I’m preparing to preach (for the second time in my life) on Psalm 1 this Sunday. As I re-engage the exegesis, I am struck again by the message of this first hymn in God’s inspired hymnal. When we exegete Scripture, we dissect the language, we peer into the mind of the author, and we immerse ourselves into the worldview and situation of the original hearers. But with the Psalms, some additional things are at play, one of those being the Psalm’s placement within the Psalter itself.
Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm (it sounds very much like a proverb), and, by virtue of its placement, it is the introduction to the entire book of Psalms. As such, it makes a very interesting point that we often miss when reading it narrowly in English. The key theme verse is:
His (or her) delight is in the law of the LORD,
And on His law he (or she) meditates day and night.
(Psalm 1:2, NIV)
Several commentators point out that here we have the whole book of Psalms being introduced as torah, which we translate (probably somewhat inadequately) as “law.” But torah in this context does not really mean so much God’s moral law, or even the Pentateuch. Torah means here, more generally, “instruction.” But even then, we might be tempted to think that this is saying that the Psalms exist to teach us something cognitive, to fill our brains with information about God. Torah as “instruction” is more robust. It is more like instruction that leads to growth. Torah is formation.
Psalm 1, as an introduction to the Psalter, is making an important point about the nature of worship: Worship forms us. It shapes us. As we worship, God does soul-surgery, making us different than we were. Our habits are retrained toward the things God desires. God changes our “wanter,” as I’ve heard others say. We want different things than we used to. We start thinking God’s thoughts after Him. We start living the “liturgical life,” with all its up and down rhythms, the other six days of the week.
Certainly Psalm 1 exists to encourage us to meditate on Scripture as a primary means for growth and nourishment. But there is another message contained here, simply because Psalm 1 is Psalm 1 and not Psalm 36 or 114. Worship is formational. Pastors and worship leaders should heed this well as we think about planning and leading worship services week in and week out. The center of our disciple-making call is wrapped up in the content and shape of our worship.