August/September 2013 - Vol. 69
 Wisdom Psalms: 
“Happy Are Those...”
By Jeanne Kun
The collection of psalms found in Scripture, composed as it was under the divine inspiration, has from the very beginnings of the Church shown a wonderful power to foster devotion among Christians.
– Pope St. Pius X
The Book of Psalms is a collection of sacred songs reflecting the prayers, praises, longings, laments, and aspirations that have moved the hearts of Jews and Christians in their communion with God for centuries. The collection grew by slow stages, over a period of at least six hundred years of ancient Israel’s history, and when it was “closed,” the final form consisted of 150 psalms, as it does today. The psalm deliberately placed at the beginning of the collection serves as a “gateway,” or preface, to the entire Book of Psalms. In fact, Psalm 1 may have been specifically composed for that purpose, to guide readers into the path that leads to a truly blessed and happy life. 

Many psalms—among them, 1, 19, 37, 49, 78, 112, 119, 127, and 128—share the stylistic features and themes of the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, which includes the books of Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. Wisdom literature frequently contrasts the virtues of the “righteous” (the just or good) and the vices of the “wicked” (the unjust or evil). It also extols the excellence of the divine “law of the Lord”—torah, in Hebrew—and the benefits derived from adhering to it. Characteristically, its subject matter is instructive in tone and its composition formal. 

It’s notable that Psalm 1 opens with the expression “Happy (or blessed) are those,” words that are found at least twenty-five more times throughout the psalms. These words are a beatitude that points to what a person needs to avoid as well as do in order to find happiness. The psalm’s first verse anticipates Jesus’ beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-11), which describe the “blessed” who belong to the Kingdom of heaven and also serve as a preface to his entire Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29).

As a reflection on blessedness and righteousness, Psalm 1 is addressed to the reader  rather than to God. Two ways are sharply contrasted: the path of the righteous who delight in keeping the law of the Lord and prosper and the path of the wicked who perish. 

Let’s take our cue from Psalm 1, the gateway to the whole Book of Psalms, and meditate on the law of the Lord day and night. 

The law of the Lord includes not only God’s commandments but his “revelation,” that is, the record of his acts of love to the people of Israel and the promises that he has communicated to them. Following the law is not burdensome but rather brings to those who keep it joy and delight (verses 1-2). Those who are righteous recognize the torah as the standard by which they are to live. Psalm 119, perhaps the best known of the Wisdom psalms, beautifully illustrates with the force of repetition this theme introduced in Psalm 1. 

They who are “happy” are compared to a tree, a symbol of prosperity and well-being. With roots reaching to streams of water, it flourishes and bears “fruit in season” (Psalm 1:3). Most likely, this fruit means wisdom gained by good living and used for the benefit of others. Centuries later, Jesus used a similar illustration: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43).

The latter half of Psalm 1 describes the fate of those who ignore God’s revelation and reject his love: The “wicked” are like “chaff that the wind drives away” (verse 4). In ancient Israel the winnowing process was used to thresh out grain. First, the stalks of wheat were trod underfoot by oxen or people; then, this straw was thrown in the air over the threshing floor, which was usually a breezy mound. The heads of grain, loosened by the treading, fell to the floor and were gathered in, while the light, useless chaff was blown away by the wind. The psalmist’s vivid imagery warns us against such a fate! 

Let’s take our cue from Psalm 1, the gateway to the whole Book of Psalms, and meditate on the law of the Lord day and night (verse 2), pondering God’s revelation and instructions to us. As Cistercian monk and scholar M. Basil Pennington, OCSO, pointed out, “It is with the rich promise of the first Psalm, ‘Blessed Are They,’ that we enter the Psalter, knowing that the time we spend with it—be it during the quiet of the night or the pauses in the midst of the labors of the day—will be among the most fruitful of our lives.” (Psalms: A Spiritual Commentary)

And as we read, pray, and reflect on the psalms that lie before us in this study, may we come to treasure the great riches we discover there!

In the Spotlight

The Poetic Artistry of the Hebrew Psalms

The psalms are poems, but some of the original qualities of Hebrew poetry are not apparent when translated into other languages. For example, a technique of Hebrew poetry favored in the Wisdom literature and Wisdom psalms is the “acrostic” or alphabetical construction in which successive verses or groups of verses (stanzas or strophes) begin with the twenty-two successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This technique is highly developed in Psalm 119 and in the Book of Lamentations. Other examples of psalms that employ an acrostic structure are 9, 25, 34, 37, 111, and 145. 

 Parallelism is another dominant aspect of the beauty and nature of Hebrew poetry—and fortunately, parallelism comes through strongly even in translation and can be appreciated in any language. In this technique, the content of one line of the psalm is parallel to—that is, corresponds to—the content of another. (The verse-unit of two phrases is called a distich, and a unit of three lines is a tristich.) 

 Frequently the parallelism balances the same thought in a comparison that is highlighted by the repetition of the thought, as in the following examples from Psalm 96:6-8: 

Honor and majesty are before him;
 strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 

Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples,
 ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.

Parallel balance may also be seen in a contrast of ideas or in two opposite thoughts: “in the morning [grass] flourishes and is renewed; / in the evening it fades and withers (Psalm 90:6).

 As you read the psalms throughout the course of this study, be alert to their wording and structure and you will grow in your appreciation of their artistry as Hebrew poems.

In the Spotlight

A Psalm Is Delightful to Our Soul

All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction, as the apostle says (2 Timothy 3:16), but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields special treasure. . . . For I think that in the words of this book, all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man. For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptation or under persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and shares or, on the contrary, are sad for any reason, or whether, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the divine psalms show you how to do, and in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own. 

—St. Athanasius of Alexandria
In the same way that food is tasty, a psalm is delightful to the soul. It also needs to be chewed. If you swallow a psalm hastily in one gulp, you will miss the sweet taste. “They are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb” (Psalm 19:10). Devotion can drip from the words of a psalm. “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind” (1 Corinthians 14:15). Attentive devotion is imperative. It is not possible that those who are pleased with our earthly prayers will ignore us in heaven.
—St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Excerpted from The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer, by Jeanne Kun (Copyright © 2013 by The Word Among Us Press). Used with permission. This book can be purchased from The Word Among Us Press.

Jeanne Kun is President of Bethany Association and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. 

> See other articles by Jeanne Kun

Illustration at top: by Kevin Carden 

Psalm 1:1-6

1 Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers; 
2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
    and on his law they meditate day and night. 
3 They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
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 watches over the way of the ....righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

Psalm 119:1-8

1 Happy are those whose way is blameless,
    who walk in the law of the LORD. 
2 Happy are those who keep his decrees,
    who seek him with their whole heart, 
3 who also do no wrong,
    but walk in his ways. 
4 You have commanded your precepts
    to be kept diligently. 
5 O that my ways may be steadfast
    in keeping your statutes! 
6 Then I shall not be put to shame,
    having my eyes fixed on all your  ....commandments. 
7 I will praise you with an upright heart,
    when I learn your righteous ordinances. 
8 I will observe your statutes;
    do not utterly forsake me.

In the Spotlight

Psalm 119, a Launching-Pad 
for Prayer

Psalm 119 is the longest of the psalms. Its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two strophes or stanzas of eight verses each. Each strophe begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (which consists of twenty-two letters, from Aleph to Tau), and the first word of each of strophe’s eight verses begins with this same letter. Through continual repetition, the entire psalm highlights one theme: being rooted and anchored in the torah—God’s revelation, instructions, promises, words, and covenant.

Appreciation of this psalm [119] is a good test of one’s understanding of the psalms as prayers. From the literary point of view, it does not reach a high level. It is monotonous, repetitious. . . . In short, the style is pedestrian, the construction mechanical, the thought-content unoriginal and meager.

And yet, rightly considered as a religious text, this is a great composition. It is intended to be a foundation or starting-point for personal prayer. In this it corresponds somewhat to the Rosary, and its ABC has the function of our “beads.” Deliberately, the same simple ideas and aspirations are repeated over and over, to help the mind of the one reciting it to concentrate on one thought, and to rouse his heart to aspirations of love. Individual verses, with their simple affirmation or urgent appeals, are not meant to be intellectually analyzed and studied (though, as a matter of fact, in their very simplicity they are rich in implications, and a whole theology could be constructed from this psalm). The author . . . undertook to build a launching-pad, from which the devout soul might soar to loving contemplation of the unthinkable goodness of God. He knew what he meant to do, and he did it well.

—R.A.F. MacKenzie, SJ


1. What negative practices do those who are “happy”—that is, the blessed righteous—avoid in Psalm 1:1? What positive actions and attitudes identify a just person?

2. Note the verbs in the opening verse of Psalm 1. Describe in your own words how these verbs illustrate successive stages in moving away from the right path.

3. Read Jeremiah 17:7-8 and compare the prophet’s description with that of the psalmist in Psalm 1:3. What additional insights do you gain from Jeremiah? What can you learn from this image drawn from nature?

4. What does Psalm 1 indicate about the condition and lot of those who do not follow God’s way? What consequences do the “wicked” face? 

5. What nouns does the psalmist use in Psalm 119:1-8 to variously describe God’s law? How do these synonyms expand your understanding of torah? What phrases describe the psalmist’s attitude and response to God’s law? In your opinion, is the technique of repetition effective in Psalm 119? Explain your answer.


1. Whom do you associate with? Whom or what do you listen to? What do you look at? What choices are you frequently confronted with in your daily life? Recall an instance when you chose to act righteously in the face of temptation to go the “way of the wicked.” In what way(s) did you experience the “happiness” of those who follow God’s law?

2. How often do you take time to meditate on the “law of the LORD” (Psalm 1:2)? What value do you find in this practice? What might you do to make reading and meditating on Scripture a more meaningful part of your life? 

3. Do you think your life corresponds to the psalmist’s image of a tree planted by streams of water (Psalm 1:3)? Why or why not? What fruits are you bearing? How are others benefiting from this fruit?

4. What personal message does Psalm 1 hold for you? How can you put this message into practice in your life?

5. Read Psalm 119:1-8 and ponder a few of the phrases found in it that describe God’s law and our relationship to it. What is your response to this psalm? Do you “delight” in God’s law or do you experience following God’s ways as a burden that weighs you down? Explain your answer.


1. Reflect on Psalm 1 as the gateway and preface to the Book of Psalms. What do these descriptions tell you about the role and importance of this psalm? About the significance of the whole Book of Psalms? Keep these ideas in mind as you read and pray the psalms in this study guide.

2. Reflect on the following Scripture passages that encourage us to walk in the way of the Lord and the path of the just:

Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: . . . See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 29:2; 30:15-20)

Do not enter the path of the wicked,
   and do not walk in the way of evildoers. 
Avoid it; do not go on it;
   turn away from it and pass on. 
For they cannot sleep unless they have done  ...wrong;
   they are robbed of sleep unless they have  ...made someone stumble. 
For they eat the bread of wickedness
    and drink the wine of violence. 
But the path of the righteous is like the light of    ....dawn,
    which shines brighter and brighter until full 
The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
    they do not know what they stumble over.    (Proverbs 4:14-19)

The fear of the Lord is glory and exultation,
 and gladness and a crown of rejoicing. 
The fear of the Lord delights the heart,
 and gives gladness and joy and long life. 
Those who fear the Lord will have a happy end;
 on the day of their death they will be blessed. (Sirach 1:11-13)


Memorizing psalms is an ancient Christian custom. When we commit something to memory, we know it “by heart.” Thus, we can spontaneously pray psalms that we have memorized as occasions and the events and needs of daily life move us, even when we don’t have a Bible or psalter at hand. As Rev. Ben Patterson advises:

Memorize the Psalms—but not by rote. Rather, learn them by heart; make their words your words. Come to understand them so well you can recite them—by inflection and tone—as though you had written them yourself. This is, by far, the best way I know to learn to pray the Psalms. I can think of no more powerful way to allow the Word of God to change who you are and how you think. Over the years I have been grateful for every line of Scripture I have committed to memory, but the prayers of the Psalms have offered incomparable comfort and clarity in desperate, murky, and confusing situations, when I didn’t have a worthwhile word of my own to say—when I quite literally didn’t have a prayer. (God's Prayer Book

Choose a psalm, perhaps your favorite or one that speaks to a current need, and memorize it. During the coming week, pray this psalm from memory frequently so that its words truly become your own. 

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