Home » Sermons » Old Testament » A People After God’s Heart

 

A People After God’s Heart

 

PSALM 15

An Exposition

 

The psalms were recited in private devotion in Israelite homes, in public worship in the sanctuary, and on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In any of these contexts they were part of a liturgy where the worshipper(s) asked a question and the priest (or head of the household), speaking for God, declared the answer.

E.g., Worshipper: “O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent?”

Priest: “He who walks blamelessly.”

 

Verse 1 — TENT: — brings two matters to mind

formal worship (emphasised by “thy holy hill”)

The tent was the goatskin “tabernacle” that housed such items of worship as the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments while Israel travelled through the wilderness. The Ten Commandments (or Ten Words) structured the obedience of the Israelite people especially in adverse or awkward circumstances like the wilderness or, centuries later, the exile. (Finding ourselves in any of the many “wildernesses” that settle upon us is never an excuse for our disobedience, even though we like to tell ourselves that it is.)

According to Exodus 29:42 worshippers gathered in the “tent of meeting” where a year-old lamb was offered up morning and evening.

The psalm begins by asking who of the motley crowd of former slaves will be allowed in the tent of worship, the tent being the visible symbol of God’s presence.

simple family life (emphasised by “dwell”)

The psalms frequently mingle these two ideas, as here the psalmist speaks of the believer as an eager family member “coming home”. (e.g., Ps. 23:6 — “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”)

At the same time, since God is holy and we are defiled, we may not presume upon “coming home.” Since “evil may not dwell with Thee” (Ps. 5:4), the question, “Who shall sojourn?”, is entirely appropriate. Not anyone at all may dwell with God, but rather those whom the psalmist describes in the balances of psalm 15.

Once more the psalmist asks the same question: Who will be “at home” on God’s “holy hill”?

“Holy hill” = “Mount Zion” = “City of David”: — an area of old Jerusalem that David proclaimed as the site of worship. (Note how already, in two lines only, the psalm gathers up motifs from Israel’s wilderness wanderings prior to David’s reign and from the fixity of that reign: the “holy hill” was as fixed as the “tent” was mobile. God’s people are both forever “on the move” and forever “at home” with him. Life under him is always a venture; we can’t “hunker down” and “turtle” ourselves. At the same time we need seek no other home. God accompanies us in and even leads us into assorted wildernesses in life even as he “establishes” us so that we “dwell” with him. In this context we should recall our Lord’s use of “dwell”, as in John 15:4, where we “abide” in him and he in us. Menein, the common Greek word for “dwell” or “abide”, literally means to stay in one place. We are “fixed” in Christ even as he forever sends out and accompanies us on the “way.”

 

 

A DESCRIPTION OF GOD’S PEOPLE

Verse 2 — OUR CHARACTER: SOUND

We are to “walk blamelessly.”

“Walk” is the commonest biblical metaphor for discipleship, obedience.

We are to walk “blamelessly (Hebrew: tamin) not faultlessly or flawlessly. There is no injunction here to become perfectionistic neurotics. In this regard we should recall Christ’s command in Matthew 5:48, where his people are enjoined to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect. The context is the following: Just as God sends rain on the just and unjust alike, without discrimination and regardless of merit, in the same way Christ’s people are to be generous with others, without discrimination and regardless of merit. In other words to walk “blamelessly” is to aspire after consistency. (The shape of the believer’s life is what “sanctification” denotes, and John Calvin (who engendered the Protestant Reformation outside German-speaking lands) reminds us that “Sanctification consists more in aspiration than in achievement.”)

There are three meanings to tamin:

sound: i.e., not hollow or merely apparent or phoney or unreliable. God’s claim upon us, together with our response, renders us people of substance.

whole: we grasp God’s claim in its totality, its comprehensiveness, as it pertains to every aspect of our existence.

wholehearted: we are enthused about our discipleship. In the words of Jesus, having put our hand to the plough we don’t look back, don’t even want to look back. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that they are not merely to be givers, but cheerful givers.

We are to do what is “right”.

“Right” pertains to “righteous(ness)”, a two-fold meaning in scripture:

right(ed) relationship to God, born of faith

right conduct arising from this righted relationship, born of obedience.

Scripture nowhere suggests we are to pursue or have the right to pursue happiness or self-fulfilment. These are by-products of the one right and duty we have: to glorify God. “None but the holy are finally happy.” (the tireless reiteration of John Wesley — who found it in the Puritans)

 

Verse 2b-3 — OUR SPEECH: RESTRAINED

The Hebrew word for “slander” has the force of deliberately sniffing and snooping to ferret out what will then be spread around.

See Leviticus 19:16: — “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people”

1 Timothy 5:13: — younger widows should remarry and forestall “coffee-klatsch” gossiping.

While modernity undervalues sins of the tongue, it should be remembered that the Decalogue views slander as seriously as it views murder and adultery. James 3 reminds us that the tongue is set on fire from hell and in turn sets on fire “the whole cycle of nature.” Jesus insists that on the day of judgement we shall be judged for every careless word that we’ve spoken. Matt. 12:37)

See Ephesians 4:29: speech is to “fit the occasion” and “impart grace to those who hear.”

Colossians 4:6: speech is to be “gracious” and “seasoned with salt.” (Everywhere in scripture salt is a sign of the covenant. In other words, our speech is to attest the promises whereby God has pledged himself to us and we have pledged ourselves to him.

We are to “speak truth from the heart”; i.e., speak so as to be transparent, edifying and appropriate. To “take up a reproach” is (i) to muckrake, (ii) to make casual slurs that aren’t slanderous, strictly speaking, since they aren’t untrue, but are unnecessary and deleterious.

 

Verse 4 — OUR ALLEGIANCE: UNMISTAKABLE

“in whose eyes a reprobate (=sinner) is despised.” God’s people must loathe sin. Then why doesn’t the psalmist say, “in whose eyes sin is despised”? — because sin as such doesn’t exist: sin has no existence apart from sinners. Only sinners can be “despised”. While we commonly say that Christians are to hate sin but love sinners, our saying this is illogical: we can’t “hate sin”; we can only hate sinners. God hates sinners and loves them at the same time. However, his love transcends his hate; “mercy triumphs over judgement.” (James 2:13) His love outstrips his hate.

When the psalmist writes “in whose eyes a reprobate is despised” he’s not suggesting that we fancy ourselves self-righteously superior, but rather that our loyalty is evident: we don’t secretly admire or covet what is despicable.

“who honours those who fear the Lord.” One sign of our faith is that we esteem others who fear God. “Fear of God” includes trust, love, obedience, awe, and plain, simple fear. “Fear of God” sums up the whole of biblical faith. (Martin Buber) When the women beheld the empty tomb on Easter morning, they were possessed of “fear and great joy.” When the disciples found themselves amidst the storm now stilled, they were “filled with awe”, says the RSV English text; the Greek text says more simply, “They feared a great fear.” In scripture we either fear God and nothing else, or we don’t fear God and therefore fear everything else. See Isaiah 8:12-13: “Do not fear what they fear [i.e., others]; But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy, and him you shall fear.” The believer’s fear of God grounds the command, “You shall not be afraid of the face of man.” (Deut. 1:7)

 

 

Verse 4C-5 — OUR DEALINGS: HONOURABLE

[1] we “swear to our own hurt”; i.e., we keep our word even if it costs us to keep it. (Paul — “Am I like a worldly man, ready to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at once?” 2Cor. 1:17) We swear to our own hurt, rather than to another’s, unlike Herod concerning John the Baptist, when Herod swore to give his daughter anything she asked for and she, prompted by her mother (angry at John’s denunciation of her sin) urged the daughter to ask for John’s head.

[2] We don’t “put out our money at interest.” Scripture doesn’t forbid “renting out” one’s money. (See Christ’s parable of the talents, Matt. 25, where he faults the man who stuck his money in the ground instead of “putting it out at interest.”) Scripture recognises that the lender has a right to share in the profit that the borrower makes with the lender’s money. At the time of the Reformation it was recognised that interest is rent paid on money, and everyone admits the legitimacy of renting others’ goods.

 

However, scripture forbids charging interest on money borrowed for life’s necessities. We are never to exploit financially someone else’s destitution.

[3] We don’t “take a bribe against the innocent.” We can’t be paid off to subvert justice.

 

 Verse 5c — OUR PLACE: ASSURED

We shall “never be moved.” In the psalms the profoundest threat of insecurity is often expressed by “moved.” To be “moveable” is to be vulnerable, defenceless, finally insecure. We counter the threat of insecurity not by siding with the strong but by steadfastly trusting God. (“Because the Lord is at my right hand I shall not be moved.” Ps. 16:8)

The force of the last line of Psalm 15 is, “such a person shall not be ‘moved’, ever.” Instead we shall be preserved eternally by God, for God, with God.

 

Victor Shepherd
October, 1999