A Meditation on Psalm 15
O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;
who does not slander with his tongue
and does no evil to his neighbor,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
but who honors those who fear the Lord;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.
Psalm 15 is among the shortest in the psalter, and it carries a simple message: only those who obey God’s commands shall dwell with Him. The Law of Moses as a whole is represented by a subset of its commandments: not to lie, not to slander, not to mistreat neighbors, not to break oaths, not to collect interest, not to take bribes.
When we talk about the requirement of obedience to God, we often focus on doctrines of worship. Most of the debates in our own brotherhood over the past century have been about what is permissible in the worship assembly. We ought to talk about these things, because God demands obedience in these things, but Psalm 15 reminds us that obedience is about more than just the worship assembly. God demands not only that we treat Him rightly but that we also treat others rightly. These are the two Great Commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells us that “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22.34-40).
Psalm 15 draws our attention to that second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. What does neighbor-love consist of? It is more than simply “being nice” in the same way that shalom (peace) is more than a mere lack of hostility. American life has reduced neighborliness to “getting along.” The psalm reminds us that neighborliness is more active and requires more out of us.
The first requirement for living with God is to walk blamelessly, to do what is right (literally “doing righteousness”), and to speak truth in one’s heart. This is the foundational principle of neighbor-love. We must be irreproachable, we must be righteous, and we must be true if we are to treat our neighbors as they deserve.
The second requirement is not to slander, not to do evil to a neighbor, and not to take up a reproach against a friend. “Slander” has the sense of “footing it” or going about looking for things to say about people. The requirement goes beyond just telling lies about people; David also tells us not to take up a reproach, which includes any sort of insult or shaming talk. It should go without saying that we must restrain ourselves from speaking ill of other people—even if what we’re saying is true.
The third requirement is to despise the evil man and to honor the man who fears God. The sense of “vile person” in Hebrew is one who is rejected or despised, so that the phrase reads something like “in whose eyes a despised person is despised.” In other words, our judgment is to mirror the judgment of someone else—in this context, the someone else is likely God and the assembly (i.e., the church). Part of loving God and loving others is to align our judgment with theirs.
The fourth requirement is to keep promises, especially detrimental ones. The Scriptures teach us that one of God’s most important qualities is that He keeps His promises. We see this with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We see it most stunningly in the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Jesus, in which God kept His promises even to His own hurt (cf. Luke 1.54-55, 68-75; Phil 2.5-9; Isa 53). It is especially important that we keep our word when it is to our hurt, for otherwise, what good is our word? Should our word depend on circumstances? No. “Let your Yes be Yes, and let your No be No,” and “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The fifth and final requirement is not to collect interest and not to take bribes (i.e., for bearing false witness). Usury and bribery are both forms of unnatural and unjust gain that invariably oppress others. They are hateful and false by their very nature, which is why they are both forbidden under the Law. Why should we use lies to gain at the expense of others? Short of murder—and remember that unjust gain and murder are bound inseparably, as the name Cain (“to gain”) suggests—it is impossible to conceive of anything more misanthropic.
“He who does these things shall never be moved.”