Simile in Psalm 1:3a

a picture of the BHS text (Hebrew Bible) opened to Psalm 1
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Psalm 1:3a

וְֽהָיָ֗ה כְּעֵץ֘ שָׁת֪וּל עַֽל־פַּלְגֵ֫י מָ֥יִם

“He is [or will then be] like a tree, transplanted by channels of water,”

WCP Verb: “He is [or will then be]” (וְֽהָיָ֗ה)

Following Futato’s grammar (p. 164) on the use of a WCP verb ( וְֽהָיָ֗ה) that follows an imperfect verb (יֶהְגֶּ֗ה in verse 2), I think it is possible to read the transition from verse 2 into verse 3 as a conditional clause: “If he meditates on God’s Torah day and night, then he will be like a tree…” But even if the conditional element is not as strong as my if/then paraphrase indicates, the WCP verb indicates a continuation of the thought from verse 2, connecting verses 2 and 3 together (in contrast to how verses 1 and 2 are set against each other as a strong contrast). So, verse 3 introduces the rewards of the blessed man who lives according to God’s Torah.

Simile and Imagery: “like a tree” (כְּעֵץ֘)

The preposition connected to the singular noun introduces a simile (“like/as a tree”), the purpose of which is to give the reader a mental image of the blessed, Torah-keeping man. How shall we describe him? He is like a tree….

While one must avoid wild, groundless speculations on the usages of biblical imagery, at the same time the author’s intentional use of the tree image/simile causes the reader to wonder where the image comes from. What questions, then, can we ask of this text (and of the wider scope of the Holy Scriptures) that will help us to understand the imagery?

First, a grammatical question may help: Is this exact phrase (כְּעֵץ֘) used anywhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures? It is used 5 times:

ESV Job 19:10 He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, and my hope has he pulled up like a tree.

ESV Job 24:20 The womb forgets them; the worm finds them sweet; they are no longer remembered, so wickedness is broken like a tree.’

ESV Psalm 1:3 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.

ESV Jeremiah 17:8 He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

ESV Lamentations 4:8 Now their face is blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets; their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as wood.

 

These highlighted instances seem to indicate that a simple simile is being used, simple in the sense that the authors wrote “a tree,” not “the tree.” So, it appears at first glance that, grammatically speaking, a specific/special biblical tree is not in view, but rather a generic tree image is being called to mind by the author.

Did you notice the strong parallel text in Jeremiah 17? Perhaps the Psalmist used Jeremiah’s imagery as a source book when crafting Psalm 1. We will definitely need to explore this interesting Jeremiah text further.

But, before we explore textual allusions in Psalm 1:3, we need to ask our second grammatical question: How is the simile, “like a tree,” qualified by the rest of the first life of verse 3? This question will lead us into our next post.

 

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