The daily readings for 6 January bring together the beautiful sequence of Psalms 14, 15 and 16. This series of David’s psalms, though each is complete in itself, has an instructive flow of thought. In Psalm 14 we have set before us the inherent evil of all mankind. Psalm 15 answers the inevitable question: if this be our state, how then ought we to live to be acceptable before God? And the Messianic Psalm 16 presents Christ as the supreme example who, by overcoming the inclinations inherent to his nature, and by rejecting the evil and always choosing the right, secured “a goodly heritage.” So let us consider in more detail the lessons of these psalms as we both remember our Lord and examine ourselves.

Psalm 14

Psalm 14:1 introduces us to “the fool [who] hath said, in his heart, There is no God”. This individual is not an atheist; rather he has determined, in his heart, that he is happy to live his life taking no account of God whatever. Modern society shows us the dreadful end result of whole generations adopting this attitude. The simple reality is that, without God, all have and will go astray. We do not need to look at the world about us to see the proof. Alas, in our own periods of waywardness we provide our own evidence! The Apostle Paul in Romans 3:9 says, of both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin. And in verses10–18 he takes Psalm 14:1–3 as his lead quotation in a series of six Old Testament references to illustrate this state of being “under sin”. Here are his references:

Psalm 14:1–3 “None righteous, no, not one…”
Psalm 5:9 “Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit”
Psalm 140:3 “The poison of asps is under their lips”
Psalm 10:7 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”
Isaiah 59:7–8 “Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways, and the way of peace they have not known”
Psa 36:1 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
So Paul demonstrates that the expression “under sin” encompasses the whole person: throat, tongue, lips, mouth, feet and eyes. Well, we are here before the Lord’s table because we have decided that we are not going to be like that; we have been called to an altogether better way.

“With what judgment ye judge…”

But sometimes within our communities the “mouth full of cursing and bitterness” makes its mark. “There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword”, we learn from Proverbs 12:18. Are we ever like that, using hurtful words that cut and wound? It is here, in the presence of our Lord, that we must learn a better way. We need to examine ourselves and remove any mean spirited, judgmental behaviour from our lives; “for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matt 7:2). When we run the ruler over others, we need to remember that Christ will run that same ruler over us.

Our Lord was himself a victim of the cutting remark: “We be not born of fornication”. This was the accusation, one he must have heard in some form or other from boyhood. In Matthew 1:18–20 at the time when those cutting remarks would have begun, we learn from Joseph how to deal with apparent “sin” in others. Indeed how interesting that the first “sin” encountered in the New Testament is not only no sin at all, but rather the saving work of Almighty God. Mary, we read, “was found with child of the Holy Spirit”. What a world of shame and recrimination is bound up in those words. But “Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.” The evidence of her “sin” seemed clear. Joseph knew he was not responsible, and all he could conclude was that he had been grievously wronged. But his love and compassion had this result, a divinely recorded assessment and declaration before all mankind and for all time that he was “a just man”. We dare not fail to learn well and heed carefully this potent example.

Jesus grew up from boyhood hearing that public slur on his mother—was it by accident that the Father permitted His son to experience this? Surely not. It was part of the process by which he became a High Priest “who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way” (Heb 5:2).

Psalm 14 is not entirely bleak and negative. Though it graphically presents before us the men of the flesh, “workers of iniquity”, there is another class in the psalm. These are described as “my people” (v4), “the generation of the righteous” (v5), and those who look for “salvation… out of Zion” (v7).

Psalm 15 – “Who shall abide in thy tabernacle?”

Psalm 15 tells us of the nature and characteristics of this group. Who are those who will spurn the ways of the workers of iniquity to sojourn in God’s tent, and then ultimately dwell permanently in His holy hill (of Zion, Psa 2:6)? David paints a word picture of the many characteristics of this future citizen of Zion.

Verse two describes three positive virtues of this individual. He walks uprightly. There is a pattern of life in view, marked by a consistent posture and direction. Noah was like this; Genesis 6:9 tells us that he “walked with God”. Through the course of that upright life he works righteousness, unlike the godless man of Psalm 14 who works iniquity. Christ’s example shows us the way: he “went about doing good”, said Peter in Acts 10:38, speaking what he knew from personal observation. Thirdly, he speaks the truth in his heart, and we will not fail to see the contrast with Psalm 14:1 and the fool who spoke folly “in his heart”. These virtues will not become part of our life by accident. We need positive, prayerful determination: I will walk uprightly, I will work righteousness, I will speak the truth in my heart. Our Lord summoned that determination every day, knowing that at the end of that long road of unwavering obedience and effort the horrors of crucifixion awaited him. What are we doing with our life? How are we responding to the love of Christ and his sacrifice for us? Do we commit our ways to God every morning?

As Psalm 15:2 describes those three positive virtues, so verse three tells us three things to avoid, and each relates to our dealings with others. He will not backbite with his tongue. The sense is to spy out and then speak. There are some who “watch for iniquity” (Isa 29:20), who spy and then speak with relish of the failings of others. But not this brother. Not this sister. They have made a determination that such behaviour will never be a part of their lives. Moreover this individual will not do “evil to his neighbour”. It is a small step from speaking evil to doing evil. But as Christ’s servants we have decided not to even begin to walk this dreadful path. Thirdly there is the matter of taking up “a reproach against his neighbour”. Not only will we refuse to initiate gossip or harm against our friend or neighbour, we just will not receive it and pass it on either. Many of us will remember the wise counsel of parents and grandparents telling us: “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all!”

Condemning and honouring

Verse four of the psalm commends to us two attitudes of personal integrity. The future citizen of Zion will both condemn “a vile person” and honour “them that fear the Lord”. But note the introduction, “in whose eyes”. This is an internal assessment, a judgement based on standards of personal holiness and integrity before God. The behaviour of the men of the world will be noted and condemned. There will be no secret admiration of their notoriety, their wealth or their behaviour; this will be rejected out of hand. Our pleasure instead will come from observing the efforts of brethren and sisters striving to live a godly life, and we will be moved to honour and to emulate their faithful example.

The psalm concludes with three aspects of integrity in personal dealings. So verse four concludes with the first of these: “He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not”. We might have made a commitment to go and help a family member, or a member of our ecclesia on a particular day. Then an invitation arrives to join others in a more attractive pursuit, an outing to the beach perhaps. If we are Christ’s, there will be no hesitation. We will keep our word, and do what we said we would do cheerfully, not grudgingly or with a surly manner. These decisions, made in the daily round of life will be considered by our Lord in the day when we must give account. The second issue in personal dealings sprang from the Law of Moses and its prohibition on seeking interest on money lent to fellow Israelites: “He that putteth not out his money to usury”. If we see a need and are able to assist, our attitude must be to give, seeking nothing in return. There must be the utmost privacy and respect for sensitive feelings in such a case – “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Thirdly, this person of integrity will not take “reward against the innocent”. He can’t be bribed. He will never pervert justice in decisions he makes. He is scrupulously honest. Everyone knows he can always be trusted. Such a reputation is won only as others observe our consistent behaviour over a long period of time. The brethren and sisters of Christ who have lived their lives with such integrity and faithfulness have “built their house upon a rock!” They shall never be moved, says the Psalmist.

Psalm 16

David, expressing the mind of Christ, picks up that closing thought of Psalm 15 in Psalm 16:8 “… because he is at my right hand, I shall not moved.” This lovely psalm presents to us Christ as our example. He is supremely the hero of Psalm 15 who will dwell in Zion, not just as citizen, but as king. The quotations from this psalm by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2:25–28 and by the Apostle Paul in Acts 13:35 demonstrate, if proof were needed, that this is a Messianic Psalm. The spirit of Christ is in the very first verse: “Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.”

How easy to mouth such a declaration and how difficult to make it real. Do our daily lives declare to our friends, our workmates or any who might observe our behaviour, that we have put our trust in God? When the rulers of the Jews observed Peter and John, we learn in Acts 4:13 “…they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.” Sometimes, alas, our ways indicate anything but this. People watch and observe. ‘I’ve noticed that you never swear’ has been said to some, and with such comments there is an opportunity to declare our faith.

Having Yahweh at our right hand

The Psalmist further declares the mind and hope of Christ in verses 5 and 6. “Yahweh is the portion of mine inheritance… yea, I have a goodly heritage.” What a thought! Yahweh as the ultimate inheritance, not only for Christ but for us too. Jesus’ confidence is expressed, too, in verse 8: “I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” In Scripture, the right hand is the place of strength and of action – and God is there. How blessed we are. And how careful we need to be to follow Christ, if we want God indeed to be at our right hand.

The final verses of this psalm express Messiah’s implicit faith in the resurrection, and his passionate desire for his Father’s presence. Jesus was always at one with his Father. He communed daily with Him in prayer with an intimacy we can scarcely imagine. He understood the Word of God and its revelation of his Father with a completeness that no one else has approached. Every day of his life was lived in service to his God and his Father and in declaration of his love for Him. Can we imagine then how much he yearned to be in his Father’s presence? Can we feel how passionately he longed for that time, when, the resurrection accomplished and his final days with the disciples done, he would ascend to his Father’s right hand? Psalm 16:11 gives us a wonderful glimpse into our Lord’s heart and his love and longing for his Heavenly Father: “… in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore!”

In our Lord’s presence, with the emblems of his sacrifice before us, we can feel something of that longing and that passion. Christ looked down over the centuries to include each one of us in his prayer to the Father in John 17:20: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word.” Our response as we examine ourselves must be a resolve to walk uprightly, to work righteousness and to speak the truth in our hearts, developing day by day, all those qualities which will qualify us as a citizen of Zion.