Psalm 1 and 2: An Odd Couple

Author: John Screnock

Psalms 1 and 2 are as different as night and day. Psalm 1 is about personal holiness. It contrasts the wicked that ignore God’s way with the righteous who meditate on God’s instruction. Psalm 2 focuses on the struggle between Yahweh and the nations. Despite these differences, Pss 1–2 can be studied as one unit using a method that scholars call the canonical approach.

The canonical approach focuses on a whole book as it appears in the Bible, rather than on small individual parts that make up a book. Although each psalm was individually composed and meant to stand on its own, psalms were collected into groups and finally put into our Psalter by editors. A canonical approach to the Psalms focuses on the function of each psalm within the context of these larger groups. The aim is to interpret the individual psalm by virtue of its connections to the greater whole to which it belongs.

Many Psalms have superscriptions that act as introductions, telling us how we should understand the psalm, but Psa 2 has no superscription, indicating that it was meant to be read with Psa 1. This circumstance is similar to Pss 9–10 or 42–43, which were written together and formed one literary piece. Although it is clear that Pss 1 and 2 were composed at different times by different authors, in our canonical Psalter they are meant to be read together.

When Pss 1–2 are read together, some unifying elements become apparent, including two echoes of Psa 1 in Psa 2:12. In Psa 1:1, those who meditate on God’s instruction and stay away from evildoers are called “blessed”; in Psa 2:12, those who trust in Yahweh are called “blessed.” In Psa 1:6, the “way of the wicked will perish”; in Psa 2:12, the wicked nations who war against Yahweh “perish in their way.”

These echoes correlate the two groups in Psa 1 with the two groups in Psa 2. The “blessed” in Psa 1 who meditate on God’s instruction are connected with those who trust Yahweh in Psa 2. The wicked sinners whose way perishes in Psa 1 are correllated with the wicked nations who war against Yahweh in Psa 2.

What is the message of this pairing? Those who stand against Yahweh as individuals will be punished in the same way as the nations who oppose Him.

Every person who heeds Yahweh’s instruction is on His and His anointed one’s side (Psa 2:2, 12), involved in the worldwide struggle against the wicked. The everyday choice to meditate on God’s instruction and not follow the path of the wicked is connected to God’s war against His larger adversaries (the nations).

Let’s continue our canonical approach by looking at the place and function of Pss 1–2 in the Psalter. As the first psalms, Pss 1–2 introduce and provide a framework for all the other psalms. Psalm 1 emphasizes the need to follow God’s instruction. Because Psa 1 is read first within the canonical approach, the rest of the psalms are seen through its lens. As a result, the psalms are more than just poetry; they are God’s instruction, His law. Like a clear, concise introduction that previews the rest of a non-fiction book, or a memorable beginning to a novel that sets the tone for the entire story, Psa 1 is a filter for the rest of the psalter.

Psalm 2 informs us of the high cost of failing to heed Psa 1. It’s a lesson that will be repeated over and over again in the rest of the psalter. If we are one of the blessed described in Psa 1, then we are on the side of God and His anointed. We are thus allied with Israel’s king (Psa 2:6) and the ongoing struggle against the nations (Psa 2:1). When we read of King David’s struggles against military enemies in Psa 35, we see ourselves as soldiers in his army. David’s plea for God to say “I am your salvation” (Psa 35:3 NKJV) is our cry. When we read of God conquering the nations in Psa 46, we can understand the victory as our own—“the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psa 46:11 NKJV). Everyone is a part of this struggle; it is just a matter of which side we choose—Yahweh’s, or the world’s.

Questions to Ask When Canonically Interpreting the Psalms

  1. What is the role of the first few psalms of the collection, and how do they introduce or frame the rest of the psalms in the collection?
  2. How do the superscriptions of each psalm affect how we understand them?
  3. What is the message of the collection?

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 6