested that wisdom (both the kind of ‘knowledge of what to do’ that fathers pass on to sons, mothers to daughters, [3] and the kind of wisdom that is the shape of a life well-regulated by participation in the temple cultus) is anchored and established most securely by Torah . Torah is where the Israelite reciter can hope to find the true shape of living. Where shall wisdom be found, according to the Israelite’s recitation of this text? In the delightful Torah of God.

For other reciters, the Psalm will mean something different. When the reciter of the Psalm is no longer an Israelite follower of Torah, but a North African Christian bishop, for example, the context in which the recitation takes place decisively reshapes the meaning. Augustines commentary on the Psalm begins:

‘Blessed is the man who has not gone off ( abiit ) in the counsel of the ungodly.’ This should be understood to be about our Lord Jesus Christ, the man of the Lord ( homine Dominico ). ‘Blessed is the man who has not gone off in the counsel of the ungodly,’ as the earthly man did [i.e. Adam see 1 Corinthians 15:47], who gave in to his serpent-deceived wife, and transgressed the commandment of God. ‘Nor stood in the way of sinners.’ For although he entered the way of sinners, by being born as sinners are, he [our Lord Jesus Christ] did not ‘stand’ in it, because the enticements of the world did not hold him. [4]

The Psalm’s contrast between the righteous and the wicked is no longer read as a contrast between the Torah-observer and the mocker. It is re-read as the contrast between Christ and Adam, and Augustine sees the Psalm as a description of the roots and nature of sin and righteousness, the legacies respectively of Adam and Christ. [5] And it is hard to see, in the context in which he recited the Psalm, how Augustine could have read any differently. If this Psalm presents any kind of paradigmatic description of sin and righteousness, then of course it is about Adam and Christ. That is simply obvious, for Augustine.

Of course, there are others in the Patristic tradition who don’t provide a Christological reading of the Psalm including such substantial figures as Basil of Caesarea in the East and Hilary and Ambrose in the West; there are some who reject the whole idea more forcefully, such as Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. But the reading of this Psalm that takes it to be about Jesus seems to have become dominant in the West before long, and was embedded not just in standard commentaries, but found its place in Western liturgy. A Christological reading became the plain sense reading of the text, for generations of Christian readers. [6]

The Christological reading is, for Augustine and the tradition, the literal reading of this prophetic text. This is a text that, for them, speaks straightforwardly about Jesus, and there no trips or traps to suggest to the alert reader that time needs to be spent unearthing a deeper, still more edifying meaning: allegory appears only as playfulness around the edges. The text is given by God for the building up of life in Christ; reading it, understanding its meaning, is an aspect of the believers journey deeper into the life of God:

The fulfilment and the end of the law, and of all holy Scripture, is the love of one who is to be enjoyed, and the love of those who can enjoy that other in fellowship with ourselves. [7]

Where shall wisdom be found, according to Augustines recitation of this text? In Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God.

This Christian recitation is not, however, the only successor to the earlier Israelite recitation. If it were, we might be able to talk about a simply plurality of meanings: the Psalm meant x here, but y there. Things are not so simple, however, nor so peaceful, and we can be sharply alerted to that fact if we look at another Christian reading of the Psalm, that of Martin Luther.

In the preface to his first lectures on the Psalms, delivered between 1513 and 1516, Luther rejects those who

explain very many psalms not prophetically but historically, following certain Hebrew rabbis who are falsifiers and inventors of Jewish vanities. No wonder, because they are far away from Christ (that is, from the truth). [8]

With regard to Psalm 1 specifically, he says:

Whatever is said literally concerning the Lord Jesus Christ as to his person must [also] be understood allegorically of a help that is like him, and … tropologically of any spiritual and inner man against his flesh and the outer man. Let this be made plain by means of examples. Blessed is the man who walks not [in the way of sinners] (Ps 1.1). Literally this means that the Lord Jesus Christ made no concessions to the designs of the Jews and of the evil and adulterous age that existed in his time.

In his second cycle of Psalms lecture, from 1518-19, Luther offers the following explanation of the Psalms description of the wicked as chaff which the wind drives away:

he does not simply call them chaff, but chaff which the wind drives…. This applies to the Jews first of all. They are driven about in a threefold manner. First, in a bodily manner by the whirlwind. That is, by the will and indignation of the mean among whom they live. As we can see, they have no fixed home but at every moment are exposed to such a wind, which drives them here and there. Secondly, their minds are carried in all directions by the wind of many doctrines taught by unholy doctors, since they are not planted in the Christian faith…. Thirdly, on the Last Day they shall be scattered by the eternal stormwinds of the unbearable wrath of God…. [9]

‘[D]riven about … in a bodily manner … by the will and indignation of the mean among whom they live.’ In Luther’s hands, in other words, Psalm 1 becomes a mandate for pogroms.

Now, one could argue that this is simply the frothing up of Luther’s all too well known anti-Semitism, as he uses the Jews as fuel for the fire on which he wishes to burn the teachings and practices of Rome. One might, that is, suggest that however violently objectionable his reading is it shouldn’t be allowed to taint the whole tradition of Christological readings of this Psalm. I’m not so sure. I think one could rather more convincingly argue that Christological reading of this kind, even when it is dressed up in less offensive garb, is inherently supersessionist and that Luther simply displays the logic of this supersessionism with frightening clarity. If the Christological interpreter says (as we saw Augustine say) ‘This text is really about Jesus, the wisdom of God’ and so implicitly or explicitly says, ‘This text is not really about any Torah -wisdom for which Jesus is irrelevant or peripheral,’ then he or she is saying that readers who do not find Christ here are kept from the Psalms proper meaning; they are outsiders to this text. In other words, ownership of the text is claimed, and previous owners are disinherited — superseded. Jewish readers of the Psalm are either condemned by it, or they have not understood it; they are placed on the side of the wicked who do not truly meditate on the scriptures day and night, and are therefore those whose hermeneutical advice, whose interpretive path, whose exegetical seat will be shunned by the righteous — and whose unChristed readings will blow away like chaff before the wind. Where shall wisdom be found, according to Luther’s recitation of this text? Not from the Jews, that’s for certain.

In this conflicted situation, where is wisdom for reading to be found? For me as a Christian theologian, there is no easy way out. I read this text as one for whom Jesus of Nazareth is unavoidably the way in to the Hebrew Scripture. His words and actions both make sense in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures, and are in turn a way of making sense of those Scriptures. Jesus’ life is Christians primary commentary or gloss upon the Hebrew Scriptures, and they cannot deny this without giving up either on their faith, or on reading the Hebrew Scriptures altogether — and it would be ironic to be saved from supersessionism only by clutching Marcion’s proffered hand.

Let me state this a little more carefully. When I find a text in those Hebrew Scriptures that says, this is what righteousness means, I cannot properly avoid asking, Well, what does Jesus say about that? I don’t mean that I have to scan the words attributed to Jesus to see whether he alludes to or quotes the passage in question. Rather, I read the life of Jesus as making a claim about the nature of the righteousness that belongs to and responds to the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. With playful seriousness, therefore, it is quite proper for me to ask what happens if I take this text about righteousness and read it as describing the life of the one who, for me, is the paradigm of righteousness. What happens, I can’t but ask, if I take ‘the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked’ to be Jesus of Nazareth?

Well, what does happen if I take Psalm 1 to be about Jesus? I might begin by pointing out that the wicked in this Psalm at first sight seem to be substantial, to amount to something: they have a position, a path, a way of thinking. The righteous, on the other hand, seem at first sight less substantial than the wicked. If I read this contrast with Jesus in mind, I might find the rejection of the attractive stability of the ungodly sharpened. To verse 1’s progression of metaphors from walking to standing to sitting, [10] I could add ‘lying down,’ and note that Jesus was said to be one who had no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20 and parallels). Put even more strongly, the only way in which Jesus walks is the way of that leafless, unwatered tree that grew on Golgotha. His way looks like the way that leads to destruction, to the curse, to the end of prosperity. And yet Christians claim that this way of the cross is the way of life, that it is watched over by God, and that it is the only way that stands on the day of judgement. It is the wicked who seem to have a place to walk, stand, sit and lie down, the righteous who seem to have no place to stand — but Jesus and the Psalm announce that appearances can be deceptive.

Note, however, that to head off in this direction is, to pursue a trajectory of reading of the Psalm that would already have been possible within the Hebrew canon . You could put Psalm 1 alongside, say, the book of Job and its critique of the Deuteronomic equation between obedience and prosperity. But you could also put it alongside any number of other Psalms in which the prosperity of the righteous and the come-uppance of the wicked is hoped and prayed for, yet not seen — while the ‘prosperity of the wicked’ (Ps 73:3) is all too evident. (In fact, someone has already put it alongside those other Psalms: at some point, Psalm 1 seems to have been pressed into action, or even composed, as a preface to the Psalter as a whole.) In other words, the Christological reading of the Psalm that I am suggesting simply twists the knife in a fissure already opened up by the placing of this Psalm within the Psalter and the wider Hebrew Bible. There is no straightforward opposition between my Christological reading and the field of possible Jewish readings of the text.

I cant stop there, however. Once I have got this far, I can’t really avoid asking whether Jesus’ righteousness, the way of the cross, can be understood as ‘delight … in the law of the Lord.’ [11] I might find myself led to think of Jesus claim that not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until it is all accomplished (Matthew 5:18), and that no-one whose righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees can enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20); I might also find myself thinking of Jesus’ claim that the whole of the law and the prophets hangs on the command to love God and to love neighbour (Matthew 22:40). And so I might say that the commentary upon this Psalm that Jesus’ life offers is not a commentary that must deprecate its focus on Torah. It need not see delight in Torah as a doctrine that needs to be rejected or overcome or surpassed; it can accept that focus and then provide a contestable but serious interpretation of what delight in the law involves. In the reading of the Psalm that Jesus provides, or is, the way of righteousness is the way of the cross, the way of the cross is the way of love and justice, and the way of love and justice is the way of obedience to and delight in the law. Once again, the Christian reading need not be seen in opposition to the field of possible Jewish readings, but as a particular position within that field.

I’m being too irenic, however. A Jewish reader at this point might draw my attention to one of the elements that my exposition so far has ignored: the reference to the ‘congregation of the righteous.’ What this Psalm opposes to the way of the ungodly, the Jewish reader might say, is obedience to Gods law in the context of the people of Israel. It opposes to the false stability of the wicked a different kind of continuity and stability: the continuity and stability of people and observance. Holiness and blessing, in the Psalms terms, cant be detached from these things. And yes, these contrast with the visible stability of the ungodly (the history of the Jewish people over the last two and half thousand years is enough to show us that), but we should not overdraw that contrast until it becomes a contrast between the purely material stability and prosperity of the ungodly and the purely spiritual stability and prosperity of the godly. On a Jewish reader’s lips, therefore, the Psalm might become a challenge to think about the material conditions of holiness in the Hebrew Bible: law, people, land. Isn’t that what it really means, the Jewish reader might say, to be in the congregation of the faithful, planted, watered, and in the deepest sense prosperous? Isn’t it no accident that the stream and tree language in the Psalm is redolent of land and of temple? To put it another way, hasn’t the Christian reading too easily air-brushed out the full meaning of ‘Torah?’

The Christian reader might respond by arguing that the Psalm is precisely part of a trajectory in the Hebrew Bible whereby land and temple are relativised or redefined in favour of delight in and obedience to Torah, and that the Psalm is therefore representative of one of the shifts in the understanding of righteousness which made the Jesus movement possible as a Jewish righteousness sect in the first century. And at this point the Christian reader could reach for the weighty commentary by Hans-Joachim Kraus, who insists that the Psalms original setting is in a context in post-exilic Israel where ‘”the congregation of the righteous” is no longer all of Israel but a circle of those who have come out through decisions and separations, a group that thinks of itself as opposed to the mass of the ungodly’ (115); it is the congregation of those for whom Torah is experienced internally as revelation — for whom the heart of obedience, of observance, has moved inwards so that (as von Rad says), the Sitz im Leben of Torah has become ‘more and more the heart of man.’ [12]

But the Jewish reader might interrupt to point to the end of Krauss commentary on the Psalm:

The life-style of the [righteous person], especially his all-encompassing love and delight in the [Torah], is sustained … by the Torah’s own lively power to communicate and influence…. But everything that is stated in Psalm 1 about the [righteous person] basically entails a character that transcends any one individual…. The picture of the fortunate [righteous person] definitely bears the features of the super individual, the paradigmatic person. The ‘Pharisee,’ with his utmost rigoristic obedience to the Law, cannot fill out this picture. The New Testament declares that Jesus Christ, ‘whom God made our … righteousness’ (1 Cor 1:30) is the fulfilment of this original picture that the Old Testament psalm had in mind and already joyously embraced. [13]

Our Jewish reader might at this point ask whether Krauss whole interpretation his whole reading of the nature of Torah and its observance, his claim about the Sitz im Leben of this Psalm, as well as von Rads about the Sitz im Leben of Torah as a whole has not been secretly determined by this conclusion which is both Christological and supersessionist, however dressed up it might be in a history-of-religions narrative about individualisation and internalisation. Once again, the Jewish interlocutor might say, Torah is being too easily spiritualised by the Christian reader.

And so the argument might go on, and on, and on. I have not reached, and see no easy route by which I could reach, a resolution which would be at once Christological and entirely free from criticism by Jewish readers. But such a resolution is not necessarily the point, and is not the only way by which supersessionism can be overcome. What I have tried to begin sketching is not a pathway towards consensus, but the way that the Psalm can host productive disagreement. It can open up for a discussion that probes Christian and Jewish constructions of righteousness and tries to challenge simplistic binary construals (national-legal versus individual-spiritual) or simplistic narratives (internalisation, individualisation) connecting the two. The Psalm can become both touchpaper and fuel for a wider Jewish-Christian argument about the conditions for righteous life, for the shape of living, for wisdom.

This kind of ruminative, argumentative attention to the text does not lead to any decision about the one thing that this text really says. It leads rather to attention to the different things that the text says in different company, to the difficulties that are generated when one tries to read it in those different companies, and to what happens when, instead of letting one of those companies speak to the exclusion of all others, we set ourselves to follow the conversations or arguments that these differing companies of readers can generate together.

The Christian response to the supersessionism of some of their traditions of reading cannot be for them to abandon Christological reading. If supersession was the act by which Christians evicted the previous readers of this Psalm from their seats, the rupture between peoples caused by this act will not be repaired if Christians simply vacate that seat in turn, leaving it to its original owners. Rather, the evils of supersessionism can only be repaired by Jews and Christians sitting down together , around the text, with a commitment to read alongside, to read in conversation with, to read interrupted and needled and bewildered and delighted by one another — supersessionism overcome by co-sessionism.

Christian readers will have their own, Christian theological reasons for doing this, and for trusting that it will lead somewhere interesting, reasons distinct from (though possibly analogous to) Jewish reasons. Generically, Christians will say that it is in conversation with Christ that all things find their fullest meaning, but that it is only in conversation with all things that they themselves will understand Christ most fully. They have more of Christ still to receive, and as they don’t own Christ, so they don’t own any texts or the people through whom that ‘more’ will be received. More specifically, though, Christian theology will say that the God of Jesus Christ is and remains the God of the Jewish people, and that the God of the Jewish people is the God of Jesus Christ, and that it is the dialectic between these two claims that is embodied in a commitment to read together, in conversation, holding on for a blessing.

This theoretical, theological commitment and hope is reinforced, however, by the discovery in practice (in conversations like those of Scriptural Reasoning), that the text is indeed capacious enough for this expansive, argumentative conversation, that to read alongside those who read differently does indeed drive the participants deeper into the unexpected resources of their own houses’ wisdom, and that the debates and discussions involved need not always be a matter of earnest and agonised seriousness, but of friendship and of delight.

When freed from our control and rediscovered in conversation, the text yields more abundant fruit. It becomes an arena for delighted, multi-voiced, sometimes cacophonous exploration; it becomes more uncontrollable, more surprising, more irrepressible. If it is, as this Psalm 1 suggests, a stream of water, then it is not a slow, calm and silent upwelling from which one may sip in a controllable, predictable way. It is something more like a garden hosepipe in the hands of unruly toddlers.

And that vision of the irrepressibility of Scripture, enthusiastically soaking all those within range, firing off in unexpected directions amidst a babble of voices and laughter, and captivating all around with snatches of unexpected wisdom — well, I suspect that all those who have met him will understand why this seems to me an appropriate image to have in mind when honouring David Ford.


[1] See, for example Uwe F.W. Bauer in ‘Anti-Jewish interpretations of Psalm 1 in Luther and in modern German Protestantism,’ Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 2 (available online at <>, 10/09/07.

[2] Thus tr is implicitly compared to the temple, and is perhaps seen as the temple’s replacement; Psalm 1:3 seems to indicate a shift in the perceived source of safety, from temple to tr . Jerome Creach, ‘Like a Tree Planted by the Temple Stream: The Portrait of the Righteous in Psalm 1:3,’ Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61.1 (1999), 3446: 46.

[3] Stuart Weeks, ‘Wisdom in the Old Testament’ in Stephen C. Barton (ed.), Where shall Wisdom be Found? Wisdom in the Bible, the Church and the Contemporary World (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 1930: 25.

[4] Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos , PL36, on Ps 1.1; Latin text available online at <>; translation loosely based on that in A. Cleveland Coxe and Philip Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers: First Series , vol. 8 (New York: Christian Literature Co. 1888), 1, available online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library , <>, 10/09/07.

[5] It is worth noting in passing, by the way, that Christians were not the only ones up to this sort of thing. Rabbinic comments identify the righteous man variously as Adam, Abraham and Levi. See The Midrash on the Psalms , tr. W.G. Braude (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 2.13, 2.18, 2.19.

[6] For the Patristic (and Medieval) data, see Chrysogonus Waddell, ‘A Christological Interpretation of Psalm 1?: The Psalter and Christian Prayer,’ Communio 22 (Fall 1995), 50221.

[7] De doctrina Christiana 1.35(39), in Philip Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers: First Series , vol. 2 (New York: Christian Literature Co. 1886), 533, translation slightly altered; available online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library , <>, 10/09/07.

[8] Luther, First Lectures on the Psalms [Dictata super Psalterium] I: Psalms 175 , in Hilton C. Oswald (ed.) Luther’s Works , vol. 10 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1974), Preface to the Scholia, 7.

[9] From Works on the Psalms (Operationes in Psalmos), in Jaroslave Pelikan (ed.), Selected Psalms III , Luthers Works , vol. 14 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1958), 306.

[10] Commentators are divided on whether the three clauses of verse 1 are a progression or a simply parallelism. See, for example, Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 159: A Commentary , tr. Hilton C. Oswald from the 5 th German edition, 1978 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 115: ‘The climax is worth noting’; but compare Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 150 , Word Biblical Commentary 19 (Waco TX: Word, 1983), 60: it would be stretching the text beyond its natural meaning to see in these lines three distinct phases in the deterioration of a persons conduct and character. For a detailed discussion, see G.W. Anderson, ‘A note on Psalm 1:1,’ Vetus Testamentum 24.2 (April 1974), 231’3 — though his discussion does not actually touch on the progression of the verbs , simply demonstrates that there is no progression in the descriptions of the wicked .

[11] Augustine’s discussion of this ‘delight in the law’ distinguishes between those for whom the law is a heteronomous burden, and those for whom the law is discerned by the mind ( mente conspicitur) , who strictly speaking do not need the letter of the law. In this latter sense, it is entirely appropriate to speak of Jesus as delighting in the law. ( Enarrationes in Psalmos on 1.2; NPNF translation — see n.4 above). Hilary, on the other hand, thinks this clause forbids one to understand the Psalm as a description of Christ (See Hilary of Poitiers, Homilies on the Psalms 1.1, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds), Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers: Second Series , vol.9 (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1898), 236; available online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library , <>, 10/09/07).

[12] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology vol. 1: The Theology of Israels Historical Traditions , tr. D.M.G. Stalker from the 2 nd German edition (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962), 200.

[13] Kraus, Psalms 159 , 121.

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