Psalms 1 Cultural Background

Psalm 1 English Standard Version (ESV)

Book One

The Way of the Righteous and the Wicked

Blessed is the man[a]
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law[b] of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

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.
The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.


  1. Psalm 1:1 The singular Hebrew word for man (ish) is used here to portray a representative example of a godly person; see Preface
  2. Psalm 1:2 Or instruction
English Standard Version (ESV)The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.


Ancient Hymnody

Texts containing praise and prayer to gods and goddesses are nearly as old as writing itself. In the late third millennium BC, a high priestess of the Akkadian Empire compiled a cycle of hymns to deities and all the major temples of ancient Mesopotamia. These hymns were placed in related groupings, and a scribal note indicates that at least one later hymn (No. 9) was inserted into the original collection. Although this type of collection is somewhat exceptional, there is evidence that forerunners once existed.

Egypt produced short anthologies of songs organized for a deity or on a specific theme. From Mesopotamia and Egypt, individual texts representing a diverse range of types have been found, counterpart to various kinds of Biblical psalms: hymns to deities and their temples, laments and prayers for kings and other individuals, imprecations against enemies, as well as magical incantations for which there is no Biblical parallel. There are many similarities in formal structure, imagery and thought between these texts from the ancient Near East and the hymns and prayers of the OT.

At the same time, the book of Psalms is unique as an anthology of songs. Composed and organized in stages over the course of Israel’s history, it preserves a sample of inspired music that was used by individuals and the community for worship in God’s temple. No other collection from the ancient Near East offers the variety in types of songs or exhibits the degree of internal organization that is increasingly recognized in Psalms. More important, the Psalter’s theological content consistently extols Yahweh, the God of Israel, to the exclusion of all other deities, calling for the worship of Yahweh alone even among Israel’s neighbors. This is a crucial point to keep in mind when considering the many common elements shared among the songs of worship across the ancient Near East.

Poetry and Genre

The hallmark of rhetoric in ancient Near Eastern literature is repetition; in poetry, this takes the form of what scholars call “parallelism.” Frequently, the first line of a verse is echoed in some way by the second line. The second line might repeat the substance of the first line with slightly different emphasis, or perhaps the second line amplifies the first line in some fashion, such as drawing a logical conclusion, illustrating or intensifying the thought. At times the point of the first line is reinforced by a contrast in the second line. Occasionally, more than two lines are parallel. Each of these features, frequently observed in Biblical psalms, is represented in songs from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Ugarit. Unlike English poetry, which often depends on rhyme for its effect, these ancient cultures attained impact on listeners and readers with creative repetition.

Psalms come in several standard subgenres, each with standard formal elements. Praise psalms can be either individual or corporate. Over a third of the psalms in the Psalter are praise psalms. Corporate psalms typically begin with an imperative call to praise (e.g., “Shout for joy to the Lord” [Ps 100:1]) and describe all the good things the Lord has done. Individual praise often begins with a proclamation of intent to praise (e.g., “I will praise you, Lord” [Ps 138:1]) and declare what God has done in a particular situation in the psalmist’s life. Mesopotamian and Egyptian hymns generally focus on descriptive praise, often moving from praise to petition. Examples of the proclamation format can be seen in the Mesopotamian wisdom composition, Ludlul bel nemeqi. The title is the first line of the piece, which is translated “I will praise the lord of wisdom.” As in the individual praise psalms, this Mesopotamian worshiper of Marduk reports about a problem that he had and reports how his god brought him deliverance.

Lament psalms may be personal statements of despair (e.g., Ps 22:1 – 21, dirges following the death of an important person (cf. David’s elegy for Saul in 2Sa 1:17 – 27) or communal cries in times of crisis (e.g., Ps 137). The most famous lament form from ancient Mesopotamia is the “Lament Over the Destruction of Ur,” which commemorates the capture of the city in 2004 BC by the Elamite king Kindattu. For more information on this latter category, see the article “Neo-Sumerian Laments.” In the book of Psalms, more than a third of the psalms are laments, mostly by an individual. The most common complaints concern sickness and oppression by enemies. The lament literature of Mesopotamia is comprised of a number of different subgenres described by various technical terms. Some of these subgenres overlap with Biblical categories, but most of the Mesopotamian pieces are associated with incantations (magical rites being performed to try to rid the person of the problem). Nevertheless, the petitions that accompany lament in the Bible are very similar to those found in prayers from the ancient Near East. They include requests for guidance, protection, favor, attention from the deity, deliverance from crisis, intervention, reconciliation, healing and long life.

Prayers to deities preserved from the ancient Near East share many of the same themes as Biblical prayers. Individuals sensed guilt and divine abandonment (see notes on Ps 6:1,313:132:451:1,5); they felt physical suffering (see notes on Ps 22:14,1738:2 – 3), emotional pain and shame (see notes on Ps 6:625:2) and loss of friendship (see note on Ps 31:11); and they faced death (see note on Ps 16:10). At times their afflictions involved legal entanglements accompanied by slander and curses (see notes on Ps 17:241:5 – 662:4). They responded with cries for a divine hearing (see note on Ps 55:17) and justice (see the article “Imprecations and Incantations”). In ancient Mesopotamia, letters written to gods and deposited in the temple also served to bring requests before the deity. The use of rather generic names in these letters, as well as their transmission through the curriculum of scribal schools, suggests that anyone could relate his or her experience with those recorded in these prayers. In later tradition, similar prayers were cited orally by a priest rather than deposited in the temple.

Much of the language of these prayers and letters, including the Biblical psalms, was general and metaphoric, allowing these texts to serve as examples for others to use in their specific circumstances. While the details of hardship might have differed, the emotional experiences and theological thoughts could be shared by anyone. As in Biblical psalms, the Mesopotamian prayers include protests of innocence, praise to the deity and vows to offer thanks for deliverance. Often specific attributes of the deity are named that correspond to the affliction and desired deliverance of the worshiper. Such elements function within the lament as motivation for the deity to respond to the worshiper’s plight. ◆

Key Concepts
  • Many psalms are an expression of emotion, and God responds to us in our emotional highs and lows.
  • Psalms is a book with purpose.
  • Psalms 1 – 2 embody the message of the book.
1 of 5

Psalm 1

Psalm Titles

Oldest known music notation, Babylonian, 2000 to 1700 BC.

The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London, MS 5105,

Some of the earliest examples of sacred music, from Sumer (third millennium BC), are recorded with notations for musical accompaniment. Some songs contain instructions concerning the ritual actions that accompany the performance. Similarly, the text of a song with musical notation from the site of Ugarit (c. 1300 BC) contains a colophon (scribal conclusion) naming the type of song and the scribe’s name. It is no surprise, then, that titles would accompany Biblical psalms. Unfortunately, many of the terms in the psalm titles are no longer clearly understood.

The custom of attaching a title to songs in Israel is illustrated in 2Sa 22:1Isa 38:9Hab 3:1,19. This last example is particularly interesting in that it includes an introductory title as well as a conclusion. In the Psalter, all information was eventually placed at the beginning. Regardless of our ability to discern the meaning of the technical terms in the titles, they complemented the indications of authorship for grouping the psalms together in the final form of the Psalter. ◆

2 of 5
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study BibleBack

1:3 a tree planted by streams. In lands without abundant rainfall, vegetation flourished only where there were natural streams or man-made canals. Along the Nile River in Egypt and the two rivers of Mesopotamia, the fertile soils produced abundantly. Trees in particular were planted closest to the bank, where their roots could reach the supply of water. Paintings from Egypt depict thriving palms beside the river.


1:5 assembly of the righteous. The “assembly” is a formal judicial body, just as the assembly of the sons of El was in the Ugaritic texts. This phrase is similar to an idea in 82:1, where God functions in relation to a judicial council as cases are decided. In the heavenly realm, there was a divine council that served this function (see the article “Divine Council”), but human courts also operated by means of an assembly (Jos 20:9).


1:6 the way of the righteous … the way of the wicked. Ancient Near Eastern wisdom maintained that in life there are two destinies for people: Those who live according to the will of the gods experience a long and fruitful life, but those who live as though there is no god come to an early end. Ps 1 shares in the general truth of this wisdom tradition. See the article “Retribution Principle.”


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