This psalm addresses a question that concerns all religious people. Who will God honor to live in his presence?
This psalm gives a typical Old Testament answer. God will honor those who live rightly.
While there is a fair amount of support for that idea in the New Testament, it ultimately stands that idea on its head. While the New Testament prizes right living, it changes the basis for salvation to grace rather than purity––the work that Jesus has done for us rather than the works that we ourselves do.
Christians can find a good deal of moral teaching in this psalm that remains valid today. However, we should not try to adopt it slavishly.
- For instance, in verse 4a the psalmist honors those who despise vile men. As Christians, we are called to despise vile behavior, but not vile people.
- Also, verse 5a honors those who don’t lend out his money for usury (or interest). While Jewish law forbade charging interest to fellow Jews (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19), Christians are not subject to that law. Today, those who lend money at interest perform an essential service. Without that practice, banks as we know them could not exist, and the economy would plummet.
A Psalm by David.
This is one of 73 psalms that include a superscription concerning David (3-9; 11-41, 51-65, 68-70; 86; 101; 103; 108-110; 122; 124; 131; 133; 138-145). Readers through the centuries have interpreted “A Psalm of David” to mean “A Psalm written by David,” but “several Davidic psalms refer to the ‘temple’ (e.g., 5:7, 27:4; 65:4; 68:29” (Broyles, 28)––and the temple was built by David’s son, Solomon, and was not in existence during David’s lifetime.
PSALM 15:1. WHO SHALL DWELL IN YOUR SANCTUARY?
1 Yahweh, who shall dwell in your sanctuary?
Who shall live on your holy hill?
“Yahweh, who shall dwell in your sanctuary?” (Hebrew: ‘ohel) (v. 1a). The noun ‘ohel means a tent or dwelling. The tabernacle was a tent that accompanied the Israelites wherever they went in their forty-year trek in the wilderness. When David occupied Jerusalem, he brought the tabernacle there, and it served as the sanctuary until Solomon built the temple after David’s death. The Israelites understood the tabernacle (specifically the Holy of Holies) to be the place where God dwelled.
There were three main areas of the tabernacle, and access to each was limited.
- The COURTYARD was the largest of the areas, and surrounded the other two areas. Access was limited to Jews, but there were certain restrictions. Lepers and menstruating women were prohibited access (Leviticus 13:45-46; 15:19).
- Only priests were permitted access to the HOLY PLACE, which is where day to day rituals were observed.
- The most sacred chamber, the HOLY OF HOLIES (also known as the Most Holy Place) housed the Ark of the Covenant, and was regarded as the dwelling place of God. Access to this chamber was limited to the High Priest––and he was permitted to enter only on the Day of Atonement.
So substantial privilege was associated with access to Yahweh’s sanctuary. The privilege previously enjoyed by Jewish priests is now ours through the work of Jesus Christ.
In the Incarnation, Jesus took on the role of the tabernacle. “The Word became flesh, and lived (Greek: skenoo––tabernacled) among us” (John 1:14). Also, Jesus referred to himself as the temple (John 2:19-22).
- The author of Hebrews speaks of Jesus as “a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens,” and says:
“Let us therefore draw near with boldness
to the throne of grace,
that we may receive mercy,
and may find grace for help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
“Having therefore, brothers,
boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus,
by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way,
through the veil, that is to say, his flesh;
and having a great priest over the house of God,
let’s draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith,
having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience,
and having our body washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
- In the book of Revelation, Jesus says, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God” (Revelation 3:12).
- John also saw “the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice out of heaven saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God'” (Revelation 21:2-3).
“Who shall live on your holy hill?” (Heb. har) (v. 1b). The word har means hill or mountain. In this context “your holy mountain” is most likely Mount Zion, on which Jerusalem and the temple were built.
If the psalmist intends “your holy mountain” to mean the temple, David could not be the author, because the temple did not exist during David’s lifetime.
PSALM 15:2-5b. HE WHO WALKS BLAMELESSLY
2 He who walks blamelessly does what is right,
and speaks truth in his heart;
3 He who doesn’t slander with his tongue,
nor does evil to his friend,
nor casts slurs against his fellow man;
4 In whose eyes a vile man is despised,
but who honors those who fear Yahweh;
he who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and doesn’t change;
5ab he who doesn’t lend out his money for usury,
nor take a bribe against the innocent.
“He who walks blamelessly, does what is right, and speaks truth in his heart” (v. 2). These are high standards––blameless, righteous, and truthful. While we would like to believe that we qualify under these standards, most of us would hesitate to submit our lives to microscopic examination. Paul tells us that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)––and we know that is true of ourselves.
But Paul adds that our salvation is dependent on being “justified freely by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). In other words, we are blameless, righteous, and truthful, not by successfully avoiding sin, but by having the blood of Christ wash away our sin and make us whole.
“He who doesn’t slander with his tongue, nor does evil to his friend, nor casts slurs against his fellow man” (v. 3). With this verse the psalmist becomes more specific. These three lines have to do with injuring other people. The first and third lines (slander and cast slurs) have to do with injuring another person’s reputation maliciously and untruthfully.
While these lines do not prohibit us from telling the truth about another person’s sins, they would encourage us to acknowledge repentance.
The second line (does evil) refers to imposing injury (physical, mental, spiritual, financial, etc.). This would not prohibit confronting someone who erred, but would prevent our lashing out at a friend.
“In whose eyes a vile man is despised, but who honors those who fear Yahweh” (v. 4ab). The person deserving of dwelling in God’s presence must distinguish between good and evil. He/she will despise vile behavior and honor those who are faithful to Yahweh.
As noted above, Christians are called to despise vile behavior, but not vile people. I must confess that I have been unable follow that principle in every circumstance––and am not sure it is necessary in extreme cases. I despise people like Hitler, who precipitated a war that resulted in the deaths of 50 million people as well as the wanton destruction of homes, livestock, businesses, and other property. There never seems to be a shortage of tyrants and evil people who spread destruction in their pathways.
“he who keeps an oath (Hebrew: saba) even when it hurts, and doesn’t change” (v. 4c). The scriptures take oaths seriously. An oath is a solemn, binding promise, sometimes made in God’s name.
- The Ten Commandments include a commandment prohibiting the wrongful use of God’s name (Exodus 20:7; see also Leviticus 19:12). There are various ways that we could use God’s name wrongfully, but failing to keep an oath made in God’s name would be one. Making a malicious oath in God’s name would be another.
- If we swear falsely in a way that injures another person, God requires that we give that person sufficient payment to restore his well-being plus twenty percent (Leviticus 6:3ff).
- If a woman made an oath, fathers and husbands were permitted to express immediate disapproval, which would render the oath null and void. Barring immediate disapproval, the oath would stand (Numbers 30:1ff).
- Jephthah made a foolish vow to the Lord that, if God would grant him victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah would offer up as a burnt sacrifice the first person he saw upon returning home. The first person he saw was his daughter, his only child. She requested two months to prepare herself, and then willingly submitted to the sacrifice (Judges 11:29-40).
- Saul made a foolish oath that none of his soldiers would eat food until he had avenged his enemies. This made his soldiers weak and compromised their ability to fight (1 Samuel 14:24-30).
- Jesus noted the prohibition against making false oaths, but said:
“Don’t swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God;
nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet;
nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Neither shall you swear by your head,
for you can’t make one hair white or black.
But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’
Whatever is more than these is of the evil one” (Matthew 5:34-37).
- James repeated that injunction (James 5:12). Christians today are divided regarding the permissibility of taking an oath in a court of law or to accept public office. Most Christians allow civic oath-taking, but some reject all oaths.
Our verse from this psalm says that keeping oaths, even those that are painful, is among the virtues that qualify a person to abide in God’s presence.
“he who doesn’t lend out his money for usury” (Hebrew: nesek) (v. 5a). Usury involves lending money at interest. The noun nesek means “bite”––as in taking a bite out of the money you are lending to another person. Jewish law prohibited charging interest on loans to other Jews (Exodus 22:25-27; Leviticus 25:35-43; Deuteronomy 23:19-20). It allowed charging interest to Gentiles (Deuteronomy 23:20).
The principle has to do with taking advantage of the poor. In that time (as now), some creditors charged high interest rates that insured that a poor person could never get out of debt. Creditors could threaten delinquent debtors with prison or being sold into slavery (2 Kings 4:1; Matthew 18:25-30; Luke 12:57-59). Jewish laws against usury were intended to prevent that.
Today most people think of obtaining loans at interest as a privilege. If we couldn’t obtain loans for legitimate purposes, we would find it difficult to purchase cars and impossible to purchase homes or to fud businesses.
If lenders couldn’t charge interest or otherwise make a profit by lending money, there would be few lenders. Our economy would collapse.
Do we have anything to learn from the Torah prohibition against charging interest?
While Christians are not bound by Jewish laws, we are bound to Jesus’ commandment to love (agapao) our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus defined neighbor broadly in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), so it applies to most people. If we love our neighbor with agape love, we will not take undue advantage of him/her. We will instead be as kind and generous as circumstances permit. That will not preclude lending money at interest, but it will preclude predatory loans––loans that charge unreasonably high interest or are designed to keep the borrower in perpetual debt.
As I write this, people are debating payday loans, which charge high interest for a short term loan (one week or one month)––and are designed to make that excessive charge again and again until the loan is repaid. A person who borrows a hundred dollars can find himself indebted for hundreds of dollars by the end of the year. Defenders of the payday loan industry say that such loans provide credit to people who otherwise could not obtain credit. I believe that those people would be better off having to manage without predatory credit. In the short run, it would be painful, but not as painful as the perpetual servitude imposed by payday loans. As a Christian, I could not be part of the payday loan industry.
Credit card debt, while better, can also be predatory. Other than teaser offers, the interest rates are high. Some years ago, I paid most of my credit card charge, but withheld a small amount that I was challenging. I was surprised to learn that the bank charged their high rate of interest on the total amount of the statement, in spite of the fact that I had paid almost all of it. By that system, a person who receives a statement showing $1,000 in charges and pays $900 will pay interest (at high rates) on $1,000. That isn’t quite as bad as payday loans, but it still qualifies as predatory.
There are many ways to be usurious, by which I mean offering loans or other deals that take undue advantage of the other person. According to this psalm, that kind of behavior can disqualify a person from standing in God’s presence.
Some people will say that any deal is valid if both parties have agreed to it. While that might be true legally, I wouldn’t want to be forced to defend it on Judgment Day.
“nor take a bribe (Hebrew: sohad) against the innocent” (v. 5b). One of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
The noun sohad means a bribe, reward, or gift. In this context (“against the innocent”), it means a bribe given to pervert justice––to deny an innocent person a fair hearing.
God doesn’t take bribes (Deuteronomy 10:17) and commands others not to take them (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:19). Moses gathered the people of Israel together to hear of proscribed behaviors. Among them was this: “Cursed is he who takes a bribe to kill an innocent person” (Deuteronomy 27:25).
PSALM 15:5c. HE SHALL NEVER BE SHAKEN
5c He who does these things shall never be shaken” (v. 5c).
“He who does these things shall never be shaken” (Hebrew: mot) (v. 5c). The verb mot means moved or shaken. It carries the sense of wavering or weakness.
The psalmist is saying that the person who observes the high standards outlined in this psalm will be solid as a rock. Winds might blow and storms might rage, but the faithful person will not be moved.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Craigie, Peter C., Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50, Vol. 19 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72, Vol. 14a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 1-41, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2018, Richard Niell Donovan