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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Psalms 15

 

 

Verses 1-5

A Citizen of Zion

Psalm 15

The history of this psalm takes us back to the occasion of the ark being brought into the tabernacle at Zion. This fixture of date has been endorsed as probable by the most eminent ancient and modern critics. This psalm strikingly resembles its immediate predecessor, and it is supposed that it may have been recited before the tabernacle when the ark was placed in it. The great cry of this psalm goes out from a solicitude that concerns itself with the question of permanence. Up to this point the history of the ark and of the people who associated their worship with it was marked by transitoriness, uncertainty, continual and anxious movement. There is a time when such action becomes weariness, and in that moment rest is above all things desired. Why should we strike our camp and be off once more? Why can we not find an abiding-place where fields may be grown and where the altar may be permanent, so that in occupation and worship we may no longer be disturbed by sudden calls to change our position? The word "abide" in the first verse is well rendered in the margin "sojourn," the idea being that settlement has been effected and that the traveller is at last at home. The holy hill was the hill of Zion, an eminence that was sanctified by the establishment upon it of the sacred ark. Moses called Horeb "the mountain of God," and Zion is called "holy" because crowned with the symbol and pledge of the divine presence. So far, however, all this is necessarily but local criticism; the great question which we have to put concerns our own permanent citizenship in the land of God, the truly holy land, the land of consecration and service, unchanging and ever enlarging. The enquiry we have to put Isaiah , How is citizenship in it to be acquired and continued for ever?

This psalm has been supposed to contain a full-length portrait of the man whose position in Zion is assured and immovable. The delineation may be taken as a variety of the Ten Commandments, and as in some sort an anticipation of the Beatitudes. Compared, however, whether with the one or with the other, we cannot but be struck with the difference in mental dignity and eloquent expression, and with the conspicuous degree in which both the Commandments and Beatitudes stand above the graphic delineation. Account for it as we may, as a mere matter of literary beauty, the contrast amounts to an argument. The Ten Commandments were said to have been spoken by the Lord on Mount Zion. In proof of the claim that the contrast is an argument we have simply to read these Commandments as they stand and then peruse David"s portraiture of a good man; carry out the same process with the Beatitudes; the issue will be that the Commandments and Beatitudes separate themselves in calm dignity, and worthily assume Divine authorship. Yet this portraiture done by a human hand has uses of its own. The very fact that it is drawn by a man"s hand brings it nearer to us and emboldens us to criticise it with a completer frankness. David at least supposed such a man to be a possible character. What is he in reality and in detail? For an answer to that enquiry we must turn to the psalm itself.

"Walketh uprightly" [lit. perfect]. These words occur very early in Scripture. In Genesis 17:1 we read, "Walk before me, and be thou perfect." Here both the words are found. The reference is to a consistent and conscientious life. The word "perfect" has been rendered single-hearted; Wycliffe renders it simply "not wilfully or consciously committing sin." The man who walks uprightly is to be distinguished from the man whose delight is earthward, the base creature who seeks in the ground mean satisfaction for mean desires. He is also to be distinguished from the person who is given to inventions, tricks, and all manner of questionable practices, throwing himself into various attitudes and postures that he may suit himself to the fickle minds of social temper and fashion, and so gain something for himself under all circumstances, bending himself to those circumstances rather than dignifying them by his own high nature. He is a man who despises the gain of oppressions, and shakes his hand from holding of bribes, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil: to him the Lord has promised a high dwelling, and pledged that his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks. The Lord has been abundantly gracious in his promise to the upright in heart He that walketh uprightly walketh surely. "No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly." If we are truly anxious to know what is meant by uprightness, we need not turn to etymology for a definition. The heart can answer the great enquiry. We have been so constituted that we know instantly that which is upright from that which is perverse and crooked; it is in vain therefore to pretend to be in search of etymological definitions when it lies within our power through the inspiration of God to lift up our character into moral dignity and walk before heaven in full possession and beneficent use of every moral faculty.

"Worketh righteousness." We have seen in the fourteenth psalm that some men are described as "workers of iniquity." The favoured citizen is a man who is industrious in goodness. Righteousness is not to him a mere department of moral philosophy upon which he has to speculate and theorise, nor is it satisfied with the delineations wrought out in language by heroic poets; it is a condition of spirit and heart before God admitting of culture within and sanctified expression without. The good man may be described as building a life-temple of righteousness: he is continually looking around for material which he can put into his building, and his satisfaction is in proportion to the largeness and beauty of the edifice. Those who are addicted to iniquity are described as "workers"; they are not ashamed of their wicked profession, nor is their service marked by self-indulgent lethargy. The sojourner in the holy city is not only to do a better work, he is to do it with more serious determination and industry. He is not to be silent in the presence of unrighteousness, but is at all costs to speak out in favour of true justice and virtue. In his circle he is to be known as a man who will spare no effort to advance righteousness, whether found in the claims of an individual, the necessities of an institution, or the policy of a nation. Suspect any form of Song of Solomon -called righteousness that can be silent in the presence of oppression and that can let wickedness pass by without indignant repudiation.

Up to this point the character consists of three attributes, viz, uprightness, righteousness, and truthfulness. In a sense the three are one, yet so various are the circumstances under which virtue is tested, that each of these attributes acquires a speciality of its own. The apparent redundance of expression is justified by the redundance of temptation to which human integrity is exposed. The upright walk is observed, the work in righteousness is felt, and the truth which is uttered from the heart attracts and confirms the confidence of men. Surely this second verse is marked by the most penetrating spirituality. There is no escape from its terms on the ground that they are vague or that they admit of being applied in different senses and within different limits. "He that saith he abideth in God ought himself also so to walk even as he walked." "Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another,"—that is to say even social considerations ought to bind men to truth and its fearless utterance; trustees must not tamper with the property which they hold in charge; even if there were no divine fealty involved in this matter of truth-speaking, our social relations and bonds should make it imperative.

We now come into a series of details by which the substantial character can be tested at various points. It is right that there should be such testing, because the proverb has been established beyond dispute that "a man is no stronger than his weakest point" If a man"s character may be represented by the number ten, it is perfectly possible that he may be strong in nine of the points, but utterly fail in the last. Seeing therefore that our conduct is made up not only of a great spiritual intention, but of innumerable and many-coloured details, it is essential to complete cross-examination that each of the details be tested as a separate life and judged as involving, at least indirectly, the completeness of the whole character. A man may be no "backbiter," yet he may have reasons for associating with a "vile person." A man may have no wish to put out his money to usury, in the sense of wilfully profiting by the loss of others, or extorting from them returns which are illegitimate and fatally excessive, yet he may not be disinclined to take up a reproach against some of his neighbours. The great lesson is that we are not to pride ourselves upon individual virtues, and suppose that they will overbalance a great many insignificant drawbacks. Upon all such matters individual cross-examination is alone possible. When any man attempts to exhort the public upon these points he should be restrained by the recollection that he can only point to ideals which have been drawn by cleaner and abler hands, and not attempt to exemplify the ideals which he adores. We shall miss the great purpose of the psalm if we set ourselves to a merely critical estimate of some of its details. We may for example be anxious to know what is meant by "swear to one"s hurt," and to have a detailed definition of what is meant by putting out money to usury. It is not too much to assume that when the mind allows itself to be drawn away by enquiries of this kind, it is too often obeying the suggestions of a heart that is only looking round for an excuse to justify some violation of the law. Under the ancient economy we have seen that if a man made an unguarded oath he was bound to keep it, if it injured himself alone; but it was graciously provided that if the oath involved any evil or loss to other men a trespass-offering was ordained. This is the very spirit of all great laws, namely, that a man must be severe to himself, never shrinking from the infliction of the most painful punishment, whilst he is zealously careful of the interests and feelings of other men. With reverence we may argue from the human oath upwards to the divine decree, and there we shall find that God binds himself by a vow which he cannot change. Jesus Christ realised this gracious law in his own priesthood: "Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end." "Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame"—observe, endured the cross, went through all its shame and agony, shrank back from nothing of its ignominy and bitter loss, but completed the sorrow that he might begin the joy.

The whole psalm may be taken as a promise to righteousness and an implied threatening to wickedness. If this is the portion of the good man it is not difficult to foresee the destiny of the man who is not good. The wicked man shall not enter the tabernacle or dwell in the holy hill. The very purity of the sacred habitation would burn him as with judicial fire. Cleverness, prosperity, fame hardly distinguishable from worship, will not stand the wicked man in good stead when he attempts to enter the holy place. Only he that hath clean hands and a pure heart, who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity nor sworn deceitfully, shall receive the blessing from the Lord. We need not marvel therefore that it is said, "Ye must be born again." "A man shall not be established by wickedness;" there is no firmness in its advantages, time will not spare its barren heaven of supposed prosperity and security; it endureth but for a night; in the light of the morning it shall not be found. Now that we know by many a delineation the right meaning of holy character let us not delay to perfect its attainment; let this indeed be the one object of our life, and if our prayers seem to have comprehended the whole circle of benefaction, let them come back and concentrate themselves in one mighty cry that God would create within us a clean heart and renew within us a right spirit. "O send out thy light and thy truth: let them lead me; let them bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy tabernacles."

Prayer

Almighty God, we have heard voices of gladness in thy word, for which we bless thee. Thou hast caused us to see the sunlight of the coming time when Jesus Christ shall be seated upon the throne, and all men shall lift up their heart-songs unto him, who, through blood, answered the charge of sin, and by intercession made all human prayer prevail. We rejoice that there is such a future, for in the present there is pain and darkness and difficulty, which we have neither strength nor skill to overcome. To-day is a day of darkness. The present is a troubled and tumultuous sea, but there is thy to-morrow coming when the cloud shall be dispelled, and thy sun shall write the answer of light upon every mystery that has troubled the mind of man. Send upon us a renewal of thy pardoning love: lift from us the load that oppresses us, send one liberating ray through the dark gloom that gathers around our self-accusing souls. We come in Christ"s name, we stop at Christ"s Cross, we sit down under the shed blood; the blood of Jesus Christ thy Son cleanseth from all sin—even our sin can be cleansed by that precious blood: God be merciful unto us sinners. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 15:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/psalms-15.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, September 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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