Psalm 15 is one of the most straightforward psalms of David. In five short verses David asks a question and answers it, giving wisdom about how God is to be worshiped and what kind of behavior is pleasing in the eyes of God and will lead to eternal life and entrance into God’s kingdom. It would seem that this psalm would be very difficult to misunderstand, but it also seems that the psalm is so clear that it is not often examined in full as often as it merits from its directness. Then again, sometimes when one does not wish to accept the teaching of scripture, the easiest solution is to ignore it. Hopefully one can avoid this solution with Psalm 15, which gives a powerful answer to a question that every believer should have: what sort of people will enter the kingdom of God?
Psalm 15 reads: “Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? he who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart; he who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but he honors those who fear the Lord; he who swears to his own hurt and does not change; he who does not put out his money at usury, nor does he take a brige against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.”
Let us comment a little bit on the organization of this psalm, which is a very simple and straightforward psalm. First, David asks the question: who will be granted permission to enter the kingdom of God? Then, David answers that question over the next four verses and states that the question has been answered. The answers that David gives to the question are not surprising answers, but they are emblematic of the biblical ethic of justice and righteousness as it relates to others, clearly with the two great commandments in mind–our duties to obey God and to love others as ourselves. And if we do these things, David states that we will never be moved–removed from God’s grace.
Quite a few commentators (including those of the New King James Bible) think that David was speaking only literally about who will dwell in the tabernacle on the high places of the time period. Of course, only the priests (and Levites) who served in the temple and tabernacle got to live there. All others (including kings) were merely believers entering the house of God where they did not have a lasting place. However, believers even during David’s time were promised to be kings and priests if they believed (see Exodus 19:5-6), and as a prophet David was privileged with a deeper understanding than most believers in the ways of God, including the difference between the Father and the Son (Psalm 110:1). In this psalm as well, David appears to be asking a question of eternal relevance rather than simply basking in the physical presence of the tabernacle. The physical tabernacle here (and elsewhere ) appears to be symbolic of an eternity spent with God in His presence. And that is what all believers long for.
Let us now turn to the specific qualities that David specifies in someone who will enter God’s kingdom. First, someone has to live righteously. Obviously, no one is perfect apart from God (and Jesus Christ), but someone has to live according to the standard of God’s ways in order to enter His kingdom. This is a fairly obvious requirement for salvation, having the indwelling presence of God’s spirit producing righteous fruits of the spirit. In addition, a believer must live a life of integrity–speaking the truth from his heart rather than peddling lies. Righteous character matters a great deal with God. Continuing with speaking, David comments that the righteous man does not backbite with his tongue–he is not nasty or rude in his language, nor does he do evil to his neighbor (again, he is righteous in conduct toward others), and he does not take up a reproach against his friend (he is loyal, a quality in short supply in this evil world).
There is more, though. Continuing on, David says that a righteous man hates one who is vile and despicable. This does not mean hating one’s enemy, but rather hating what is evil (a quality that God consistently praises, see Revelation 2:2,6, for example). The righteous man hates the deeds of wickedness, hating sin and evil and corruption. In contrast, the righteous honors those who obey God. If we are righteous, we will honor and respect other righteous people. If we hate and attack the righteous, we show our hostility to God’s way, but if we love and honor the righteous, we show our love of God. Those who love God will love His people (see, for example, John 15:18-25).
David then closes his listing of qualities of the righteous who will enter God’s kingdom with an examination of qualities that are exceedingly rare and not often considered within contemporary Christian culture. First, a godly person swears to their hurt and follows through. Their ‘yes’ is ‘yes’ and their ‘no’ is ‘no,’ and they do not waffle or waver in their honor. This is an aspect of speaking in integrity, that someone’s word can be relied upon, as much as circumstances allow, and that someone will be honorable and faithful to their commitments, a quality that is exceptionally rare. In even more striking fashion, a righteous man does not lend his money out at usury (he is not a banker, exploiting the poor and needy), nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. Corruption and the exploitation of the poor and needy is one of the main evils in this world, and an evil that seems to be practiced by many a leader who passes themselves off as virtuous. But a godly person is not only virtuous as a private person, but is also virtuous as a civil servant and as a businessman, areas of ethics that self-professed believers often fall short in because of their own greed.
So, let us read Psalm 15 with an understanding that the qualities of righteous character that David speaks of are not some ancient and obsolete “Old Covenant” ideas, but are prescriptions of righteousness that reflect the eternal and unchanging character of God. These qualities are mentioned elsewhere in scripture as belonging to the righteous and make Psalm 15 a short and concise statement of the sort of righteous character that believers possess in all aspects of their life, public and private life, behavior towards God and towards others, dealing with friends and enemies, as well as showing particular concern for the poor and vulnerable. These are the hallmarks of biblical morality in all aspects of life, and a believer must have a well-rounded and righteous character through the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit. Let us all find ourselves worthy of abiding in the tabernacle of God and dwelling in His holy hill.