05 December 2012

How Do We Read or Preach a Text Like Psalm 15 in a Gospel Way?

In the Psalms these days. Came upon Psalm 15 this week. I cringed.

Jesus said the Psalms (probably referring to all the OT poetry) were "about me" (Luke 24:44). How in the world does Psalm 15 fit in to that?

Here's the whole text of the short psalm. Verse 1 asks a question (who measures up?). The rest of the psalm gives the answer (the person who acts in such and such a way, that's who).

   1  A psalm of David. O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent?
         Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
   2  He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
         and speaks truth in his heart;
   3  who does not slander with his tongue
         and does no evil to his neighbor,
         nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
   4  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;
   5  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.

Here are the steps I would go through in preaching this text or in teaching it in a small group or in using it in a seminary classroom as a test-case of how to take a difficult, seemingly gospel-vacuous OT text and communicating it in an appropriately Jesus-mindful/whole-Bible yet non-artificial way.

1. Let it land. 

Let the full hortatory weight of verses 2-5 land on us.

Running backs are taught to be patient, waiting for the hole to open up as blockers do their job. If they try to hit the hole too soon, the play collapses. Gospel-excited preachers need a similar discipline of patience. We can't run to the gospel or Christ too soon out of a fear of becoming moralistic etc. Let the play develop. Let the people hear that this is the life to which they are summoned. Don't soften it. Let it land.

And not just in a second-use-of-the-law kind of way that drives us to Christ. If the extent of your preaching of this this psalm is to say "Well, none of us can do any of this--but thank God for Jesus, who did it in our stead!" you are hitting the hole too early. Not letting the play develop.

2. Remind them of the audience. 

Then make clear that this earnest life of virtue to which they are called is a summons given to the redeemed.

You might note the obvious fact that this is a psalm, an ancient hymn from Israel's songbook for their own worship.

Or, you might note the use (twice) of "the LORD," the covenant name of God, the name given to Moses and which for generations after evoked the redemptive event of the exodus.

3. Go deeper with verse 1. 

Clarify what precisely verse 1 is asking. On first reading it sounds like a bare challenge about who is good enough for God. But in point of fact it is drawing together some loaded language from God's mighty acts in Israel's history, language rife with redemptive significance.

Yahweh's "tent" would evoke in the Hebrew mind the tabernacle/temple motif, further strengthened by the reference to "dwelling" on God's "holy hill." "Dwell" here is the Hebrew verb used to speak of God's templing glory (the noun form of this verb is Shekinah). "Holy hill" isn't a vague reference to a sacred area of raised ground; the text might woodenly be translated "the mountain of your holiness." The reference is to Mount Zion, where Jerusalem stood, the place of God's special dwelling to which the nations would one day stream (Isaiah 2; Micah 4). Indeed, the verb "sojourn" is used throughout the OT to speak of the one who dwells as an alien/Gentile in the midst of Israel.

Verse 1 is asking: Who will receive God's promised inheritance? Who will be part of God's covenant blessings? Who will enjoy Eden restored? Who will be included in that final vision of which the physical temple is merely an echo, a glimpse, a shadow?

4. Go deeper with verses 2-5.

Then clarify what exactly the traits in verses 2-5 are. Note that while on first reading it sounds like an arid list of virtues to dutifully execute, these verses in fact focus on the inner state of the heart.

Inner health and outer action are of course closely linked (Matt. 12:33), but it is easy and natural to the flesh to exhort external moral conformity divorced from the heart. We do this because it lets us pacify the conscience through the outer conformity while allowing us to hang on to our secret idols that we love. So, mindful of Jesus' words about the inside of the cup and whitewashed tombs and all that, it would be helpful to explain that this psalm has in view a holistic integrity, inside and out, and not bare externalized action.

The psalm speaks of one who is truthful "in his heart" (v. 2). Someone "in whose eyes a vile person is despised" (v. 4)--they have a certain moral internal compass or perspective. Someone who "honors those who fear the LORD" (v. 5)--i.e., those who live lives in reverent devotion to the Lord, inside and out. Not all the characteristics of verses 2-5 are clearly internal, but enough of them get at the inner person to correct a view of these characteristics that would be exclusively behavior-oriented.

You might further note that v. 1 speaks of dwelling in, not entering into--verses 2-5 therefore describe the character of those walking in glad communion with God, not the minimum bar required for God to bring someone into communion with him in the first place.

You might also note that "blamelessly" in both OT and NT refers not to sinless perfection but holistic loyalty that cannot be publicly impugned. The Hebrew word used here in v. 2 refers to wholeness, soundness, inner health (not far different from shalom).

5. Say what would never be said in a Jewish synagogue about Psalm 15.

Finally, after (and only after) wrestling with the text with a narrow-angle lens, zoom out, as Jesus demands (John 1:45; 5:39-46; Luke 24). Make plain that there is only one person who ever really enjoyed the blessings of verse 1, and only one person who ever really walked the walk of verses 2-5.

But as you do this, don't be trite and predictable. Do it in a textually responsible and convincing-to-the-hearer way. Really work at the text. Wrestle with it. Use your Hebrew concordance, do some Bibleworks searches. When I did, here's what I discovered.

Verse 1 speaks of dwelling on God's holy mountain. Strikingly, this exact phrase is used earlier in the Psalter in what is according to the NT one of the most christologically charged psalms, Psalm 2. In Psalm 2:6 Yahweh says: "As for me, I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill" (same Hebrew phrase as 15:1). In Psalm 2, though, God is not asking who will dwell on this holy mountain. He is declaring whom he has himself set there--a man the NT (especially Hebrews) identifies as Christ himself.

Who shall dwell on God's holy hill? Jesus.

And, in him, both representatively (by imputation) and then actually (by his Spirit), us. 

To dwell on God's holy mountain means to pass into and abide in the temple. But Jesus didn't simply come to the temple; he came as the temple. Jesus dwells on God's holy hill not by entering a humanly-made building to meet with God but by entering a divinely-made body to meet with us. The Word "tabernacled" among us (John 1:14). He is what the temple was meant to do--restore man to God, rejoin earth to heaven, bring the "walking together in the cool of the day" of Eden back to reality once more.

The NT goes on to explain that believers are themselves part of that temple, of which Christ is the cornerstone (1 Pet. 2:4-8). It is not, then, simply that we now go to Jesus the temple rather than a temple building. United to him, we are ourselves part of the temple. We are, with him, the sacred intersection of heaven and earth, sacred and profane, a temple made up not of stones but of redeemed souls (Eph. 2:19-22). 

In verses 2-5 it is verse 5 that intrigues me most. The conclusion to the psalm is: "He who does these things shall never be moved." I noticed this week that "be moved" here is the exact same verb in the exact same form (niphal) as "be shaken" in the very next psalm, at Psalm 16:8. "I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken." The very text Peter quotes in Acts 2 when arguing for Christ's resurrection (Acts 2:24-28). A careful reading of what what Peter does with Psalm 16 in Acts 2:24-33 indicates that Peter views Christ as the ultimate one who in Psalm 16 is "not shaken."

Jesus did Psalm 15. In that glad knowledge we the redeemed, in union with the true temple, are summoned into the life of light-filled joy and integrity portrayed in verses 2-5. United to and walking with Jesus, the friend of sinners, we will never be moved.

Paul said the OT was written so that "we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4) and to make us "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15). Psalm 15 is not excluded from that.


Ryan Harrison said...

Such good exegesis, here. Thanks for the encouragement to be patient and wrestle with the text!

aaron said...


That was, at once, helpful homiletically and hermeneutically. . .but also deeply, deeply personally edifying. That was a blessing!

Might I humbly ask that you do a blog series in this regard? Not so us fellow pastors can get lazy, but so this process that you outline can "get into us" a bit more. Thanks brother.


Mason said...

I have to agree with Aaron. That was one of the most helpful things I've read on what to do with text like that. When illustrating how to preach Christ-centered messages from the OT, I find folks pick the easy ones (e.g. Isaiah 53!).

1. Are there any additional resources you can point us two that model this?
2. Would you consider a series like this?

So edifying, brother. Thanks a ton.


Mason said...

**too (not two!)

I feel awful making a mistake like that on an editor's blog :-)

Mason said...

And I did it again...okay, I'm done!

Derek Rishmawy said...

This fits in perfectly with the section of Beale's NT theology concerned with the Temple. Great exegesis and non-strained Gospel preaching.

nancyguthrie said...

So rich and beautiful! Thank you for this blessing!

Marc said...

Maybe you can also point to Revelation 21:3 which states that the tent of God shall be with men, and he will dwell with them.
If man is unable to climb up the holy hill, surely the Lord shall come down.

Dane Ortlund said...

Mason and Aaron, thanks for the kind comments. Are there any particular texts you'd suggest I tackle? I think I may go to another text or two and try this again---another hard text etc.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. It fed my soul today. As for your last question, Dane: Psalm 82 comes to mind.