Who may be considered a friend of God? The question is one of the most important that can be posed in this life. The answer requires development, but an accurate summary requires us to remember that a man is a friend of God only when he is a friend of God’s character and attributes. The one who dwells on the holy hill does not dwell in a filthy hut.
“LORD, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour. In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the LORD. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not. He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved (Ps. 15:1-5).
This psalm can be divided into three sections. The first is a simple question; who can have fellowship with God? This is the question posed by the first verse. The answer is the second portion of the psalm and extends from v. 2 down through the first half of verse 5. A description of an upright life follows, stated generally first (v. 2), but the description then moves on to the particulars (vv. 3-5a). The psalm ends with a promise—the man that does right in this way shall never be moved. And so the short psalm divides naturally: question, answer, promise.
So let’s begin with the question. The psalm is a psalm of entry, and is constructed as a simple catechism question. As people of God have assembled to make a pilgrimage to the tabernacle, to camp at the holy hill, the question is presented to the Lord: who may come before You?The verbs in the first verse imply camping, or sojourning, but the promise in the last verse shows the ultimate intent. The point is not to dwell with God temporarily, or intermittently. “Lord, who may live where You live? Who may dwell where You do?” In other words, in this fallen world, what characterizes true religion?
There is a general answer. The second verse points to the man that “walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.” The word uprightly here does not refer to sinless perfection, but rather to rectitude, balance, consistency. The upright man is also one who does righteousness. But we have to take care in understanding this. In the Old Testament, righteousness is not to be understood as a static thing, but rather as a fulfillment of a demand of covenant relationship. When a man does righteousness, he is not checking things off a spiritual checklist, but is rather being loyal to someone. He does righteousness, not because he is being righteous, but because he is being loyal. Righteousness does not have levels you can check with a dipstick. Such a man speaks the truth in his heart. He is honest all the way down.
Then we come to some particulars. When we are speaking about general descriptions of loyalty, honesty, and righteousness, it is relatively easy for anyone to claim that they fit the description. But if we may reapply a common saying, the devil is in the details.
First, the upright do not backbite— The righteous man is not like the covenantally unfaithful man, the disloyal one. Such a man does more biting with his tongue than with his teeth. But the upright “backbiteth not with his tongue” (v. 3).
Second, the upright keep peace in the neighborhood— The godly know how to live at peace with their neighbors; “nor doeth evil to his neighbour” (v. 3). Sandwiched as it is between two sins of the tongue, this refers to verbal sin also. In other words, the primary reference is not setting fire to your neighbor’s garage roof, but rather setting fire to his reputation. A good name is a treasure, more valuable than great riches (Prov. 22:1), and to take this away from him is therefore the greatest of robberies.
Third, the upright hear no evil— Although it is grievous to backbite, it is just as bad to listen to it. The upright do not “take up a reproach” (v. 3). Not to have started the slander is no defense at all. Paul teaches us that failure to reprove sin in your presence is the same as fellowshipping with it (Eph. 5:11). The north wind drives away rain. Let your angry countenance drive away the backbiting tongue (Prov. 25:23).
Fourth, the upright despise a snake— A vile person is condemned by the upright (v. 4). Our modern distaste for verses like this show that our great concern is for politeness rather than righteousness. Universal politeness is the child of relativism; righteousness knows who the bad guys are . . . and despises them. Does verse 4 contradict verse 3? Only if vile men are invisible.
Fifth, the upright honor the godly— God-fearers are not invisible either. The upright man honors those who fear the Lord (v. 4). God honors those who honor Him (1 Sam. 2:30), and God blesses those who seek out and honor those honored by Him.
Sixth, the upright keep their word— The upright man shows more regard for his promises than his own interest (v. 4). If he has made a deal that will hurt him to fulfill, he fulfills it anyway.
Seventh, the upright love the poor— Much confusion exists about the biblical prohibition of usury (v. 5). What is it? The root word conveys the idea of “biting”—and such usury is consequently prohibited within Israel. The law prohibits the charging of interest on support loans for the poor. This is expressly mentioned in Ex. 22:25 and Leviticus 25:35-37. We see the same thing in Nehemiah 5:1-7, and the poverty is in view in Proverbs 28:8. Ezekiel also has poverty in view (Ez. 18:12-13). In short, Scripture does not prohibit business loans or investments. It prohibits charging interest on money you loaned to a brother so he could get groceries. Apply the golden rule.
Eighth, the upright have no price— As a judge, or an elder, as one in a position to make decisions concerning the lives of others, the upright man must be incorruptible, one who hates bribes (v. 5).
Here is the conclusion. The promise contained in the last verse is a fitting conclusion to our consideration of the psalm. “He that doeth these things shall never be moved” (v. 5). Think for a moment. The Rockies, Alps and Himalayas will all melt like wax in a fire, but the upright shall never be moved. Will they stand fast because of their own inherent righteousness? They know better. They will stand because they are in covenant with the One who keeps covenant perfectly, and who gives us faith so that we may cling to Him—forever.