Guilt by Association
1 Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
THE OPENING BLESSING of the psalm (ʾašre) is common enough in the wisdom teaching of the Old Testament to recognize it as a characteristic method of the sages to exhort hearers to right action.13 The word “blessed” conveys the idea of happiness that flows from a sense of well-being and rightness. The same term probably originally underlies the “blessed” of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.14
Who does not walk … stand … sit. The positive exhortation leads to a negative example. This is a lifestyle to be avoided, not emulated. The sequence of verbs employed describe a life immersed and focused on association with all that is opposed to God. The order of these verbs may indicate a gradual descent into evil, in which one first walks alongside, then stops,15 and ultimately takes up permanent residence16 in the company of the wicked.
The passage has interesting similarities with the important command following the Shema (Deut. 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one”) that faithful Israelites were to share Yahweh’s commandments with their children “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:7).17 While the parallels are not exact, both passages illustrate a totality of experience in which one is immersed, focused, and committed to a culture of association that dominates and shapes a worldview. In light of the move in Psalm 1:2 to direct the hearer’s attention to constant meditation on and delight in Yahweh’s torah, the contrasting profession and command from Deuteronomy may well have been in the back of the psalmist’s mind.
Wicked … sinners … mockers. The categories of persons mentioned can be instructive as well, and these groups of opponents of God return often in the remainder of the psalms. The “wicked” (rešaʿim) are those who have been judged “guilty” in a court of law or would be if brought to trial. In a legal contest between two parties, a judge would hear the testimony of the parties and make a determination (mišpaṭ) of the facts of the case and what the individual parties should have done in response. What actually happened is then compared with this mišpaṭ, and judgment is pronounced on each party. Those who appropriately fulfilled the expectations of the mišpaṭ were proclaimed ṣaddiq (“righteous”), while those who failed to live up to this standard were pronounced rašaʿ (“guilty”). These pronouncements were made publicly, and so the rešaʿim (plural of rašaʿ) bore the approbation of their community.
The second term, ḥaṭṭaʾim (“sinners”), emphasized the fallibility of individuals who have an inclination to sin. Such persons have not just committed an isolated act of evil but live lives dominated and shaped by their inclinations. The difference of nuance between rešaʿim and ḥaṭṭaʾim is perhaps similar to that of the person convicted of a single theft compared with a career criminal. In the psalms, however, these two terms are often synonyms.
The final term, leṣim (“mockers”), describes those who have gone beyond a few sinful acts and even a personal life marked by an inclination to wrong-doing. They actively seek through their mockery to express disdain for right living and seek to belittle and undermine those who want to be righteous.18 Mockers act out of overweening pride (Prov. 21:24) and refuse to seek or accept instruction or correction (9:7, 8; 13:1; 15:12). Through their disdain they stir up anger and strife (20:1; 22:10; 29:8). There is solidarity in numbers, and those who associate with such mockers often adopt their mocking ways and their ridicule of the path of righteousness.
Kathleen Norris recounts how during a month-long retreat among Trappist monastics the daily recitation of the psalms began to reshape and restructure her spiritual understanding and priorities for life.25 Such an extended encounter with the depths of praise, lament, thanksgiving, and a myriad of other moments of life poured out before God can have the (intended) effect of challenging our often simplistic understanding of life and faith, tearing us down and rebuilding us from the ground up to be more in the image of the God who made us. There is something about reading the psalms from the beginning of the Psalter to the end, day after day, that does not allow us to master them—picking and choosing what suits us, shaping them to our will, fitting them to our perceived needs and moods. Instead, such daily and continuing familiarity with these texts—more than any other, I believe—ultimately masters us and shapes us to the will of God in ways we can hardly anticipate. That is the fearsome challenge of the psalms: In exposing ourselves to them for the long term, we discover that God knows us and our “way” far better than we know ourselves.
On avoiding association with evil. Psalm 1 makes it clear that the “way” God knows is not discovered by following the footsteps or taking up residence in the company of sinners. Just who are these wicked ones we are encouraged to avoid? A variety of studies have been made of the “enemies” who appear in the psalms.26 Most often the enemies confronted there fall into one of three broad categories: (1) pagan unbelievers hostile to the faith and Yahweh, (2) members of the faith community who nevertheless live contrary lives, and (3) those within the faith community who misguidedly attack what they see as the faithless living of the psalmists.
As Christians whose community of faith cuts across boundaries of nationality and ethnicity, we must find new ways of understanding those references to the national enemies of Israel. Our kingdom—the kingdom of God that Jesus says is not of this world—can never be equated with any particular nation of the world, regardless how tempted we are to do so. Perhaps the best response to these national enemies is to relate them in our experience to the enemies of the kingdom of God—those who stand outside the faith and seek to tear it down, or those who in all they say and do stand directly opposed to the world-shaping principles of love, forgiveness, and the absolute dependence on God that Jesus calls citizens of God’s kingdom to display.27
The wicked in the psalms are more than just national enemies. Many are clearly influential members of the psalmist’s society who use their influence and power for evil, oppressing those who are less powerful and exploiting them for personal gain. The collective voice of the psalmists calls the readers/hearers to take their stand with the oppressed, afflicted, and poor—and over against those who abuse power and pervert justice.
The psalmists’ treatment of the enemies is often harsh. Frequently they envision (and even desire) for the wicked complete rejection by God and total destruction. Such attitudes can leave us troubled when we remember Jesus’ encouragement to love our enemies and pray for rather than against them. Jesus himself was condemned for associating with sinners.28 How then can we justify the kind of separation Psalm 1 seems to enjoin? Two responses may help to set this question in its proper perspective.
(1) The psalmists are only too aware how narrow a line separates them from the wicked. While they may at points come across as very sure of their righteousness (e.g., Pss. 17; 26), they are also fully aware of their own sinfulness and how easy it would be to adopt the callous attitude and lifestyle of the wicked (cf. Pss. 32; 38; esp. 73). When Jesus’ association with sinners is questioned, he responds to his critics somewhat cryptically: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.… For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12–13). The less than immediately obvious point of this retort is that the Pharisees themselves were sinners in need of the saving grace extended by Jesus to all those who acknowledged their sin. He was not implying that the Pharisees had no need of him, but rather that they needed to recognize their essential identity with the sinners they so strongly condemned. The psalmists are deeply aware of their need of God’s grace and the redeeming power of his forgiveness (cf. Pss. 32; 103).
(2) It is important to note that what Psalm 1 cautions against is adopting the attitude and lifestyle of the wicked, not some casual contact with them or especially not the kind of redemptive association that Jesus modeled. The warning is against taking the “way” or path of the wicked, standing with them, and ultimately taking up residence in their territory. The kind of association with unbelievers Jesus models is an essential part of our redemptive role as bearers of good news and witnesses to the transforming power of Jesus Christ in our own lives.