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This psalm refers to a single subject, but that the most important which can come before the human mind. It is the question. Who is truly religious? who will enter heaven? who will be saved? The psalm contains a statement of what real religion is; one of the most explicit and formal of the statements which we have in the Old Testament on that subject. The form in which the matter is presented is that of a question in the first verse, and of the answer to that question in the other verses of the psalm.
I. The question. Psalms 15:1. The question is, who shall be permitted to reside with God in his tabernacle? who shall be entitled to the privilege of dwelling on his holy hill (that is, Zion, regarded as the dwelling-place of God, and the emblem of heaven)? In other words, who has such a character as to be entitled to hope for the favor and friendship of God?
II. The answer, Psalms 15:2-5. The answer embraces the following particulars:
(1) The man who is upright, just, honest, truthful, Psalms 15:2.
(2) The man who treats his neighbor properly; who does not slander or reproach him; who does not readily listen to calumnious reports in regard to him, Psalms 15:3.
(3) The man who regards the righteous and the wicked as they should be regarded; who looks with proper disapprobation on all who are “vile” in their character, and with true respect on all who fear the Lord, Psalms 15:4.
(4) The man who is faithful to an engagement, though it proves to be against his own interest, Psalms 15:4.
(5) The man who does not take advantage of the necessities of others, who does not put out his money “to usury,” and who, if a magistrate, does not take a bribe to induce him to condemn the innocent, Psalms 15:5.
These are characteristics of true religion everywhere, and it is as true now as it was when this psalm was composed that it is only those who possess this character who have a right to regard themselves as the friends of God, or who have a well-founded hope of dwelling with him in heaven.
The psalm purports, in the title, to be “A Psalm of David.” It is not known on what occasion it was written, nor is it material to know this in order to understand the psalm. It has been supposed by some that it was composed on the occasion when the ark was carried up from the house of Obed-edom (2 Samuel 6:12 ff), but there is nothing in the psalm itself which should lead us to refer it to that occasion, or to any other special occasion. It seems rather - like Psalms 1:1-6 - to be adapted to all times and all places. It contains a general illustration of the nature of true religion, and there has been no state of things in the world in which such a psalm might not be appropriately composed; there is none in which it may not be appropriately read and pondered.
Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? - Margin, “sojourn.” The Hebrew word means properly to “sojourn;” that is, to abide in a place as a sojourner or stranger; not permanently, but only for a while. The idea in this place is taken from the word “tabernacle” or “tent,” with which one naturally associates the thought of sojourning, rather than that of a permanent abode. Compare Hebrews 11:9. It should not be inferred, however, that it is meant here that the residence with God would be “temporary.” The idea of permanency is fully expressed in the other member of the sentence, and the language here is only such as was customary in speaking of the righteous - language derived from the fact that in early times men dwelt in tents rather than in permanent habitations.
Who shall dwell in thy holy hill? - Zion, regarded as the dwelling-place of God, and the type of heaven - the eternal abode of the Most High. See the note at Psalms 2:6. The question is equivalent to asking, who is qualified to dwell with God? who may properly be regarded as his friend? who has a title to his favor? who is truly pious? By us the same question would be put in another form, though implying the same thing: Who is qualified to become a member of the church; who has evidence of true conversion and real piety? who is he who is prepared for heaven?
He that walketh uprightly - Hebrew, “walking perfectly;” that is, one who walks or lives “perfectly.” The word “walk” in the Scriptures is often used to denote the manner of life; life being represented as a journey. See the note at Psalms 1:1. The word here rendered “uprightly,” or, in the Hebrew, “perfectly,” means that which is complete in all its parts; where no part is missing or is defective. See the word explained in the notes at Job 1:1. The Word is not used in the sense in which it is often employed now, as denoting absolute freedom from sin, but as meaning that the character was complete in all its parts; or that the person referred to was upright alike in regard to God and to man. See the sentiment here expressed explained in the notes at Isaiah 33:15.
And worketh righteousness - Does right. That is, he does what is proper to be done in relation to God and to man. Compare Micah 6:8. The doctrine is everywhere laid down in the Scriptures that no man can be a friend of God who does not do habitually what is right. See 1 John 3:6-10.
And speaketh the truth in his heart - He uses language that is sincere, and that is in accordance with his real belief. This is opposed to all mere outward professions, and all hypocritical pretences. His religion has its seat in the heart, and is not the religion of forms; his acts are the expressions of upright intentions and purposes, and are not performed for selfish and hypocritical ends. This is everywhere the nature of true religion.
He that backbiteth not with his tongue - The word “backbite” means to censure; slander; reproach; speak evil of. The Hebrew word - רגל râgal - a verb formed from the word foot, means properly “to foot it,” and then “to go about.” Then it means to go about as a tale-bearer or slanderer; to circulate reports unfavorable to others. It is not improperly rendered here “backbite;” and the idea is, that it is essential to true piety that one should “not” be a slanderer, or should “not” circulate evil reports in regard to others. On the use of the “tongue,” see the note at James 3:2-11.
Nor doeth evil to his neighbor - That does his neighbor no harm. This refers to injury in any way, whether by word or deed. The idea is, that the man who will be admitted to dwell on the holy hill of Zion, the man who is truly religious, is one who does no injury to anyone; who always does that which is right to others. The word “neighbor” usually refers to one who resides near us; and their it denotes all persons who are near to us in the sense that we have business relations with them; all persons with whom we have anything to do. It is used in this sense here as referring to our dealings with other persons.
Nor taketh up a reproach - Margin, “or receiveth,” or, “endureth.” The idea is that of “taking up,” or receiving as true, or readily giving credit to it. He is slow to believe evil of another. He does not grasp at it greedily as if he had pleasure in it. He does not himself originate such a reproach, nor does he readily and cheerfully credit it when it is stated by others. If he is constrained to believe it, it is only because the evidence becomes so strong that he cannot resist it, and his believing it is contrary to all the desires of is heart. This is true religion every where; but this is contrary to the conduct of no small part of the world. There are large classes of persons to whom nothing is more acceptable than reproachful accusations of others, and who embrace no reports more readily than they do those which impute bad conduct or bad motives to them. Often there is nothing more marked in true conversion than the change which is produced in this respect. He who delighted in gossip and in slanderous reports of others; who found pleasure in the alleged failings and errors of his neighbors; who gladly lent a listening ear to the first intimations of this kind, and who cheerfully contributed his influence in giving circulation to such things, augmenting such reports as they passed through his hands - now sincerely rejoices on hearing everybody well spoken of, and does all that can be done consistently with truth to check such reports, and to secure to every man a good name.
In whose eyes a vile person is contemned - That is, who does not show respect to a man of base or bad character on account of his wealth, his position, or his rank in life. He estimates character as it is in itself, and not as derived from rank, relationship, or station. While, as stated in the previous verse, he is not disposed to take up a false or evil report against another, he is at the same time disposed to do justice to all, and does not honor those who do not deserve to be honored, or apologise for base conduct because it is committed by one of exalted station or rank. Loving virtue and piety for their own sake, he hates all that is opposite; and where conduct deserves reprobation, no matter where found, he does not hesitate to avow his conviction in regard to it. The sentiment here is substantially the same as in Psalms 1:1. See the notes at that verse.
But he honoreth them that fear the Lord - No matter in what rank or condition of life they may be found. Where there is true piety he honors it. He is willing to be known as one that honors it, and is willing to bear all the reproach that may be connected with such a deeply cherished respect, and with such an avowal. Compare Psalms 1:1.
He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not - Who has made a promise, or entered into a contract, that is likely to turn out contrary to his expectations, to his own disadvantage; but who still adheres to his engagement. If the thing itself is wrong; if he has made a promise, or pledged himself to do a wicked thing, he cannot be under obligation to execute it; he should at once abandon it (compare the notes at Matthew 14:9); but he is not at liberty to violate an agreement simply because it will be a loss to him, or because he ascertains that it will not be, as he supposed, to his advantage. The principles here laid down will extend to all contracts or agreements, pecuniary or otherwise, and should be a general principle regulating all our transactions with our fellow-men. The only limitation in the rule is that above stated, when the promise or the contract would involve that which is morally wrong.
He that putteth not out his money to usury - The word “usury” formerly denoted legal interest, or a premium for the use of money. In this sense the word is no longer used in our language, but it always now denotes unlawful interest; “a premium or compensation paid, or stipulated to be paid, for the use of money borrowed or retained, beyond the rate of interest established by law.” “Webster.” The Hebrew word used here - נשׁך neshek - means “interest,” that is, a premium or compensation for the use of money in any manner, or to any extent. The reference is to the law of the Hebrews, which forbade such a loaning of money to the poor, and especially to poor Israelites, Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-37. Although this was forbidden in respect to the Israelites, yet the lending of money on interest, or “usury” in a lawful sense, was allowed toward “strangers,” or toward the people of other nations.
See Deuteronomy 23:19-20. The ground of the distinction was, that the Hebrews were regarded as a nation of brethren; that, as such, they should be willing to accommodate and aid each other; that they should not do anything that could be regarded as unbrotherly. In respect to other people it was allowed, not because it was proper to take advantage of their wants, and to oppress them, but because this special reason did not exist in regard to them. That might be improper “in a family,” among brothers and sisters, which would be entirely proper toward those who did not sustain this special relation; and we may conceive of cases - such cases in fact often occur - when it would be unkind in the highest degree to exact interest of a brother, or an intimate friend, while it is perfectly proper to receive the ordinary allowance for the use of money in our business transactions (that is, the ordinary rate of interest) of those who do not sustain to us this special relation.
The fact that it was allowed to the Hebrews to take interest of the people of other nations, shows that there was nothing morally wrong in the thing itself; and, in fact, there can be no reason why a man, to whom it is an accommodation, should not pay for the use of money as well as for the use of any other property. The thing forbidden here, therefore, is not the taking of interest in any case, but the taking of interest in such a way as would be oppressive and hard - as of a Hebrew demanding it from his poor and needy brother; and, by consequence, it would forbid the exacting of unusual and unlawful rates of interest, or taking advantage of the necessities of others - by evading the provisions of law, and making their circumstances an occasion of extortion. In one word, the thing forbidden is a harsh, grasping, griping disposition; a disposition to take advantage of the embarrassments of others to increase our own gains. Kindness, and an accommodating spirit in business transactions, are as much demanded now by the principles of religion as they were when this psalm was written, or as they were under the law which forbade the taking of interest from a poor and needy brother.
Nor taketh reward against the innocent - Who does not take a bribe; that is, does not accept a pecuniary consideration, or any other consideration, to induce him to decide a cause against justice. He is not, in any way, to allow any such considerations to influence him, or to sway his judgment. The taking of bribes is often expressly forbidden in the Scriptures. See Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:19; Deuteronomy 27:25; Proverbs 17:23.
He that doeth these things shall never be moved - That is, in answer to the question in Psalms 15:1, he shall be permitted to “abide in the tabernacle” of God, and to “dwell in his holy hill.” He shall have a solid foundation of hope; he is a friend of God, and shall enjoy his favor forever. In other words, these things constitute true religion; and he who has such a character will obtain eternal life. His foundation is sure; he will be safe in all the storms of life, and safe when the cold waves of death beat around him. Compare Matthew 7:24-25.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 15". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27