I’ve been on a three-year journey studying the Psalms and setting them to music, and the most surprising development in that journey has been discovering just how deep, rich, and consistent the message of each Psalm is. I used to skim over the more culturally confusing parts of the Psalms and highlight only “the good verses” (i.e. the ones that make immediate sense to us in our culture). I was missing out on so much!
Psalm 15, which I recently finished setting to music, is the first Psalm I have decided to write a commentary on for this blog. Why? Because I feel like Psalm 15 has much to say to our modern culture, and much of that message would be missed if we read it carelessly without deep contemplation of its themes.
I’ll first present the text in the English Standard Version of the Bible, then unpack each phrase, and then present my final, personal, modernized translation:
O LORD, who shall sojourn in Your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks the truth in his heart;
Who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
In whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD;
Who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
Who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.
You can probably see why this Psalm could be easily passed over while reading through the Bible. No beautiful, poetic imagery. No standout verse that would make for a great “Bible promise” poster in a Christian bookstore. The message seems to be pretty straightforward: be nice to people. But let’s look a little deeper.
O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? The tent here refers to the tabernacle, the portable, tent-like place where God took up special residence during Israel’s wanderings. It eventually dwelt permanently upon Mount Zion (“holy hill”). The term “tabernacle” (also “sanctuary”) is synonymous with a place where God is specially and intimately present. His presence was so strong there that not just anyone could enter – only someone truly qualified, hence the question to open the Psalm: who gets to really BE in the intimate presence of God?
There is a significant poetic progression in these first two questions. The verb in the first question, gur (sojourn), refers to temporary residence (hence its pairing with tent), while the verb in the second question, sh-k-n, (dwell), refers to a more permanent dwelling, which is reinforced by the more sturdy and uplifting image of the mountain. In a modern way, I would put it like this: “Yahweh, who may spend time with You? And who may LIVE on the mountain top with You?”
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks the truth in his heart. Here the Psalmist begins to answer the opening question(s): who truly gets to experience God’s presence? It is a simple yet unrelenting answer: people of moral integrity. Not necessarily people who merely have emotional worship experiences or go to conferences on intimacy. Such people may experience his presence, but, without moral integrity, only in fleeting moments that come and go. It’s day-to-day faithfulness and obedience, not mere fleeting moments, that manifests His presence and identifies the true worshipper.
But isn’t this perfectionism and performance? Hasn’t Jesus made believers morally perfect in the Father’s eyes by his death and resurrection? Yes, Jesus has qualified for His presence those who have placed their faith in Him. But persistence in sin still disqualifies us from deep, abiding fellowship with Him. As a mentor of mine once powerfully (and graphically) put it, “You don’t get to go to bed with Jesus with the world’s lipstick on your collar.”
He who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend. To complement the trifecta of virtues from the last verse, the psalmist now sets forth a trifecta of evils to avoid. “He who does not slander with his tongue” refers to someone who does not injure with words, who does not pointlessly or unjustifiably speak evil of anyone. How easy it is to throw out snide, hurtful, even de-humanizing comments about others, especially when they’re not around.
“He who does no evil to his neighbor” speaks for itself, but the depth of this level of integrity should be meditated on. How much harm we do to others that we are not even aware of! How often our selfish decisions do evil to others, whether directly or indirectly!
“Nor takes up a reproach against his friend” is slightly murky in the Hebrew, but based on the context and the subject matter of the verse, I believe it is clearly a repudiation of gossip, especially gossip against our own kin (family or believers). It is disturbingly easy to enter gossip’s filthy ring when it is happening right next to us. The Psalmist says that such a person does not get to experience God’s abiding presence. These are serious words. I’ll let John Calvin give an articulate final word to this verse: “…there is also here rebuked the vice of undue credulity, which, when any evil reports are spread against our neighbors, leads us either eagerly to listen to them, or at least to receive them without sufficient reason; whereas we ought rather to use all means to suppress and trample them under foot.” There is no place for gossip in the life of the true worshipper. Anywhere.
In whose eyes a vile person is despised, but he honors those who fear the Lord. Okay, let’s face it: this sounds mean. We’re supposed to despise vile people? What does this mean? First of all, the word “despised” in the Hebrew culture implies strong preference (or lack thereof) of one thing over another. The essence of the meaning here is not a wishing-hell-and-damnation hatred of wicked people (other Scriptures teach us to desire their repentance and healing), but the phrase calls for severe disapproval of the wicked, especially in comparison to our admiration for the godly. I’ll defer to Calvin’s explanation here: “It is a species of fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness when we do not reprove them. It is certainly a very perverse way of acting, when persons, for the sake of obtaining the favor of men, will indirectly mock God; and all are chargeable with doing this who make it their business to please the wicked.” My modern translation of this verse would be “he who does not celebrate the wicked, but celebrates those who fear God.”
Who swears to his own hurt and does not change, who does not put out his money at interest, and who does not take a bribe against the innocent. This is possibly the most powerful section in the Psalm, giving more specificity to the depths of integrity of the true worshipper. What a common practice in our culture it is to keep our word only so far as it is convenient for us! Are you a person of your word, even when fulfilling those vows begins to cost you significantly?
The idea of putting out money at interest is clearly a cultural reference within Judaism (it was legal for a Jew to charge interest to foreigners but not to fellow Jews), yet this poem doesn’t seem to make the distinction. To me, the implication is clear: “He who gives to others with no strings attached.”
The final phrase in this trifecta is a more specific reference to the true worshipper’s depth of commitment to justice: “He who does not let greed pervert justice.” How often our own greed gets in the way of justice for the innocent – for the fatherless, the orphan, and the widow worldwide! If every American took seriously the words of this verse, world hunger and world evangelization could be accomplished in a very, very short time. We may not literally “take bribes” against the innocent as formal judges, but we take bribes against the poor every day from a world that offers us endless opportunities to sell out.
He who does these things will never be moved. An additional promise for those who live by this poem is an unshakeable stability to their day-to-day lives. The drama, chaos, duplicity, and confusion that flood so many modern lives can be abated by internalizing the precious words from this largely ignored Psalm.
As promised, my complete modernized translation: