Sit, Stand, Walk: Notes on Psalmic Discourse (Psalm 1)

Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
But the Lord’s teaching is his desire,
and His teaching he murmurs day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that bears its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither—
and in all that he does he prospers.
Not so the wicked,
but like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand up in judgment,
nor offenders in the band of the righteous.
For the Lord embraces the way of the righteous,
and the way of the wicked is lost.

(Psalm 1, Robert Alter)

An acquaintance on Twitter brought up Psalm 1 in a discussion of the existential question of how to be a just person while existing and moving within and among unjust structures. Some observations:

The psalm is concerned in part with the relation between stasis and motion, between sitting, standing and walking. Walking’s meaning as action and commitment is relatively clear from other psalms and the proverbs (“my son, do not walk in the way with them;
hold back your foot from their paths”), but what of sitting and standing? The social structures emerge around these actions in the psalm, namely: the way (derek), the session or assembly (mowshab; cf. Psalm 107:31-32). In the psalm, the righteous person neither walks nor sits nor stands within these structures when they are dominated by the wicked.

By contrast, the stream of water is the structure by which the tree grows and flourishes: a life-giving structure associated with Torah (“His teaching”). One can perhaps read the actions at play—sitting, standing, walking—as connoting styles of complicity. Obviously, “walking in the counsel of the wicked” is to actively (even willingly?) participate in wrongdoing; but of course, one need not carry out an unjust act with one’s own hands to nonetheless agree with it and, by inaction, support its perpetuation. The psalm’s delineation, however poetic, of sitting, standing and walking to envision a person’s entanglement with injustice lays the groundwork for thinking about moral complicity and ethical implication.

That said, the psalm’s aspirations to strict segregation of the way of the righteous from the way of the wicked seem in line with its function as psalm: that is, its performativity. The linguistic functions of the psalms are not limited to constative (descriptive) utterances; rather, as performative utterances, the psalms are linguistic enactments grounded by turns in, for example,

  • praise (hyperbole, axioms, shifts between human/divine subject positions),
  • hope (future-oriented history, visionary descriptions), and
  • desire (imprecation, imagined scenarios).

Of course, as poetry, the psalms redescribe and represent a vision of the real as well as the unreal, and both serve to stimulate new thinking upon lived reality. As such, the psalm’s vision of a strict bifurcation of righteous and wicked social structures is grounded less in lived reality, where we exist and move within and through myriad structures and disciplinary forces that compete for power over us and through which we also participate in or resist power, and more in an imagined and hopeful vision of a life world which does not reward good for evil and evil for good. As we’ve observed, even within this fiction, the psalm nonetheless opens up questions of complicity and action that encourage fruitful contemplation. This too is how the psalm utters performatively. Through its imaginative language, it invites the reader to interpretation through and beyond its descriptive contours.


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