Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 30, 2015
Psalm 15 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 15 reflects on the intimate relationship between ethics and worship. In one sense it’s a wisdom psalm that explores how to live wisely, how to order one’s life according God’s will and purposes.
However, some scholars suggest that Psalm 15 was also an “entrance liturgy” that Israel’s priests used to quiz those coming to worship God in the temple about their response to God’s grace.
They note that such pilgrims would immerse themselves in one of the temple’s outer baths in order to wash away all ritual impurities. Yet Psalm 15 reminded them that it’s never enough just to be ritually clean on worshipers’ “outside.” Here the poet reminds worshipers that God also longs to clean their “inside” in order to produce a blameless walk and righteous life. After all, the Old Testament constantly reminds worshipers that we must be careful in how we approach the Lord. Psalm 5:4, for example, reminds us that God can’t dwell with wicked people, even temporarily. And Leviticus 10:1-3’s account of Nadab and Abihu’s demise reminds us that those who unwisely approach God risk death.
Yet Psalm 15’s poet addresses questions of who may worship the Lord not to herself or other worshipers, but to the Lord himself. And it’s as if verses 2-5 provide God’s answers to that question. In that way, Ronald Clements notes, Psalm 15 invites worshipers to adopt ways of thinking, talking and acting that God shapes.
Yet whether this is actually an entrance liturgy, wisdom psalm or something else, Psalm 15 offers its preachers and teachers an opportunity to lead worshipers in reflecting on the relationship between ethics and worship. How do we prepare for worship? Are worshipers more interested in how we look on the “outside” than how we look to God on the “inside”?
The Lord’s “sanctuary” and “holy hill” (1) refer to the places with which God graciously chose to identify himself in the psalmist’s day. The “sanctuary” may actually refer to the tabernacle that Israel carried with her as she travelled out of Egyptian slavery through the wilderness toward the land of promise. The “holy hill” refers to Mount Zion on which Jerusalem’s temple stood. So the poet may be suggesting that God’s ethical expectations of worshipers never change. Whether the Israelites worshiped the Lord in the tabernacle or in the temple, God expected them to do what was righteous.
After all, when God answers questions about who may worship the Lord in those places, God doesn’t offer the names of individuals, groups or even nations. God answers, instead, with a list of characteristics. In that way Psalm 15 is consistent with other psalms’ messages. In Psalm 101:17 God insists, “No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence.” And in Psalm 5:4 the poet says of God, “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot stand.”
Of course, in Psalm 15 God may seem to set an almost ridiculously high standard for worshipers. Who, after all, can honestly claim to always walk blamelessly? Yet scholars suggest that a “blameless” walk isn’t a perfect one, but a consistent one. Those who walk blamelessly devote their whole selves and lives to God and God’s service.
In fact, one might even argue, with James K. Mead, that Psalm 15 is less about qualifications for worship than it is a description of the community in which God longs to live. Its ethics are precisely those that the Spirit uses to build and maintain community. After all, Psalm 15 essentially invites those who wish to worship the Lord to love the Lord by loving their neighbors.
Psalm 15’s ethical invitations are especially concerned with speech and the use of money. It shares a concern for godly speech with the New Testament’s book of James. Speech impacts our neighbors, since things like “slander” and “slurs” harm their reputations. The poet’s concerns about the godly use of money reflect Levitical laws against and Ezekiel’s condemnation of usury. This concern protected Israelite society’s most vulnerable members who were forced to borrow money because they were close to the end of their hopes and to the potential start of slavery.
These calls to godly behavior invite those who preach and teach Psalm 15 to reflect with worshipers on the relationship between ethics and community. We’re always tempted, after all, to think of ethics either legalistically or individualistically. The Scriptures invite us to think about how our thoughts, words and actions affect those around us, particularly those on society’s margins.
A couple of Psalm 15’s ethical standards are worth careful exploration. Verse 4a invites worshipers to keep their oaths, “even when it hurts.” In other words, those who may dwell in God’s presence are those who keep their promises, no matter how much it costs them. Verse 4b challenges worshipers to lend their money “without usury.” In other words, they’re very careful not to harm people, especially the poor, with their lending practices.
In summary, those who dwell in God’s sanctuary, who worship the Lord in spirit and in truth are those who abandon our efforts to control our lives and world. They, instead, put their trust in God alone. This, after all, doesn’t just “qualify” people for worship. It also, suggests verse 5, solidifies their lives. Those whose walk is blameless discover that God graciously protects them.
However, a member of my church had a very interesting “take” on verse 5b’s claim that the one who “does these things will never be shaken.” She wonders if it suggests that because none of us walk entirely blamelessly or always do what is right, our lives will be shaken. Such an interpretation would invite worshipers to ask themselves in whom we trust when things do shake our lives.
So how can those who preach and teach the gospel of salvation by grace alone that we can only receive our faith do so with Psalm 15? How can we think of this list of ethics that expects the kind of moral perfection even the holiest among us will never attain to on this side of the new creation’s curtain?
Perhaps we might think of it as, among other things, a guide to confessing our sins. At the moment we begin to suspect we’ve done things to merit God’s grace, our psalm reminds us that we’ve not always done things like spoken the truth from our heart. Are worshipers wondering about what they might confess before the Lord? How about using Psalm 15 as a guide for our individual and corporate confession of sin?
Those who preach and teach Psalm 15 might also see it as an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on the nature of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” God saves us by God’s grace. Yet such grace is never license for willful disobedience. Equipped by the Spirit, we gratefully respond to God’s grace by doing our neighbor no wrong and by keeping our promises.
Psalm 15 also reminds worshipers that God graciously gives us the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ to, among other things, reshape our lives more and more in the image of Jesus Christ. God saves us in order to empower us to serve both God and our neighbors. Such service always includes both godly speech and the godly use of our money.
Yet perhaps more than anything else, Psalm 15 reminds God’s sons and daughters that though we’ve failed to love God and our neighbors, God, for Jesus’ sake, treats us as though our walk were blameless and our righteousness were perfect. Because of Christ’s glorious work, when God sees God’s adopted sons and daughters, God see not those who love slander and love money more than God, but those who are as obedient as God’s only Son, Jesus Christ himself.
Psalm 15’s injunction against “slander” is just as appropriate today as it was in the poet’s day. However, modern technology has expanded the number of ways people can slander each other.
In its September 11, 2011 edition, the Huffington Post reported on Catherine Devine who had her first encounter with an online bully when she was in the seventh grade. A classmate, posing as Catherine, sent her classmates instant messages full of slander and gossip.
Catherine, however, is not alone. A 2011 poll of young people in their teens and early 20’s found that 56% of them had been the target of the slander that is some kind of online taunting, harassment or bullying.
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