Volume 42 - Issue 1

Reflections on Handling the Old Testament as Jesus Would Have Us: Psalm 15 as a Case Study

By Dane C. Ortlund


In appreciation of the renaissance of christocentric and redemptive-historical hermeneutics and homiletics in our generation, this article selects an OT text, Psalm 15, that appears on the surface to be maximally resistant to a Christ-centered reading and preaching of Scripture. The article makes five overarching preliminary reflections in approaching a text such as Psalm 15 in a whole-Bible way, and then offers several specific observations about the text as an offering of one way to handle a text such as this. The purpose of the article is to encourage readers and preachers to handle every nook and cranny of Scripture in light of Christ, yet to do so in ways that avoid errors such as crass moralizing or strict Lutheranizing.

From every text of Scripture there is a road to Christ. . . .
I have never found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it.
– Charles Spurgeon1

A remarkable resurgence of Christocentric interpretation has emerged in recent decades, reflected in leaders, books, commentary series, conferences, and even websites.2 This is not to say that a single, monolithic Christocentric hermeneutic has emerged among evangelicals. Yet amid the diversity, certain elements appear relatively stable among the various stripes of Christocentric interpretation: a conviction about the unity and coherence of the Bible, a sensitivity to the unfolding storyline across redemptive history, a willingness to read texts in a genre-sensitive way, an impulse to resist moralistic and graceless readings,3 a belief in the validity of biblical theology,4 and above all a desire to responsibly connect every text to the Bible’s redemptive climax, Jesus Christ.

“There is a typological link between every aspect of the Old Testament and the person of Jesus Christ,” writes Graeme Goldsworthy.5 “All Scripture has a redemptive purpose,” claims Bryan Chapell; “None of the Scriptures are so limited in purpose as to give us only moral instruction or lifestyle correction.”6 “Every Old Testament text must be viewed in light of Jesus’ person and ministry,” says Craig Blomberg.7 And such assertions among contemporary evangelicals could be quickly proliferated.8 Yet it is one thing to affirm such statements in principle. It is another to take a text that does not transparently lend itself to such a hermeneutic and read it in accord with these kinds of statements. That is what this essay seeks to do, with Psalm 15 serving as the test case.

Practicioners will quibble here or there with how Christocentric interpretation is to be carried out, and different arms of the Protestant church will work out of distinct frameworks, even while equally claiming a wish to read the Bible in a Christocentric way. One immediate example of this would be the difference between Lutheran and Reformed interpretive presuppositions in how to handle the Psalms in an appropriately Christocentric way. Such diversity notwithstanding, it is worth asking how Jesus would have us interpret this psalm, doing so mindful of diverse emphases among conservative Protestantism.9

Jesus himself said that the Psalms (probably referring to all the Old Testament poetry) were “about me” (Luke 24:44). It is possible that Jesus meant “all that is said in the Psalms about me” but more likely that he meant “all that is said in the Psalms—which, taken together, testifies to me.”10 The reference to what he had been saying to his disciples over the past three years, along with the threefold reference to the entire Tanakh, points in this direction. Moreover, earlier in Luke 24 on the road with the two disciples we are told that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v. 27). These references to “all the prophets” and “all the Scriptures” seem to point in the direction of understanding Jesus to be referring to the entirety of the Old Testament and not merely select texts.11

The question, then, is: How does Psalm 15 fit in to that? If Cleopas and his companion had asked the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus: “Lord, how would you apply what you are saying to, say, the fifteenth psalm?” what might Jesus have said?12

I am querying this particular psalm because it is a good example of one that on first reading could easily appear out of step with a Christ-centered or grace-centered way of reading the Bible. Here is the whole text of the short psalm. Verse 1 asks a question—in essence, “Who measures up?” The rest of the psalm gives the answer: “The person who acts in such and such a way, that’s who.”

1 A psalm of David. O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
        Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
2 He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
        and speaks truth in his heart;
3 who does not slander with his tongue
        and does no evil to his neighbor,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
4 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;
5 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.13

At first sight this is a straightforwardly gospel-vacuous Old Testament text. Surely some texts give us the gospel while other texts, such as this, do not? Some might take this text as representative evidence that the Old Testament is “law” and the NT “gospel,” even though both law and gospel are found in both Testaments; one could even argue that the most sublime expressions of God’s love are found in the Old Testament and the most horrifying depictions of hell in the New Testament. But what about this exclusively hortatory text? It is one thing to read or preach Christ from Psalm 110 or Isaiah 53 or the many Old Testament texts explicitly quoted by the New Testament and correlated to some aspect of Christ’s person or work. Even texts about the failures of an Israelite judge or king can fairly cleanly be plugged in to a whole-Bible trajectory culminating in Christ, the successful judge and king. And so on. But what about a Psalm 15 kind of text?14

In the rest of this essay I would like to suggest some ways forward for evangelical readers in general, and teachers and preachers in particular.

1. Preliminary Reflections

There are several broader discussions today that we will not be able to engage in detail in the scope of this short essay, but it is worth mentioning them and making some indication of where the approach of this paper falls with respect to such discussions. Five matters merit brief reflection.

First and most fundamentally, it is as vital as it is easily forgotten that the fundamental task in reading the Scripture in a faithful way is to see what is there. Unhurried, word-by-word consideration of what a text actually says (and not what we expect or hope it to say) is the great prerequisite to hermeneutical fidelity and insight. This is one reason teachers and preachers of the Bible who have this trait yet without formal Bible training sometimes demonstrate greater insight than formally trained teachers and preachers who do not discipline themselves to slow down and notice what a text actually says. A century ago the great New Testament scholar Adolf Schlatter commended this in his call throughout his writings and ministry to hermeneutical Beobachtung (“observation”) and Wahrnemung (“perception”).15 Christocentric hermeneutics is a sophisticated enterprise and we all stand on the shoulders of others, but we should not talk about it as a new gnosis, a secret way to read the Bible that remains unavailable to the uninitiated. The basic key to healthy Christocentric hermeneutics, as to any particular hermeneutic, is simply to read the Bible—the whole Bible, and each part in light of that whole—and notice what you see.

Second, we recognize the wealth of literature among Old Testament scholars themselves on how to read the Old Testament. Should a text be read only in its immediate historical context? Should broader redemptive history—the unfolding storyline of the mighty acts of God in our space and time continuum to save a people to himself—be integrated into a reading of an Old Testament text? Should a text be read “once” or “twice”? That is, should we allow for a New Testament perspective on reading an Old Testament text, but only on “second reading,” after it has first been read on its own terms and in its own immediate context, as an original reader would have understood the text? From yet other hermeneutical quarters: Should a text be read “canonically”—that is, with respect to the entire finished form of Scripture, but without worrying too much about the historical process by which the canon has come down to us?16

This is a constellation of discussion points in which it would be easy to get bogged down. In any case I am not an Old Testament scholar and my competence in these discussions would be minimal anyway. My main concern is more immediately practical: how the New Testament coaches us in reading a text such as Psalm 15, and how that informs our actual reading of the Bible and teaching and preaching of it. I will simply say for the sake of clarity that the approach of this paper is that it is not only permissible but obligatory that Christians read the Old Testament in light of the whole Scripture and supremely the coming of Christ, as sanctioned and modeled by the apostles’ admittedly diverse use of the Old Testament. Jesus Christ himself is, as Motyer put it, “the master theme of the Bible.”17 I further suggest that this is best done when the immediate historical and literary contexts are paid close attention. Thus the “micro” (grammatical-historical) and the “macro” (biblical-theological) dimensions to reading an Old Testament text are not in competition but complementary and mutually inter-dependent. Both are vital to interpretive fidelity. A Christian hermeneutic is grammatical-historical-biblical-theological. It is both exegetical and sythetic, focusing on both the trees (indeed, individual twigs) and the forest. But Jesus and the apostles leave us with the inescapable conclusion that the Old Testament is to be read as part of a whole and not on its own now that we stand on this side of Christ’s coming.18 To read the Bible in this way is not allegorical, because Jesus and the apostles teach us to read the Old Testament as historically linked with the New Testament; an allegorical approach would be one that seizes on mere verbal or conceptual links that are ripped out of more meaningful organically historical linkage.19

Third, beginning to move more specifically to Psalm 15, it should be noted that this text is not quoted and probably not alluded to in the New Testament.20 This raises the question of whether and how to understand Psalm 15 in the light of the New Testament, since we have no explicit apostolic treatment of the text to emulate. This tension causes some scholars, such as Richard Longenecker, to be hesitant about seeking to employ apostolic hermeneutical strategies with Old Testament texts not explicitly addressed in the New Testament. The present essay aligns instead with scholars such Greg Beale, who argue that the apostles give us representative models for how to read the Old Testament—a diverse assortment of models, to be sure—and that the faithful reader under the guidance of the Spirit can confidently read the Old Testament mindful of Christ under this apostolic tutelage, even texts to which the New Testament does not itself explicitly refer.21 I read Psalm 15, in other words, through the guidance of the apostles extrapolated out to Old Testament passages not specifically engaged. We are coached in handling Old Testament passages that the apostles do not cite by paying close attention to how they handle those Old Testament passages that they do cite.

Fourth, the Bible is inexhaustibly rich and this essay is not meant to displace other possible ways to treat a text such as Psalm 15. Multiple valid perspectives or approaches to this text should be encouraged, of which this article is one offering.22 To speak of multiple valid perspectives on a text is not to fall into some sort of reader-response or poststructuralist hermeneutic that allows readers to find whatever they wish to see in the text in a way that is beyond critique. It is rather to acknowledge that every reader is located in time and space, with certain individual and community history, with a certain temperament, and so on. The text does not change; but the context in which it is read does change. Someone who has been converted to Christ out of a life of corrupt money-handling will find a certain force and meaning in that emphasis of Psalm 15. On the other hand, someone who has never borrowed or lent money but whose besetting sin is the use of the tongue may find that emphasis particularly meaningful. And so on.

Fifth and finally, and continuing to zero in on Psalm 15, there are two equally unhelpful ways to handle a text such as this. One extreme we could call a crass moralizing and the other extreme a strict Lutheranizing.

By “crass moralizing” I mean a reading that extracts the ethical summons of the text without any broader recourse to the text’s place in redemptive history which culminates in Christ’s saving work, consideration of audience, and other indications of the redemptive backdrop against which such a text belongs. This approach functions out of a naïve anthropological optimism and simply asks what the text is instructing me to do, and then seeks to go out and do it. It is reading a text like an entry in a dictionary, in which context is irrelevant, rather than like a paragraph in a novel, in which context is everything. By “strict Lutheranizing” I mean a hyper-focus on one’s inability to perfectly discharge the summons of the text. This is the hermeneutical tunnel-vision that reads every imperative in terms of the second use of the law, the law as a mirror in which one sees one’s own moral inability. It functions out of a dour anthropological pessimism. It is the refusal to maintain a distinction between meaningful if imperfect obedience, on the one hand, and perfect obedience on the other hand. Instead, sinful depravity and sinless perfection are the only two moral categories in play. This approach has difficulty retaining a category for, say, Noah in the Old Testament, or Simeon in the New: each of whom, while sharing in humanity’s fallenness more generally, is described as a righteous, godly man (Gen 6:9; Luke 2:25).

The temptation toward either of these two inversely related errors lies in the fact that there is truth to each. It is not that each is completely void of truthfulness but rather that each grasps a part of the truth and erects it as the whole truth, creating a misshapen hermeneutic. We should take a text and ask what we are called to do in light of it—lest, as James says, we become hearers but not doers of the word (James 1:22). And we should be ever aware of our wayward diseased hearts and our inability to obey God perfectly even as regenerate Christians—it was of the covenant people that Isaiah remarked, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). To take the text before us: Psalm 15 is richly moralizing, if what we mean by that is that it summons us into deeply moral realities and the dignity of real virtue. And Psalm 15 is, from one perspective, law-that-cannot-be-kept; no one does it perfectly. But neither of these is the only thing to be said. To take either as the exclusive message is one-dimensional and reductionistic.

And yet the alternative to either of them is not simply splitting the difference—melding together a bit of moralizing with a bit of the second use of the law. Psalm 15 and similar texts are indeed full and rich and deep in their moral summons, and this summons ought not to be watered down or avoided. And such texts do portray a godly integrity that sobers us with a reminder of our weakness and frequent failure to live consistently in such a way. The question is how to do justice to both realities.

2. Reflections on Reading and Preaching Psalm 15

What then of Psalm 15? How should we read it mindful of the entire sweep of Scripture? On the one hand, there is no rigid formula one can apply to a given Old Testament text. Wisdom is required, for each text will have its own unique texture, genre, and role in the canon.

Yet it seems there are a handful of fundamental steps to take to ensure that we read a text such as Psalm 15 the way Jesus would have us. I will suggest five. The first two steps apply to any passage; the latter three are specific to this text. Throughout what follows we will make recourse as appropriate to the five more general reflections adduced above.

2.1. Let It Land

First, we should let the full hortatory weight of this psalm land on us.23 Because this psalm is heavy on instruction and apparently light on redemption, one temptation for today’s “gospel-centered” generation would be to immediately find a way to squirrel out from under the moral instruction of the psalm. But there is no getting around the high calling of this psalm. Nor should we wish there to be. The summons of this psalm is a call to humaneness, to dignity, to integrity of life, to nobility, to the “glory and honor” with which and for which we were created (Ps 8:5). This summons thus lands especially on confessing believers depicting the photo negative of this psalm—deceptive, backstabbing, evil-loving, financially slippery, and so on. Why would we soften this summons? This is the kind of human living, and the kind of functioning society, each of us longs for. This is interpersonal beauty. It is shalom.

Therefore, we should not prematurely apply comfort to our own hearts or the hearts of others for the many ways we do not live out this summons. There is a kind of healthy homiletical and hermeneutical patience that lets a text ripen before bringing the gospel to bear on it. Running backs in American football are taught to be patient, waiting for the hole to open up as blockers do their job. If they try to hit the hole too soon, the play collapses. Preachers and teachers rightly enthused about the gospel of grace need a similar discipline of patience. One cannot run to the gospel or Christ too soon out of a fear of becoming moralistic. Let the play develop. Let the people hear that this is the life to which they are summoned. Let it land. If the immediate application in reading or preaching this psalm is to say, “Well, none of us can do any of this—but thank God for Jesus who did it in our stead,” we are hitting the hole too early.

After all, Jesus himself did not always give the immediate balm of forgiveness to those who came to him. He paraded before the rich young ruler a handful of the Ten Commandments (Matt 19:16–22). The comfort of the redemption that is the central message of the Bible lands most deeply on those who have first felt the weight of the commandments, and it is only those who have felt their utter inability to discharge the commandments out of their own resources who will ultimately be able truly to live them out.24 Penultimate despair is often a vital ingredient in ultimate deliverance.

Even if it is true that no one lives out Psalm 15 perfectly, that is not the first truth to dwell on in teaching or preaching a text such as Psalm 15. Soak in the summons. Stretch your vocabulary to paint as beautiful a picture as you can possibly muster of the loveliness of a Psalm 15 life. Let people long for it. Let it land.

2.2. Remember the Original Audience

Key to a healthy reading of this psalm is self-conscious recognition of who is writing it and to whom it is implicitly written—namely, a leader of the people of God, to the people of God. The above point is a caution to avoid “strict Lutheranizing”; this point is a caution to avoid “crass moralizing.”

This is a psalm, an ancient hymn from Israel’s songbook for their own worship. It belongs (to use comtemporary categories) to the realm of discipleship, not evangelism. It is something ancient Israelites would say to one another, not something they would say to neighboring nations. The earnest life of virtue presented in this psalm is for the redeemed. More sharply: It is a summons for those already redeemed, not a strategy for getting redeemed. The psalm’s audience is evident not only in its general presence in the Psalter but also more specifically in the psalm’s twofold use of “the Lord” (יהוה; vv. 1, 4), the covenant name of God, the name given to Moses in Exodus 3 which for generations after evoked the definitive redemptive event of the exodus.25 The summons of this psalm is for the saved, not for salvation.

Understanding Psalm 15 in this way is reflective of the broader understanding that while the ethical vision of the wisdom literature as a whole often tends to reflect basic principles of how life works best, the wisdom literature was given to God’s people. In other words, the wisdom literature functions not only in the salvation historical category of creation but also of redemption. This literature is covenantally circumscribed.26 That includes Psalm 15.

It might be objected at this point that even if this text is for the redeemed, nevertheless the psalm opens with a question and answers that only those who act a certain way will make it. That is, the psalm appears to be all imperative and no indicative. The answer to this is that not only is this psalm implicitly given to the redeemed, but a careful reading of the wording of the question itself in verse 1 explicitly assumes a redemption already accomplished. Here we remember Schlatter’s reminder to observe with unhurried care what is there. The psalm ponders who will “sojourn in” and “dwell on”—not merely, in a strict sense, enter into—God’s tent and hill. The question appears to be not one of entrance into but of flourishing within God’s gracious presence.27 As Kidner puts it, verse 1 refers to “dwelling rather than gaining admission, for the qualities the psalm describes are those that God creates in a man, not those He finds in him.”28 This psalm portrays the character of those walking in glad communion with God, not the minimum bar required for God to bring someone into communion with him in the first place. As scholars such as Eichrodt have noted, there is an entire covenantal framework assumed in this psalm that is not always borne in mind in our various twenty-first century contexts.29

2.3. Clarify What Verse 1 Is, and Is Not, Asking

At this point we must clarify exactly what the opening question is asking. On first reading it may sound like a bare challenge about who is good enough for God. Further reflection—unhurried Beobachtung—reveals that this psalm is drawing together redemptive-historically loaded language from God’s mighty acts in Israel’s history, language rife with whole-Bible significance.

Yahweh’s “tent” (אֹהֶל) denotes not some generic camping structure but the tabernacle/temple motif. This is clear from the reference to “dwelling” on God’s “holy hill.” “Dwell” here (שׁכן) is the very Hebrew verb used to speak of God’s templing glory, the noun form of which is Shekinah. Even by itself this verb would evoke the presence of Yahweh among his people in the wake of the exodus event, “dwelling” among them in the pitched tent. When one adds to this the reference to the “holy hill” (בְּהַר קָדְשֶׁךָ) we recognize that this cannot simply be presented in teaching and preaching as a vague reference to a sacred area of raised ground. The text could woodenly be translated “the mountain of your holiness”—the reference is to Mount Zion, the place of God’s special dwelling to which the nations would one day stream (Isa 2:2–3; Mic 4:1–2). The tent/tabernacle theme in the early parts of the Old Testament matured into the temple theme in the latter parts of the Old Testament, with the presence of God being the point all the way through. Throughout the Old Testament the temple and the holy hill or mountain are closely associated, so that to speak of the holy hill is to imply the temple.30 This very verb “sojourn” (גור), rendered παροικέω in the LXX [14:1], is used throughout the Old Testament to speak of the one who dwells as an alien/Gentile in the midst of Israel. Yet here it is used of Israelites. And the New Testament uses the root παροικ– to speak not only of Old Testament geographic exile (Acts 7:6, 29; 13:17) but also of believers’ present state of Christian “exile” (Eph 2:19; 1 Pet 1:17; 2:11). Even for God’s own people, then, in both Old Testament and New, to pass into Yahweh’s tent is to glimpse—as a foreigner, as it were—one’s true home. We are restored.

Verse 1 is asking: Who enjoys true fellowship with God under his covenant blessings? Who is on a path to enjoy Eden restored? Who will receive God’s promised inheritance? Who will be included in that final vision of which the physical temple is an echo, a glimpse, a shadow?

2.4. Take a Closer Look at Verses 2–5

A next step of simple observation is to clarify the nature of the traits outlined in the rest of the psalm.

While on first reading this may sound like an arid list of virtues to execute, these verses in fact focus on the inner state of the heart.31 Inner health and outer action are of course often closely linked in the Bible (Isa 29:13; Matt 12:33–35; Jas 1:26–27). But it is easy and natural to the flesh to exhort external moral conformity in a way that leaves the heart behind. The reason this is so natural to us is that it allows us to pacify the conscience through outer conformity while hanging on to cherished secret idols. Mindful of Jesus’s words about the inside of the cup and whitewashed tombs (Matt 23:27), we do well to explain that this psalm has in view a holistic integrity, inside and out, and not bare externalized action.

The psalm speaks of one who is truthful “in his heart” (v. 2); that is, one whose fundamental impulse is one of honesty, transparency, forthrightness. The animating center of personhood (the “heart”) emits truthfulness, consistency, integrity. We read of one “in whose eyes a vile person is despised” (v. 4). They have a certain moral internal compass or perspective. This is someone who “honors those who fear the Lord” (v. 5)—that is, this person lives in reverent devotion to the Lord, inside and out.

Not all the characteristics of verses 2–5 are clearly internal, but enough of them get at the heart to correct a view of these characteristics that would be exclusively behavior-oriented. When we consider the portrayal of this psalm in light of its references to the “heart,” what the “eyes” perceive, and the deliberate honoring of others, we begin to see that this person is functioning out of inner wholeness and health. The point here is that this psalm is not encouraging us to crowbar our behavior into forced alignment with a norm.

It should also be noted that “blameless” in both Old Testament and New refers not to sinless perfection but a pattern of conduct beyond the reach of public reproach. The Hebrew word used here in verse 2 (תָּמִים) refers to wholeness, soundness, consistent internal harmony. Likewise, “does what is right” (פֹעֵל צֶדֶק; LXX ἐργαζόμενος δικαιοσύνην [14:2]) or “working righteousness” could promptly be put in the service of a strict Lutheranizing and interpreted as a perfection that no one can attain. But not only does this do violence to the sense of the text here in this psalm, we could also note that Acts 10:35 uses the very same wording (ἐργαζόμενος δικαιοσύνην) to speak of healthy and upright walking with God.

Another angle readers and preachers might take to handle Psalm 15 in a healthy way is to zero in on the theme of one’s words throughout verses 2–5. This is a man who “speaks truth” (v. 2), “does not slander with his tongue” (v. 3), “nor takes up a reproach against his friend” (v. 3), and “swears to his own hurt” (v. 4). Indeed, the most pervasive concern of the virtues of this psalm is uprightness of the tongue. This motif of words could be fruitfully tied in to the New Testament’s strong teaching on the tongue as the truest indicator of the state of one’s heart. While we must allow room for the reality of hypocrisy and deceit, the tongue is a truer gauge of inner health than any other single factor. One remembers, for example, the way Jesus concludes his teaching on a tree being known by its fruit in Luke 6. We tend to read this tree/fruit metaphor as a statement about our deeds, practically speaking; just as a healthy tree produces healthy fruit, so a healthy heart produces healthy deeds. Yet notice what Jesus actually says: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:43–45). The “good fruit” and “good treasure” that comes from a “good person” is defined in terms of the tongue.

Or consider the letter of James. From one perspective this epistle is a collection of wisdom sayings loosely strung together. Yet from another perspective the letter addresses our words, in one form or another, right through the letter.

The point I’m making is that the tongue and our use of words is a major biblical theme into which Psalm 15 could be plugged. The Bible begins with God speaking the universe into existence in Genesis 1–2 and ends with Revelation 22 bringing closure to the apostolic message by cementing “the words of the prophecy of this book” (v. 18). And the high point in between these two redemptive historical bookends is Jesus Christ.32 For as with all major themes in biblical theology, so with words, Jesus is the integrating culmination of the theme—he is the Word (John 1:1)—he is what God has to say (Heb 1:1–2)—and he is the only one who “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Pet 2:22).33

Another strategy for identifying intracanonical and intertextual connections is keeping the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament within reach on your shelf.34 When teaching or preaching an Old Testament text it is worthwhile flipping to the Scripture index in the back of this volume to see where that Old Testament text is connected to New Testament texts according to the contributors to this volume. Doing this with Psalm 15 we discover a finer point of application to what has just been said about the tongue above. Revelation 14 picks up the theme of blamelessness with one’s mouth with respect to the redeemed of God that rings so clearly in Psalm 15 (along with Isa 53:9 and Zeph 3:13): “and in their mouths no lie was found, for they are blameless [ἄμωμοι]” (Rev 14:5).35 Thus one direction to go in personal study or in teaching/preaching would be to reflect at some length on the whole-Bible theme of blamelessness or integrity of speech. This could be fruitfully explored starting in Eden, where the crafty words of the serpent lead Adam and Eve to distrust the words of God, and then traced briefly through the Old Testament, culminating in Jesus, the true and final Word of God. He never spoke untruly (1 Pet 2:22–23) and yet offered up himself on behalf of all those who have (1 Pet 2:24)—so long as they humble themselves down into speaking truly about this very inability to speak truly (Rom 10:9). This could then be traced through the New Testament and conclude in Revelation 14:5 and then the final vision of that book, based on the “trustworthy and true” words of God himself in preparing a final place for his people (Rev 21:5; 22:6).

2.5. Say What Would Never Be Said in a Jewish Synagogue about Psalm 15

Finally, after wrestling with the text with a narrow-angle lens, it is time to zoom out. We have already begun to move in this direction in the last paragraph or two in the above section. After standing under the full weight of this psalm’s summons to the redeemed, we remember that the irreducible core of the Bible and the terminus of all of human history is Jesus Christ and his work of redemption—his work of redemption. Paul said the OT was written so that “we might have hope” (Rom 15:4) and to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). As necessary as sound doctrine is, there is something deeper that makes a reading or a sermon truly Christian: there is a certain tone, an aroma, an oxygenating reality. This is a subjective assertion so I proceed with caution. But it is vital to Christian preaching. What makes a reading of a text fundamentally Christian is that it gives hope,36 taking our eyes off of the limits of our own resources and lifting them to look upon the saving work of the Triune God. Such a hermeneutical instinct is not wishful thinking but rather is mandated by Christ himself (John 1:45; 5:39–46; Luke 24:25–27, 44–47). Truly Christian handling of the Bible, even a text such as Psalm 15, lifts, helps, strengthens. There is a certain buoyancy that is given to hearers of gospel preaching.

A Christian handling of Scripture sets itself off from every other handling of Scripture by focusing fundamentally on what has been done on our behalf in Christ. This does not mean we downplay the high moral summons of the text but that we place such summons in a framework of redemption.37 A faithful treatment of Psalm 15 must make plain that there is only one person who ever really enjoyed the blessings of verse 1, and only one person who ever really walked the walk of verses 2 through 5. In other words, an understanding of a text such as Psalm 15 that would be palatable in a Jewish synagogue is not a Christian understanding.38

As we wrestle with an Old Testament text in this way, however, we must work hard not to be trite or predictable. The connections we draw between the text and Christ must not be facile or flimsy or merely based on word-associations. In Psalm 15, for example, noticing the word “hill” in verse 1 should not prompt us to associate this with the “hill” of Calvary on which Christ died, for such an association is merely verbal and lacks any historical grounding; it does not plot onto a coherent and meaningful trajectory. Such a reading would therefore be fairly criticized as allegorical. Instead we should proceed in a textually responsible and convincing way, really working at the text and using our original language resources as deeply as we are able. Explore with a concordance; do some thoughtful searches in whatever digital software is available to you. Here are a few discoveries that arise to the surface with a text like Psalm 15, discoveries that could be leveraged in a context-specific way wherever we find ourselves reading or teaching the text.

Verse 1 speaks of sojourning in God’s tent, which as we have seen refers to the temple. Verse 1 also speaks of dwelling on God’s holy hill. Strikingly, this exact phrase is used earlier in the Psalter in what is according to the NT one of the most christologically charged psalms, Psalm 2. In Psalm 2:6 Yahweh says: “As for me, I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” (הַר־קָדְשִׁי). In Psalm 2, though, God is not asking who will dwell on this holy mountain. He is declaring whom he has himself set there—a man the New Testament (especially Hebrews) identifies as Jesus Christ (Heb 1:5; 5:5).39

Who shall dwell on God’s holy hill? Jesus. And, in him, both representatively (by imputation) and then actually (by his Spirit), believers.40 That is, Jesus did Psalm 15 in our place, as the last Adam, the fully true human, the supreme keeper of the covenant. United to him, that record becomes reckoned ours. But it is also true that by virtue of our union with him and thus indwelt by his Spirit we now, in our stumbling ways yet truly, begin to reflect the virtue outlined in Psalm 15.

It is not a question, then, of whether Christ is the one who does Psalm 15, or whether we are; the answer is both, and in that order. To unpack that a bit more: We have said that to dwell on God’s holy mountain means to abide in the temple, remembering that throughout the Bible the mountain holds special significance as the place of God’s dwelling, first on Mount Sinai and then on Mount Zion, the latter of which is the site of eschatological fulfillment (Isa 2:2; Mic 4:1). But Jesus did not simply come to the temple (Mal 3:1); he came as the temple (John 1:14; 2:19–22). Jesus dwells on God’s holy hill not by entering a humanly-made building to meet with God but by entering a divinely-made body to meet with us. He “tabernacled” among us (John 1:14). He is what the temple was meant to do—restore man to God, rejoin earth to heaven, bring the “walking together in the cool of the day” of Eden back to sinful humanity once more.

But the New Testament then goes on to explain that believers are themselves part of that temple, of which Christ is the cornerstone (Eph 2:19–22; 1 Pet 2:4–8). It is not, then, simply that we now go to Jesus the temple rather than a temple building. United to him, we are ourselves part of the temple. We are, with him, the sacred intersection of heaven and earth, sacred and profane, a temple made up not of stones but of redeemed souls. The point in all this is that one cannot read Psalm 15:1 mindful of the whole Bible without seeing that the question about who shall sojourn in God’s tent and dwell on his holy hill is using temple language and categories that are only answered in Jesus and those in him—in an inaugurated way through his first coming and in a consummated way through his second coming in which no more temple is needed as all that the temple meant to do will have been achieved in him and his people (Rev. 21:22).

Verse 5 merits particular attention in reflecting on how to handle Psalm 15 in a christocentric way. The conclusion to the psalm is: “He who does these things shall never be moved.” The verb “be moved” (יִמּוֹט) here is the same verb (מוֹט) in the same form (niphal) as “be shaken” in the very next psalm, at Psalm 16:8. “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken [בַּל־אֶמּוֹט].” This is the very text Peter quotes in Acts 2 when arguing for Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2:24–28). A careful reading of what Peter does with Psalm 16 in Acts 2:24–33 indicates that Peter views Christ as the ultimate one of Psalm 16 who is “not shaken.” Right there in the immediate context of Psalm 15, then, is apostolic sanction to associate the notion of not being moved or shaken with the work of Christ. We should not read Psalm 16 into Psalm 15 (though recent scholarship on the Psalms is helping us to see the unity and coherence to the Psalter as a whole41). But we remember that the apostles coach us in reading the Old Testament not only by the specific texts they cite but by giving us parameters and a trajectory by which to interpret any text in the Old Testament. Taking our cues from how the apostles themselves understood the notion of being shaken in Psalm 16, we are encouraged to connect the notion of not being shaken in Psalm 15 ultimately with Christ.

The conclusion to which a Christian reading of Psalm 15 must finally bring us is therefore: Jesus did Psalm 15. He enacted it, recapitulated it, walked it out. And in that glad knowledge we the redeemed, in union with the true temple, are freed from the burden of doing Psalm 15 perfectly and at the very same time summoned into the life of light-filled joy and integrity portrayed in verses 2–5. United to and walking with Jesus, the friend of sinners, we will begin to manifest the humaneness of this psalm. So doing, we will never be moved.

3. Conclusion

Is Psalm 15 Christ-centered? No. The Bible is Christ-centered, and Psalm 15 plots onto a unified whole-Bible trajectory that culminates in Christ.

Various sub-themes surface in this psalm that could be meaningfully plotted onto a whole-Bible trajectory, including our use of the tongue, the heart, God’s mountain, or the temple.42 The purpose of this brief article is not to eclipse other strategies for approaching Psalm 15 in a whole-Bible way but to offer one way to handle this text in our reading of it and especially in teaching and preaching it. Even the approach offered here is only a suggestive outline. The Bible is endlessly rich and there would be multiple valid ways to handle the text or to fill out this approach, not least due to the diverse contexts in which it will be read and preached. But it is good to keep thinking together as the church, in these days of renewed interest in biblical theology and gospel-rich hermeneutics, about how to read the Bible as Jesus would have us, including texts that may seem to resist such treatment.

* I am grateful to Rev. Drew Hunter for his helpful comments on an early draft of this article.

[1] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Christ Precious to Believers,” in Sermons (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, n.d.), 6:356; quoted in Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hemeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 153–54.

[2] I have documented this in the opening pages of Dane C. Ortlund, “Christocentrism: An Asymmetrical Trinitarianism?” Them 34 (2009): 309–21.

[3] This can be noted not only in conservative evangelical circles but also more broadly—such as in the work of Karl Barth a century ago, or in that of Douglas Campbell in our own time.

[4] “Biblical theology” is controverted as a label, meaning different things to different people. In this essay I use it to refer to the study of what the Bible teaches about God, humanity, sin, and redemption by engaging the Bible in a historically-sensitive manner that traces motifs through the Bible. For a recent taxonomy of five ways biblical theology is practiced see Edward W. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), though this book draws the lines a bit too neatly without allowing sufficiently for overlap between their five categories of biblical theological method. My own approach to biblical theology draws something, more or less, from all five of Klink and Lockett’s categories.

[5] Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 188.

[6] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Sermons: Models of Redemptive Sermons (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), xi.

[7] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 104.

[8] A recent, wise treatment of reading and teaching the Bible in a Christ-centered, redemptive-historical way is Vern S. Poythress, Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), esp. 223–302.

[9] D. A. Carson does something similar with Psalm 1, though at a more principial level of guidelines to bear in mind when tackling a text such as Psalm 1, in “Biblical-Theological Ruminations on Psalm 1,” in Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington, eds., Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 115–34.

[10] See Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), esp. 39–44; Rick Strelan, Luke the Priest: The Authority of the Author of the Third Gospel (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 148–49; Benjamin R. Wilson, The Saving Cross of the Suffering Christ: The Death of Jesus in Lukan Soteriology, BZNW 223 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2016), ch. 5.

[11] A weakness of Vos’s Biblical Theology is that despite treating the whole Bible he effectively skips over the Psalms, moving from the Pentateuch to the prophetic literature (Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975]). Richard Belcher argues that all the Psalms are fulfilled in Christ as opposed to only a handful of explicitly messianic psalms (Richard P. Belcher, The Messiah and the Psalms: Preaching Christ from All the Psalms [Fearn, Scot.: Christian Focus, 2006]), an argument with which the present essay is in sympathy.

[12] The apostles would have referred to it as the fourteenth psalm but we will call it the fifteenth psalm throughout this essay for consistency and clarity in accord with standard Protestant chapter numbering.

[13] With the exception of the author’s translations, which are explicitly identified, Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.

[14] In two other places in the OT we find a similar pair of questions and answers—Psalm 24:3–6 and Isaiah 33:14–16. Yet in both of these other texts, unlike Psalm 15, the summons to upright living is immersed in a context rich in celebration of the redemptive work of God. Psalm 15 therefore stands out as particularly challenging to handle in a redemptive way.

[15] A theme of Werner Neuer, Adolf Schlatter: Ein Leben für Theologie und Kirche (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1996). One contemporary voice carrying forward this specific emphasis of Schlatter’s is Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

[16] A good place to begin to get a sense of the issues here would be Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

[17] Alec Motyer, Look to the Rock: An Old Testament Background to Our Understanding of Christ (Leicester, Eng.: InterVarsity, 1996), 19. Motyer says Christ “is himself the grand theme of the ‘story-line’ of both Testaments, the focal point giving coherence to the total ‘picture’ in all its complexities. . . . He is the climax as well as the substance and centre of the whole” (ibid., 22).

[18] Among the voluminous literature promulgating this general conviction one might look especially to Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000); G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011). N. T. Wright makes the point that whether one takes the OT according to Hebrew or according to English book order, the OT is a story in search of an ending (N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion [New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 90–91.

[19] Leonhard Goppelt, Typos: The Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New (trans. D. H. Madvig; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), esp. ch. 1.

[20] The listed OT citations in NA28 suggest Ps 15:2 (“He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart”) could be seen as echoed in John 8:40 (due to a reference to speaking the truth), Acts 10:35 (due to a reference to one who “does what is right and acceptable”), and Hebrews 11:33 (due to a reference to enforcing justice) (Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Revised Edition: Based on the Work of Eberhard and Erwin Nestle, ed. B. and K. Aland, J. Karavidopoulos, C. M. Martini, and B. M. Metzger [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012], 851). But these verbal associations are all of a sufficiently broad and general nature that it is unlikely these are deliberate allusions to this particular psalm in any deliberate way. The most one could say is that these NT texts function out of a common “encyclopedia of production,” or shared universe of language and categories (Stefan Alkier, “Intertextuality and the Semiotics of Biblical Texts,” in Reading the Bible Intertextually, ed. Richard B. Hays, Stefan Alier, and Leroy A. Huizenga [Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009], 3–21). My comments in this footnote are informed by the work of Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); idem, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014); idem, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016).

[21] See the contributions of Longenecker and Beale and others in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).

[22] We are helped here by the writings of Vern Poythress and John Frame; see esp. Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001); idem, Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), ch. 7; John M. Frame, Perspectives on the Word of God: An Introduction to Christian Ethics (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999); idem, “Backgrounds to My Thought,” in Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John M. Frame, ed. J. J. Hughes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 9–30.

[23] Horbury speaks of Psalm 15 as an example of the “entrance-torot” (along with Ps 24:3–5 and Isa 33:14–17), developing the stipulations of Deut 23:1–8 beyond physical health and ancestry to include ethical purity (William Horbury, “Extirpation and Excommunication,” VT 35 [1985]: 26).

[24] A poignantly developed theme, worth pondering by preachers, throughout the writings of John Bunyan; see e.g. The Saints’ Knowledge of Christ’s Love in The Works of John Bunyan, 3 vols., reprint ed. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 3:1–40.

[25] David B. Capes, Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology, WUNT 2/47 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992), 3–5; Christopher R. Seitz, “The Call of Moses and the ‘Revelation’ of the Divine Name,” in Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2004), 229–47.

[26] On which see C. John Collins, “Proverbs and the Levitical System,” Presb 35 (2009): 9–35.

[27] I am not at this point trying to align with E. P. Sanders’s framework of “covenantal nomism,” made famous in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977), the problems of which have been trotted out sufficiently over the past two decades or so (especially the problem with asserting that believers “stay in” by obedience). I am simply observing the language of the text.

[28] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms, TOTC 14a (London: IVP, 1973), 82–83.

[29] Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. J. A. Baker, 2 vols. (London: SCM, 1961, 1967). Scott Hafemann rightly argues that explicit mention of the covenant does not exhaust the presence of the covenant as an implicit reality in a given text (Scott J. Hafemann, “The Covenant Relationship,” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, ed. Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007], 20–65).

[30] Timothy Wardle, The Jerusalem Temple and Early Christian Identity, WUNT 2/291 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 16–18; G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 108.

[31] Kidner, Psalms 1–72, 80–81.

[32] With a good dose of historical theology integrated into his biblical theological treatment of words see Peter Adam, Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality, NSBT 16 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[33] I am grateful to Brian Tabb for drawing this point to my attention.

[34] G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).

[35] G. K. Beale and Sean McDonough, “Revelation,” in ibid., 1132.

[36] An emphasis in Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).

[37] Although we are dealing directly with an Old Testament text in this essay, these comments apply equally to the New Testament, which can be handled in just as Christless a way as the Old Testament.

[38] Cf. Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 125–27.

[39] We remember here that when the apostles quote the OT they have in mind a broader OT context than the explicitly quoted portion of text; what is quoted is often the tip of the iceberg, and its use in the NT cannot be fully understood apart from consulting the broader OT context. The classic argument for this is C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Substructure of New Testament Theology (London: Nisbet, 1961); more recently Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.

[40] Peter Bolt usefully distinguishes between “inclusive” and “exclusive” place-taking by Jesus—there is an exclusive substitution for us that Jesus does in our place so that we need not, but there is also a derivative inclusive placetaking in which we follow him (Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel, NSBT 18 [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004], 70, 132, 141).

[41] E.g., Gordon Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).

[42] Though we do not have space to explore this at length, another approach to reading Psalm 15 in a whole-Bible way would be to consider the five major themes of the Bible that Dumbrell identifies: new Jerusalem, new temple, new Israel, new covenant, and new creation. Many and perhaps all of these five themes pass through Psalm 15 and could provide fruitful ways to plug Psalm 15 into the message of the whole Bible (William J. Dumbrell, The End of the Beginning: Revelation 21–22 and the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Lancer, 1985]). The question could be asked of Charles H. H. Scobie’s four macro themes of God’s order, God’s servant, God’s people, and God’s way that he explores in one of the few truly comprehensive biblical theologies attempted in our time, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

Dane C. Ortlund

Dane Ortlund is executive vice president for Bible publishing and Bible publisher at Crossway in Wheaton, Illinois, USA.

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