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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 15

Verses 1-5

Psalms 15:1-5

THE ideal worshipper of Jehovah is painted in this psalm in a few broad outlines. Zion is holy because God’s "tent" is there. This is the only hint of date given by the psalm; and all that can be said is that if that consecration of Thy hill was recent, the poet would naturally ponder all the more deeply the question of who were fit to dwell in the new solemnities of the abode of Jehovah. The tone of the psalm, then, accords with the circumstances of the time when David brought the ark to Jerusalem; but more than this cannot be affirmed. Much more important are its two maim points: the conception of the guests of Jehovah and the statement of the ethical qualifications of these.

As to structure, the psalm is simple. It has first, the general question and answer in two verses of two clauses each (Psalms 15:1-2). Then the general description of the guest of God is expanded in three verses of three clauses each, the last of which closes with an assurance of stability, which varies and heightens the idea of dwelling in the tent of Jehovah.

It is no mere poetic apostrophe with which the psalmist’s question is prefaced. He does thereby consult the Master of the house as to the terms on which He extends hospitality, which terms it is His right to prescribe. He brings to his own view and to his readers all that lies in the name of Jehovah, the covenant name, and all that is meant by "holiness," and thence draws the answer to his question, which is none the less Jehovah’s answer because it springs in the psalmist’s heart and is spoken by his lips. The character of the God determines the character of the worshipper. The roots of ethics are in religion. The Old Testament ideal of the righteous man flows from its revelation of the righteous God. Not men’s own fancies, but insight gained by communion with God and docile inquiry of Him, will reliably tell what manner of men they are who can abide in His light.

The thought, expressed so forcibly in the question of the psalm, that men may be God’s guests, is a very deep and tender one, common to a considerable number of psalms. {Psalms 15:5, Psalms 27:4; Psalms 84:5, etc.} The word translated "abide" in the A.V and "sojourn" in the R.V originally implied a transient residence as a stranger, but when applied to men’s relations to God, it does not always preserve the idea of transiency (see, for instance, Psalms 61:4: "I will dwell in Thy tent forever"); and the idea of protection is the most prominent. The stranger who took refuge in the tent of the wild Beduin was safe, much more the happy man who crept under the folds of the tent of Jehovah. If the holy hill of Zion were not immediately mentioned, one might be tempted to think that the tent here was only used as a metaphor; but the juxtaposition of the two things seems to set the allusion to the dwelling place of the Ark on its hill beyond question. In the gracious hospitality of the antique world, a guest was sheltered from all harm; his person was inviolable, his wants all met. So the guest of Jehovah is safe, can claim asylum from every foe and a share in all the bountiful provision of His abode. Taken accurately, the two verbs in Psalms 15:1 differ in that the first implies transient and the second permanent abode, but that difference is not in the psalmist’s mind, and the two phrases mean the same thing, with only the difference that the former brings out his conception of the rights of the guest. Clearly, then, the psalmist’s question by no means refers only to an outward approach to an outward tabernacle; but we see here the symbol in the very act of melting into the deep spiritual reality signified. The singer has been educated by the husks of ritual to pass beyond these, and has learned that there is a better dwelling place for Jehovah and therefore for himself, than that pitched on Zion and frequented by impure and pure alike.

Psalms 15:2 sums the qualifications of Jehovah’s guest in one comprehensive demand, that he should walk uprightly, and then analyses that requirement into the two of righteous deeds and truthful speech. The verbs are in the participial form, which emphasises the notion of habitual action. The general answer is expanded in the three following verses, which each contain three clauses, and take up the two points of Psalms 15:2 in inverted order, although perhaps not with absolute accuracy of arrangement. The participial construction is in them changed for finite verbs. Psalms 15:2 sketches the figure in outline, and the rest of the psalm adds clause on clause of description as if the man stood before the psalmist’s vision. Habits are described as acts.

The first outstanding characteristic of this ideal is that it deals entirely with duties to men, and the second is that it is almost wholly negative. Moral qualities of the most obvious kind and such as can be tested in daily life and are cultivated by rigid abstinence from prevailing evils and not any recondite and impalpable refinements of conduct, still less any peculiar emotions of souls raised high above the dusty levels of common life are the qualifications for dwelling, a guarded guest, in that great pavilion. Such a stress laid on homely duties, which the universal conscience recognises, is characteristic of the ethics of the Old Testament as a whole and of the Psalter in particular, and is exemplified in the lives of its saints and heroes. They "come eating and drinking," sharing in domestic joys and civic duties; and however high their aspirations and vows may soar, they have always their feet firmly planted on the ground and, laying the smallest duties on themselves, "tread life’s common road in cheerful godliness." The Christian answer to the psalmist’s question goes deeper than his, but is fatally incomplete unless it include his and lay the same stress on duties to men which all acknowledge, as that does. Lofty emotions, raptures of communion, aspirations which bring their own fulfilment, and all the experiences of the devout soul, which are sometimes apt to be divorced from plain morality, need the ballast of the psalmist’s homely answer to the great question. There is something in a religion of emotion not wholly favourable to the practice of ordinary duties; and many men, good after a fashion, seem to have their spiritual nature divided into watertight and uncommunicating compartments, in one of which they keep their religion, and in the other their morality.

The stringent assertion that these two are inseparable was the great peculiarity of Judaism as compared with the old world religions, from which, as from the heathenism of today, the conception that religion had anything to do with conduct was absent. But it is not only heathenism that needs the reminder.

True, the ideal drawn here is not the full Christian one. It is too merely negative for that, and too entirely concerned with acts. Therein it reproduces the limitations of the earlier revelation. It scarcely touches at all the deeper forms of "love to our neighbour"; and above all, it has no answer to the question which instinctively rises in the heart when the psalm has answered its own question. How can I attain to these qualifications? is a second interrogation, raised by the response to the first, and for its answer we have to turn to Jesus. The Psalm, like the law which inspired it, is mainly negative, deals mainly with acts, and has no light to show how its requirements may be won. But it yet stands as an unantiquated statement of what a man must be who dwells in the secret place of the Most High. How he may become such a one we must learn from Him who both teaches us the way, and gives us the power, to become such as God will shelter in the safe recesses of His pavilion.

The details of the qualifications as described in the psalm are simple and homely. They relate first to right speech, which holds so prominent a place in the ethics of the Psalter. The triplets of Psalms 15:3 probably all refer to sins of the tongue. The good man has no slander on his tongue: he does not harm his companion (by word) nor heap reproach on his neighbour. These things are the staple of much common talk. What a quantity of brilliant wit and polished sarcasm would perish if this rule were observed! How dull many sparkling circles would become, and how many columns of newspapers and pages of books would be obliterated, if the censor’s pencil struck out all that infringed it! Psalms 15:4 adds as characteristic of a righteous man that in his estimate of character he gives each his own, and judges men by no other standard than their moral worth. The reprobate may be a millionaire or a prince, but his due is contempt; the devout man may be a pauper or one of narrow culture, but his due is respect, and he gets it. "A terrible sagacity informs" the good man’s heart; and he who is, in his own in most desires, walking uprightly will not be seduced into adulation of a popular idol who is a bad man, nor turned from reverence for lowly goodness. The world will be a paradise when the churl is no more called bountiful.

Apparently the utterance of these estimates is in the psalmist’s mind, and he is still thinking of speech. Neither calumny (Psalms 15:3) nor the equally ignoble flattery of evil-doers (Psalms 15:4) pollutes the lips of his ideal good man. If this reference to spoken estimates is allowed, the last clause of Psalms 15:4 completes the references to the right use of speech. The obligation of speaking "truth with his heart" is pursued into a third region: that Of vows or promises. These must be conceived as not religious vows, but, in accordance with the reference of the whole psalm to duties to neighbours, as oaths made to men. They must be kept, whatever consequences may ensue. The law prohibited the substitution of another animal sacrifice for that which had been vowed; {Leviticus 27:10} and the psalm uses the same word for "changeth," with evident allusion to the prohibition, which must therefore have been known to the psalmist.

Usury and bribery were common sins, as they still are in communities on the same industrial and judicial level as that mirrored in the psalm.

Capitalists who "bite" the poor (for that is the literal meaning of the words for usurious taking of interest) and judges who condemn the innocent for gain are the blood suckers of such societies. The avoidance of such gross sin is a most elementary illustration of walking uprightly, and could only have been chosen to stand in lieu of all other neighbourly virtues in an age when these sins were deplorably common. This draft of a God-pleasing character is by no means complete even from the Old Testament ethical point of view. There are two variations of it, which add important elements: that in Psalms 24:1-10, which seems to have been occasioned by the same circumstances; and the noble, adaptation in Isaiah 33:13-16, which is probably moulded on a reminiscence of both psalms. Add to these Micah’s answer to the question what God requires of man, {Micah 6:8} and we have an interesting series exhibiting the effects of the Law on the moral judgments of devout men in Israel.

The psalmist’s last word goes beyond his question in the clear recognition that such a character as he has outlined not only, dwells in Jehovah’s tent, but will stand unmoved, though all the world should rock. He does not see how far onward that "forever" may stretch, but of this he is sure: that righteousness is the one stable thing in the universe, and there may have shone before him the hope that it was possible to travel on beyond the horizon that bounds this life. "I shall be a guest in Jehovah’s tent forever," says the other psalm already quoted: "He shall never be moved," says this one. Both find their fulfilment in the great words of the Apostle who taught a completer ideal of love to men, because he had dwelt close by the perfect revelation of God’s love: "The world passeth away, and the lust thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever."

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 15". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".