A Meditation on Psalm 15

Kevin J Youngblood

 O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?

He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart;

who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend;

in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.

(Psalm 15)
Psalm 15 has an interesting and rather unique structure. It unfolds as a kind of Q&A with God as though YHWH were
being interviewed by the psalmist. The question involves the kind of person to whom YHWH gives refuge, those he shelters in his sanctuary.

The answer then, presumably coming from YHWH himself, takes the form of a profile – a list of character traits belonging to the refugee who seeks sanctuary with YHWH and his people. Initially, I read this as a list of prerequisites as if there were a screening process at the opening of YHWH’s tent such that only those who already displayed these qualities could find a place in YHWH’s community. This may in part be facilitated by the tendency our English translations have of consistently and simplistically rendering the verb forms that occur in the initial questions in the psalm as future tense. This, however, is not the only possibility, and, in this context, I find it a little misleading. More likely, they should be translated something like “Who may continue sojourning in your tent? Who may continue dwelling on your holy mountain.” The idea is not that a person must already be fully spiritually formed and ethically pure before seeking refuge in YHWH’s tent, but rather that persons who do take such refuge should be transformed by the experience, should begin to resemble the god with whom they’ve identified in their flight.

I think it is a misunderstanding, therefore, to read this psalm as if it were in the classifieds or on a dorm room bulletin board along with all the other personals – “Single male seeks single male roommate. Must be financially responsible, a good housekeeper, quiet, studious, non-smoking. Cooking skills a plus.” No, YHWH offers refuge to anyone and everyone who recognizes her or his need to escape the dangers of navigating this defiled and defiling world. The expectation, however, is that upon finding this refuge we gradually and increasingly adopt the character of our gracious host.
Two of these characteristics in particular stand out to me as I measure myself against YHWH’s daunting standards. The first is “who speaks truth in his heart.” This is a curious phrase that could be taken to mean that this person says what is really on his mind (like Nathaniel – an Israelite in whom is no deceit) or that this person is not self-deceived, that he is honest with himself about himself or, alternatively, that this person’s mouth and heart are aligned. What they say and commit to emerges from the depths of their being. They are infallibly sincere. The latter seems the most likely meaning of the phrase since this virtue is extoled throughout the psalter as well as throughout the OT. Personally, I like to read it as a combination of the second and third options. I desperately need to see myself honestly through God’s eyes not only because I tend to be blind to my faults but also and even more so in my case, blind to my gifts and strengths and therefore hesitant to use them in God’s service.

The second is “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” This line from Psalm 15 has always stopped me in my tracks. Every time I read it I have to stop and pray. I am so prone to prioritize my own convenience, to idolize comfort. There is an important balance in scripture between avoiding foolish and hasty vows and being willing to commit oneself wholeheartedly to promises and people and seeing it through. These two things in particular are very convicting to me and I want to be someone characterized by these traits. Perhaps even more important and shocking, however, is that YHWH is characterized by these traits. YHWH never flatters nor slanders. When he says that he loves me he means it. YHWH also maintains commitment at his own pain and expense. If the cross teaches us anything, it teaches us that. Those who live in YHWH’s presence, of course, begin to look more and more like him, like the kind of persons whose integrity is evident in their every word and action.

We praise you for your character. We would not know what holiness is were it not for your perfect expression of it. Everything you do and say arises from the sincerest, deepest, most eternal love possible. We want to live with you that we may learn your ways and make your character our own. Lord Jesus, thank you for modeling the divine character in flesh and blood that we might not only have a clear vision of what this looks like but also have the power of your blood to actually progress toward its realization. Holy Spirit, apart from your sanctifying work we would no hope of even approximating this character. Thank you for patiently and powerfully working with us to remove every obstacle to the realization of these qualities and gently cultivating them in such an unlikely environment as our sinful, sterile, arid hearts.