Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 15

Psalm 15

This is one of the shortest and simplest Psalms of the collection, similar in tone and scope to the introductory Psalm 1. It shares the same basic Wisdom orientation, except that, instead of a contrast between the righteous and the wicked, here in Ps 15 is only a description of the righteous, even as the prior Ps 14 describes the wicked (cf. the previous study). There is no information provided in the superscription other than identifying the Psalm as another composition “belonging to David”.

The meter of Psalm alternates between three-beat (3+3) and two-beat (2+2) couplets. We may view verses 1-2a as a strophe with a 3+3 bicolon followed by a 2+2 bicolon; this same pattern is followed for the strophes in verses 4 and 5. In between, in vv. 2b-3, is a pair of 3+3 bicola instead.

Verses 1-2a

“YHWH, who will reside (there) in your tent?
Who will set up dwelling on the hill of your holiness?
The (one) walking complete
and doing what is just.”

The first couplet asks the question, the second gives the answer. The question, addressed to YHWH, frames righteousness in terms of dwelling in God’s presence. The two lines form a precise parallel with the verbs rWG and /k^v*. The first refers to a foreigner (rG@) who comes to reside in a particular place; the second is the common verb used for setting up a dwelling (i.e. tent) and so putting down (more permanent) roots in a location. Similarly, there is a parallel between the tent (lh#a)) of God and the mountain (rh^) or hill on which He dwells. In ancient Canaanite thought, the abode of the Creator God (la@, “the Mighty [One]”) was envisioned as both a mountain and tent, sharing a similar shape; indeed, in Canaanite poetry the two images are paired together in a traditional formula (e.g., Baal Epic II.i.5; III.v.7-8; IV.iv.23-24; VI.i.34-36), much as we see here. Wisdom literature often utilizes the idea of the afterlife judgment scene, whereby the righteous, having passed through the judgment, are allowed to enter into the blessed heavenly domain of the gods. Psalm 1, with its beatitude format, certainly makes use of this image, and there is likely an allusion to it here in verse 1 of Psalm 15 as well. It is the holiness (vdq) of the Divine abode which makes it proper to wonder how a human being is able to dwell there in God’s presence.

The answer provided in the second couplet is direct and concise, again with a synonymous parallelism. Two verbs are set in tandem, participles which describe the character of the person who is able to dwell with God. The first of these, El^h* (“walk”) is frequently used in Wisdom literature to refer to a person’s way of life, and similarly occurs in the first verse of Psalm 1, only there with the negative to show how the righteous person should not walk. It is a common enough motif, which later Jews and Christians often made use of in their ethical instruction; it appears a number of times, for example, in Paul’s letters (Rom 6:4; 8:4; Gal 5:16, 25; 1 Thess 2:12; Phil 3:17; Col 1:10; Eph 4:1, etc). The noun qd#x#, along with the related adjective qyD!x*, is a basic term in the Psalms; typically the noun is translated “justice”, but here I render it in the more general sense of “what is just/right”.

Verses 2b-3

“And (one) speaking truth with his heart—
he does not go about on foot upon his tongue,
he does not do evil to his companion,
and does not raise blame upon his close (friend).”

It would be entirely valid to read the first line together with the prior couplet in v. 2a (above); however, the rhythm of the poem is better served if it is viewed as the start of a second strophe that builds upon the first. Indeed, it develops the idea of the person who is able to dwell with God. Clearly “speaking truth” is parallel with “walking complete” and “doing what is just”, but it opens up a more specific description of the righteous person’s conduct. The first couplet has a synthetic (and partly antithetic) parallel matching “his heart” with “his tongue”, since a person can “speak” with both. Here “speaking truth” is contrasted with the verb lg`r*, which literally means “go on foot”, but is frequently used in the negative sense of “spying on” someone, and even more harshly in the sense of going about speaking ill of a person (i.e. slandering them). The latter connotation is meant here, since the wicked behavior is described as going about “upon the tongue”, i.e. using the tongue to speak.

The second couplet has a more straightforward synonymous parallelism, with the expressions “do evil” (hu*r* hc*u*) and “lift/raise blame” (hP*r=j# ac*n`) and also the pairing of “companion” and “close (friend)”. There is a bit of wordplay involved between “evil” (ur*) and “companion” (u^r@), creating a kind of irony which heightens the sense of the behavior as improper.

Verse 4

“(One) rejected (by God) is of little (worth) in his eyes,
but he values (greatly) the (one)s fearing YHWH;
he binds himself seven-fold (not) to cause evil,
and he will n(ever) change (from this).”

This verse returns to the strophe-pattern of verse 1-2a (to be repeated in v. 5), continuing the description of the righteous person. Translations tend to obscure the imagery of the first couplet; it uses antithetic language to create a synonymous parallelism. The passive verbal substantive “rejected (by God)” (sa*m=n]) is contrasted with the active expression “fearers of YHWH”; similarly, the passive verb “be of little (worth)” (hz#b=n]) is contrasted with the active “value” (dB@k^y]). The latter verb could also be rendered “honor” (i.e. treat with honor), but I believe the parallelism is better served by preserving here the more basic sense of the root dbk as signifying “weight”, i.e. the value or worth of something.

I have rendered the verb ub^v* according to what would seem to be its fundamental meaning, related to the number seven; however, much of this etymology remains uncertain. Whatever the exact ancient idiom, it is clear that ub^v* has the regular meaning of “swear with an oath”. There is a magical-ritual context to this usage, connected with the number seven, but the specifics of it are largely lost for us today (cf. the underlying tradition in Gen 21:23-31). This should not detract us from the point being made here in the Psalm, that the righteous person “binds himself” (the stem is Niphal reflexive), i.e. with an oath, not to cause any evil. The phrase need not be taken literally; rather, the binding “oath” symbolizes the basic character of the righteous person—that he/she would never intend to cause evil or bring harm to another. The binding (i.e. seven-fold?) nature of this “oath” is such that the person would never change (vb. rWm) from this intention and way of life.

Verse 5

“His silver he does not give with a ‘bite’,
and a ‘gift’ he does not take over the empty (mouth)—
the (one) doing these (thing)s
will not be shaken into the distant (future).”

As in Psalm 1:1, the righteous person is described in terms of not behaving as the wicked do (cf. also here in strophe 2 [vv. 2b-3], above). The first couplet uses the idiom of economic/commercial activity to describe how one might do evil by taking advantage of a person. I have translated the idiom in line 1 quite literally—Ev#n# means “bite”, often in the technical sense of harming a person by taking excessive interest on a financial loan; in English we might also describe such unscrupulous behavior as “taking a bite” out of someone. Similarly, the word dj^v) (“gift, present”) is often used as a euphemism for a bribe. It is not entirely clear what is being described in the second line. The adjective yq!n` can have the meaning “clear/free (of guilt)”, i.e. “innocent”, in which case the phrase would mean taking a bribe to act against the innocent (in a judicial setting, etc). However, a more fundamental meaning of yq!n` would be “empty”, and it is possible that here it may connote something like an “empty mouth” (cf. Amos 4:6; Dahood, p. 85). This would fit the parallel with “bite” (Ev#n#) in the prior line; the sense might be that a ‘hungry’ person, eager to get a ‘bite’, would offer a bribe to someone on their behalf. I have tentatively followed this line of interpretation.

The final (2+2) couplet refers not only to the first bicolon, but to all of vv. 2-5a in its description of the righteous—”the one doing these things“. The closing line corresponds generally with the context of the initial question in verse 1. The expression “into the distant (future)” (<l*oul=) could also be translated in more conventional religious/theological terms as “for eternity”; and, indeed, it is likely that something of a blessed/eternal afterlife is implied, parallel with the idea of dwelling in the (heavenly) presence of God. At the same time, <l*oul= also signifies that the righteous person will remain faithful and secure all through the remainder of his/her life. The verb fom in the passive means “be shaken”; however, if we refer back to the start of the description in verse 2, with the initial verb El^h* (“walk”), it might be better rendered here as “made to slip/stumble”. This would convey a sense of the providential protection YHWH gives to those devoted to Him—He will not allow them to stumble in their righteous walk.

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