Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

The opening verse of Psalm 15, asking who can be admitted to worship at the tabernacle/temple, makes for a daunting introduction to this “entrance liturgy” psalm.1

January 30, 2011

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Commentary on Psalm 15

The opening verse of Psalm 15, asking who can be admitted to worship at the tabernacle/temple, makes for a daunting introduction to this “entrance liturgy” psalm.1

On one level, such questions may seem as remote to us as those asked of grail seekers at “the bridge of death” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or even the three tests of lethal cunning in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. They strike us as being from a time and place far removed from the welcoming, seeker-sensitive churches of today. Followers of Jesus, whose faith is shaped by New Testament assurances of divine acceptance in Christ, might even be mildly dismissive of the exclusive tone of this Israelite psalm.

On another level, however, the response provided in the remaining verses of Psalm 15 forces even twenty first century readers to ponder how we reflect the psalmist’s expectations. We share more common ground with the biblical author than we might imagine, at least insofar as the psalm does not prescribe ritual acts of self-consecration; rather, as Derek Kidner writes, “the Lord’s reply searches the conscience.”2

A helpful way to think about Psalm 15 as a resource for worship and preaching is suggested by a Ronald Clements essay.3  Whatever may have been the original setting and function of questions about “abiding in Yahweh’s tent” and “dwelling on Yahweh’s holy hill” (verse 1), the current form of the psalm unites the liturgical interests in the question with the ethical instruction of the answer. Therefore, what may initially seem to be an expression of Israelite piety concerned with ceremonial acceptability now moves the hearer to contemplate the connection between one’s worship and one’s choices in the world. The questions of verse 1 are, after all, addressed to God, not to worshipers; they function rhetorically as an opportunity to challenge God’s people to adopt a “way of life that shows wholehearted respect for the torah of the Lord God.”4

Ritual, Righteousness, and the Decalogue
The Hebrew Bible as a whole represents the tension felt in Israelite society over the relationship between the worship one offers to God and the actions one takes with respect to neighbor. No single text in the Old Testament ever completely resolves this tension, though a strong case can be made that the prophetic witness certainly directed Israelites away from legalistic ritual toward obedience to God’s word in general (1 Samuel 15:22, “surely, to obey is better than sacrifice”) and concern for social justice in particular (Isaiah 1:11-17; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

Moreover, the Ten Commandments themselves exhibit what Clements calls a “marriage between cultic duty and moral demand.”5  Rather than replacing concerns for ritual holiness, therefore, Old Testament theology invites Yahweh’s worshipers to celebrate their relationship with God from within a life that exhibits love of neighbor. This is certainly part of the thrust of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel lection for today (Mark 7), as well as in James’s instruction about “the law of liberty” in the epistle reading (James 1:17-27).

Preachers will find some commentators suggesting links to the Ten Commandments, insofar as certain ways of structuring Psalm 15’s content, lead to a list of ten behavioral admonitions. The connection is attractive and offers interesting homiletical possibilities, but the arguments for any direct influence between the Decalogue and the psalm are not compelling. One might hold out for a mild echo of the Ten Commandments, but the psalm’s content moves in a different direction from the Decalogue’s interests;6  and it may be that the psalm’s structure provides more than one accurate interpretation.7

Regardless of the number of distinct statements, the economy of language is stunning, with only fifty three Hebrew words compared to the NRSV’s one hundred and two words. The psalmist wanted a memorable and trustworthy guide for social conduct, and sermons can present the psalm as a living portrait of the kind of life Moses called for in the Old Testament lection for this Sunday (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9). Observing Yahweh’s words will indeed display Israel’s “wisdom and discernment” to all the peoples (Deuteronomy 4:6).

Wisdom Instruction and Community Life
What then shall we do with the specific claims the psalm places upon us? Overall, we affirm that the instructions of verses 2-5 are not conditions for entering worship but descriptions of living in a community guided by wisdom. The active participles in verse 2 (the walker, the doer, the speaker) reinforce this notion by emphasizing qualities of continued practice, not achieved righteousness.

Of particular concern are what people do with their speech (verses 3-4) and how they handle their money (verse 5), but these are not stated as general principles as they might be found in the Book of Proverbs. They are instead contextualized in terms of the effect our words and finances have on “friends” and “neighbors” (verse 3). Even when other persons are not mentioned by name, their presence is implied as the recipients of an oath (verse 4) or a loan (verse 5).8

To bring the message full circle, the psalm is describing the kind of community within which God dwells. When the psalms were being collected in the post-exilic era, many diaspora Jews would never experience Temple worship. Psalm 15 encouraged them that communities of honesty and justice, wherever they may be, were themselves dwelling places of God.9  In this regard, verse 1 of the NRSV, with its translation “dwell,” misses the nuance of the Hebrew verb sākan, which might be translated “to tabernacle.” For Christians, this concept evokes the confidence that it is not merely we who dwell with God but God who has chosen to “tabernacle” with us (John 1:14).10

1See P. Craigie on Hermann Gunkel’s form-critical designation, in Psalms 1-50  (Word Books, 1983), 150. This classification is only partially reflective of the psalm’s final form and function.  The psalm may not, in fact, have ever been about entrance requirements.
2D. Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 1973), 80-81.
3R. Clements, “Worship and Ethics: A Re-examination of Psalm 15,” in Worship and the Hebrew Bible (JSOT Press, 1999), 78-94.
4Ibid., 90.
5Ibid., 84.
6W. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1991), 5:149-150.
7P. Miller, Interpreting the Psalms (Fortress, 1986), 44-45.
8The text of v. 4c is problematic, but the sense given it by the NRSV (“stand by their oath even to their hurt”) is sound.
9Clements, 90-93.
10M. Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 2001), 55.