Monday, January 4, 2010

Psalm 1 and 2 as the Tree of Life Vision

Soon after a prophetic calling that appears to include initiation into the Divine Council,[1] the prophet Lehi receives a vision of the tree of life. He describes a harrowing journey through a dark and dreary wilderness that troubles him enough that he prays for mercy. He then finds himself at the tree of life, whose fruit makes those who partake of it happy, filling them with exceeding joy. The tree is planted near a river, by which he sees a path and a rod of iron. Lehi then contrasts those who follow this path to happiness with those who choose other paths, becoming lost in midst of darkness and among the mocking throngs of those in the great and spacious building.

In his expanded version of this same vision, Nephi asks his spiritual guide the meaning of the powerful symbols that he and his father have both witnessed. He learns that the tree represents the birth of the Son of God in the flesh to Mary. The iron rod represents the word of God that guides people along the path to the tree of life. A description of the mocking opposition leads to a multi-chapter apocalyptic presentation on a conspiracy by the Adversary and his acolytes against the Anointed and his followers—those who partake of the tree of life and become 'saints.'

I believe that the specific context of this vision underlies many of the Psalms, but particularly psalms 1 and 2. While the majority of scholars characterize these first two hymns as post-exilic additions that act as introductions to book one of the psalter (Psalms 1-41),[2] there are those who still advocate for an early date for either their composition, material, or both.[3] One study tells us that “Psalm 2 has a far more plausible Sitz im Leben in the period of the monarchy, in the context of an enthronement ceremony.”[4] Intriguingly, there are early manuscripts that have them joined as one Psalm. And several variants of Luke's citation of Psalms 2:7 in Acts 13:3 (manuscripts D latd g) introduce it with εν τω πρωτω ψαλμω (“in the first psalm”), implying that what is now Psalm 1 had originally been part of Psalm 2 and would have been purposefully detached in order to form a separate introductory hymn. F. F. Bruce comments on these variants as follows:
This was the reading of Latin codices known to Bede. Origin (on Ps. 2) says he has seen two Heb. Mss, in one of which Pss. 1 and 2 were joined as one. Justin, Tertullian, Cyprian, Eusebius, and Hilary also testify more or less explicitly to this practice of regarding these two psalms as one. In bBer. 9b “Blessed is the man . . .” (Ps. 1) and “Why do the nations conspire? . . .” (Ps. 2) are said to form “one chapter.”[5]
That these two may originally have been a single psalm might have something to do with their combined subjects. Psalm 1 is a wisdom hymn, focusing on the study of the law, while Psalm 2 is a royal psalm that talks about the coronation of the divine king. Together, they perfectly comprise the warning to the anointed Israelite kings to study the law as given in Deuteronomy 17:18-20—a key text in Israel's history. J. H. Eaton makes this connection in his commentary on Psalm 1:
There are several verbal coincidences with Psalm 2 (Int. 7b), and the two psalms in some manuscripts were joined as one . . . . It is possible that the teaching of Psalm 1 was originally directed to kings, who were meant to uphold and to study the tora of the Lord (Deut. 17.18-20), and in this case a linking to royal Psalm 2 would be fitting.[6]
Also citing the passage in Deuteronomy, Samuel Terrien sees ritual at work in these combined psalms: “For this reason, among others, scholars suggest that Psalms 1 and 2 originally formed a single poem, to be sung in a coronation liturgy.”[7] And in this he follows the scholarship of Brownlee and others.[8] That they were combined seems increasingly more certain. And together, the result seems fairly close to the vision of the tree of life.

Psalm 1 begins by contrasting two paths:
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. (Psa 1:1-2 KJV)
Here we have a path of sinners and scorners contrasted with the righteous man who studies 'the law of the Lord,' which is torah, or divine instruction—what we might call scripture, or the word of God (written or oral). Compare this to the injunction to divine kings:
And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:

And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:

That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel. (Deu 17:18-20 KJV)
Note that in this passage, as with the Psalms, studying the law (or scriptures) is compared to a path in that it assists the reader not to 'turn aside' to 'the right hand' or 'to the left.' Similarly, the righteous man in Psalm 1 chooses a path that involves studying the word of God. And this leads us to the tree imagery:
And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. (Psa 1:3 KJV)
While this is widely regarded as a reference to the tree of life in the garden of Eden[9], the image is also seen by many as a symbol of the Messiah. Martin Luther followed several medieval commentators in advocating the tree in Psalm 1 as a symbol of Christ,[10] and many of the early fathers like Jerome and Augustine interpreted it this way as well.[11] Erasmus not only compares the Psalm 1 tree of life to Christ but specifically to his incarnation: “The Son of God will assume a human body, and descending from heaven, will be planted on earth beside the streams of the waters.”[12] In Proverbs 3 the tree is Wisdom, and in Proverbs 8 Wisdom is physically conceived or begotten in heaven (see Hebrew verb qanah in Prov 8:22). In another passage, Yahweh tells Israel that he is a tree for them: “I am like a luxuriant cypress; From Me comes your fruit” (Hos 14:8 NAS).[13] The tree in Psalm 1 is Christ made flesh. This parallels the vision Nephi has where he asks the meaning of the tree and as an answer sees the birth and mortal ministry of the Savior.

The reason for following the law or word of God to the tree that represents the Messiah is stated in the very first word of the psalm: 'ashery ha-ish (“happy is the man”). It is intensified by the word 'delight' (chephets) in verse 2 and implies that it is the result of movement along a path:
It derives from a root meaning “to go forward,” “to walk on,” “to march steadily” (cf. Akkadian, Arabic, etc.), perhaps even to progress in the way of comprehension (Prov 4:14; 9:6). By extension, it is a hortative of felicitation for blazing a trail.[14]
In other words, happiness and delight (or “joy”) come from following the path of the righteous that involves studying the word of God, which is then likened to the tree of life with its fruit. In Lehi's version, eating the fruit of the tree of life gave him great joy and happiness.

The last portion of Psalm 1 again contrasts the wicked and the righteous:
Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. (Psa 1:5 KJV)
The word translated as 'righteous' here (Heb zaddiqim) means 'holy ones' and would be the same word underlying Nephi's reference to 'saints' in a similar contrast: “And I said unto them that it was an awful gulf, which separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints [zaddiqim] of God” (1 Ne 15:28). Note that the saints of God, the righteous, are paired with the tree of life just as in Psalm 1 in contrast to the wicked who are separated from this assembly (the divine council). The next verse again emphasizes the two ways:
For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.” (Psa 1:6 KJV)
Here we have the two ways—or literally paths (Heb derek)—that are characterized by the righteous saints (zaddiqim) and the wicked who perish. The word 'perish' here is translated from the Hebrew 'abad, whose roots refer to destruction and hint at the underworld but can also mean 'to stray' or 'become lost' (cf. 1 Sam 9:3, 20), which may be a better fit here when talking about an actual path.

Psalm 2—to which Psalm 1 was most likely originally attached—is widely regarded as a royal coronation psalm, where the Davidic king is anointed as the Son of God. As with Psalm 1, the overall context is a contrast between the wicked against the righteous:
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. (Psa 2:1-2 NIV)
In the midst of this plotting, the Messianic king is introduced:
I will proclaim the decree of Yahweh: He said to me, 'You are my son, today have I fathered you.' (Psa 2:7 NJB)
In the ancient Near East, the king became the son of God at his coronation ceremony. And not just an adult son but symbolically an actual newborn child, as they were considered to be fathered or begotten on that day. The verb for 'fathered' here in Psalm 2:7 (Heb yalad) is generally used for actual children and is not used elsewhere for an adult king.[15] This idea of the king being fathered on that day parallels similar ancient Near Eastern ceremonies where the coronation ritual symbolized the birth of the king by the gods, as in the coronation hymn to the goddess Aten that refers to the newly anointed king as “your son who came forth from your body.”[16] A coronation inscription for Hatshepsut reads, “My daughter, from my body, Maat-Ka-e, my brilliant image, gone forth from me. You are a king, who take possession of the two lands, on the throne of Horus, like Re.”[17] The declaration of Amun at the coronation of Haremhab is similar: “You are my son, the heir who came forth from my flesh.”[18] Or the blessing of Ptah: “I am your father, who have begotten you as a god and your members as gods.”[19] Some of these texts from the ancient Near East are filled with great detail about the physical conception and birth of the king by the gods as metaphor for divinity and authority.[20]

Israel held a similar belief about its king. Referring to Solomon's future status as king, Yahweh tells David: “I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Sam 7:14 KJV). One school of thought ties this coronation terminology of fathering the king to the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah about the royal birth:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6 KJV)
The same verb yalad is used here for the child being born as the “I have fathered you” in Psalm 2:7. G. von Rad and A. Alt see this verse related to Psalms 2:7 as the coronation ceremony for Hezekiah,[21] while other scholars point to Josiah or other kings.[22] In both passages we have the birth of royal kings as symbols of the Messiah. While Isaiah 9:6 has had more exposure in this regard, the tradition of Psalm 2:7 as Messianic in nature is just as long. J. H. Eaton tells us that this concept of the divine king in Psalm 2 “was joined to the visionary ideas concerning the Lord as the Most High God and Creator-King, and so nourished the religious faith that we later see blossoming in the hope of the Messiah (Hebrew for 'Anointed', Greek 'Christ'), who would represent the final kingdom of God.”[23] According to Rashi's commentary on this psalm, this was also the rabbinic interpretation that was later suppressed in order to counter Christian claims:
Our rabbis interpreted the subject of the chapter as a reference to the King Messiah. However, according to its basic meaning and for a refutation of the Christians it is correct to interpret it as a reference to David himself in consonance with what is stated in the Bible.[24]
Part of the coronation ceremony that is reflected in Psalm 2 involves a written oracle given to the king that proclaims his divine right to rule. This is what lies behind the introductory phrase “I will declare the decree” in Psalm 2:7 before we get “Thou art my son.” Eaton summarizes this as follows:
As part of his installation, the king has been given a document containing oracles of God; these appoint and acknowledge him, bestow blessings and probably make requirements. This document, called here the 'decree of the Lord', is probably the 'testimony' given with the crown in the story of 2 Kings 11.12; a comparable document featured in Egyptian enthronements.[25]
It is this same type of oracle we see at work in Isaiah 9:6 (“Unto us a child is born”). The written scripture becomes an authority to rule, which is what the king's staff or rod symbolizes as well. This staff shows up in the hand of the divine king in Psalm 2:
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; (Psa 2:9 KJV)
This rod reflects the traditions of the ancient Near East of the divine Shepherd-King, where the divine king possessed a shepherd's rod that symbolized both his divine authority to rule as king as well as his priestly responsibility to shepherd his people spiritually. Many of the ancient coronation texts refer to the king's responsibility as a shepherd. Sumerian coronation texts contain phrases such as “has exalted you as shepherd over the land of Sumer, [and] has put your enemies under your feet.”[26] Egyptian texts have similar terminology: “Give the crook into his hand so that the head of Lower and Upper Egypt shall be bowed.”[27] Assurbanipal's Assyrian coronation hymn says: “Place in his hand the weapon of war and battle, give him the black-headed people [i.e. Mankind], that he may rule as a shepherd.”[28] These rods were also royal sceptres that were frequently made out of iron: “Composite-sceptres with iron parts dated to the Iron Age II of the eighth and seventh century BCE were excavated in Tel Dan, Ta'anach and Nimrud.”[29]

Israel had it's own history of a Davidic Shepherd-King:
And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. (Eze 34:23 KJV)
The shepherd's rod or staff was used “for disciplining a wandering sheep, encircling a sheep’s neck or belly to rescue it from a gully and laying across the backs of sheep for purposes of counting (the so called rodding of the sheep) as they entered the sheepfold (Lev 27:32; Ezek 20:37).”[30] And this is the rod of the Shepherd-King in Psalm 2:9. But to see this we must take a closer look at the language behind the phrase “break them with a rod of iron.” The Hebrew text (unvoweled) gives us תרעם. Assuming the psalm to be late, many translators see this as a conjugation of the Aramaic verb ra'a', to break. But if we assume the material here to be pre-exilic, then we read it as a form of the Hebrew ra'ah, to feed, pasture, or shepherd. The Septuagint (LXX) Greek translators must have read this with the older Hebrew in mind and not as an Aramaic loan-word, because they chose the verb poimaneis (ποιμανεῖς, to shepherd or rule) as the translation, instead of the Aramaic “break.” (Thus, “He shall shepherd them with a rod of iron.”) The New Testament authors who cite Psalms 2:7 also use the Greek poimaneis, showing how they read this passage. And in the book of Revelation, John cites a portion of this verse with some powerful added imagery: “And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule [Greek poimaneis] all nations with a rod of iron: (Rev 12:5 KJV).” Note how this connection to the Son of God and his shepherd staff in Psalm 2 includes the vision of the actual birth of the Messiah from his mother, just as in Nephi's vision. But the Hebrew root that the Greek translation assumes can be found in similar contexts elsewhere: “Feed [from ra'ah] thy people with thy rod, the flock of thine heritage” (Mic 7:14 KJV; the Dead Sea Scrolls version is simply “shepherd your people with your rod”[31]). Thus the rod represents the shepherd's responsibility and authority to lead his flock along the path to pasture.

We see this leading function of the rod and shepherd throughout the biblical text, including elsewhere in the psalms: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psa 23:4 KJV). In the version at Qumran the text is better read “Even when I walk through the valley of deepest gloom . . . your rod and your staff—they comfort me,”[32] which reminds us of Lehi's journey through a dark and dreary waste and a rod of iron that leads others through gloomy mists of darkness. The rod of iron or shepherd's staff leads others and comforts them along the journey, avoiding those who gather in conspiracy to mock and challenge the Lord's anointed. This rod becomes the spiritual authority for Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt on their own journey through a dark and dreary waste: "But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea” (Exo 14:16 KJV). Later, God tells him to “Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together” (Num 20:8 KJV).

Thus in Psalm 2 we have a divine king who is anointed and presented as a Son of God, who is begotten just as the Messianic child in Isaiah's famous oracle. This Son of God is presented a written text of scripture that legitimizes his authority to rule, while he shepherds and leads his people with a rod of iron, protecting them from the wicked conspirators gathered to fight the Messianic Shepherd-King. When we place Psalm 1 back in the context of it's position with Psalm 2, we add the context that those gathered in conspiracy also mock and scorn the righteous saints (zaddiqim) who choose an actual path (derek) that is defined by studying the word of God and a tree with fruit (by a river) that makes one happy and represents King Messiah in his tabernacle of flesh. I submit that the the first two psalms were originally one hymn that celebrates the same vision that we have in the Book of Mormon as explained by Lehi and Nephi.


1. 1 Ne 1:6-14. For an introduction to the Divine Council in biblical literature, see David E. Bokovoy, “Invoking the Council as Witnesses in Amos 3:13” JBL 127, no. 1 (2008): 37-51; Richard J. Clifford, The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan and the Old Testament (HSM 4; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972); Frank Moore Cross, "The Council of Yahweh in Second Isaiah." JNES 12 (1953): 274-277; John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan (JSOTS 265; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994; E. Theodore Mullen, Jr., The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature (HSM 24; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1980).

2. There are several reasons for this, including the lack of a superscription for both, as well as dependence on supposed Aramaic vocabulary in Psalm 2 (which will be discussed later). For a summary of the different time lines proposed for their composition, see Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988) 114-15.

3. The coronation of the Israelite king in Psalm 2, for example is indicative of pre-exilic kingship rites, and it displays Egyptian and Assyrian influence from the second millennium bce. Cf. Eckart Otto, “The Judean Legitimation of Royal Rulers in its Ancient Near Eastern Contexts” in Dirk J. Human and Cas J. A. Vos (eds.), Psalms and Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2004) 135;

4. Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008) 12:

5. F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990) 309; Kraus (Psalms 1-59, 114) instead speculates that the first psalm hadn't been added to the psalter at this point. Due to contrary evidence in the DSS and other manuscripts, this view is not followed by others.

6. J. H. Eaton, The Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction and New Translation (London: T & T Clark, 2003) 61. Note that despite these connections, Eaton also sees differences in the two and still leans toward a late composition date.

7. Samuel L. Terrien, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003) 79-80.

8. W. H. Brownlee, “Psalms 1-2 as a Coronation Liturgy,” Biblica 52 (1971) 321-336.

9. Cf., William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) 57-61.

10. William Lee Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1993) 193.

11. Craig A. Blaising and Carmen Hardin (eds.), Psalms 1-50: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008) 8.

12. Dominic Baker-Smith and Michael J. Heath (eds.), Collected Works of Erasmus: Expositions on the Psalms (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997) 33; the comparison to Christ continues for the next few pages.

13. The KJV appears to have Ephraim speaking these words; however the Hebrew is better understood with Yahweh addressing Ephraim, as reflected in many other translations, e.g., the New International Version, the New Jerusalem Bible, the New English Translation, the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, and others.

14. Terrien, The Psalms, 71.

15. Cf. Hans Wildeberger, Isaiah 1-12 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991) 398.

16. As cited in Alistaire G. Hunter, Psalms (London: Routledge, 1999) 51.

17. Collins and Collins, King Messiah as Son of God, 13.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., 4-10.

21. Cf. Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1-39: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (US: B&H Publishing Group, 2007) 236; see also Collins and Collins, King Messiah as Son of God, 13-14.

22. Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 236.

23. Eaton, The Psalms, 65.

24. Mayer I. Gruber, Rashi's Commentary on Psalms (JPS, 2008) 177.

25. Eaton, The Psalms, 66.

26. Hunter, Psalms, 51.

27. Ibid., 52.

28. Human and Vos, Psalms and Liturgy, 135-136.

29. Ibid., 135

30. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III (eds.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998) 2468.

31. See Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (New York: HarperOne, 1999).

32. Ibid.

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