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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.

Vengeance Belongs to the Lord (Psalm 5)

Imprecatory, or cursing, psalms sometimes distress Christians.  Why would we call upon God to curse, when the New Testament seems to say the opposite?  After all, Romans 12:14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

What is often forgotten about the imprecatory psalms is that they are not a case of personal vengeance.  Our tendency is to see the assaults of the wicked as intensely personal, and therefore cursing is likewise personal.  However, the wicked man does not fight against other men, but against God.  Imprecatory psalms therefore call upon God to defend His own honor and glory against the wicked.  Vengeance belongs to the Lord, after all, and should be left to Him alone.  A Christian may in fact pray imprecatory psalms as an expression of a deep trust in the Lord, even in the face of great evil.  The Lord will vindicate His holy name.

Psalm 5 opens with an intense prayer.  “Listen to my words, Lord.  Pay attention to my sighing.  Listen carefully to the voice of my cry for help, my king and my God, for to you do I pray.”  The word translated as “cry for help” suggests a series of shouts, like someone in distress.  Further, the form of the world translated “pray” may also suggest that it is continuous.  The psalmist is in a deep distress and calls upon God.  Such a cry for help is not a case of doubting, but intense trust, for who would call upon God thinking that He would not answer?  Even if He seems distant, God hears the prayers of His people.

“Lord, [in the morning] you hear my voice.  [In the] morning I set in order to you and watch.”  “Set in order” is the language of sacrifice, just like in Leviticus 1:8, 12, where the word describes laying out meat in order for a burnt offering.  Prayer is the spiritual sacrifice of the New Testament, the daily sacrifice of the priesthood which all believers hold.  Not only are we to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but we should also turn to God as our first act of each day.  “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

“For you are not a God of delighting in wrongdoing.  Evil does not sojourn with you.  The senseless will not take their stand in the presence of your eyes.  You hate all the doers of wrongdoing.  You destroy the speakers of falsehood.  A man of bloods and fraud you abhor, O Lord.”  The psalmist testifies to the holiness of God here as a way of contrast with the next section.  An evil man cannot stand before God.  Note that there is also no distinction between the sin and the sinner.  Sin is not an alien act, but an expression of one’s inward nature.  “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speak” (Matthew 12:34).  For the righteous man, sin is something which is in fact foreign, and he sins out of weakness rather than deliberate intention.  But we cannot distinguish between sin and sinner out of a desire to make excuses for sin.  The all-holy Lord cannot abide the presence of sin, as this psalm so clearly testifies.

“And I, in the greatness of your steadfast love, will enter your house.  I will bow down to your holy temple in the fear of you.  Lord, lead me in your righteousness on account of my enemies.  Make straight your path before my face.”  The righteous man does not enter the house on account of his own righteousness, but on account of the steadfast love of the Lord.  It is the Lord who leads him.  It is the Lord who straightens his way before him.  God alone leads a man out of the ways of wickedness.  The psalmist is able to pray to the Lord confidently because of what the Lord has done for him.  It is true that he here alludes to his own righteousness, because without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).  Yet this should not be understood as self-righteousness in the negative sense, attempting to stand before God on the basis of one’s perceived righteousness.  The psalmist clearly testifies that he stands before God only because of God’s love and mercy.  He is truly and actually holy in a real way, but only because of God.

“For there is not firmness in his mouth.  [In his] inward parts destruction.  An open grave their throat.  With their tongue they smooth out [or flatter].”  Paul uses part of this verse to declare that all have sinned in Romans 3:13.  It is a clear description of the deeds of wicked men.  “Firmness” has to do with what is in the mouth, that is, the words one speaks.  The wicked man is a liar (John 8:44).  He seeks destruction from deep within his heart (Psalm 36:1).  Their throat is an “open grave” because it is insatiable.  Their greed and evil desire know no limits (Proverbs 27:20; 30:15-16).  Finally, they flatter by smoothing out with honeyed words.  “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13).

“Make them bear their guilt, God.  Let them fall from their own counsels.  In the greatness of their crimes, scatter them, for they are rebellious toward you.”  This is the most direct expression of cursing within the psalm.  Note that it is God who will bring the judgment upon the wicked, not the righteous man.  Note further that they rebel against God by their crimes.  There is also a poetic parallel here, for as the Lord abounds in steadfast love above, so the wicked man abounds in his sins.

“And all who take refuge in you rejoice.  They rejoice loudly for a long time.  You shut them off, and the lovers of your name rejoice loudly in you.  For you bless the righteous, Lord.  Like a large shield [with] favor you surround him.”  The righteous man has nothing to fear, because the Lord will judge the world in perfect righteousness.  Even if he has to suffer the assaults of the wicked now, God will bring them to an end, causing him to rejoice.  To “rejoice loudly” or “sing for joy” is an expression of the volume of this cry.  An overwhelming joy causes us to shout at the top of our lungs, much like a cry of victory at the end of a battle.  The Lord also “shuts off” the righteous by sealing them off from outside danger, like a large shield surrounding them.  Even if some things continue to assault us by God’s will for our discipline, He will not suffer the righteous to fall.  There is safety in the Lord even in the midst of great danger.