A Portrait of Righteousness | Psalm 15
Brian Hedges | May 13, 2020
Thanks for joining us this evening; let’s bow together for a word of prayer.
Oh Lord, we come before you tonight and we recognize our need for your grace and your mercy. I pray that as we open your word that you would open our minds and our hearts and open our eyes to see wonderful things from your law. Help us to understand your holy character, help us to understand our own need for your mercy and grace, and help us to see in Christ that you have given us everything that we need. I pray that you would do this in Jesus’ name and for Jesus’ sake, Amen.
As we’ve been working through a number of psalms together over the last ten weeks or so, we’ve looked a number of different themes from the psalms. We’ve considered emotions in the psalms and how the psalms give us language for processing those emotions, bringing them before the Lord. Last week we looked at Psalm 107, which is a psalm of testimony, showing us different pictures of how God rescues us from sin and how he brings salvation.
Tonight we’re going to look at a different Psalm 15. I would invite you to turn there in your Bibles. It’s a short psalm of just five verses, and you might say that the theme of this psalm is righteousness. What I want us to do is read the psalm and then ask three questions about righteousness:
1. Why Do We Need It?
2. What Does It Look Like?
3. How Do We Get It?
Let’s read the psalm, Psalm 15, beginning in verse 1. David says,
“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.”
This is God’s word.
What is righteousness, and why do we need it? That’s the first question. Then, what does it look like; and then, how do we give it?
1. Why Do We Need It? Righteousness required
First of all, what is this righteousness, and why do we need it? You see it in verse 1, a verse that gives us a searching question. “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” This is showing us the need for the righteousness that will be described in the rest of this psalm.
The tent is a reference, no doubt, to the tabernacle. You remember that the tabernacle was the tent that was sometimes put up, then it would be taken down, and it would be moved around at the Lord’s direction in the early history of Israel. It was in the tent, in the inner sanctuary, in the holy place, that the ark of the covenant was kept. The ark was that box that was overlaid in gold; in it were the tables of the Ten Commandments and some other items. The ark was considered the throne on which the presence of God, the presence of Yahweh, would be revealed. It was the seat of Yahweh, the throne of Yahweh.
The tent was the place that housed this ark. It was the place where the sacrifices were made, it was the place where the priests did their ongoing, regular ministry. As David asks this question, “Who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” he is probably writing on the occasion when the ark of the covenant was brought to Jerusalem; the holy hill is a reference to Jerusalem. The tabernacle was constructed there, a sanctuary for the Lord, and eventually, of course, the temple would be built there as well.
David is asking this question, “Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” He’s essentially asking, “Who as the right to approach God? Who has the right to be in communion with God, to be in relationship with God, to be in fellowship with God?”
The answer of the psalm is “righteousness,” the one who is right, the one who is holy, whose life is characterized by this righteousness and blamelessness that the psalm describes. This is the person who has the right to fellowship with God, who can dwell on God’s holy hill.
Now, we know that this is the message of Scripture throughout, that God is a righteous God, he is a holy God, and he can only have fellowship with people who are right with him. Psalm 5:4 gives us kind of the negative counterpart to Psalm 15:1. Where Psalm 15 asks, “Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” Psalm 5:4 says that “evil will not dwell with him.” The reason why evil people cannot dwell with the Lord is because they don’t have righteousness, they are characterized by the opposite.
Scripture just emphasizes this again and again and again. How many times do we read in Scripture these words: “You shall be holy, for I am holy, says the Lord”?
We also just know this intuitively. We know in our hearts, we know in our consciences that there is a difference between right and wrong, and that we ourselves should live up to a standard of righteousness. Now, sometimes as we grow older our conscience gets hardened or our conscience can be misinformed. There is such a thing as false guilt. But we should never think that there’s not such a thing as true guilt. There is true guilt when we violate that which is right.
I remember very well when I was just a child how my conscience was so sensitive to right and wrong, and even if I thought a bad word or a wrong thought I would feel this compulsive need to go confess it to my parents. I didn’t fully understand the gospel, I didn’t fully understand grace; I didn’t even fully understand righteousness itself. I just intuitively knew that there are certain things that are right and certain things that are wrong, and that there was something wrong with me, so I needed to get that off my chest.
I think all of us know that in our heart of hearts, that there is right, there is wrong, there is righteousness, there is wickedness, that our conscience tells us when we have done something that is unrighteous.
If David actually did compose this psalm when he had brought the ark to Jerusalem, he would have just received a powerful object lesson in the righteousness of God. Many scholars believe this was the occasion along with the writing of Psalm 24, and that it’s when the ark had been transported from Kiriath-Jearim to Jerusalem.
As the story is given to us in Scripture in the book of 2 Samuel, the priests were bringing the ark to Jerusalem, it was something of a procession, but they had the ark on a cart pulled by oxen. This is not what God had prescribed for the transportation of the ark. The priests were actually supposed to carry it on poles; there were these loops through which poles would go in order to carry the ark. But they had it on this cart that was being carried by the oxen, and if you remember the story, the oxen stumbled and the ark began to slide off of the cart onto the ground.
There was a priest by the name of Uzzah who reached out his hand to steady the ark. He wanted to keep the ark from falling to the ground. When he did that, the Lord struck him, and he died right there. It had to have been a startling, shocking experience for David, for all the priests, for everyone who looked on, when this priest, this man who was consecrated to the service of God, just because he tried to steady the ark with his hand, was struck dead by the Lord.
Why did this happen? What was God communicating to his people in this event?
Perhaps no one has put it better than R.C. Sproul in his Lectures on the Holiness of God, as he describes this scene. He says that Uzzah had made a false assumption. He assumed that the dirt was more defiled than his own hand. Sproul went on to say that the dirt just did what dirt was supposed to do. It obeyed the laws of creation, it obeyed the laws of its Maker. Dirt was dry when it was dry and when water fell on it, rain fell on it, the dirt turned to mud. It was just doing what dirt does.
But Uzzah, as well as all human beings, was guilty of sin and guilty of rebellion. We’re not righteous, and because of Uzzah’s unrighteousness, because of his presumption to reach out his hand to touch the very place where God revealed his presence, God struck him at that moment, and it was a tangible reminder to David and to all the people of Israel that God requires holiness, he requires righteousness; that no one can just come into his presence without fear and without reverence and without obedience and without holiness.
The question then is why do we need righteousness? We need it in order to approach God. We need it in order to be in fellowship with God. It’s a searching question: “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?”
2. What Does It Look Like? Righteousness described
Verses 2-5 then gives us the answer, and the answer is essentially a description of righteousness. So, question number one is, Why do we need it?; question number two is, What does righteousness look like?
We get the answer in these verses. These verses give us a composite picture of a righteous man. It’s a representative list of qualities. It’s not exhaustive. This is not so much a detailed description of righteousness as it is a snapshot of a righteous person.
One commentary puts it like this: “The psalmist is not so much giving us rules as painting a portrait of the kind of man who can remain in God’s presence.” It begins with a general description in verse 2, and then breaks down into more specific examples.
Here’s the general description, the answer to the question. “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart.” This is the person who can dwell in the Lord’s holy hill.
What you see right there is that the verse kind of combines together three things. It combines something about our basic character, walking blamelessly and doing what is right, as well as our words, speaking truth in the heart.
John Goldingay in his commentary says that the verse “holds together walking, doing, and speaking; or integrity, faithfulness, and truthfulness.” In fact, you might translate that first phrase “walks with integrity.”
The word “blamelessness” is a word that doesn’t carry so much the idea of perfection as it carries the idea of being whole. In fact, our word “integrity” is related to the word “integer.” Do you remember from math class what an integer is? An integer is a whole number, and integrity is a person who has a whole, well-rounded character. That’s the idea of the word here.
James Boise in his commentary describes it this way. He says, “It refers to a person whose character is morally well-rounded. This person is not just strong in one area and weak in others; he strives to keep all the commandments.” It’s a description, in other words, that includes our outward conduct as well as our inward heart motives. It’s a description of the person characterized by integrity as well as faithfulness.
Then this actually reaches into our words, to our language. “He speaks truthfulness in his heart.” We might summarize it this way: the person who is righteous is righteous in his walk, he is righteous in his works, he is righteous in his words. In fact, I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this verse. He says, “Walk straight, act right, tell the truth.” That’s a description of the righteous person, generally speaking.
But then the psalmist breaks it down into more specific examples, and you get that in verses 3-5. Verse 3 says, “Who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friends.”
Right there you see that this righteousness extends to words as well as to relationships. It has to do with how we treat our neighbors, with how we treat our friends. It means that we do not misuse our words, we do not slander with our tongues. Our tongues, our words, are actually a good barometer of our inner character. You remember how Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” It’s not what goes into a person that defiles, but it’s what comes out.
I have a friend many years ago who used to say the tongue is the dipstick to the heart. In the same way as you check the oil in your car by pulling the dipstick and seeing the quality of the oil, whether the oil is clean, if there’s enough oil, and so on; in the same way, your words reveal what’s inside, your words reveal the quality of your heart.
James, in his book, James 3:2, says, “We all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body.” He just shows that the tongue is a measure of our character. Well, the psalmist is making that same application here.
But it also relates to our relationships with others, our values, and our commitments. Notice that in verse 4 he describes a person “in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord.” In other words, we value what God values. God values those who fear the Lord, he honors those who fear the Lord, but those who are vile, those who are characterized by sin and wickedness, they are condemned, and we should love what God loves, we should hate what God hates. That’s the idea here.
Then also, it says in verse 4, “...who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” This is the person who keeps his basic commitments.
It was Shakespeare who said, “His words are bonds, his oaths are oracles, his love sincere, his thoughts immaculate, his tears pure messengers sent from his heart, as far from fraud as heaven from earth.” That’s a beautiful description of the person who is righteous in his words and in his commitments.
Have you ever had the experience where someone made a promise to you and then broke the promise? Maybe you’ve gone through the painful experience of the very person that you swore to live your life loving and caring for, you made these oaths, you took these vows together, and yet your spouse broke those vows against you. You’ve experienced that. All of us have experienced to some degree in our lives broken promises. Well, that’s a characteristic of the unrighteous person.
Then notice also in verse 5 the description actually extends to how we use money and to issues of justice. Verse 5 says, “...who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent.”
Now, that’s not condemning, say, a mutual fund or investing in the stock market. The idea here is the person who is so greedy that they are exorbitant in the interest they exact in loans. Boise describes it as “greed eclipsing justice.” Taking a bribe against the innocent would be the case of a corrupt judge or an official who is willing to take a bribe in order to slant the case one way or the other, instead of actually defending the right of the innocent and the just.
You put all of that together, and it just shows us a couple of things about this righteousness. It shows us the necessity of congruence in our lives, that our walk should match our talk. There should be a consistency between our inner life and our outer life, between our actions and our motives, our words and our thoughts. There should be a congruency, there should be a wholeness, an integrity, a completeness to our lives.
As James once again puts it, “Faith without works is dead.” It’s one thing to say that we believe, but do our actions demonstrate the reality of our faith? That’s the idea here.
And this psalm shows us the holistic nature of righteousness. It includes individual, personal integrity; it includes faithfulness in relationships; but it also includes justice in our engagement with others in the world. All of this is part of the righteousness that is described in this passage, the righteousness that God requires, the righteousness that is necessary for fellowship with God.
Now, here’s the problem. The problem is that when we scrutinize ourselves by this standard, everyone comes up short. We all recognize, if we’re honest with ourselves, that we are not perfectly righteous, that these character descriptions have not always been true of us, and perhaps are not true of us.
That means that we are not able to ascend the hill of the Lord. It means that we are not able to dwell with the Lord, that we are precluded from the fellowship of God. That raises the third question, how do we get this righteousness?
3. How Do We Get It? Righteousness provided
The answer is found in the gospel. We get this righteousness through a substitute who is righteous on our behalf, and that’s Jesus Christ, and we get this righteousness through the Spirit of God, who comes and begins to change us and transform us and to make us righteous.
Think for just a moment about the character of Christ. Everything that this psalm describes in terms of righteousness was true of Jesus. Jesus was individually, personally righteous. Hebrews 7:26 says, “It was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separate from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” Jesus was righteous in every sense of the word. Jesus was faithful in all of his relationships. He always kept his word, he always kept his promises. There was never a time in Jesus’ life when he veered off of the straight, narrow path of righteousness. He was just, he was pure, his hands were clean, there was no deceit in his mouth. In every sense of the word, Jesus Christ was fully righteous, holy before the Lord and righteous in his relationships with others.
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus, in his righteousness, provided something for us. His record counts as ours. Listen to just a couple of passages.
Romans 10:4 tells us that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” 1 Corinthians 1:30, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Or 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
These passages and many more are telling us that Jesus lived the life we should have lived, he died the death we should have died; that God treated him as if he had committed our sins so that he could treat us as if we had lived the perfect and obedient, righteous life of Jesus Christ. That means that righteousness is not only needed for our relationship with God, righteousness is not only described in this comprehensive way, but righteousness is also provided for us by God himself through Christ, through the gospel.
Perhaps one of the best illustrations of this is from John Bunyan in his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Bunyan just describes how he experienced this intense struggle with guilt. It would be hard, I think, to exaggerate how intense the feelings were, the feelings of guilt that he experienced. It wasn’t just nagging uneasiness (we all know that), but it was a debilitating, crippling sense of unworthiness and of guilt and of unrighteousness. He actually thought that he had blasphemed the Holy Spirit, that he had committed the unpardonable sin, that it was impossible for him to be forgiven.
Then he experienced something that absolutely changed his life. I’m going to read a passage from Grace Abounding; listen to what he said. He said, “One day, as I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest yet all was not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul: ‘Thy righteousness is in heaven,’ and methought withal I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand, there, I say, as my righteousness, so that wherever I was or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, ‘He lacks my righteousness,’ for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
It’s a beautiful description of how the truth of the righteousness of Christ credited to us by faith, how that brought change and transformation into Bunyan’s life. It’s the same idea that we get in the words of that wonderful hymn,
“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”
God credits righteousness to us, the righteousness of Jesus Christ; he does that through faith. That’s the first answer to how we get this righteousness; we get it through faith in Christ.
But there’s more to say, because God not only credits the righteousness of Christ to us, but every single person whom he justifies he also sanctifies. He gives us Christ’s righteousness and he also fills us and indwells us and transforms us by his Spirit.
Let me read just one more passage, Romans 8:1-4. It says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin he condemned sin in the flesh…” Now get this. “...in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
Every single person for whom it can be said there is no condemnation is also a person who receives the Spirit, and the Spirit then begins this transforming work in us, so that the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us. In other words, he not only credits us with righteousness and accepts us as righteous and just in his sight (that’s justification), he also transforms us, he changes us, he begins to make us righteous, he begins to produce the very character of Psalm 15 that we have described tonight.
He produces that in our hearts so that we become people of wholeness, we become people of integrity, we become people characterized by righteousness in our words and in our relationships and in how we use money. We become people who are characterized by faithfulness in our lives. That’s the work of God’s Spirit in changing us and beginning to make us righteous.
Here’s the bottom line, brothers and sisters. You and I need righteousness. God requires it of us, and there will be no relationship with God as long as the verdict on our lives is “guilty.” We need righteousness. We are not righteous in and of ourselves. When we look at ourselves, we see sin, we see evil, we see wickedness, we see unrighteousness; but God has provided a way. He has provided righteousness for us through the death and the resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, and he begins to change us and to make us righteous as he sends us the Spirit and begins working in our lives.
The question for us tonight is, has that begun to happen in our lives? If not, look to Jesus; he will make you righteous, he will accept you as righteous in his sight, he will then begin to transform you and turn you into a righteous person. Let’s pray together.
Lord, as we’ve considered this psalm tonight, it’s a heart-searching psalm. It’s a portion of your word that examines us, that searches us, and exposes us. None of us can really look at ourselves in the mirror of your word without seeing our faults and our flaws and our sins. Too often we are like Uzzah, where we presume that our hands are pure and that our hearts are clean and that we have a right to come before you, when the truth is that we don’t, in and of ourselves.
Our prayer is that you would help us to find refuge in Christ, and we thank you for the gospel, that assures us that there is a way to have peace with God through the righteousness that Jesus Christ has provided for us, and that there is a way for us to be changed and to begin to exhibit the traits of righteousness in our lives through the power of your Spirit. So we pray for that; we pray for that in our hearts, in our lives, in our church, in our families.
Father, I pray that if anyone tonight has been convicted, maybe for the first time, in a deep, heart-piercing way, convicted of sin and the need for righteousness, I pray that right now they would look to you, that they would look to your grace, and that they would find in Jesus all that they need. So, Lord, work in us and among us; we pray that you would do it for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.