Commentary on Psalm 15
The question posed in two parallel clauses by Psalm 15:1, “O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” sets the agenda both for the psalm itself and for any interpretation of it. The question, in and of itself, relates to the identification of those people who enjoy access to God’s presence, as it was understood to be specially manifested in the temple.
For the preacher, the obvious connection here is to the understanding that the church, and every gathering of 2 or more of its members (Matthew 18:20) represent similar opportunities for access to that presence. The psalm’s answers to the question will have implications for people who publicly participate in such gatherings. Are there requirements that must be met for rightful attendance and participation? If so, what are they? If not, how else are we to understand what the psalm says about those who “may abide” in the presence of the Lord?
First and foremost, it is noteworthy that the psalm’s description of the person who may abide in the presence is entirely ethical. There are no ritual or liturgical elements whatsoever. This may be surprising, since such requirements are, in other texts, given in considerable detail and applied with considerable rigor, and one would expect such elements to be part of any actual list of enforceable requirements. Psalm 15, however, is entirely concerned with the conduct to be observed by those who would draw near to God, and so it seems likely that the text is intended to function in some other way than as a list of admission standards. It is not a sort of checklist that must be completed before coming to church!
Consideration of the specific sorts of conduct listed may shed some light on how the text is intended to be used, and will in any case offer sound ethical instruction, which can itself be the basis of fruitful preaching. Specific ethical imperatives urged by the psalm for those who would “walk blamelessly and do what is right” (2) include:
- Truthful speech, both about one’s inner thoughts and about one’s neighbor (2-3)
- Good conduct toward one’s neighbor (3)
- The giving of approval to conduct in others that is aligned with God’s will, and the withholding of approval from what is contrary to it (4)
- Integrity and fidelity in keeping one’s word (4)
- Refusal to engage in financial exploitation of the vulnerable (5)
It will not be difficult for the preacher, if so inclined, to find examples of professing believers who strive to exemplify these activities. It will be even less difficult to find widely known and public examples of professing believers who do not.
It is the fact of human inability to perfectly execute the ethical program of Psalm 15 that makes it crucial to understand how this list of behaviors is meant to function. If they are absolute requirements that must be fulfilled in order to enter God’s presence, no one will ever be qualified to do so. Happily, it is consistent with Christian teaching on God’s forgiveness and renovation of the flawed and fallen members of God’s people to construe them not as requirements that must be met to enter the presence, but rather as markers of a person who has been touched by that forgiving and renovating presence.
In other words, these ways of behaving with respect to neighbor, worshiping community, and world are made possible by the encounter with the powerful presence of the Lord. The message of Psalm 15 to the church is thus a hopeful rather than an exclusionary one: Those who regularly enter the presence of God by coming to the place of worship are enabled, more and more, to walk in righteousness, to do what is right, and more specifically to strive to display the ethical marks set forth in the text.
In this light, the closing line of the psalm, “Those who do these things shall never be moved,” reads as a promise of the reliability and solidity of God’s agenda for redemption, as it applies to the individual believer walking through life in the world.
Approaching the text in this manner allows either for preaching on the psalm alone or drawing connections to any number of New Testament texts that address forgiveness, sanctification, and/or Jesus’s habit of welcoming surprising people into his presence with equally surprising results.