Psalm XV: Who’s a good boy (or girl)?
When I was a kid, I wanted a dog. I read all the great works of literature from the nineteenth century about a boy and his dog and decided that my walks in the wood were incomplete without a dog. The problem with having a dog was two-fold: my mother had allergies to cats and dogs at the time and my father wasn’t interested in having another animal in the house, he already had two kids. That said, we tried for a while to be pet owners. Tried, but ultimately did not fare so well.
We tried birds. My parents bought a couple of parakeets early in their marriage and things seemed to be okay for a while: until they went out of town and the weather changed. My parents left on a Friday to visit family and it was early fall. They came back and it was early winter. Even in Georgia, that means freezing temperatures in the early morning and without the heater turned on for them, the birds froze to death. The second set of parakeets died when they were placed outside to get some air…above a gas grill…My father came out to start the grill, turned the gas on, and heard the telephone so he went inside. He forgot to turn the gas off and when he came out, well let’s just say he cooked more than the hamburgers.
We also tried fish…several times. Some of the fish we got were substandard as fish go and died of fin rot and various other fishy diseases in a brief time. Once, we had been doing pretty well with the fish and had gotten into the habit checking all the tiny details needed to take care of them. It didn’t help. We set the thermometer on the tank one Friday when we were leaving for the weekend and while were gone the heater decided to stick itself in the ‘permanently on in thermonuclear’ temperature setting. We knew something was wrong when we got home and the tank was giving off heat from a foot away and the fish were swimming sideways and upside down.
Birds fly away (when you don’t barbeque them) and you can’t walk a fish. So, finally, we managed, or my mother managed, to get a dog when I was in high school. My mother was given the dog by a friend at work and named it Princess. No one in the family called it anything but Puppy. Miraculously, the dog lived for thirteen years, making it without a doubt, the longest surviving pet in our household. We still committed a few ‘no no’s’ when it came to taking care of the dog. Puppy ate table scraps, M&Ms, chocolate, and any number of other digestive canine nightmares. I teased her mercilessly. I mean, she wasn’t even a real dog, it was a cockapoo. I held pillows over her head and she would snarl at me and snap at the pillows. I would throw things into the hallway knowing that she would run after it and slide on the hardwood into the closed door at the end of the hall. I never actually hurt the dog, no need to call the SPCA or Humane Society. No dogs were harmed in the last few years of my childhood.
One thing about Puppy, however, if you called her, she came to you. I could be holding a pillow over her snarling maw as she tried to chew a hole through the cloth and if I put the pillow away and walked to the door, she followed. Puppy was as much family, more so sometimes than anyone else. And like all dogs, she displayed a loyalty to us, no matter what. This faithfulness was a quality that our dog shared with most other members of her species, a reason that many have given dogs the generic name Fido, from the Latin fidelis or faithful.
A Practice of Presence
I think this idea of what it means for a dog to be a good girl or boy has some similarity to the ideas of what it means to be a good and faithful in Psalm XV. Just as a “good dog” has certain qualities that make it a “good dog”, the Psalmist sees certain qualities that we should have in order to remain in the presence of God. Now, this is not to say the list here is completely qualitative or absolute. The Psalmist is making a greater point beyond the list as we will see.
I believe James Luther May gets to the heart of this Psalm with these questions: “What is at issue when we come into the presence of the Lord? Who are we, and what should we be, as we come?”[i] These are questions of worship, in the Psalm with reference to sanctuary worship, but I also believe it can a prescription for worship beyond the doors of the gathering house especially if we look at this Psalm in light of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and the Sermon on the Mount.
Psalm XV is, of course, intended as liturgy, a song to be used in the formal worship of the Jewish people and by extension, we continue in the tradition as Followers of Jesus. Patrick Miller speaks of the original use of Psalms in worship saying,
“Psalm xv is a “torah” liturgy which sets forth the conditions for entry into the sanctuary for worship…Whatever the precise cultic occasion or liturgical acts involved, the intention of the psalm is clear. It declares the necessity for purity of life and righteous conduct as a prerequisite for appearing before the holy God (cf. Is. xxxiii 14) in his sanctuary and elaborates the character of such conduct in the body of the psalm. The inextricable link between worship and ethics which runs throughout the Old Testament is the underlying assumption of the whole Psalm.”[ii]
Catholic and mainline churches make use of the Psalter, a section in our hymnal that uses call and response verses that are both sung and spoken. As Miller notes, there is a sense in which the church learns a theology and an ethic in the music when Psalms are used as liturgy.
Each has its own message to teach and Psalm XV is no exception. I think a key to understanding this Psalm lies in the intent found in verses one and two: “Who can live in your tent, Lord? Who can dwell on your holy mountain?” I think it is possible to see these two places as, for the Jewish people reading this at the time, references to places where God has revealed himself or been present with them: The Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The idea behind this usage is that of asking “What kind of person abides in the presence of God?” Presence is the key to understanding this as the idea of shalom or well-being is tied to the idea of God’s presence. When God we feel or experience God’s presence, what we are experiencing is this shalom. The obverse is also a reality, when we do not feel or experience the presence of God, we cannot truly know well-being, making this the central idea behind the Psalm.
Being a good boy/girl
When we think of being good, we think of lists of rules that must be obeyed with absolute certainty and unwavering loyalty. For many, the idea of good is a matter of following the prescribed law without fail in order to please or appease God. If we do all the right things, say all the right things, then everything will be fine. In this and many other Psalms, and for that matter throughout the Old Testament, the law is something punitive, a type of punishment to be meted out for certain infractions. “Do this” or “Don’t do this” and positive or negative things will happen depending on the circumstances.
Much of this Psalm is written in that way. The Psalmist asks the question about who is able to be in the presence of God and then answers with a series of prescribed rules:
“The person who lives free of blame, does what is right, and speaks the truth sincerely; who does no damage with their talk, does no harm to a friend, doesn’t insult a neighbor; someone who despises those who act wickedly, but who honors those who honor the Lord; someone who keeps their promise even when it hurts; someone who doesn’t lend money with interest, who won’t accept a bribe against any innocent person.” – Psalm XV.ii-v
In short, you can be in the presence of God is you speak well and treat others fairly, especially with the way you talk and the way you deal with finances. Such things were terribly important in small, agrarian communities where gossip and slander could destroy a person or family’s standing in the community[iii]. Ultimately, the Psalm is calling for us to have respect for God’s worship and respect for the worshipping community, a means of being at peace with God (by obeying the Law as holy expectation) and peace with their neighbor (by obeying the law as moral/civil code).[iv]
The Apostle Paul, however, has a different idea. For the first half of his letter to the Roman church, Paul talks endlessly of the law: how the Jews knew it and didn’t do it (Romans II), how Gentiles can be righteous by doing it even if they don’t know they are doing it (Romans II.xxvi ff), and how those of us who are in Jesus or living in the ways and being of Jesus are no longer accountable to the Law as it was understood but are bound to the interpretation of the law understood by Jesus (Romans VII.iv, VIII). In other words, Paul saw the Law of Moses as training wheels on a bicycle. Use it until you learn the way of living and being in Jesus.
So, what do we do with the Law once we ‘take the training wheels off’? How do we understand good and bad once we move away from the lists of laws? As disciples, we are seeking to be imitators of Jesus, those who understand as he understands, think as he thinks, and live as he lived. The magnum opus or great masterpiece of Jesus-like thinking is found in Matthew V-VII, The Sermon on the Mount. In this relatively short treatise recorded some two generations after Jesus death, we find a collection of the great teachings of the great master. In this, we find a way of living and being that calls us away from the Law as a simple moral code of do’s and don’ts to a higher relational law.
The Sermon on the Mount is a call to a new way of life beyond the legalistic, control based understanding of the Law as was practiced by the Pharisees of Jesus day and the expressions of empty worship that Jesus condemned in the Sadducees of his day. Consider Jesus words in the Beatitudes, a calling to a life of peace within ourselves that leads to a life of peace with God and neighbor. A call follows this to be salt and light with a reinterpretation of the previous understanding of Law. That reinterpretation sees the previous perspective to be lacking, as it never gets to the root of why the Law exists: to learn to have a change of heart and being. Consider the reinterpretations of Jesus as he says, “you have heard” (the former understanding of the Law) and “but I say to you” (a deeper, change oriented understanding of the Law:
- You have heard it said, don’t commit murder…I say, don’t hate.
- You have heard it said, don’t commit adultery…I say, don’t have a lustful heart.
- You have heard it said, don’t make solemn pledges…I say, don’t swear at all.
- You have heard it said, an eye for an eye…I say, if people slap your right cheek offer the left as well.
- You have heard it said, you must love your neighbor…I say, love your enemies.
On and on through the sermon, Jesus reiterates that the heart attitude is so much more important than just following the rules. We are called to live beyond the rules to their heart which is ultimately a change in being for the purpose of changing the worlds around us. When we live into this way of life, the Kingdom of Heaven becomes not a place in the by and by but place of the here and now, where it is experienced by all and salvation or wholeness of well-being, comes to every heart.
So, let us be good boys, good girls, but let us know that it goes far beyond the action to attitude, far beyond the hand to the heart.
Barré, Lloyd M. “Recovering the literary structure of Psalm 15.” Vetus testamentum 34, no. 2 (April 1984): 207-211.
Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. The Interpreter’s Bible: Psalms and Proverbs. Vol. 4. 12 vols. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1955.
Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Miller, Glen T. “Psalm 15.” Interpretation 65, no. 2 (April 2011): 186-188.
Miller, Patrick D. “Poetic ambiguity and balance in Psalm 15.” Vetus testamentum 29, no. 4 (Oct 1979): 416-424.
Weiser, Artur. The Psalms. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.
[i] (Mays 1994, p. 83)
[ii] (P. D. Miller 1979, p. 416)
[iii] (G. T. Miller 2011, p. 186)
[iv] (G. T. Miller 2011, p. 187)