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The Way of Righteousness (Psalm 15)

Is Psalm 15 a password or a description? Jehoiada stationed gatekeepers to keep the unclean out of the temple (2 Chronicles 23:19), and it is tempting to regard a psalm about godliness as a bar before the door. To be in God’s presence is not something that should be taken lightly. The Lord said that “man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Evil may not sojourn in His presence (Psalm 5:4). Yet this is not a list of qualifications. Rather, it is wrestling with the problem of hypocrisy in the church. Who belongs to God? Who are those who are on the Lord’s side? Seen in this light, the psalm is not the question of the lawyer seeking to justify himself (Luke 10:29), but comfort for those who are sons of the promise.

Psalm 15 is very short, but may be divided into three basic sections: the question (verse 1), the reply (verses 2-5a), and the promise (verse 5b). This question and answer format gives the whole a liturgical character, or perhaps catechetical. The purpose of catechesis is not self-justification, but to educate in the ways of wisdom. Indeed, the psalm presents ten points to consider, connecting it to the Ten Commandments. To know the Law of God and to walk in it is the way of wisdom and delight (Psalm 19).

A Psalm of David.

LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy mountain?

David, seeing hypocrites and evil men in control, perhaps in the days of his exile from Jerusalem (2 Samuel 15), addresses a question to the Lord. The tent, or the tabernacle, housed the ark of the covenant, making it the place of God’s presence. Even after the ark was brought from Shiloh, David placed it within a tent (2 Samuel 6:16-19). To be in God’s tent, then, is to stand before Him. God’s holy mountain, Mount Zion (Psalm 48:1-3), is God’s presence among His people. Since the mountain figures prominently in the last days (Isaiah 11:6-9), it is fitting to regard this as heaven. To dwell on God’s mountain is to be with Him in the life to come. Who is able to do this, Lord?

Sojourning is living as a resident alien in the land. Sojourners live among the people, but have no inheritance among them. They are there by privilege, not by right. So also we are in God’s presence by His gracious permission, not by right. Already David clarifies that this psalm is not a means to justify ourselves. We would not be in God’s presence at all, except by His grace.

Thus, it is true that no one can measure up to the fullness of God’s Law. As James 2:10 says, those who break the Law in one point have become guilty of the whole. Yet grace is not an excuse for laziness. God forgives in order to regenerate, so that the new man actually delights in the Law (Romans 7:22). The ten points which follow then not only show us the seriousness of being in God’s presence, but also the way of life and righteousness. Christ sets us free to walk in this way, because the Law is good and holy and righteous.

The one walking blamelessly and doing righteousness and speaking truth in his heart.

The first three points are all positive ones. Those who walk in the way of the Lord do things such as these. It is noteworthy in all of these that David describes righteousness in terms of love for the neighbor. A hypocrite is very eager to convince others that he loves God. The Pharisee who boasted of his righteousness before God pointed to his external attempts to keep the law (Luke 18:9-14). Yet the hypocrite reveals himself in his contempt for his neighbor. They are more interested in mint, dill, and cumin, than they are in justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).

Walking blamelessly should not be taken as an impossibility, either. Paul could rightly call himself blameless with regard to the Law (Philippians 3:6). Job is described as being blameless and upright, fearing God (Job 1:1). It is what we might call a relative blamelessness, having no reason to stand accused before men. Before God, of course, no one is without sin, but a man may certainly avoid gross outward sins in his daily life.

On a different note, though the question is originally addressed to God, David provides the answers to it. Having the mind of Christ means that we are able to discern what is good and true and right (1 Corinthians 2:16; Ephesians 5:3-14). These points are not based on public opinion or on sentimental feelings, something which our sinful hearts are prone to regard as convincing. Rather, they are based on the Word which reveals that mind of Christ, and in this Word we have an infallible guide.

He does not slander with his tongue. He does not do evil to his neighbor, and he does not lift up reviling on the one closest to him.

The next three points in this list are all negative. Walking the way of God involves both doing what is right while also not turning to the left or to the right. The word “slander” here is related to the word for foot. A wicked man not only cuts down his neighbor with his words, but he also goes around spreading his lies. Reviling, on the other hand, is an assault on the person himself, heaping up shame and disgrace, taunting them. To walk in the way of the Lord is to speak well of others, because a tongue used for evil sets us on fire for hell (James 3:5-6).

Despised in his eyes [is] the reprobate. and the one fearful of the LORD he honors. He swears to his hurt and does not change.

David now presents two more positive points for consideration. The first of these is regarding men as the Lord regards them, not as the world does. The reprobate, or those who are rejected by God, have no standing in the righteous man’s eyes. The one who fears the Lord is esteemed. This is exactly the opposite of what the world does, since the reprobate are often those who have a high standing in the world and the ones who fear the Lord are oppressed. A man can and should give honor to godless men in the world (1 Peter 2:17; Romans 13:7), yet this is done out of obedience to God.

On the other point of this verse, there have been differences in translating. Hebrew does not require its vowels to be printed in order to be read, only the consonants. This was also true of the Old Testament for many centuries, leading to some variation. The word translated here as “hurt,” when given another vowel sound, can be rendered as “neighbor,” which is how the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and even Luther understood it. The translation would be “who swears to his neighbor and does not change.” In this sense, it describes a man who stands by his word in all things. Swearing to his “hurt,” on the other hand, is still a description of honesty, but a much more intense one. The righteous man not only keeps his word, but he keeps it even when it hurts him to do so. Leviticus 5:4-6 describes what should be done when a man remembers a forgotten vow. It will cost him to make restitution for it, yet a righteous man will still do so, because he fears the Lord. Additionally, in times when fraud is revealed or some other sin, he makes it right even if the cost is great (2 Chronicles 25:5-13, even though Amaziah is an idolator).

His silver he does not give out in interest/usury and a bribe against the innocent he does not take. He who does these things, he shall not be made to stagger forever.

“Usury” in Hebrew is derived from the word meaning “to bite.” By requiring more money to be paid on a loan, a man would be biting his poorer neighbor. Usury always has the poor in mind, because while a rich man can afford to pay back more, a poor man already has nothing. Adding to the cost increases his burden rather than alleviating it. Deuteronomy 23:20 allows for requiring interest from a foreigner, but denies it to a brother. God would rather have us give without expecting anything in return than to be focused on the material cost or potential profit (Luke 14:14).

David thus closes the psalm with a promise. Those who walk in the ways of God shall not stumble or be made to stagger. We could not walk in the first place unless God had set us in the way, so this is not a promise to make us proud. Rather, it should comfort us, knowing that God knows His own and no one will snatch them out of his hand. The hypocrite may be in control of the world, but his reward has already come. The righteous may suffer now, but the night will give way to a joy which knows no end.

The Wise Fool (Psalm 14)

The Bible sets before us two different ways: the way of death and the way of life. Jesus describes them as the broad and the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14). Solomon throughout Proverbs describes them as the way of folly and the way of wisdom. Yet how do we take comfort from this? There seems to be a danger of making it all abstract, something which makes little difference when dealing with the troubles of life. Yet Psalm 14 shows us that the righteous do in fact find comfort in the narrow way of the cross. The righteous do not serve God in vain.

This short psalm seems to have two sections within it: the problem posed by the wicked (verses 1-4) and the solution which comes from God (verses 5-7). Verse 7 may also be its own section, a thanksgiving to God as a result of verses 5-6, but I have attached them together.

To the choirmaster. Of David.

The fool says in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds. There is no one who does good.

The LORD looks down from the heavens on the sons of Adam, to see if there are any who have insight, who seek after God.

They have all turned aside together. They are corrupt. There is no one who does good. There is not even one.

Do they not know, all the committers of sin, devouring my people as they eat bread, not calling on the LORD?

The greatest temptation with this psalm is to make quick identifications within it. The “fool,” we are tempted to think, is always someone else. Because we often use the word fool to describe someone who is clownish or a buffoon, it is easy to place ourselves into the position of the afflicted. Yet a fool in the Biblical sense can be quite wise and well educated. The problem of the fool is that he makes a false assumption about reality. Nabal in 1 Samuel 25 (whose name is the Hebrew word for fool) assumes wrongly that David is a mere upstart and a rebel and refuses to help him. Therefore, the danger of the fool is not so much that he denies that God exists (though that is one of the problems). The problem is that he assumes, wrongly, that God will not act, whether because he thinks that God does not exist or because he thinks that God cannot see and judge. The greatest fool is not the atheist, but the man who professes to believe in God while living as if God did not exist.

Psalm 14 presents the fool in terms of his actions. Because he says that there is no God, his actions reflect his heart. The opposite of folly in the Biblical sense is not being intelligent. The opposite of folly is steadfast love. The fool’s actions show that he is faithless, that he is a covenant breaker. The wise man’s actions show that he is faithful, just as God is faithful. Yet just as the sons of the flesh persecute the sons of the promise (Galatians 4:29), the fool pursues the righteous and lives up to his name.

Paul uses this psalm to prove exactly this point in Romans 3. All men are fools, because before conversion they serve their own passions and do not glorify God. All are under sin, because no one is righteous in the sight of God. We cannot identify the fool with someone else, like the Pharisee did with the publican (Luke 18:11-12). In so doing, we become the fool, because we have turned away from the righteousness of God.

The Lord looking down to see if any are righteous finds a parallel in Genesis 11. As the Lord looked down on those building that tower, so He also looks down on us from on high to discern the ways of men. It is not as if His knowledge is limited. God knows all things. Yet this looking down emphasizes His judgment, like a judge sitting on a high bench. His expression of horror, fitted to our understanding, should emphasize the horrific character of sin. God seems almost astonished at man’s capacity for sin. Should we then regard it as nothing? The “corruption” of verse 3 is the picture of spoiled milk, curdled beyond use. All our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

The most telling point here about the wickedness of man is how they eat up the righteous like bread. This should not be understood as greedily gobbling them, like a sadistic feast. Rather the imagery is rather mundane: they eat the righteous as if it were nothing more than going to their lunch hour. It describes how all their ways are so contrary to God that they regard it as nothing out of the ordinary. Joseph’s brothers, having cast him into a pit in order to kill him, then sit down as if at a picnic (Genesis 37:24-25). They drink iniquity like water (Job 15:16). Wickedness is their vocation, so to speak, and they engage in it as if going into work.

There they fear a fear [or fear greatly], for God is with the generation of the righteous.

You would shame the plans of the poor man, yet God is his refuge.

Oh that [or Who will give] salvation from Zion for Israel! When the LORD brings back the captivity of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.

The duplication of “fear” in verse 5 intensifies it. The wicked will fear greatly, because God is with the righteous. Instead of eating up the righteous like bread, thinking that God will not do anything, God dwells with His people. Even a desire to shame the plans of the poor come to nothing, because He takes refuge in God. The “there” is either a point in time in the future, such as the Last Day, or a particular place where God will render judgment. Either way, it points to its certainty.

Thus, the two ways provide a real comfort in the midst of distress. Even if the way of destruction is broad and easy, it will come to an end. It is not a road that will go on forever. The oppression of the wicked may seem intense and overwhelming, but God will bring it to an end when He judges the world. The way of life may be narrow and hard, but it is a way that will give way to a joy which has no end.

This is why the psalm ends on a joyful note. The wish expressed here in verse 7 should not be understood as uncertain. It is the intense wish and hope of faith which clings to the certain promises God has made to His people. This is not the Babylonian captivity, but the general oppression which His people experience (Job 42:10; Amos 9:14; Hosea 6:11). The Lord will bring back the captivity of His people, because Christ has led captivity captive (Ephesians 4:8). Christ will set His people free from every oppression. Even if our deliverance is in the future, we may rest assured knowing that it will come as He has promised.

As an addendum, the Septuagint (and thus versions based on it) occasionally inserts more verse after verse 3, specifically the same verses which follow the quotation in Romans 3. This is widely regarded as a late addition, for several reasons. First, very few Hebrew manuscripts contain it, and even those that do come much later. Second, Psalm 53, which is very similar to Psalm 14, does not contain them. Third, not all versions of the Septuagint contain them. Finally, it was rejected as an insertion even as early as Jerome and Bede, though some theologians, Cassiodorus in particular, regard them as genuine (at least by custom more than textual evidence). Could Paul have been quoting from an extended version of Psalm 14? Maybe. However, it seems far more likely that he is putting together a wide variety of verses to form one continuous whole to prove his point.

Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity: Ephesians 4:1-6

Paul concludes his previous prayer for the Ephesians.  Because Christ dwells within the hearts of His people, who together form a temple of living stones (1 Peter 2:5), He Himself forms the foundation of that temple.  Since He is in them and they are in Him, they are able to comprehend the things of God and to know the love of Christ which surpasses all understanding.  Paul concludes that prayer with a doxology to the Father, an indication that he has touched on a matter of supreme importance.  The indwelling of Christ is a spiritual mystery, but one that has profound bearing upon our daily lives.

This is why Paul begins the pericope with “therefore.”  Christ’s indwelling informs our conduct, because we are becoming holy as He is holy.  Walking “in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” reflects this reality.  To walk contrary to God is to deny that we are the temple of the living God.  As Paul said to the Corinthians:  “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?  You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.  So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Paul is even more pointed earlier in that same letter:  “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:17).

Yet this manner of walking is not ill-defined.  Being a Christian is not a vague concept, nor one that is immediately obvious to us because of sin.  The Lord informs us of His will so that we are able to walk in it.  Even in perfection, man had to learn from God what was good and what was evil.  It was only when Adam attempted to decide between them himself, effectively making himself into God, that man fell into sin.  “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)?

These, then, are some of the marks of being a Christian:  humility, gentleness, patience, long-suffering, a desire for peace and unity.  Whereas the flesh seeks only division, the Spirit seeks unity.  Nor is this unity a fleshly unity, which would paper over problems in a vain attempt to just get along.  The real unity of the body of Christ flows forth from its essential oneness.  There is only one God, and therefore only one faith.  Likewise, we have been baptized into one Christ.  If, then, we all have the same God and the same faith, it follows that we are also one, sharing in the same things.

Immediately after the pericope, Paul goes on to say that we, though one in the body of Christ, all have our individual spiritual gifts meant to build up that oneness.  This is hardly division.  On the contrary, the variety of the gifts form a composite whole working together according to God’s intentions.  These gifts will come to an end when we reach mature manhood at Christ’s return (Ephesians 4:13).  Then we will no longer squabble like children, insisting on our own way, but we will dwell together as brothers in unity in our head Jesus Christ.

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity: Galatians 5:16–24

The language of “walking” resonates throughout the whole Bible.  Enoch is the first said to “walk with God” (Genesis 5:21-24), and he was taken up into heaven because of his faith (Hebrews 11:5-6).  Noah also walked with God, being blameless in his generation (Genesis 6:9).  Abram, before receiving the name of the promise, hears God’s command to “walk before me, and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1).  What further connects these passages together is the tense of the verb:  all of them share the same unusual Hebrew tense found in Genesis 3:8.  In other words, they are walking in the same way that God walks.

This concept also occurs in other passages of the Old Testament.  Proverbs 4 gives an excellent example of the “two ways” found so often in the Wisdom literature.  Men must walk one of two ways, either the way of wisdom, in which is life and salvation, or the way of evil, which ends only in death.  Psalm 1 states that the righteous man does not “walk in the counsel of the wicked.”  Jesus also describes Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), further cementing the language of walking with God.

Paul’s admonition, therefore, to “walk by the Spirit” sets before us these two ways.  Being a Christian is not a static thing, but a movement in conjunction with the Spirit.  Even the word Torah, often translated as “law” in the Old Testament, carries a moving, directional connotation, since it shares the same root as words meaning “to shoot.”  If we are walking in step with the Spirit, then we are not walking down the way of the flesh.  It has to be one or the other.  The Christian cannot stand still.

Because the tree is known by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), the righteous and the wicked are distinguished by their actions.  Nor is this hidden, because Paul says that “the works of the flesh are evident” (Galatians 5:19).  Christians cannot engage in such destructive actions and expect to escape unscathed.  Paul’s list is extensive and straightforward.  “Sensuality” refers to a lack of self-control.  “Sorcery” is more literally “using drugs,” since the original word is related to English words like “pharmacy.”  Within the context, Paul cannot mean that all drugs or material cures are forbidden, since the Bible refers positively to physicians in many places.  Rather, like Asa who sought the help of doctors in his distress instead of seeking the Lord (2 Chronicles 16:12), it is an attempt to gain control through physical means of what properly belongs to God.  This is why the word is translated more broadly to include magic, since it is quite possible to trust in God’s gift of healing more than God Himself.  Finally, “orgies” are not exclusively sexual in the way that we often use that word today, but can refer to any kind of unbridled partying, including excessive feasting and drinking.

Is it possible that a Christian may fall into such activities from time to time due to the weakness of his flesh?  Of course it is possible.  Paul laments this weakness in Romans 7.  Yet weakness is not an excuse for such things.  They will exclude one who does them from entering the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:21).  They are deadly poison, not indifferent matters.  Walking in the Spirit means fighting against such things.  Claiming that one couldn’t avoid doing it or even reveling in such things as if they glorified God’s mercy runs the serious risk of becoming hardened in them.  Sin repeated is sin strengthened.  Christians, flee from the works of the flesh!

But on the other hand, the fruits of the Spirit are equally evident.  These are not generic virtues, as if “love” in the abstract is a fruit of the Spirit.  Rather, these are Christian virtues because they come from God and God alone.  Christian love, for example, is not permissive, but transformative.  It builds up the whole rather than accepting things as they are.  Christian joy is not merely feeling happy, but joy in Christ, knowing that this present evil age is coming to an end and that Christ has redeemed us from the depths of our sin.  Christian peace is the peace which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7; John 14:27), knowing that Christ is with us always.  And the list could go on.  But Paul’s point is clear:  “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”  The fruits of the Spirit flow forth from walking in the Spirit, which puts to death the old way and no longer walks down it.  Death breaks forth into life, because we are in Christ.