The Syntax of Psalm 1

Hebrew

Lately, I’ve been pounding at the anvil of syntax. Few people write about syntax today because it is a technical topic. It doesn’t generate many re-tweets, re-posts, or shares because it doesn’t address hot-button issues (BLM, CRT&I, LGBTQ, etc.). Yet, it does address them. It addresses them in the most fundamental way. The root cause of all of those acronyms is a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s syntax; and without a knowledge of God’s syntax, we merely are engaging the world’s issues the world’s way using the world’s logic and language.

Syntax is where the action is when we are searching for God’s self-revelation, which is the only thing capable of destroying the world’s “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5). Those above-referenced acronyms don’t represent mere human “ideologies;” they represent “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces of evil.” Those powers and forces must be crushed under the weight of the syntactical constructions breathed-out by God.

Without a knowledge of God’s syntax, we merely are engaging the world’s issues the world’s way using the world’s logic and language.

I performed a syntactical analysis on an epistle (a letter) in a previous article. Now, I’d like to show how to do so on a different genre: A Psalm. Common sense tells us we cannot approach an epistle the same we approach poetry.

Gospel Reminder

Lest we be accused of merely preaching “morality,” we must frame our preaching within the context of the gospel while preserving the biblical author’s original intent. I typically do this by pointing to Paul’s classic Ordo Salutis (“Order of Salvation”). It describes how God saves sinners.  

  1. Election. God’s sovereign choice of a people for Himself.
  2. The Gospel Call. The Holy Spirit summons sinners to God.
  3. Regeneration. The Holy Spirit resurrects the spiritually dead.
  4. Conversion. The sinner repents & turns to Christ by faith.
  5. Justification. God legally declares the sinner as righteous.
  6. Adoption. God formally accepts the redeemed into His family.
  7. Sanctification. The Holy Spirit conforms them into Christ’s image.
  8. Perseverance. Believers persist in obedience until death.
  9. Physical Death. The redeemed sinner’s mortal body expires.
  10. Glorification. The saint receives an immortal body.

Every text falls within one of these categories. Most of the Psalms fit in the “Sanctification” category. 

Disassemble Psalm 1

Let’s perform a syntactical analysis in alignment with the five-step process set-forth in my previous article (see link above). Psalm 1 reads:[1]

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, 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 that the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, 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.

First: Isolate the main proposition (also called central idea).

Main proposition: Righteous people will walk in godliness.

Second: Identify the supporting propositions (also called sub-points).

  • Supporting Idea #1: God’s approved ones (1:1-3). Blessed is the man . . .     
    • Sub-supporting Idea: He has consistent conduct (1:1b). . . . who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
    • Sub-supporting Idea: He has constant delight (1:2). . . . but his delight is in the law of the LORD, on His law he meditates day and night.
    • Sub-supporting Idea: He has quality character (1:3). . . . 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.

  • Supporting Idea #2: God’s disapproves others (1:4-6). The wicked are not so . . . 
    • Sub-supporting Idea: His has poor character (1:4b). . . . but are like chaff that the wind drives away.           
    • Sub-supporting Idea: He has a sad end (1:5). Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
      • Sub-sub-supporting Idea: The Lord knows his ways (1:6a)
      • Sub-sub-supporting Idea: The Lord judges his ways (1:6b).

Third: Analyze the proper weight given to each in the passage.  

Fourth: Search out all natural divisions in the paragraph (studying particles, conjunctions, etc.). 

  • 1:1      not, nor, nor
  • 1:2      but
  • 1:3      natural division: example of righteous.
  • 1:4      natural division: clear break (wicked).
  • 1:5      therefore (signals conclusion)
  • 1:6      for (signals purpose)
  • 1:6      but (signals contrast)

Fifth: Reassemble the text (see below). 

Reassemble Psalm 1

Central Theme: Godly Character Produces a Godly Life

I. God Approves of Some (1:1-3)

  1. Those with Consistent Conduct (1:1b)
  2. Those with Constant Delight (1:2)
  3. Those with Quality Character (1:3)

II. God Disapproves of Others (1:4-6)

  1. The Wicked Have Poor Character (1:4)
  2. The Wicked Have A Sad End (1:5)
    • The Lord Knows Their Ways (1:6a)
    • The Lord Judges Their Ways (1:6b)

A Final Thought

Someone once suggested to me, “You could preach the same sermon in a Jewish synagogue as you could in a Christian congregation, and no one would know the difference.” This is where the Ordo Salutis comes to our rescue (this particular passage speaks to daily sanctification). I will discuss in a later article how to deliver the message in a Christocentric context without violating the biblical author’s single meaning. 

My concern here was to analyze how God’s breathed-out syntactical constructions shaped His single meaning. How that single meaning integrates with and flows from the larger gospel message is another article for another day.


[1]Walt Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology (Baker Books, 1981): 171. Kaiser diagrams this passage in Hebrew and shows the constructions in a helpful way. My article sticks with the English, recognizing most haven’t studied Hebrew. 

Author Hebrew

Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.