Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
A psalm of David.
1 Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live on your holy hill?
2 The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
3 whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor,
and casts no slur on others;
4 who despises a vile person
but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
5 who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
will never be shaken.
OK, so this is a little unusual. We hardly ever base our Reflections on the psalms, for a couple of reasons.
First of all, it seems to me that we need to be a little careful with how the psalms are used. The Book of the Psalms is a kind of combination prayer book and hymnal of the ancient Hebrew people. There are psalms that express just about everything we might go through, spiritually and emotionally – joy, sorrow, frustration, indignation, longing, and of course, worship. So spending time with the psalms is an important part of the life of faith.
But like every hymnal, it includes some expressions of religious imagination that are not necessarily theologically accurate as guides to what we are to believe and how we are to practice our faith. Some psalms no doubt express what the ancient Hebrew people thought and felt, but not what we are meant to think and believe today.
For instance, a number of the psalms express the idea that if you are a good and righteous person, you will be materially prosperous – that you’ll be rich in the things of the world. And some advocates of the so-called “prosperity gospel” point to these psalms to support their belief that God wants you to be rich. But Jesus taught us that the poor are especially blessed. And he would certainly not approve of his followers looking down on the poor as somehow less deserving than the rich.
And some psalms express great hatred of the enemies of ancient Israel. Psalm 137 even expresses satisfaction at killing the children of their enemies. Surely not something Jesus would ever approve.
Psalm 82 expresses the belief that there are other Gods. Not in keeping with everything else we’re taught.
Some Christians point to Psalm 33, which says, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,” and use that to advocate things like prayer in public schools. But they seldom point to the second half of that sentence, which says, “and the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance.” Since this is clearly a blessing on the people of Israel, using it to advocate for other causes is sort of biblically irresponsible.
Now, my point in saying these things isn’t to discourage anyone from reading the psalms. Or for using them to enrich their prayer and devotional life. It’s just to advise people to be careful and thoughtful about how they use the psalms – especially about using them to support our views on hot-button issues.
Having said that, the psalms can be very fruitful sources for genuine reflection on the life of faith, and on how God calls on his people to live out our faith. And Psalm 15 – our reading for today – is a great example.
This psalm sketches out the way of humble faith that marks the life of people who are genuinely shaped by their relationship with God. In fact, when you compare this psalm to Paul’s list of the ‘fruits of the Spirit,’ there’s a real sense of consistency between the two. A person of true faith is one who speaks the truth and avoids slander and gossip. One who refuses to join in the crimes of evildoers. One who freely helps the needy, even when it’s sure to mean making a sacrifice on their behalf.
I can’t see anything about this psalm that contradicts the teachings of Jesus, or of the New Testament as a whole.
But there’s one line in this psalm that particularly strikes me, and it’s probably why I decided to base today’s Reflection on it. It’s the last part of verse 4, which says that God welcomes the one who “keeps an oath even when it hurts.”
The truth is that many people seem to hold oaths very loosely in our world. People make vows of all kinds, but tend to look for excuses to break them when they’re no longer convenient. I suppose people think first of marriage vows and the prevalence of divorce, but I also think of the life of the church. In having their children baptized, people vow to raise them as disciples of Jesus, but then disappear from the life of the church. People vow to respect the decisions of officers, but then stand in the parking lot and complain about decisions they don’t agree with. Even pastors, who are supposed to set an example of the life of faith, vow to accept the discipline of the church, but then renounce that discipline if they’re accused of wrongdoing.
It seems to me that keeping oaths, or whatever we might call them – vows, promises, or commitments – ought to be one of the marks of people of faith. We serve a God who has always kept his commitments to his people – even when it was a commitment to go to the cross for us. So if we’re going to live godly lives, it seems one of the marks of that godliness ought to be a commitment to keep our oaths, even when it hurts.
It’s interesting how the psalms, when we use them thoughtfully, can inform our lives as followers of Jesus 3,000 years after they were written.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the blessing of the psalms, and for their usefulness in guiding our lives as followers of Jesus. Help us to use them prayerfully and carefully, and to listen for your voice speaking to us from within them. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalm 111; Genesis 28:10-22; Hebrews 11:13-22; and John 10:7-17.)