Introduction: Charles Spurgeon refers to the opening verse of this psalm as “the great question. Asked by idle curiosity, despair, godly fear, earnest enquirer, soul troubled by falls of others, holy faith” (Treasury of David, e-Sword). Such are examples of the many motivations that lead people to ask such a question. Yet, no matter what motivates a person to ask such a question as David asks here, the answer is the same, as we shall see in our examination of the psalm. We will focus our attention on 1) a crucial question, 2) a careful answer, and 3) a comforting promise.
I. A Crucial Question: Who may experience unhindered fellowship with the Lord?
This is essentially the question set forth in the opening verse.
NKJ Psalm 15:1 A Psalm of David. LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?
As we consider these two questions briefly, we will see how they really amount to one question, as I have already suggested. In fact, there are a couple of important points to observe concerning these questions if we are going to properly understand what they are really about.
First, the combination of references to God’s “tabernacle” and His “holy hill” seems to indicate that the ark of the covenant had already been moved to the tabernacle David had built for it on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. This means that David is contemplating entering into the presence of God in worship in this psalm. He is thinking about going there to experience fellowship with the God.
Second, when David asks who may “abide” in the tabernacle or “dwell” in the holy hill, he is using terms that speak of a continued, enduring experience of fellowship with God.
So, again, these two opening questions are actually two ways of asking essentially the same question, namely “Who may experience unhindered fellowship with the Lord?” This is not, then, a question about how someone may be made right with God, about who may enter into a relationship with Him. Rather it is a question about how someone who already has a relationship with God may experience fellowship with Him more fully and consistently. It is about the kind of person of which God approves. The question thus has more to do with assurance of salvation than with attainment of salvation. Having thus understood the nature of the question, we are ready to move on to the second major point.
II. A Careful Answer: David describes the kind of person who may experience unhindered fellowship with the Lord.
David begins with a general description of the character of such a person, and then gives specific examples of how such character is displayed. So, his basic answer to the question “Who may experience unhindered fellowship with the Lord?” is that it is a person of godly character who can have such sustained fellowship with God. This is seen in the beginning of verse 15:
NKJ Psalm 15:2a He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness …
Here David is talking about the kind of person who consistently lives in a way that pleases God. He is using the common Biblical metaphor of walking to speak about the way ones lives his life. And such a person’s life will not be just talk of righteousness; it will be filled with righteous actions, what David here refers to as working righteousness.
But David does not stop with this general description. He is very careful to demonstrate that genuinely righteous character involves all of life, everything that a person says or does. This is why he goes on to list at least six specific – and representative – ways in which this godly character will show in a person’s life.
1. Godly character will show in a person’s love of the truth.
NKJ Psalm 15:2b And speaks the truth in his heart …
When David refers to a person who speaks truth in his heart, he means to indicate a person who embraces the truth in his heart and thinks about it. He doesn’t just pay lip service to the truth, but truly believes it. In other words, he loves the truth.
Now, of course, only God can really see whether or not we sincerely embrace the truth in our hearts, but then it is God’s assessment with which David is most concerned in this psalm. Still, however, when a person sincerely embraces the truth in his heart, then it will show in ways that other people can see as well. And this leads us to consider the other ways in which godly character will be seen in a person’s life.
2. Godly character will show in a person’s speech.
NKJ Psalm 15:3a He who does not backbite with his tongue …
This refers to a person who does no harm to others through gossip, which is a terrible evil indeed! Benjamin Keach offers a strong admonition about this subject in his discussion of church discipline in his excellent little book The Glory of a True Church:
If any member walks disorderly, though not guilty of scandalous sins, he or she, as soon as it is taken notice of, ought to be admonished and the church is to endeavor to be used to bring him to repentance. “For we here that there are some which walk disorderly, not working at all, but are busy-bodies.” [2 Thess. 3:11-2] Such as meddle with matters that do not concern them, it may be (instead of following their own trade and business) they go about from one member’s house to another telling or carrying tales and stories of this brother or of that brother, or sister: which perhaps may be true or perhaps false, and may be also to the reproach or scandal of some member or members; which, if so, it is backbiting. This is so notorious a crime that without repentance they shall not ascend God’s holy hill. [Ps. 15:1, 3] (pp. 37-38)
In addition, James Montgomery Boice was almost certainly correct when he said, “I think more damage has been done to the church and its work by gossip, criticism, and slander than by any other single sin. So I say, don’t do it. Bite your tongue before you criticize another Christian” (As cited by David Guzik, Commentary on Psalms, e-Sword).
But, of course, what David has in mind here is that we will never slander anyone, whether that person is another Christian or not.
3. Godly character will show in a person’s conduct toward others.
NKJ Psalm 15:3b Nor does evil to his neighbor, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend …
When David says that a righteous man does no evil to his neighbor, he means that he will avoid injuring in any way anyone with whom he has contact or dealings of any kind. In other words, he means to say that we will do no harm to anyone at all.
As for David’s assertion that a godly person will not take up a reproach against his friend, I think Albert Barnes accurately captures well the meaning and application when he writes:
The idea is that of “taking up,” or receiving as true, or readily giving credit to it. He is slow to believe evil of another. He does not grasp at it greedily as if he had pleasure in it. He does not himself originate such a reproach, nor does he readily and cheerfully credit it when it is stated by others. If he is constrained to believe it, it is only because the evidence becomes so strong that he cannot resist it, and his believing it is contrary to all the desires of is heart. (Notes on the Bible, e-Sword)
As David’s son, Solomon, would later say through the inspiration of the Spirit, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins” (Prov. 10:12).
4. Godly character will show in a person’s choice of role models.
NKJ Psalm 15:4a In whose eyes a vile person is despised, but he honors those who fear the LORD …
James Montgomery Boice hits the nail on the head when he writes in his commentary:
Who are your models? Who do you look up to? Whose actions and character do you find offensive?
This is one of the saddest things about today’s younger generation. A few years ago a government commission in Canada studied the characteristics of today’s young people, and one of the things they discovered is that youth of today have no heroes. This is hard for most older people to appreciate, for we did and do have heroes. There are people we have looked up to and have tried to be like. But the youth of today generally have no heroes, no models. Without heroes they tend to drift along.
But there is one thing worse than having no models, and that is having the wrongs ones. And I suspect that, in spite of the Canadian study, many young people are drifting in this direction now. They admire the rock singer who has an abominable lifestyle but is nevertheless rich and famous. They admire the crack dealer who prances around in fancy clothes and sports gold jewelry. And the upright people? Fathers who provide for their families? Mothers who are faithful in caring for and rearing their children? People who sacrifice for others? The young couldn’t care less about such people.
In fact, many older people do not think much of such people either. One social critic says, “We have reached a point in our day where people would rather be envied than admired.” (Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 126)
A godly person will not get caught up in our culture’s love of celebrity status, nor will he excuse away the faults and sins of noted celebrities just because he might like some of their music or movies, nor will he overlook the sins of his favorite politicians, just because he might agree with them on some things.
A godly person will always want his role models to be other godly people, men like Epaphroditus, of whom Paul wrote:
NKJ Philippians 2:25-30 “Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need; 26 since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. 27 For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I sent him the more eagerly, that when you see him again you may rejoice, and I may be less sorrowful. 29 Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem; 30 because for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life, to supply what was lacking in your service toward me.
If we want role models, it is men like this to whom we should look!
5. Godly character will show in a person’s integrity.
NKJ Psalm 15:4b He who swears to his own hurt and does not change …
If a godly person gives his word to do something, or enters into a contract, he will not go back on his commitment even if he later finds out it will do him harm, cost him dearly, or cause him loss in any way.
6. Godly character will show in a person’s use of money.
NKJ Psalm 15:5a He who does not put out his money at usury, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.
First, a godly person does not try to profit from the misfortune of others. This was typically what happened to poor people in ancient times. It was common for those who had plenty of money to loan it to desperate people – people who were just trying to survive – and to charge them exorbitant interest rates. There is no room for such greed in a godly person’s life!
Second, a godly person will not pervert justice for money. Again, bribery was common in the ancient world, but a godly person would have nothing to do with it. Even if he himself was poor, he would never accept a bribe!
Thus we have considered the crucial question asked by David in this psalm, and we have also considered at some length his careful answer to the question. We are now ready for our third and final point.
III. A Comforting Promise: Such a godly person will never lack assurance.
This is the teaching of the last line of the psalm:
NKJ Psalm 15:5b He who does these things shall never be moved.
Recalling the questions with which the psalm began, we must understand David as saying that such a person will never be moved from abiding in the LORD’s tabernacle, from dwelling on His holy hill (vs. 1). Such a person can always be confident in approaching the Lord in worship. In other words, such a person will not lack assurance in His relationship with God. In this regard the message of this psalm is not much different from what Peter later wrote to all “those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1):
NKJ 2 Peter 1:5-10 But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, 6 to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, 7 to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. 8 For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. 10 Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble.
Conclusion: In closing today’s teaching, I would like to remind you all of a critical point made by Derek Kidner his commentary on this passage. He correctly points out that “the qualities the psalm describes are those that God creates in a man, not those he finds in him” (TOTC 14a, p. 82-83).
I have no doubt at all that David would agree. Remember that in this psalm David is not dealing with the attainment of salvation. He is not dealing with how one becomes such a godly person, but is rather dealing with assurance of salvation for the one who already is such a person. As for how one actually becomes such a person, David has much to teach us elsewhere in the Psalms. Let’s take some time now to look at just a couple of examples:
NKJ Psalm 32:1-5 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. 4 For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer. 5 I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.
David clearly understood that He had been made right with God only by the grace that God had shown him. I have no doubt that, if David had lived to see the Lord Jesus and to hear of His sinless life, His atoning death, and His resurrection from the dead, he would have agreed with Paul when he said:
NKJ Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
And based on Psalm 15 we know that David would also add that those who demonstrate that they are, indeed, God’s workmanship will never lack assurance! And to this Paul and all the Apostles would voice a hearty “Amen!”
As those in the Reformed theological tradition often put it, “We are saved by grace through faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Saving faith brings righteous works along with it, and this is a great source of assurance that God is indeed at work in us for His glory and for our good.