Commentary on Psalm 15
Psalm 15 is classified generally as a Community Hymn and more specifically as an Entrance Liturgy.
In three movements — Question (verse 1), Response (verses 2-5b), and Promise (verse 5c), the prospective worshiper is schooled in the proper demeanor of those who would enter into the presence of God to worship.
Verse 1 sets the question. “Who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (NRSV). The two words, “abide” and “dwell” are interesting studies. The word translated “abide” is from the Hebrew root gur, which means to “stay as a resident alien, as a foreigner”; the word “dwell” is derived from shakan, meaning to “settle down, be at home.” Whatever these words may have meant in their setting in ancient Israel, they speak volumes to humanity today. We are all “foreigners or resident aliens” when we seek to come into the presence of God, and our hope is to “settle down, be at home” (just for a while) in that presence, that sanctuary.
In order to truly “settle down, be at home,” though, certain things are required of us. And verses 2-5b clearly lay them out. We begin with verses 2 and 3, which scholars suggest is a masterful work of Hebrew poetic parallelism. The verses contain, in three phrases in verse 2 that echo three phrases found in verse 3, the three requisites for entrance into God’s holy space.
The first is the demeanor we evince in our daily conduct — verse 2 begins with “those who walk blamelessly,” and verse 3 opens with “those who do not slander with their tongue” (NRSV). “Walk” comes from the Hebrew root halak, which means “go one’s way, to travel in a certain way,” while “slander” comes from the root ragal, which in its noun form means “foot.” The translation “slander” thus has to do with how ones “foots it” or “treads.”
The second requisite for entrance to God’s holy space in verses 2 and 3 has to do with what we do. In verse 2, the prospective worshiper is described as one who “does what is right,” while in verse 3, we read “who does not evil to their friends.” And the third requisite has to do with what one says. “Speak the truth from the heart” (verse 2b) and “Do not lift up speech against one’s neighbor” (verse 3b).
Verse 4 addresses the issue of discretion — despising (“thinking lightly of/rejecting”) the wicked, but honoring (from the Hebrew kabad, “considering weighty”) those who fear the Lord; and standing by one’s word even when it could bring harm to oneself. Verse 5 continues with a concern for the welfare of those less fortunate than oneself. The one worthy of entering into God’s presence does not lend money at an interest rate that the one owing the money cannot possibly meet (usury), and one does not testify against an innocent person at any cost, at any personal gain to oneself.
The admonitions of Psalm 15:2-5b should not be understood, though, as a “check the box” list. Do or don’t do all of these things and you have “fulfilled all righteousness.” Rather, as one Old Testament scholar suggests, the admonitions of Psalm 15 should be read as a “picture, not a prescription” — as examples of the conduct one who is worthy to come into the presence of God.
The message of Psalm 15 is the same that we read in the other Lectionary Texts for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12 are familiar passages. Micah tells that God does not want burnt offering or animal sacrifices; God wants justice, kindness, and a humble walk before God. Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel talks about the make-up of the Kingdom of Heaven — those who are meek, those who are merciful, those who are peacemakers.
The message of Psalm 15, and of Micah 6 and Matthew 5, seems to be to be that God is not so much interested in whether we get the ritual right — the invocation, the litany, the music, the sermon, as God is interested in whether our attitude and actions are right as we enter into the sanctuary.
Two passages, one in the book of Leviticus and the other in the book of Matthew, are illustrative of the words of Psalm 15. Leviticus, chapters 1-6, is a detailed discussion of the various offerings and sacrifices the people could offer to the Lord at the sanctuary. Chapter 6 outlines the steps that one must take if they wish to bring an offering to God to atone for any wrong that they have done to another:
- First, one must recognize one’s guilt — that a person has been wronged/has been hurt (Leviticus 6:3)
- Second, one must realize the guilt — I did the wrong/I hurt/I harmed (Leviticus 6:4)
- Third, one must seek restoration — I want to make this right; I know I have done wrong (Leviticus 6:4)
- Fourth, one must repay, in whatever form is appropriate, to the one wronged the full cost plus 1/5=20% to make right the wrong (Leviticus 6:5)
- Fifth, then and only then, one can go to the priest with a sacrifice to atone for the intentional sin (Leviticus 6:6)
- Sixth, then the priest will make atonement for the intentional sin (Leviticus 6:7).
In like manner, Jesus, in Matthew 5, says: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (verses 23-24).
Those who can sojourn/live as a foreigner and sit down for a while in the presence of God are not necessarily those who have read their Sunday School lesson for the week, dressed in their Sunday best, know the words to all the hymns, and bring the sweet rolls for coffee after the service. No, the inside is more important than the outside. Did you speak the truth (Psalm 15:2); did you not slander (Psalm 15:3) or “lift up” words against your neighbor (Psalm 15:3); did you stand by your word (Psalm 15:4); and did you not speak ill of any innocent person just for your own gain (Psalm 15:5)? Contemplate the prerequisites, and then enter in!