God Knows. Psalm 1 – Part Six

  • July 13, 2019
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The flip side of the coin, the alternative to a happy, blessed and successful life, is described in the last three verses of Psalm 1:

“Not so the wicked, they are like chaff which the wind drives away” (verse 4).

Anyone who grew up with agriculture before the 20th century knew immediately what it was about. The image to which the Psalmist alludes was self-explanatory. In the early summer months, the scenes, which have been unchanged for millennia, can still be observed in the mountains of Israel, in Judea and Samaria.

At the grain harvest, the wheat or barley straws are first bundled into sheaves. On the threshing floor, a large, flat surface, they are then threshed.

This is done either by slamming the sheaves with flails or, in the Middle East, mostly by cattle or donkeys, which pull a threshing sled over the sheaves. The traditional threshing sleds are thick boards that are peppered with sharp flint stone at the bottom. The threshing process cuts up the long stalks and dislodges the seeds from the shucks.

During the winnowing then, the mixture of shredded stalks, shucks and grain is thrown into the air. The wind separates the chaff from the seeds. The heavier seeds fall down to earth. The light stalk pieces and seed husks[1] are blown by the wind a few meters further.

The waste of the crop

Metzudat Tzion[2] calls the chaff “the waste of the crop” and refers to Hosea 13:3. There the character of idolaters in the eyes of God is described with several complementary images: “They shall be like morning mist, like dew that fades with the sunrise, like chaff that swirls from the threshing floor, like smoke from a chimney.”[3]

In Ephesians 4:14 Paul has people with similar characteristics in mind. He warns the Ephesians not to remain “underage” or “like children”, that means “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

Rabbi Altschuler in his exegesis of this passage in Metzudat Tzion recalls Leviticus 26:36. There the people of Israel are threatened in case of disobedience: “And as for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. They shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues.”

And Spurgeon describes the nature of people whose lives are not consciously shaped by the Word of God: “‘they are like chaff,’ intrinsically worthless, dead, unserviceable, without substance, and easily carried away. Here, also, mark their doom, — ‘the wind driveth away;’”.[4] In brief: They are “rootless, weightless… and useless”.[5]

“Therefore the wicked do not stand firm in judgment, nor those who miss the target in the congregation of the righteous” (verse 5).

The Torah sees sin very differentiated and distinguishes between someone who consciously rebels against God and one who without evil will misses the purpose of his life. Here in Psalm 1:4 the “sinner,” who unintentionally, possibly just because of a lack of seriousness, carelessly or even unknowingly misses the target stands right next to the “evil” or “wicked one” who consciously and deliberately violates the law of God.[6] Neither has a firm stand.

The “judgment” in this case is, first of all, not about the “final judgment”, but about the position a person in general occupies in a court, not only as a defendant, but also possibly as a judge or advocate. Luther correctly recognizes: “‘Judgment’ here, according to a figurative speech of Scripture, denotes an office (officium).”[7]

The “judgment” parallels the “congregation of the righteous”. In the preceding verse, the discontinuity, the fickleness, the lack of principles of the “chaff” had been emphasized. Such a person cannot have (positive) weight. He will not be able to take a stand, show a profile. Luther concludes: “They will not be counted among the servants of God at all.”[8]

Righteous before God

According to Samson Raphael Hirsch[9] the term “righteous” (צדיק/tzadik) “denotes that man who, as opposed to the lawless (רשעים/resha’im) and the frivolous (חטאים/chata’im), fulfills all his duties consciously and earnestly.”[10]

In the New Testament, Abel[11], Noah (Hebrews 11:7), Abraham (James 2:21‑24), Lot (2 Peter 2:7-8), Rahab (James 2:25), Joseph, Mary’s husband (Matthew 1:19), Zachariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:6), John the Baptist (Mark 6:20), Simeon (Luke 2:25), Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50), Jesus[12] and the Heavenly Father[13] are called “righteous”.

According to New Testament doctrine, someone may become “righteous” by grace through a faith relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ.[14] Thereby, the authors of the New Testament explicitly refer to the Torah and the Prophets. Righteousness is one of the indispensable qualities of those who follow Jesus.[15] Jesus expected the righteousness of his disciples to be better than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).

“The kingdom of God is,” according to Paul (Romans 14:17), “not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” In addition to goodness and truth, righteousness belongs to the fruit of light (Ephesians 5:9). The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9). That’s why Paul calls his readers: “Put on the new man created according to God in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Ephesians 4:24).

“For the Lord knows the way of the righteous…” (Psalm 1:6a).

Being known by the Lord is all that matters. There is no worse condemnation of a person than the Lord’s ascertainment: “I do not know you” (Matthew 7:23).

The meaning of the biblical word “ידע/yada’” – “to know”, “to recognize” – is far more than just being “informed”. Psalm 139 describes in a moving way what it means when God “knows” a person.[16]

God knows…

Metzudat Tzion recalls Exodus 2:25. It describes the situation of the Hebrews in Egypt, how they moaned and screamed out under slavery. The all-important turning point in this terrible situation came when God “heard,” “remembered,” “saw…” until, finally, the climax of the action of the God of Israel: “… and God knew” (וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִים).

Literally translated “ידע/yada’” means “to take note of something”. But first and foremost it signifies God’s “protective, sustained and nurturing care”, as experienced by the people of Israel on their journey through the desert.[17] Rabbi Moshe Alshich[18] adds: When the Lord takes note, then “the Lord oversees and influences the way of the righteous… He comes to purify the righteous and to help him.”

In biblical thinking, “recognizing” and “knowing” are about a deep, exclusive relationship. “Adam knew Eve, his wife” describes such a relationship, which is always designed to bear fruit (Genesis 4:1).

So it’s not about complying with regulations, with rules that should not be broken under any circumstance, about guidelines that cannot be transgressed under any circumstances. It’s about a relationship, not with a system of commandments, with a principle, philosophy or correct doctrine, but with a person. Remembering the beginning of Psalm 1, it is about a life-relationship with the living Word of God that has become a person, as described in John 1:1‑5.

…that’s why salvation is certain

Rabbi Hirsch worded in his exegesis that this knowledge of God is the reason, “why the righteous ones (צדיקים/tzadikim) can be sure of their progress toward salvation. Their way is the one which God desires, and therefore He will further it.[19] And Rabbi Altschuler adds in Metzudat David: “The Holy One is careful to know and supervise the way of the righteous, so that they do not stumble on this path.”

“But the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6b).

“The way of the Lawless”, on the other hand, needs no special Divine intervention in order to be thwarted”, Hirsch explains. “It perishes by itself; it is hopeless from the very beginning, because it lacks God’s loving care. תֹּאבֵד [toved = will perish], ‘it loses itself’ in barrenness; it does not attain its goal.”[20]

Metzudat David sees it similarly, that the way of the wicked simply does not enjoy the attention of the Lord. That’s why it’s left to chance.

But of course, another aspect comes into play here, which resonates in all three concluding verses of Psalm 1. The evil and sinners are not just “given up” or “surrendered,” as expressed in Romans 1:24‑32, and thus “less successful” in their lives than a student of the Torah. Anyone who deliberately or unconsciously turns away from the Creator will face a terrible judgment.

A picture for the (final) judgment

A survey of all those passages in Scripture that use the imagery of the threshing, the winnowing and the chaff makes it clear that these images are often used to depict God’s dealing in judgment.[21] The chopped chaff may have been widely used as food or bedding for animals[22] or for the production of bricks.[23]

However, it should be noted that only in the Greek translation of the Torah, in the Septuagint (LXX), the word “chaff” (Greek ἄχυρον/ἄχυρος) has a positive meaning. Nowhere the Hebrew word מוץ/motz is the origin of the translation. In the original Hebrew text, the word “chaff” (מוץ/motz) is invariably negative. In Job 41:19, “chaff” is simply “cheap,” a byproduct, useful waste that never lacks.

So it is only consistent when John the Baptist asserts that Jesus will not only leave the chaff lay around unnoticed or let it be blown by the wind, much less see a benefit in it, but rather “burn it with indelible fire.”[24]

“How do straw and wheat rhyme together?” Jeremiah (23:28) asks. He thus indicates that there is no middle ground, no compromise. Wheat and chaff must necessarily be separated from each other. Amos Hakham[25] considers it imperative that “the Lord separate the righteous from the wicked, as the grains must be separated from the chaff.”[26]

Using another agricultural picture, but equally uncompromising, Jesus affirmed: “Every branch in me that bears no fruit, He takes away” (John 15:2). The end of the fruitless branches, like that of the chaff of John the Baptist, is that “they are gathered, thrown into the fire and burnt” (verse 6).

Therefore, Spurgeon is right in adding to his description of the “chaff-people”: “Death shall hurry them with its terrible blast into the fire in which they shall be utterly consumed.”[27]

Isaiah (2:10-21) describes what awaits those who seek to master their lives without God. Similarly, Jesus shows in the parable of the fishnet (Matthew 13:47‑50) how God will separate “the wicked” from “the righteous.” The end of sinners is “the fiery furnace”.

Paul also writes of the “Day of Judgment,” which “with fire” will reveal “the nature of every work,” upon which foundation a man has built his life, and the value of his work (1 Corinthians 3:12‑13).

No balanced middle ground

Therefore, in Psalm 1 – as in the parallel text in Jeremiah 17:5‑10 – stands on the one hand the man who “enjoys the Torah of the Lord” and therefore “mumbles in His Torah day and night” (Psalm 1:2), the “righteous one” (Psalm 1:5‑6) who “seeks his safety in the Lord,” so that “the Lord is the guarantee of his security” (Jeremiah 17:7).

In contrast to him stands the “evil one”, the “sinner”, the “scoffer” (Psalm 1:4,6), “who seeks his safety with men” and “makes flesh his arm”. Specifically, this means that he “turns away his heart from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5).

A “neutral,” “objective,” “factual,” “balanced” “bystander” who “does not interfere” or “keep out” does not exist from the point of the view of the Bible – as much as we would like to see that.

In Matthew 25:31‑46, Jesus condemns those who “did not do” anything, those who kept themselves out. He calls them “cursed” whose end will be the “eternal fire” “prepared for the devil and his angels.”

The exalted Christ Himself accuses the “angel of the church of Laodicea” (Revelation 3:14‑22) of being “neither cold nor warm.” He reaches the conclusion: “Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

In the Hebrew thinking of the Bible, the image of the chaff is always a picture of judgment, of the distinction between fertile and unfruitful, and of the destruction of the worthless chaff.

The Scriptures are unambiguous, unequivocal: “The Lord is far from evil. He hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:29). But: “He who turns away his ear from hearing the Torah” may assume for sure that “even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).

Footnotes:


[1] עמוס חכם, ספר תהלים, ספרים א-ב, מזמורים א-עב (ירושלים: הוצאת מוסד הרב קוק, הדפסה שביעית תש”ן/1990), ה.

[2] Bible commentary by David Altschuler, who lived in Galicia in the 18th century in Yavorov. While his interpretation Metzudat Tzion explains individual words, Metzudat David illuminates the meaning of the text.

[3] Similar statements may be found in Psalm 35:5; Isaiah 17:13; 29:5 and Daniel 2:35.

[4] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Die Schatzkammer Davids. Eine Auslegung der Psalmen von C. H. Spurgeon. In Verbindung mit mehreren Theologen deutsch bearbeitet von James Millard. I. Band (Wuppertal und Kassel/Bielefeld: Oncken Verlag/Christliche Literatur-Verbreitung, 1996), 7. The Treasury of David by Charles H. Spurgeon, Psalm 1: http://archive.spurgeon.org/treasury/ps001.php (12.07.2019).

[5] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72. An Introduction & Commentary, TOTC (Leicester/England and Downers Grove, Illinois/USA: Inter-Varsity, 1973), 49.

[6] Compare Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Psalms, rendered into English by Gertrude Hirschler (Jerusalem/New York: The Samson Raphael Hirsch Publication Society. Feldheim Publishers, New Corrected Edition 1997), 1-2.

[7] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 247-248.

[8] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 248.

[9] (1808-1888) came from Hamburg and served as Chief Rabbi in Oldenburg, Aurich, Osnabrück, Moravia and Austrian Silesia. As a distinguished representative of Orthodoxy, he was an outspoken opponent of reformist and conservative Judaism. Hirsch attached great importance to the study of all Scripture. From 1851 he was rabbi of the separatist Orthodox „Israelitischen Religions-Gesellschaft“ (“Israelite Religious Society”), engaged in education and published the monthly magazine “Jeschurun”. Hirsch had a great love for the land of Israel, was at the same time, however, an opponent of the proto-Zionist activities of Zvi Hirsch Kalischer. He is seen as one of the founding fathers of the neo-orthodox movement.

[10] Samson Raphael Hirsch, Psalmen (Basel: Verlag Morascha, 2. Neubearbeitete Auflage 2005), 6. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Psalms, rendered into English by Gertrude Hirschler (Jerusalem/New York: The Samson Raphael Hirsch Publication Society. Feldheim Publishers, New Corrected Edition 1997), 6.

[11] Matthew 23:35; 1 John 3:12; Hebrews 11:4.

[12] Luke 23:47; Acts 3:14; 7:52; 1 Peter 3:18.

[13] John 17:25; 2 Timothy 4:8; Revelation 16:5; compare further Romans 9:14; Hebrews 6:10.

[14] Compare Acts 13:38-41; Romans 1:16-17; 3:19-31; 4; 5:1,9; 8:30,33; 10:10; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 2:16-17; 3; Philippians 3:9; Titus 2:14; 3:7.

[15] Titus 1:8; 2:12; compare further Ephesians 6:14; Philippians 1:11; 4:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:10; 1 John 2:29; 3:7; Revelation 19:8.

[16] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72. An Introduction & Commentary, TOTC (Leicester/England and Downers Grove, Illinois/USA: Inter-Varsity, 1973), 49.

[17] Samson Raphael Hirsch, Psalmen (Basel: Verlag Morascha, 2. Neubearbeitete Auflage 2005), 6, mit Verweis auf 5. Mose 2,7.

[18] (1507/08-1593), also called “the holy Alshich”, came from Adrianople, the Turkish Edirne, not far from today’s border triangle Turkey-Bulgaria-Greece, where he studied at the Talmud school of Rabbi Josef Karo. In 1535 he emigrated to the land of Israel and settled in Tzefat in Upper Galilee. When his teacher Josef Karo followed one year later, he was already one of the rabbinical judges in the city. Alshich excelled as preacher and interpreter of Bible and Talmud. Legend has it that his son was abducted as a child and became a Muslim. Alshich is buried in Tzefat, where in the old city today a synagogue still bears the name “Beit HaKnesset HaAlshich HaKadosh”.

[19] Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Psalms, rendered into English by Gertrude Hirschler (Jerusalem/New York: The Samson Raphael Hirsch Publication Society. Feldheim Publishers, New Corrected Edition 1997), 7.

[20] Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Psalms, rendered into English by Gertrude Hirschler (Jerusalem/New York: The Samson Raphael Hirsch Publication Society. Feldheim Publishers, New Corrected Edition 1997), 7.

[21] See for example Job 21:17-18; Isaiah 41:15-16; Daniel 2:35; Hosea 13:3; Zephaniah 2:2; compare further 2 Samuel 24,16; 1 Chronicles 21:15,22; Jeremiah 51:33; Micah 4:12.

[22] Genesis 24:25,32; Judges 19:19; Isaiah 11:7; 30:24; 65:25.

[23] Exodus 5:7,10‑13,16,18.

[24] Matthew 3:11-12; Luke 3:16-17.

[25] (1921-2012) became known in Israel as champion of the first Israeli and worldwide Bible quiz. His handicapped father, Noah Hakham, was a Jewish Bible teacher who had moved from Vienna to Jerusalem in 1913. He had not sent the only son to a public school for fear of a speech impediment. Rather, he himself had trained him in extremely poor conditions. The Bible quiz in August 1958 revealed Amos’ genius and established his legendary career as interpreter of Scripture. His expositions are only available to me in Hebrew.

[26] עמוס חכם, ספר תהלים, ספרים א-ב, מזמורים א-עב (ירושלים: הוצאת מוסד הרב קוק, הדפסה שביעית תש”ן/1990), ה.

[27] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Die Schatzkammer Davids. Eine Auslegung der Psalmen von C. H. Spurgeon. In Verbindung mit mehreren Theologen deutsch bearbeitet von James Millard. I. Band (Wuppertal und Kassel/Bielefeld: Oncken Verlag/Christliche Literatur-Verbreitung, 1996), 7. The Treasury of David by Charles H. Spurgeon, Psalm 1: http://archive.spurgeon.org/treasury/ps001.php (12.07.2019).

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