Planted near running waters, the tree never thirsts, always bearing fruit in season, forever flourishing.
Psalm 1:3 paints an image of utter tranquility in describing the righteous man. It seems a world away from the bloodied scene at Golgotha, where the body of a dying man hung on dead wood, his hands and feet pierced by unfeeling iron, his thirst never quite slaked, and his very life slowly draining out of Him.
Yet it is exactly to the cross that some Church Fathers believe Psalm 1:3 points, seeing in the image of the tranquil tree a foreshadowing of the cross. (The technical term is a ‘type.’)
One early Church source, the Epistle of Barnabas, which dates back to the late first century or early second, considers the dual image of the running waters with the tree as confirmation that it points forward to the cross. The running waters, according to the author, symbolize the water with which we are baptized into the death of Christ (see Romans 6:3). Another early Father, Justin Martyr, also identifies the tree of Psalm 1 with the cross in his book, First Apology, as if the connection is self-evident.
Seeing the cross through Psalm 1 indeed helps us to see it anew. Christ died on a ‘tree’ so that we might become like that flourishing tree. He thirsted so that we, like that tree, will never lack for water. He poured out His life for us so that we may be abundant in life like the fruit-bearing tree.
But have Justin Martyr and Barnabas gone too far? Have they plucked an image out of its context in Psalm 1?
The question is particularly important for this psalm because it is commonly viewed as setting the agenda for the rest of the psalms (along with Psalm 2, which really is a continuation of Psalm 1). If the first psalm speaks of the happiness of the righteous man, the rest are a musical blueprint for how to become such a man. And, if the first psalm ultimately calls us to aim for the cross, then the rest help us to keep the cross in our sights.
The question gains added significance when we consider how these songs of praise, despair, hope, and faith were viewed by Church Fathers like St. Basil the Great as the spiritual summit of the entire Old Testament—incorporating in one place the key truths of the prophets, the historical books, the books of law, and the proverbs. So the potential focus on Christ in the Psalms has ramifications for the entire Old Testament.
So let’s go back to Psalm 1. Does the cross fit in the context of verse 3?
The broader context is fairly straightforward. It describes the actions and conditions that make someone a ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ man (verse 1). We are first told that such a man is one who completely avoids the company of the wicked: he does not walk, stand, or sit with them.
But he does more than say ‘no’ to wickedness, sin, and scoffing. He says ‘yes’ to the law of God. And ‘yes’ is much, much more than dutiful obedience. The law is a source of ‘joy’ and unceasing meditation for such a man (verse 2). Of course, the ‘law’ in mind here refers not only to the Ten Commandments and the other liturgical and communal laws of Israel, but also to the word of God as expressed in all the books that had been written up to that point.
And here is where Christ comes to mind. Remember that a major theme of the New Testament writers is how Christ is the fulfillment of the ‘law.’ In Matthew 5:17, Christ declares, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
Likewise, in Romans 10:4, St. Paul affirms that, “Christ is the end of the law for the justification of everyone who has faith.” Here, he means ‘end’ not in the sense of terminating something, but rather end as a goal (the meaning of the underlying Greek, telos).
And where was Christ’s work of fulfillment achieved once and for all? On a tree—which is what Acts 10:39 actually calls the cross.
As one who came to fulfill—not abolish—the law, Christ’s ministry as recorded in the gospels lives and breathes the Old Testament, as anyone can readily see by opening their Bibles and perusing the allusions listed in the margins.
On the cross, the fabric of the Old Testament is woven ever more deeply into the gospel narratives. Perhaps it is fitting that here it is a psalm—this time Psalm 22—that is at the fore. The allusions are everywhere in the crucifixion accounts. Here are some examples:
■ The soldiers divide Christ’s garments and cast lots (John 19:4). So also for the psalmist “they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:19).
■ Christ thirsts on the cross (John 19:28). The psalmist cries out, “As dry as a potsherd is my throat; my tongue cleaves to my palate; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:16.)
■ Christ is “reviled” by those who pass by, “shaking their heads” (Matthew 27:19). So also the psalmist: “All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me.”
■ Those scorning Christ declare, “He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Matthew 27:43). Likewise those who spurned the psalmist: “He relied on the Lord—let him deliver him; if he loves him, let him rescue him” (Psalm 22:9).
■ Jesus’ hands and feet were pierced. Psalm 22:17 says, “They have pierced my hands and my feet.”
■ Then there’s the famous cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which is almost identical to the words of Psalm 22:2.
■ On the cross, Jesus’ life quite literally was drained out of Him, culminating in the piercing of His side all the way to His heart. In Psalm 22:15 we read, “Like water my life drains away; all my bones are disjointed. My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me.”
On the cross, Christ’s death thus became a sort of living psalm, a prayer in the flesh and blood. In fulfilling the law, Christ was not merely ‘like’ a tree—His flesh was nailed to it, He spilled His Precious blood it, indeed his whole life and death came to be identified with that tree.
Returning once more to the first psalm, the cross now seems firmly planted in its center. Meditating on the law should bring us to ‘the tree.’ And, as we move forward in the psalms, we gain an ever clearer glimpse of the cross—perhaps the clearest and most striking coming in Psalm 22.
We see, indeed, the psalms brings us to the Cross . In meditating on the law—that is, God’s word—we are remade more and more into the likeness of Christ. Some have literally been led to their crosses, dying the deaths of martyrs. Others have suffered more subtle martyrdoms of the heart and soul. But all of us can find our way to the crucified Christ through the prayers of the psalms.