HomeArticlesCounsel of the Ungodly: Commentary on Psalm 1:1

Counsel of the Ungodly: Commentary on Psalm 1:1

[Note: The following article is an excerpt from a commentary on Psalm 1 that I am preparing.]

counsel of the ungodly


The Hebrew phrase is בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים. The word “counsel” is prefixed with the preposition “in” and an article “the,” being a feminine noun construct followed by the attributive adjective “ungodly” to indicate a genitive relation.1)E. Kautzsch, ed., Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, Trans. A. E. Cowley (2nd English Ed.) Clarendon Press (Oxford: 1910), p. 417 (§128n). As things can be attributed with the quality of “holy” (Exodus 29:29, 3; Numbers 5:17; Deuteronomy 23:14); likewise, this counsel is attributed with ungodly quality. The Hebrew word for “counsel” is paralleled to “advice” (judges 20:7). As a verb it is first used for Jethro giving counsel to Moses (Exodus 18:19). The earliest use of the noun is found in Deuteronomy 32:28, speaking of the Israelites. “For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them.” In light of first usage, the possessors of godly counsel are rare, even in Israel. The blessed individual has a solitary focus on the “law of the LORD” (Psalm 1:2), not being influenced by or synchronizing the ideas of the rest of the world, even when the false philosophies are the dominating consensus view among his own people. This expresses the biblical notion of a remnant that follows God (Roman 11:8) while the majority follow the broad way to destruction (Matthew 7:13).

The Septuagint uses the Greek word βουλῇ which is why Tertullian connected this text with Joseph of Arimathea as discussed above. βουλῇ could be defined as “council meeting2)A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (ed. Walter Bauer and trans. Wm. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. Danker, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL: 1979), p. 145 and was used as the equivalent to Sanhedrin as a gathering of men that judged and gave counsel. The Mishna tells us, “The greater Sanhedrin was made up of one and seventy [judges] and the lesser [Sanhedrin] of three and twenty.”3)Sanhedrin 1.6; The Mishna (Trans. Herbert Danby), Hendrickson Pub. (Peabody, MA: 1933, 2016), p. 383 The number seventy-one was deduced from Numbers 11:16 plus Moses making 71 members total. It was also advised, “The court must not be divisible equally,”4)Sanhedrin 1.6; The Mishna (Trans. Herbert Danby), Hendrickson Pub. (Peabody, MA: 1933, 2016), p. 383 so judgment could not end in a stalemate. “The Sanhedrin included the high priest, who according to tradition could break ties in voting.”5)Craig S. Keener, Acts An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 3:1-14:28, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, MI: 2013), Vol. 2, p. 1139

            Psalm 1:1 could be expressing not to walk with a group of wicked men that pervert judgement, but it is more likely here the use of βουλῇ indicates “purpose, counsel6)A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (ed. Walter Bauer and trans. Wm. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. Danker, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL: 1979), p. 145 as advice being offered (Judges 20:7). “Counsel” is used often in Hebrew poetic texts synonymously with instruction and advice (Proverb 1:10; 19:27; 20:18). βουλῇ carries a usage that can refer to the “counsel of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5), that is the thoughts or plans of one’s mind; or as Clement of Rome used it to pray for the political leaders of the empire, “Lord direct their counsel according to that which is good and well pleasing in Thy sight[.]”7)1 Clement 61.2; in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (edited by Allan Menzies.), Henrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusettes: 1896, 2012), Vol. 9, p. 247 When Ahaziah became king of Judah, he received counsel his wicked mother Athaliah, referred to the daughter of Omri to emphasized her pagan heritage (2 Chronicles 22:4). He further followed counselors from the house of Ahab, which was the cause of his destruction (2 Chronicles 22:5), as Psalm 1:6 promises the ungodly counselors will perish.

Both the Hebrew and Greek words are used for God’s counsel (Job 38:2; Proverbs 8:14; 21:30; Isaiah 11;2; 14:26; 46:11; Jeremiah 32:19; Acts 20:27; Ephesians 1:11) which is immutable (Hebrews 6:17) and is not altered by men brainstorming against Him. Wicked men actually think they can hide their plans from God to take Him off guard (Isaiah 29:15). Psalm 33:10-12 relates blessing on the nation that makes Jehovah their God because He overthrows the counsel of the heathen. “Noteworthy here is the overruling power of God as he nullifies and frustrates the plans of men.”8)Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke) Moody Press (Chicago, IL 1980), Vol. 1, p. 390 (Also compare, 2 Samuel 17:14; Nehemiah 4:15; 2 Kings 18:20; Isaiah 8:10; 30:1).

The Hebrew word is used to describe “the faculty of forming plans, i.e. prudence, wisdom,9)Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon of the Old Testament Scriptures, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. (Grand Rapids, MI: 1957), p. 647 but this “counsel” is singular coming from a plurality of “wicked” people, representing either a council or group offering advice, or the majority of people within the culture having collectively formed this wicked opinion. Perhaps, the emphasis implying the issue is internal to the Jewish nation, the majority of the people having their thinking influenced by their pagan neighbors. Similar to Psalm 12, this could “point towards the conflict within the people of God and not towards an external enemy.”10)Gert T.M. Prinsloo, “Man’s Word—God’s Word: A Theology of Antithesis in Psalm 12,” Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, (1998) Vol. 110, Issue 3, p. 395 An example of an internal enemy is Joseph’s brothers who took counsel together, intending evil against him (Genesis 50:20), but God used their evil devices for good. Josephus’ account of Ruben pleading for his brothers not to kill Joseph also reveals this. “So he entreated them to have a regard to their own consciences, and wisely to consider what mischief would betide them upon the death of so good a child, and their youngest brother; that they would also fear God, who was already both a spectator and a witness of the designs they had against their brother; that he would love them if they abstained from this act, and yielded to repentance and amendment[.]”11)Josephus, Antiquity of the Jews, 2.23; The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian (trans. William Whiston), Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids, MI: 1960, 1981), p. 45-46

Similarly, the Jewish Sanhedrin counseled together to kill Jesus Christ, but God’s foreknowledge had predetermined this counsel for His provision of salvation (Acts 2:23). The counsel of the Sanhedrin to kill Jesus Christ was proclaimed as a fulfillment of Psalm 2:1-2 by Peter (Acts 4:25-28), which justifies the connection with Psalm 1 as early Jews debated whether these two Psalms were originally one. It is evident that the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God (Luke 7:30). Gamaliel represents one man whose advice broke the opinion of the Sanhedrin’s evil plans to kill the apostles (Acts 5:38-39) patterning Reuben’s deliverance of Joseph. Tertullian’s example of Joseph of Arimathea follows a strict narrative of a man who contended against the evil advice of an internal corruption (Luke 23:51).

Walking in ungodly counsel causes God to give the sinner over to their own desire’s (Psalm 81:12; Acts 7:42; Romans 1:27-28; 2 Thessalonians 2:11). Those who take counsel from ungodly start with ungodly desires. Both the individual and the nation corporately would receive blessings or curses depending on the counsel they followed. Walking with wicked men was assumed to cause curses such as Job suffered (Job 34:7-9; Proverb 21:16). Ungodly counsel consisted of conspiring to lay traps before the feet of the godly blessed man. (Psalm 81:12-16; Psalm 142:3). The Israelites were supposed to teach their children about God’s law from a young age so all were responsible for obedience. “For the Torah-centered Israelite, the description of the wicked in v. 1b would have evoked the positive imagery of Deuteronomy 6:7. Thus, by a subtle allusion to Deuteronomy, the psalmist alerts the attentive reader the antithesis of Psalm 1:1b.”12)Brian Russell, “Psalm 1 as an Interpreter of Scripture,” Irish Biblical Studies, 26/4 (2005), p. 175 God brought the nation low because the counsel consistently provoked Him (Psalm 106:43; Psalm 107:11-12). Because Israel’s counsel opposed God, He cause their neighbors counsel to oppose them and conspire to cut them off (Psalm 83:2-8).

St. Hilary commenting on the ungodly distinguished them as atheistic in contrast to the sinner, stating:

There is no doubt then that, as this instance proves, the undutiful (or ungodly) must be distinguished from the sinner. And, indeed, general opinion agrees to call those men ungodly who scorn to search for the knowledge of God, who in their irreverent mind take for granted that there is no Creator of the world, who assert that it arrived at the order and beauty which we see by chance movements, who, in order to deprive their Creator of all power to pass judgment on a life lived rightly or in sin, will have it that man comes into being and passes out of it again by the simple operation of a law of nature.13)St. Hilary, Homilies on the Psalms (Trans by E. W. Watson and L. Pullan) in Nicene and Post-Nicene Father, second series (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace), Christian Literature Publishing Co. (Buffalo, NY: 1899), vol. 9, p. 238

Notably, Augustine spoke of this phrase “counsel of the ungodly,” to applied it to the earliest apostate; the devil. Augustine wrote, “as ‘the man of earth did,’ [1 Cor. 15:47] who consented to his wife deceived by the serpent, to the transgressing the commandment of God.”14)Augustine, “Exposition on the Book of Psalms by Saint Augustine Bishop of Hippo;” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (ed. Philip Schaff), WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI: reprint 1996), Series 1, Vol. 8, p. 1 Thus it was Adam who took ungodly counsel, and an appropriate application to the fall nature of man is that our minds affected by sin (Ephesians 2:3), leave us prone to receive ungodly counsel.

A plethora of examples of evil counsel being received are sought after in the Bible can be noted. Balak, king of Moab, sought Balaam to curse the Jewish nation (Numbers 22-24). Balaam was overcome by greed and taught Balak to send the Moabite women into the Israelite camp to seduce the men into idolatry and fornication (Numbers 25). Josephus reports of Balaam, “who was sent for by the Midianites to curse the Hebrews, and when he was hindered from doing it by Divine Providence, did still suggest that advice to them, by making use of which our enemies had well nigh corrupted the whole multitude of the Hebrews with their wiles, till some of them were deeply infected with their opinions” (Josephus, Antiquity of the Jews, 4.157).15)The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian (trans. William Whiston), Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids, MI: 1960, 1981), p. 93 Moses wrote, “through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord” (Numbers 31:16). Balaam would become a byword as a prophet for hire (Deuteronomy 23:4; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11).

Doeg the Edomite revealed to king Saul (1 Samuel 22:7-10) when David had gone to the priests at Nob (1 Samuel 21:1-9). Doeg was eager to kill the priests at the command of king Saul when no others were willing to (1 Samuel 22:11-19). David later wrote a Psalm describing Doeg as having a “tongue [that] deviseth mischiefs; like a sharp razor, working deceitfully. Thou lovest evil more than good; and lying rather than to speak righteousness. Selah. Thou lovest all devouring words, O thou deceitful tongue” (Psalm 52:2-4). This is contrasted to David who is similar to the blessed man of Psalm 1, is “like a green olive tree in the house of God” (Psalm 52:8).

David’s son Amon took advice from Jonadab and raped his half-sister Tamar, refusing to hear her warning (2 Samuel 13:1-14). This wicked counselor Jonadab was also a counselor to king David and David’s nephew (2 Samuel 13:32), making him the cousin of Amon and Tamar.

Ahithophel was taken by Absalom during his rebellion against his father David (2 Samuel 15:12). Ahithophel had wise counsel (2 Samuel 16:23) with a wicked intent. Ahithophel was the grandfather of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:3 cf. 23:34) which is why he gave his advice to Absalom to defile David’s concubines (2 Samuel 16:20-22) in fulfillment of the prophet Nathan’s prediction of judgement (2 Samuel 12:1-14).

David rejected the counsel of Joab when Satan put in his heart to take a consensus of Israel (2 Samuel 24:1-4; 1 Chronicles 21:1-6). King Solomon rejected David’s counsel to serve the Lord by obedience to God’s law (1 Chronicles 28:5-9), he multiplied wives from pagan nation (Deuteronomy 17:17; 1 Kings 11:1-8) causing the kingdom to be divided during his son’s reign. Rehoboam rejected the counsel of the elders (1 Kings 12:1-13), sealing the fate of the kingdom being divided. A prophet that Josephus named “Jadon,”16)Josephus, Antiquity of the Jews, 8.240; The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian (trans. William Whiston), Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids, MI: 1960, 1981), p. 185 was deceived by another prophet who lied, and it cost him his life (1 Kings 13:11-32). Jezebel gave counsel to wicked men to lie and have Naboth stoned to death to obtain Naboth’s vineyard for her husband the king Ahab (1 Kings 21:5-14). Jehoshaphat took bad counsel from Ahab to go to war with him (1 King 22:4) and Ahab reject the message of the prophet Micaiah which cost him his life (1 Kings 22:15-28). Ahaziah obeyed the wicked counsel from his mother Athaliah and the counselors that outlived his father (2 Chronicles 22:2-5). Idolatry was coming from the counsel of the priests in Ezekiel’s day (Ezekiel 11:1-2 cf. 8:11), which contributed to driving the nation into captivity.

What is rarer is to observe when people actually reject ungodly advice.  David resisted the temptation to kill Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 24:4), but “David’s heart smote him” (1 Samuel 24:5) and he would not lay his hand on the Lord’s anointed (1 Samuel 24:6-7). During Absalom’s revolt, David gave counsel to his captains and all the men of war to deal gently with Absalom (2 Samuel 18:5). When Absalom was seen dangling from a tree, a young man saw him but refused ten shekels of silver offered to him by Joab for killing Absalom (2 Samuel 24:9-12). Obadiah risked his life to hide one hundred prophets of the Lord in caves and fed them with bread and water while Jezebel was attempting to eradicate them (1 Kings 18:4, 13). The Rechabites rejected the wine offered to them (Jeremiah 35:1-10) and were blessed by God for doing so (Jeremiah 35:18-19). The fact that there are so few examples of ungodly advice being rejected teaches us to remain very cautious of who we listen to.

In Ancient Near Eastern context, one’s life could be threatened for offer poor advice to the king’s son. The Vassal treaties of Esarhaddon gives warning against those who would conspire against him or his son would suffer severe consequence. “If you do not fight for the crown prince Ashurbanipal, son of your lord Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, if you do not die for him, if you do not seek to do what is good for him, if you act wrongly toward him, do not give him sound advice, lead him on an unsafe course, do not treat him with proper loyalty…”17)The Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon; in The Ancient Near East: A New Anthology of Texts and Pictures (ed. James B. Pritchard), Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ: 1975), Vol. 2, p. 59 This is reminiscent of 2 Samuel 17:14 when Hushai’s counsel overthrows Ahithophel’s for God purposed to defeat Absalom’s revolt.



Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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