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Who May Abide in God?

By Dennis Pollock

In this study we will look at a classic Bible passage, in this case a psalm. The 15th Psalm has always arrested my attention since my earliest days of reading the Bible. To me, it stands out as being very special among the psalms. I have always been fascinated by its opening line:

LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle?
Who may dwell in Your holy hill? (Psalm 15:1)

The intriguing question is asked, and then in the short remaining four verses the question is thoroughly answered. A word picture is beautifully painted about the kind of person God accepts and approves. This is the one who will abide in God’s holy hill, who is granted the amazing privilege of living with and in God.

There is a problem for many evangelicals with this psalm, however. The problem is that the answer that is given is entirely based upon behavior. Most of us would prefer and expect that it would be based upon faith in Jesus. Who will dwell with God – the one who believes and trusts in the Lord Jesus. And since not only is Jesus not mentioned, but faith itself is given no emphasis, many tend to think of this as an Old Testament declaration which has no relevance or application to Christians today. In other words, when you see this works-based passage, simply swipe and move on to something more relevant and faith-based.

Still Relevant

But such is a sad response, because this type of declaration is one of many such passages and promises, in both the Old and New Testaments, which emphasize the type of lifestyle required for those who desire to live in the presence of God. In truth it is neither necessary nor profitable for us to ignore and despise such promises and admonitions. It is important, however, that we view it with New Testament eyes. Let’s take a look at what the psalm has to say and consider how Christians today may benefit from heeding its words.

First let us note that this question and the answer given are all about position. The question is not about who can impress God. After all, everything we are able to do or attain that is good is only made possible through the grace of God. The two key words in the first verse are “abide” and “dwell.” “Who may abide in Your tabernacle; who may dwell in Your holy hill?’ To abide and to dwell are essentially two different words expressing the same thought. We are asked essentially what type of person will be granted the privilege of an extended stay with God. Not a visit, not a temporary emotional experience, but a constant, never-ending, continual, happy life of making God our home, becoming “permanent residents” of the Almighty. What kind of person, man or woman, could ever hope to experience this? Is it the esoteric individual who lives on a mountain in solitude, chanting and praying all day long, without the distractions of a spouse, or children, or a job, or disagreeable neighbors? It turns out this dwelling in God’s “holy hill” has nothing to do with such a life. It has everything to do with practical, everyday morality.

In the next verse we are given a hint of the type of person the Holy Spirit has in mind. We read:

He who walks uprightly,
And works righteousness…

Here again we have two statements which mean virtually the same thing. To “walk uprightly” and to “work righteousness” refer to behavior: highly moral, honest, decent, honorable, virtuous behavior. To some this verse alone makes this psalm irrelevant, except as a reminder that none of us really qualify.

Good, Decent, and Blameless

Ultimately this is true. Who among us is perfectly upright, completely honest, and entirely virtuous? As Paul has written, “There is none good, no not one.” But there is another sense in which some men and women are decent, virtuous, or even good. Noah was called a “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9). Barnabas was declared “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). Simeon was called “just and devout,” (Luke 2:25) and Cornelius was called “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household” (Acts 10:2). Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth were said to be “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6).

How can this be justified with the idea that “there is none righteous” and “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God?” There is ultimate righteousness, which no one but Jesus Christ has ever possessed, and there is relative righteousness or goodness which is accounted to men and women of faith who lead exemplary lives. No, they are not ultimately perfect by any means, but they are decent, honorable, and virtuous in the more general sense. And the Bible is filled with such men and women.

Such a life is indeed possible but it is not possible apart from faith in God. So the man or woman being described in Psalm 15 is surely a man or woman of faith, but we cannot simply write this off as unattainable, and consider this passage and promise entirely irrelevant to us. In this psalm we have a succinct description of the kind of person who can live in the presence of God. They walk uprightly and work righteousness. He or she is a highly moral, thoroughly honest, and absolutely decent individual.

Watch Your Tongue

With this in mind, let us move on to the next thing said about such a person:

…who does not slander with his tongue
and does no evil to his neighbor,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend… (Psalm 15:3).

These are things the godly person does not do, and two of them relate to the tongue. He does not slander his neighbor. He refuses to engage in speaking evil and saying ugly, untrue things about the people around him. We are reminded of the virtuous woman spoken of in Proverbs 31, of whom it is said that “on her tongue is the law of kindness” (Proverbs 31:26). The Bible makes it clear that godly people are not highly critical people, constantly raging against, mocking, ridiculing, accusing, condemning and criticizing everyone who comes under their radar.

Paul writes that love “is not (easily) provoked,” but some people who know little about love are constantly provoked – continually and continuously provoked, annoyed, and irritated by the wrongs of others, both real and imaginary, and their mouths go on and on spouting hateful, angry words against many. Such folks are not candidates to abide in God’s tabernacle or dwell in His holy hill. Neighbors and friends are mentioned here specifically. Typically, we save our greatest vitriol for our neighbors and friends, and sadly spouses. After all, strangers aren’t a threat and we simply don’t know casual acquaintances well enough to be much irritated with them. But friends, co-workers, and spouses, now that is a different story! And so the Lord tells us that if we ever hope to live in His presence we cannot, we must not, we dare not slander with our tongue or reproach our neighbor.

Despising the Vile

In the next verse we find what I consider to be the biggest surprise found in this psalm. We read this about the person who is allowed to dwell with God:

In whose eyes a vile person is despised,
But he honors those who fear the LORD…

With all the Bible’s emphasis upon loving people, even our enemies, we would not expect to find that we would ever be encouraged to despise anyone. And yet here it is, plainly stated: godly people are expected to despise vile people. This surely cannot mean that we are supposed to wish harm upon vile wicked people, and must, therefore, refer to our attitude toward their behavior.

Is it possible to love someone, to care for their well-being and desire their ultimate good, and yet at the same time be repulsed by their miserable, ungodly lifestyle? Not only is this possible; it should be the norm for the people of God. Sometimes Christians can be way too easily impressed. We see celebrities who look beautiful, sound articulate, and dress elegantly, and find ourselves admiring them, despite their anti-Christian attitudes, their immoral views, their sexually provocative manner of dress, the blatantly immoral lyrics of the songs they sing, and the entirely unbiblical stances they hold on the moral issues of the day. Rather than despising the “vileness” of their attitudes, behavior, and lifestyle, we naively look upon them as the elite of society. But the person who lives in God’s holy hill knows moral ugliness and depravity when he sees it, and his response to the beautiful veneer that covers these folks is a shudder and a feeling of gratitude that he has been spared such a life of pride and deception.

Who do we respect? Who do we honor? The psalmist says that the one who abides in God’s tabernacle honors those “who fear the LORD.” Those who pray, those who have a tender heart toward God, those who read the Scriptures and live conservatively with purity of heart and body… these are the ones who impress us, whom we desire to imitate, and who gain our utmost respect. You can tell a lot about a person by learning who their heroes are. People who admire the ungodly are spiritually deficient; they are missing something important in their discernment. We should love the ungodly, we should show kindness toward them and demonstrate the compassion of Christ both in our actions and in our words as we interact with them. But admire them – not hardly!

Truth-Teller

The psalm gives three more declarations about the behavior of the man or woman who abides in God’s holy hill. First, “He swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In other words, this person will tell the truth even if it costs him something. One of the main reasons people lie is that they figure if they tell the truth there will be negative consequences. They may look bad in the eyes of someone they admire, or they may have to make restitution for some past action, or they might even have to pay a fine, lose a relationship, lose their job, or any number of negative things. And so they lie.

Next the psalmist writes that an abider in God will not put out his money at usury (interest). Under the law of Moses God had strictly forbidden the Jews to lend money to each other at interest. All Jews were considered brothers and sisters, the family of God, and it was simply wrong to take advantage of a brother or sister who was in a desperate situation and needed a loan.

And finally, we are told that the one who dwells with God does not take up a bribe against the innocent. For godly people, bribery, especially receiving a bribe to take an action which will hurt innocent people, is unthinkable.

Good Fruit

Having concluded his description of the one who is allowed the privilege of living in God’s holy hill, the psalmist declares: “He who does these things shall never be moved” (Psalm 15:5). It is interesting that this entire psalm deals with our behavior toward others. Nothing is said about prayer or fasting or faith or love for God. The psalmist assumes there is a measure of faith, but he hammers home the theme again and again that this faith must produce a life of godly behavior and a high level of morality.

Looking at this from a Christian perspective, we could say that these things should be and must be the outworking of our faith in Christ. Paul writes that we should be “filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11). It is faith in Jesus that saves; it is faith that provides us entrance into God’s family and enables us to truly dwell in God’s tabernacle, to live in His presence. But faith never appears on its own. Hard on the heels of faith are the “fruits of righteousness,” the strict morality and honorable lifestyle so beautifully described in Psalm 15. As we look to Jesus, as we abide in Him, as we make Jesus Christ the center of our lives, we will speak the truth, we will not backbite, we will walk uprightly, and live the life described by the psalmist. But we will also pray and read Scripture and constantly depend upon, trust in, and focus upon the Lord Jesus. For it is He who will produce in us these fruits of righteousness and work in us to will and to do for God’s good pleasure.

 

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