Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 17, 2016
Psalm 15 Commentary
Psalm 15 opens with a question that will trouble a lot of people in many congregations. It’s a question put to God. Now, questioning God is not a problem for most Christians these days. In fact, it’s much in vogue. Folks like David Dark speak eloquently about the necessity of asking questions if our faith is to be vibrant and relevant. His most recent book is entitled, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, including God. He rails against certainty and dogmatism and tradition and he glorifies doubt, open-ended wonder, and radical questioning.
Speaking of his own transition, Dark writes, “Over time, the Bible ceased to be a catalogue of all the things one has to believe (or pretend to believe) in order not to go to hell. Instead, the Bible became a broad, multifaceted collection of people crying out to God…. And Christianity, far from being a tradition in which doubts and questions are suppressed in favor of uncritical, blind faith, began to assume the form of a robust culture in which anything can be asked and everything can be said. The call to worship is a call to compete candor and radical questioning—questioning the way things are, the way we are, and the way things ought to be.” Dark says that this awe-filled questioning is so central to faith that “only a twisted, unimaginative mind-set resists awe in favor of self-satisfied certainty.”
While a careful reader might wonder about the provocative way Dark writes, he definitely speaks for many modern Christians. And, of course, there is abundant biblical evidence that questioning God is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of Job, for example. So asking God hard questions is a part of contemporary spirituality.
But the question that David asks God at the beginning of Psalm 15 is not that kind of question. It is not a challenging question. It is more like a catechism question, a question designed to teach someone a truth, a question asked not by a rebel demanding a revolutionary answer, but by a rabbi teaching a traditional answer. Indeed, some scholars see Psalm 15 as a liturgical call to worship designed to be recited to the worshiping congregation as they get ready to climb the steps into the temple. It asks a question that aims to prepare people to meet God. “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?”
Not only is the question very different than the kind of question asked by the David Dark types of the church, but also Psalm 15 answers that question in a way many church folks will find offensive, if not downright laughable. In the laid back, latte sipping ambience of many contemporary churches, the notion that God might actually demand something of us before we can come into his presence is as foreign as forelocks and phylacteries. The God of the 21st century asks only that we show up. Come as you are, no questions asked, no requirements. Just come on in.
Now, of course, as an evangelistic strategy such a casual approach has much to commend it. For too long the church put too many man-made barriers in the path of seekers. Let’s get rid of them all. But Psalm 15 insists that there are some God-made requirements for those who would “dwell” and “live” in God’s presence. We should be able to come as we are, but we should not expect to stay there. As a pastor friend put it, the church must have “a low first step, but a long center aisle.” Come as you are, but if you want to stay here, you’re going to have to clean up your act. Conversion is simple, discipleship is not.
This is not an easy thing to sort out and keep straight. On the one hand, the list of requirements in Psalm 15 could easily lead to a “check list morality” and “works righteousness.” You have to do all these things before God will accept you. If you do these few things, you are clearly a superior saint. On the other hand, ignoring the list of requirements in Psalm 15 could easily lead to “cheap grace” and an antinomian moral carelessness.
What Psalm 15 calls for is the same holiness that fills Leviticus: “Be holy because I am holy.” Jesus echoed that very clearly as did most of the New Testament writers, calling Christians to that “holiness without which we cannot see God” (Hebrews 12:14). I suspect that many Christians today will resist Psalm 15 for one or both of these misunderstandings.
So, we’ll have to preach it carefully. It will help to point out that the opening question is a direct address to God, which implies that God and God alone has the authority to determine who may approach him. No man-made rules here. But God does have rules. Like it or not, we humans may not just mosey into God’s presence. It is a legitimate question. Who may do that?
Do what? Here again, it pays to be careful. The Psalmist talks about dwelling and living, not approaching. Does that choice of verbs suggest that approaching God in the first place as a seeker is simpler than dwelling in his presence on a day to day basis? There are no behavioral requirements for “getting saved,” but there are things we must do to stay united to God? We are justified by faith alone, but sanctification requires faith and obedience? What does it take to dwell permanently in God’s presence, to live in union with Christ? Any sinner may come to God crying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” But for sinners to live with Christ we must develop the character traits listed in Psalm 15.
Again, be careful here. Note that those who may live in constant communion with God are not a class or group of people (like priests), or those who perform certain religious actions (like sacrifices), or who practice ritual purity. No, what God is looking for is moral righteousness. Psalm 15 gives 11 answers to the opening question, but we shouldn’t push that number. This is a picture, not a prescription, a characterization, not a code of ethics. Note that the Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Commandments are not alluded to here at all. Does that mean God doesn’t care about family life or sexual ethics or a covetous heart? Of course not. David is sketching, not filling in all the moral spaces.
David begins in verse 2 with a general description, using words that were part of the established tradition of Israel’s religion. “All of them are cases of conduct that effect the well-being or shalom of various levels of community” (from James Luther Mays). If we would live in God’s presence, God requires that we be “blameless.” That doesn’t mean we must be perfectly sinless. It refers to having a whole and complete devotion to God’s will. Further, we must be righteous, which means we must do what is right as a matter of habit and principle. And we must speak the truth from the heart; our words must be governed by a heart that is devoted to God. Then in verses 3-5 David applies those three general moral qualities to three concentric circles of life (the neighborhood, the religious community, and the larger society).
The Psalm ends with a statement as shocking to modern ears as the opening question. “He who does these things will never be shaken.” Really? Being a good person guarantees that nothing bad will happen to you? Of course, that is not what David meant. Reading David’s other Psalms is proof certain that bad things happen to good people.
What can David mean then? Well, think about the way Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount. The opening verses of that Sermon (Matthew 5:1-13) sound very much like Psalm 15, don’t they? Then Jesus sums up everything he taught about kingdom living by saying, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” When the storms of life come and beat against that house, it “will not fall, because it had its foundations on the rock.”
So, those whose lives show the character qualities listed in Psalm 15 may live through tumultuous times that shake the very foundations. But they will not be shaken to the core. The forces of chaos will not undo them. This is a promise not of a trouble free life, but of security in God’s presence, both now and forever. “He who does these things will never be shaken.”
But who does these things, always and perfectly? No one, and that’s why we are shaken so often by the events of life. So, does that mean that we are shut out of God’s presence? Here it is crucial to read Psalm 15 in the light of the New Testament. We must do what is righteous (verse 2) and when we don’t, we must do what will make us righteous. Think of the tax collector in Jesus’ famous parable. A notorious sinner who had done none of what Psalm 15 calls for, he only got as close to God as the far edge of the Temple where he simply begged for mercy (Luke 18:13). And Jesus said, he “went home justified before God.”
The purpose of Psalm 15 is not to judge and condemn those who do not meet these requirements, but to call and encourage all of God’s people to be this way. The Gospel declares that the God who demands these things is the God who forgives us when we fail and enables us to grow in holiness.
Indeed, he is the God who brought the Temple to us, “tabernacling” among us in the flesh of Jesus (John 1:14). That is the great difference between us and David. We meet God, not in a building, but in the person of Christ. Does that mean we have to live a certain kind of life before we can enter into the life of Jesus? Thank God, no! But it does mean that if we are going to dwell in him, live in him, be united with him, enjoy his presence, we will have to live by Christ’s Spirit. If we do live by the Spirit of Christ, we will develop the fruit of the Spirit, which bear some resemblance to the character qualities and behavior in Psalm 15.
As I said at the beginning of and throughout this piece, Psalm 15 will strike many in your congregation all wrong, which is a good reason to preach it. Preach it as a call to righteousness and a call to Christ who is our righteousness (I Cor. 1:30). Be strong and strict in preaching these requirements; a morally lax church needs to hear about a holy God. But be gracious and merciful in calling sinners to Christ, who did everything we fail to do and who is everything we are not. Conclude with this. Because Christ is our righteousness, we must strive to be that kind of person. As James Luther Mays put it, “We may be tempted to take the righteousness given by grace to faith as an excuse for the failure of our lives, but the Psalmist insists that it is rather the purpose and the power of God to regenerate them.”
Though people may react negatively to the central idea of Psalm 15, everyday life is filled with examples of requirements to gain entrance. To get into Costco, I need my membership card. To gain admittance to a black tie gala, I need a ticket and a tux. To play at a nice country club, you have to be or know a member. And, most ubiquitously, to get into your computer, your on-line bank account, your investment portfolio, and a hundred other privileged places, you have to know your password.
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