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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 15


Psalms 15

In this Psalm the question is answered, what must be the moral condition of the man who would be a true servant of the Lord, and a partaker of His grace. First, the question is put: Who is loved and esteemed by God? Psalms 15:1. Then comes the answer, in two strophes of two verses, each of three members, Psalms 15:2-3, and Psalms 15:4-5. The first verse of both strophes describes the nature of piety positively, the second negatively. The Psalm concludes with a declaration, which recurs to the beginning, “He who doeth such things may comfort himself that God will help him.” The fundamental idea of the Psalm may be summed up in the words of the Saviour, “Ye are My friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.”

Most expositors suppose that David composed this Psalm when the ark of the covenant was transferred to Zion, comp. 2 Samuel 6:12 ss., 1 Chronicles 16:1 ss., with the view of stirring up the people, on this opportunity, to the true honouring of God, to genuine righteousness. Though this event afforded a suitable occasion, yet in the Psalm itself there is nothing which necessarily refers thereto; and we should have regarded the supposition as a mere uncertain hypothesis, if the (Psalms 24) 24th Psalm, which coincides in a very striking manner with this, had not been undoubtedly occasioned by the circumstance in question.

Notwithstanding the simply positive aspect of the Psalm, when formally considered, it still has an unquestionably polemical reference; it brings out the purely moral and internal conditions of participation in God’s kingdom, in contrast to the delusion of the hypocrite, who thinks himself secure of God’s favour through the possession of externals, and the observance of ceremonies. This was perceived by Luther: “But this Psalm is dead against the lovers of outward show. For the Jews exalted themselves above all other people, on the two grounds, that they alone were the seed of the Fathers, and alone possessed the law of God.” As in perfect accordance with an occasion like that of the transference of the ark, we must especially regard the opposition raised to merely external service of God. David wished to meet, at the very threshold, the errors which so easily connected themselves with the restoration of the cultus effected on the removal of the ark to Zion. It is only when viewed in respect to such a polemical design that the subject of the Psalm can be rightly apprehended. The exclusive emphasis laid on the commands of the second table can only be explained by supposing opposition to hypocrites.

The present Psalm most probably owes its position after the (Psalms 14) 14th to an internal relation of the matter of the two. Luther already remarked: “This Psalm follows the preceding one in the finest order. For, just as in that the form and pattern of the ungodly was described, so now in this the pattern of the godly is described.” This delineation of the righteous was with the more propriety made to follow Psalms 14, as mention there occurs of a “righteous generation,” which might console itself with the sure hope of God’s help. It was important that every one should clearly understand what really constituted one a member of that righteous generation.

That David was the author of the Psalm, appears not only from the superscription and a comparison with Psalms 24, but also from Psalms 15:1. The mention of the tabernacle of God in this verse does not permit us to come lower than the times of David. Hitzig, indeed, maintains that the name tabernacle was sometimes applied to the temple of Solomon: but this is in itself very improbable, and no satisfactory proof can be brought in support of it.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. Lord, who shall abide in Thy tabernacle, who dwell on Thy holy hill? The sum, says Calvin, is this, that access to God is open to none but His pure worshippers. The representation in the verse is a figurative one. The holy hill of God appears as a place of refuge, His tabernacle as a hospitable tent, in which He receives His people to Himself. Parallel passages, in which precisely the same figurative representation prevails, and no reference whatever is found to the outward worship of God, are Psalms 5:4, “The wicked doth not dwell with Thee;” Psalms 23:6, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord all my days;” Psalms 27:5, “He shall hide me in His pavilion in the day of trouble;” Psalms 24:3, Psalms 61:4; comp. Christol. P. ii. p. 447. The image in all these places is taken from one who is received by another into his dwelling, or his possession. This kindness can be experienced from God only by those whose impurity does not exclude them from His sacred presence; as is here indicated by the expression, “on Thy holy hill,” and even, indeed, by the emphatic suffix, “in Thy tabernacle.” The majority of modern expositors have misunderstood this figurative representation, occasioned probably by the external approach of great multitudes to the tabernacle of the Lord. Hence have arisen such expositions as those of De Wette, Maurer, and others, that the tarrying and the dwelling imply here nothing but a frequent approach: as if it had been, “who dare, or who is worthy to tarry?” But such a method of exposition is as little accordant with the words of our text as with the parallel passages. These latter plainly show that the writer refers to a continual social dwelling with God, which the righteous man enjoys, or that the dwelling with God is only an image of intimacy. The close of the Psalm, where “the never being moved” is made to correspond to the “dwelling in the house of the Lord,” supports this. Venema: “Conclusio responsi a quaesito discrepare nequit.” Dwelling with God is, in general, a designation of intimacy; but protection and stability are a necessary consequence of it. The Futures are accordingly to be taken as proper Futures, as it depends only upon the Lord who is to be admitted to this intimacy. Who shall dwell -whom wilt Thou permit, or to whom wilt Thou grant the favour of dwelling with Thee? That the ground was already laid for this figurative representation in the law, where the sacred tabernacle, by its very name, “the tabernacle of meeting,” is pointed out as the place where God was to hold fellowship with His people, and that hence, in Leviticus 16:6, the Israelites are regarded as dwelling with God in His holy tabernacle, with all their sins, involving the necessity of an atonement, has been shown in my Beitr., vol. iii. p. 628. The representation extends even into the New Testament. In Matthew 23:38, the temple appears as the spiritual dwelling-place of Israel, and in Ephesians 2:19, the members of God’s kingdom are called οἰ κεῖ οι τοῦ? θεοῦ? , inmates of God’s house.—גור never signifies to dwell in general, but always specially to dwell as a guest and sojourner. The expression is to be primarily explained from the image of a rich and powerful man, who hospitably receives a poor stranger into his tent,—an image which is more distinctly brought out in Psalms 27:5. But the substance of the figure is, that our dwelling with God is only after the manner of guests; that we are not born and rightful inmates of His house, but have become so merely through grace. That the figure is not to be carried too far,—that it must not be explained: “in whom dost Thou interest Thyself, as one who receives a stranger into his tent?” but only, “who dwells in Thy tabernacle as a stranger, that has been received by some potentate of earth?” is clear from the expression, “on Thy holy hill,” which corresponds to “Thy tabernacle.” At the same time, the mention of the holy hill, which can only signify Zion, shows that the tabernacle of God is not the old Mosaic tabernacle, which was then, without the ark of the covenant, at Gibeon—comp. 1 Chronicles 16:39; 2 Chronicles 1:3, 2 Chronicles 1:5—but the tent which David had prepared for the ark on Zion; comp. 2 Samuel 6:17; 1 Chronicles 15:1, 1 Chronicles 16:1; 2 Chronicles 1:4. Nowhere, indeed, have the Psalms anything to do with that old tabernacle at Gibeon, that shell without a kernel; but always, where they speak of the sanctuary of the Lord, that upon Zion is the one referred to. The question regarding the qualifications for a participation in the kingdom of God, which the Psalmist here addresses to the Lord, he answers in the following verses before the Lord, according to His mind, and through His Spirit. For the purpose of showing that the settlement of the matter belongs to God and to him, who speaks in God’s name, he addressed the question to the Lord. Those who suppose that the Psalmist puts the question in Psalms 15:1, while in Psalms 15:2-5 God answers, are wrong in point of form, but right as to the substance.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. He who walks blamelessly, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart. We must explain: “walking a,” for, “ as a blameless person.” In Psalms 84:11, &הלךְ בתמים , “to walk in an unblameable,” stands for, “ as an unblameable.” De Wette and Maurer would take תמים as a substantive, in the accus.; but it is never so used, not even in Joshua 24:14. The supposition is also opposed by the original passage, which the Psalmist seems to have had in his eye, Genesis 17:1, where God says to Abram, “Walk before Me, and be thou unblameable.” We may consider the words, “who walks unblameably,” as the general sentiment; the second member referring to deeds, and the third referring to words and thoughts, as the carrying out. On the expression, “and works righteousness,” Luther remarks: “As if he would say, Not because thou art a priest, or a holy monk; not because thou prayest much, because thou dost miracles, because thou teachest admirably, because thou art dignified with the title of Father; nor, finally, because of any particular work, except righteousness, shalt thou dwell upon the holy hill of God.” This is sound exposition. The Psalmist had not in view the particular kinds of false conceit which are specified by Luther, but he certainly had the genus under which they are comprehended. In reference to the exclusive mention of works, which also frequently occurs in the New Testament, for example, Matthew 25, it is remarked by the same reformer: “And, indeed, it is worthy of notice, that he draws the likeness of a pious people, without showing whence it was to come, or to be derived. Hence, it is true that a foolish person may apply all that is written in this Psalm to the moral virtues and free-will, though it is solely a work of the grace of God, which He works in us.” That the Psalmist speaks merely of the works of the second table, arises from his wish to distinguish the true members of the Church from hypocrites, who have a thousand ways of counterfeiting the works of the first table. This Calvin notices: “Faith, calling upon God, spiritual sacrifices, are by no means excluded by David; but because hypocrites sought to exalt themselves by many ceremonies, though their impiety manifests itself in their life, which is full of pride, cruelty, violence, fraud, and such things, the proof of sincere and genuine faith is therefore sought in the second table of the law, that such deceivers might be exposed. For if men practise justice and equity with their neighbours, they show by deeds that they fear God.” But of what sort the righteousness is, which the Psalmist requires,—that it consists, not like that of the Pharisees, in appearance, but in living reality; that it requires the most thorough agreement, not of the external actions merely, but of the heart, with the law of God,—is very strikingly expressed in the last clause: “Who speaks truth in his heart.” The words, “in the heart,” show that the writer speaks of internal purity and truth, to which the truth that is outwardly expressed by the lips is related as streams to the fountainhead. This reference to the heart goes through the whole Psalm, and excludes all, who give only an outward satisfaction to its requirements, from any interest in its promises. If in one point the heart is required expressly, in the other points also, though the heart be not mentioned, words and deeds can only be so far considered, as they proceed from a pure and spiritual mind; only in such a case, indeed, can words and deeds be surely and continuously calculated upon. “Hypocrites,” says Luther, “can do much, or even the whole of this in appearance for a time, but in a time of evil they do the reverse.”

Verse 3

Ver. 3. As the Psalmist, in the preceding verse, had mentioned some gifts which the true members of the Church must possess, so here, he points to certain faults from which they, must be free. In regard to construction, this verse, like the following ones, is quite complete of itself. He slanders not with his tongue. רגל occurs frequently in Piel, in Kal, only here. Derived from רֶ גֶ ל , foot, it properly means, to go hither and thither, whence the signification of spying out, babbling to and fro, slandering, very naturally arises. The tongue stands opposed to the heart. Here also we are presented with the trilogy of thought, word, and deed, which runs through the Decalogue. The preposition על is to be explained by the circumstance, that the tongue forms, as it were, the substratum of calumnies. Quite analogous is the expression in Genesis 27:40, “Upon thy sword shalt thou live;” comp. also Isaiah 38:16. There is an allusion to the passage in Leviticus 19:16, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer, רכיל—&רכל רגל—among thy people.” He does not evil to his friend, and does not take up a reproach against his neighbour. The words לרעהו and על קרבו are used with peculiar emphasis. They imply, how unworthy it is to act injuriously toward those who are united to us by so many ties. As this idea is so evidently implied, it is not advisable to take the two words, with Kimchi and others, in the most general sense for any one with whom we have to do: what the latter, indeed, cannot properly signify. They both refer to everything by which the members of the Church of God are bound together,—not merely the general relation of man to man, but also the common bodily and spiritual derivation, through which they become, in a double sense, brethren. It is the latter which is peculiarly pointed to in all the laws of the Pentateuch, referring to the injury of neighbours. Israel constantly appears as a nation of brothers; every violation of the duties of neighbours is viewed as an unnatural crime. All this applies to Christians in a still higher degree. Comp., also, Exodus 32:27, where רע and קרוב are found united as here, and where the explanation, “Every one with whom we have to do,” is quite inadmissible. נשא cannot be taken here in the sense of uttering, which most interpreters give it, as the subjoined על sufficiently shows, but must have the signification, tollere; therefore, properly: Who does not lift up a reproach on his neighbour. Considered more narrowly, we find that the word may well enough signify to originate, but never to utter. In Exodus 23:1, to which reference is here made, the proper reading is, “Thou shalt not raise a false report;” the raising standing in contrast to “letting lie,”—a contrast which exists also here. That משא , which is commonly derived from נשא , in the sense of speaking forth, uttering, signifies, not “an utterance,” but a “burden,” has been proved in my Christology, P. ii. p. 102. With על , the verb often occurs in the sense of “lifting on any one;” for example, 2 Kings 9:25, “The Lord lifted or laid on him this burden,” Genesis 31:17. Reproach is considered as a burden, which the person who spreads the slander, instead of allowing to lie, heaves on his neighbour.

Verse 4

Ver. 4. In his eyes the rejected is despised, but he honours them that fear the Lord. נמאס is either “the one who is to be rejected,” “the vile,” or “he whom God has rejected.” The exposition is to be preferred, because of the contrast it presents with the “honourers of the Lord” in the following clause, and because of the parallel passage in Jeremiah 6:30, where it is said of wicked princes, “They are reprobate silver, for the Lord has rejected them.” The sense is therefore given by Luther: “The righteous One is no regarder of persons; He considers not how holy, learned, powerful, any one may be. If He sees virtue in him, He honours him, even though he should be a beggar; but if He does not see that in him, He accounts him, as an evil person, of no value, tells him so, punishes him. Thou despisest, says he, God’s word, Thou revilest thy neighbour; therefore will I be open with thee.” Hitzig has revived another interpretation, already adopted by some old commentators (Chat Abenezra): “He who is despised, who is little in his own eyes.” The deepest humility and self-abasement would then be given as a mark of a true honourer of the Lord; as is beautifully set forth by David in 2 Samuel 6:22. But this exposition has already been set aside by the remark of Calvin, that apart from the harshness of the asyndeton, the manifest contrast between the two clauses decide against it. Just as “despised” stands opposed to “he honours,” so must נמאס form the contrast to the “fearers of God.” Here, therefore, the writer can only be speaking of the right posture of a man toward the different classes of his fellowmen, or rather, of his fellow-members. To this posture the fearer of God attains, because his eye is pure, because his heart is drawn only to that with which he has affinity, which has its origin in God; and he dreads, as a denying of the Lord, to join those externally, from whom he internally differs, and an external separation from those with whom he is internally united. The exposition of Jarchi is less objectionable “The despicable is in his eyes rejected;” although this also lies open to the objection, that the despising forms a more suitable contrast to the honouring than the rejecting, and that the word despised can scarcely, without some addition, stand for despicable. In reference to the words, “He honours them that fear the Lord”—who are to be regarded as honoured by God, just as the dishonourers of God are rejected or despised by Him

Calvin remarks: “It is no common virtue to honour pious and godly men. For, since they are often as the offscouring of the world, it not unfrequently happens, that their friends also are compelled to share its hatred with them. Hence, most men reject their friendship, and suffer them to remain in dishonour, which cannot be done without great and dreadful offence to God.”

He swears to his own hurt, and exchanges not. Following the LXX., who pointed לְ הָ רֵ עַ? , Luther has: “who swears to his neighbour.” De Wette, Gesenius, and others, render: “He swears to the wicked, and changes not;” i.e., even the promises which he made to the ungodly, he fulfils with inviolable integrity. According to this exposition, להרע is equivalent to לרע with ה elided. The article is indeed commonly dropt after ב כ ל ; but in particular cases it has been retained; comp. the ex. in Ewald, p. 175. These cases nearly all belong to a later age, and are taken from Nehemiah, Chronicles, Ezekiel, when the language, gradually falling into disuse, was again written according to the etymology, although one instance does occur in the Psalms of David, בהשמים . Apart, however, from the consideration, that we should only be justified in admitting here so rare a form, if no other suitable exposition presented itself, the sense yielded by this exposition is by no means a suitable one. For who would seek to get rid of an oath, on the pretext, that he to whom it was made, was not a virtuous man? Then, also, it is decisive against this exposition, that it destroys the connection so manifestly existing between this passage and Leviticus 5:4,—which is the less to be approved, as the Psalm is throughout so closely connected with the law. We must therefore cast about for another interpretation. The form להרע , in all the places where it occurs—and these are many—is, inf. in Hiph. with ל of the verb רוע , to do ill, to bring hurt, to hurt. So it is found, particularly in Leviticus 5:4, where the discourse is of a hasty oath: להרע או להיטיב , “for hurt, or for benefit.” Hence: “He swears for hurt, and exchanges not,” must mean, Even when he has made a promise or oath which tends to his hurt, he most religiously fulfils it.” “Hence,” Calvin remarks, “arises such lawless perfidy among men, because they conceive themselves to be no further bound by their pledged word, than may be for their profit. Therefore David, while he condemns that levity, demands of the children of God another sort of stedfastness in their promises.” The objection, that the person ought to have been more exactly described, whom the hurt affects, is unimportant. It is so perfectly obvious who was to suffer damage by the oath, that no further description was necessary. המיר may, properly enough, be taken in its common signification, of “to exchange,” or “to put something else in the place of;” and there is no reason for substituting the sense of “not to keep,” or, “to break.” He exchanges not, is equivalent to: “He gives what he has agreed by oath to give, and puts nothing else in its place.” Luther remarks, quite in the spirit of the Psalmist: “I believe that what the prophet here says of keeping an oath, is to be understood also of every sort of promise. For its object is to inculcate truth and fidelity among men. But it makes special mention of the oath, because, in a pre-eminent way, good faith is thereby either kept or broken.”

Verse 5

Ver. 5. He gives not his money to usury. The Mosaic law forbids the lending of money for interest to an Israelite: Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:37; Deuteronomy 23:19; Proverbs 28:8; Ezekiel 18:8. In several of the passages referred to, it is expressly supposed that only the poor will borrow money,—a supposition which has its ground in the simple circumstances of the Mosaic times, in which lending, for the purpose of speculation and gain, had no existence. Such lending ought to be a work of brotherly love; and it is a great violation of love, if any one, instead of helping his neighbour, takes advantage of his need to bring him into still greater straits. The Mosaic regulation in question has accordingly its import also for New Testament times. With the taking of interest for capital which is borrowed for speculation, it has nothing to do. This belongs to a quite different sphere, as is implied even by the name נשךְ? , a mordendo, according to which only such usury can be meant as plagues and impoverishes a neighbour. By unseasonable comparison with our modes of speech, many would expound: “his money he puts not to interest.” That the נתן signifies here to give, not to put, is shown by לקח in the next clause; “evil giving” and “evil taking” are placed parallel to each other. בנשךְ? cannot signify: “on interest,” but only: “for interest;” the ב is currently used when prices are specified, Ewald, p. 607. Opposed to the giving for usury is the giving gratis, whether in loan or as a present; comp. Proverbs 28:8. There is a verbal, and even literal, reference to Leviticus 25:37, “Thou shalt not give thy money for usury.” And he takes not a present against the innocent: when he has to give judgment on a cause, he does not permit himself to be seduced by bribes from the rich and powerful to an unrighteous decision. This also is branded in the law of Moses as a great crime: Exodus 23:6; Deuteronomy 16:19, “Thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift; for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous;” Deuteronomy 27:25, “Cursed be he that taketh reward to slay an innocent person.” From these two passages the words before us are literally taken. The last words: he who does this shall never be moved, are parallel to the first, “he shall abide,” etc. For he whom the Lord takes into His house as a member is secure against all the storms of misfortune. Psalms 55:23 may be compared as parallel. De Wette’s words: “For, according to the notions of the Jews, the pious, as such, is prosperous,” may be allowed to pass, if only the addition is permitted: “as also to those of Christians.”

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Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 15". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms.