Forming an Image of Blessedness with the Psalms

Scott Aniol

opened bible book on grey surface

The first word of the Psalm 1 captures well the intended purpose of the Book of Psalms: blessedness. To be blessed literally means “a state of well-being”; to flourish; to prosper. It’s what we might call “the good life.” This is what all people desire—we want to flourish. Martin Luther noted this: “The search for personal blessedness is common to all men. There is no one who does not desire to fare well or hate to fare badly.”1Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 14: Selected Psalms III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 14 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 287. Similarly, Robert Harris declared, “The end whereto all men are carried, and whereat they aim, is happiness.”2Robert Harris, The Way of True Happiness, Delivered in Twenty-Four Sermons Upon the Beatitudes, 1653 reprint (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1998), 10. Thomas Watson agrees: “Blessedness is the desire of all men,” and he defines blessedness as that which “lies in the fruition of the chief good.”3Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes: An Exposition of Matthew 5:1–12, 1660 reprint (Bibliotech Press, 1994), 12, 17. And Spurgeon would later remark, “It is an old saying, and possibly a true one, that every man is seeking after happiness.”4C. H. Spurgeon, “The Truly Blessed Man,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 57 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1911), 469. Yet blessedness is not, as the word “happiness” might connote today, merely a feeling. Rather, as John Blanchard notes, “When the Bible tells us that someone is ‘blessed,’ it is not telling us what they feel but what they are. . . . Happiness is a subjective state, whereas blessedness is an objective state.”5John Blanchard, The Beatitudes for Today (Surrey: Day One Publications, 1999), 54.

God promised exactly this kind of flourishing to humankind in his blessing of Genesis 1:28:

Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Three key ideas about this initial blessing from God are important for defining true blessedness in their thematic development through the Psalter. First, this blessing that God pronounces upon humankind has conditions. God gave to humankind all of the bounty of his creation for them to enjoy as his blessing to them, but he commands them, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). In other words, God promises blessing to humankind under his rule. Blessing comes, as the psalms portray, only for those who submit to God as king.

Second, the language of this blessings is kingly language— “subdue” and “have dominion.” God crowned Adam with glory, granting him the right to execute God’s rule over the rest of creation. This idea of man ruling over creation as God’s “vice regent” is what David refers to in Psalm 8, when he writes,

4 What is man that you are mindful of him,
      and the son of man that you visit him?
5 For you have made him a little lower than the angels,
      and you have crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have made him to have dominion over the
            works of your hands;
      you have put all things under his feet,
            7 all sheep and oxen—even the beasts of the field,
            8 the birds of the air,
            and the fish of the sea that pass through
                        the paths of the seas.

Notice the deliberate language David uses of man having “dominion” over “the fish of the sea” and “the birds of the air,” echoing themes from Genesis 1:28. All these royal themes are encapsulated in that first word of Psalm 1: “Blessed.” To be blessed is to realize God’s initial intent for humankind to flourish in submission to him and in dominion over the rest of creation as his regal representatives.

Third, the language of “seed” is an important element of God’s blessing upon humankind, a theme that becomes key in the psalms as well. Part of God’s blessing is filling the earth with descendants. But this idea of “seed” takes on an even more critical role after Adam and Eve fall into sin, when they rebel against God’s rule and thus fail to observe the condition of true blessedness. The reality of sin prevents man from ruling as God intended in his blessing of Genesis 1:28; therefore, God promises to one day raise up a seed of the woman who will exercise the dominion that Adam failed to accomplish and experiencing the fullness of the kind of blessing God promised for humankind in Genesis 1:28. To the Temper, God said,

And I will put enmity between you and the woman,
      and between your seed and her seed;
he shall bruise your head,
      and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen 3:15).

Both of these passages—Genesis 1:28 and 3:15—and their underlying promises of blessing by exercising dominion through a seed of the woman are key in understanding the progression of thought through the psalms and ultimately the nature of true blessedness.

Psalm 1 introduces the idea that the Psalter is meant to portray two different conceptions of what it truly means to be blessed—two different “paths” along which an individual can walk. Psalm 1 paints a picturesque image of this sort of blessedness in verse 3:

[The Blessed Man] shall be like a tree
      planted by the rivers of water,
that brings forth its fruit in its season,
      whose leaf also shall not wither;
and whatever he does shall prosper.

This demonstrates the importance of poetry. The psalmist does not explain the nature of blessedness in some sort of abstract, propositional manner; rather, he uses concrete imagery to shape our conception of blessedness. Blessedness is like a flourishing tree. This image does not simply present intellectual information to our minds, it forms our imagination of what true flourishing and prosperity are like. The tree image is also no doubt intended to draw our imaginations back to the initial promise of blessedness in the Garden of Eden.

And clearly, this introductory psalm is going to help us understand how to attain this sort of blessedness: “Blessed is the man who . . .” The psalm is going to tell us the way to blessedness; the way to a state of well-being. In fact, Psalm 1 introduces the fact that the entire Psalter is designed to unfold that way to blessedness.

References

References
1 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 14: Selected Psalms III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 14 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 287.
2 Robert Harris, The Way of True Happiness, Delivered in Twenty-Four Sermons Upon the Beatitudes, 1653 reprint (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1998), 10.
3 Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes: An Exposition of Matthew 5:1–12, 1660 reprint (Bibliotech Press, 1994), 12, 17.
4 C. H. Spurgeon, “The Truly Blessed Man,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 57 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1911), 469.
5 John Blanchard, The Beatitudes for Today (Surrey: Day One Publications, 1999), 54.
Author opened bible book on grey surface

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at www.scottaniol.com. Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.

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