Psalms 15 - Introduction
(The following material is compiled predominantly from an anthology of Orthodox Jewish commentary, written and arranged by Rabbi Avroham Chaim Feuer from the Artscroll Tanach Series Tehillim Volume 1. Additional insights from a Nazarene Israelite perspective have been added by Jason Jordan. Additional Tehillim translation by Rabbi Hillel Danziger)
This Psalms gives us eleven cardinal principles of observance which David stressed and taught (Maccot 24a). They are examples of ‘beyond the letter of the law,’ i.e. service of Elohim beyond the Torah’s minimum requirements. In order to instill in people a love of the law itself, they must be taught to go beyond it with extra devotion and sacrifice.
All eleven principles deal with man’s relationship with his fellow man. Matthew 5:40-41; “…if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” David’s subjects were weak in this area. As the Sages said, ‘The people of David’s generation were all righteous and observant. Yet, they would fall in battle because they harboured slanderers and tale-bearers. The people of King Achav’s generation were wicked idolaters, yet, because they had no slanderers or tale-bearers in their ranks, they entered battle and emerged victorious, with no casualties’ (Yerushal, Peah 1:1).
Einei Yitzchak notes that the masses were corrupted by the example of depraved leaders. Doeg and Achitophel, two prominent personalities of that period, were vicious men who engaged in vile slander and wanton bloodshed.
The Sage Hirsch makes a final observation. This Psalm opens, ‘YHWH, who will reside in Your tent?,” implying that the topic of G-dly service will be discussed. But the Psalmist launches into a discussion of man’s obligations toward his fellow man. This proves that the person who aspires to come close to YHWH cannot hope to do so until he has first himself accepted his brethren. This is also the prerequisite of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) – that is to reconcile with fellow brothers and sisters before receiving reconciliation with YHWH.
Verse 1; “A song of David. YHWH; Who may sojourn in Your Tent? Who may dwell in Your Holy Mountain?”
“Who may sojourn” implies permanent residence as opposed to ‘may dwell’ which means temporarily (Malbim).
The Sage Hirsch, however, translates these words in exactly the opposite fashion, implying a temporary sojourn, backed up by Genesis 47:4 when it refers to Jacob’s family coming to Egypt, “…we have come to sojourn in the land.”
“…in Your Tent” This refers to the heavens which are stretched out like a pitched tent (Radak).
Metzudat David says that ‘Your tent,’ refers to the Temple. Not everyone is worthy to enter it, and now David lays down the requirements for such a privilege.
“…in Your Holy Mountain.” This refers to Mount Moriah, upon which the Beit HaMikdash was built. It is the location of the most sacred place on earth (Radak; Ibn Ezra).
The Sage Radak goes on to explain that the verbs ‘to sojourn,’ and to ‘dwell,’ pertain not to the body, but to the heavenly soul. He who practices the good deeds outlined in this Psalm is assured that after he dies, his soul will reside in a glorious divine dwelling.
Verse 2; “He who walks in perfect innocence, does what is right, and speaks the truth from his heart.”
This is the man who engages in the pursuits of this world with innocence. He will not become involved in complicated schemes and calculations in order to assure his success (Radak). This person will never hurt or swindle anyone in order to accomplish his goals because he innocently trusts that YHWH will guide his affairs to a successful conclusion without the aid of his machinations. Deuteronomy 18:13; “You shall be perfectly innocent with YHWH, your Elohim!” Rashi explains: ‘Walk before Him whole-heartedly, put your hope in Him and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever comes upon you accept with whole-hearted innocence. Then you will be as one with Him and become His portion.’
Abraham’s conduct personified this teaching. For he was directly instructed to, “Walk before (YHWH) and be perfect in innocence.” (Genesis 17:1)
“And does what is right…” There are three different ways to fulfil the Torah: Through thought, word and action. David begins by enumerating the praises of the man who is scrupulous in acting righteously in his deeds. 2 Timothy 2:15; “Be diligent to show yourself approved to Elohim, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
An enormously pious man by the name of Abba Chilkiyah is described in the Talmud as ignoring two Rabbis who were sent to ask him to pray for rain. At the time of their arrival, he was working in a field. Later after the day was done he explained to them that he was a day-labourer and would be cheating his employer if he so much as greeted them at a time when he was being paid to work.
Verse 3; “Who has no slander on his tongue, who has done his friend no evil, nor cast disgrace upon his intimate.”
Radak continues: David proceeds to describe how this man is careful with his thoughts and words. The true, sincere thoughts of his heart – that is all he speaks, nothing else. This man never deviates from that which he actually said openly. Most important, this man forever nurtures truth in his heart, i.e. he never stops thinking about Elohim’s reality, supremacy and omnipotence, for this is the ultimate, absolute source of all truth.
Rav Safra put up an article for sale and whilst he was reciting the Shema a buyer made an offer, but the Rav did not respond. His silence was then met with a lesser offer. At the conclusion of the Shema he sold it for the original offer, because he made a metal note of accepting it and could not therefore change his mind.
“Who has no slander on his tongue…” This refers to evil tale bearing (Rashi).
James 3:5-10; “So too the tongue is a little member, yet boasts greatly. See how a little fire kindles a great forest! And the tongue is a fire, the world of unrighteousness. Among our members the tongue is set, the one defiling the entire body, and setting on fire the wheel of life, and it is set on fire by Gehenna. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man is able to tame the tongue. It is unruly, evil, filled with deadly poison. With it we bless our Elohim and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of Elohim. Out of the same mouth proceed b’rakhah (blessing) and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.”
David demonstrates his care in speech and action, but does not find it necessary to describe how he safeguards his heart, because in the previous verse this man’s heart is permeated with incessant thoughts of YHWH’s truth so it is impossible for him to harbour wicked ideas in his mind. The Talmud emphasises that a man of truth takes pains not to speak deceitfully. This is evident with Jacob, who objected to impersonating Essu, “perhaps my father will feel me and I shall seem to him like a deceiver” (Genesis 27:12). Although the blessing was precious to Jacob, truth was even dearer. Rashi explains that he agreed to masquerade only after his mother assured him that she had received a prophetic message to engage in the deception.
Loshon Hora is one of the most common transgressions that a believer commits. A businessman from Warsaw once handed the owner of a shop who sold Torah books a list over every book he owned except one on the laws of Loshon Hora. When asked why he avoided this work, he replied, “In my profession it is impossible to avoid speaking and hearing Loshon Hara.” The store owner who was also a great Rabbi replied, “I’m fully aware of that problem. It is worthwhile for someone to read a book concerning evil speech even if the only result will be a sigh when he completes it.”
This Rabbi, Chofet Chayim enumerated that thirty-one Torah commandments may be violated when one speaks or hears Loshon Hora. So when evil speech is uttered many commandments are violated, therefore refraining from Loshon Hora is not merely a maritus act, but an obligation of the highest magnitude.
Psalms 51:15; "May the words of my mouth and the prayer of my heart be acceptable to You, O YHWH, my Rock and my Redeemer."
“…who has done his friend no evil…” The Talmud says that this…refers specifically to the man who never competes unfairly with his business rivals and never illegally encroaches on their rights. The comment, “I’m sharp in business” is a smoothed over way of saying, “I’m deceitful in business.” Such a phrase would never issue from the mouth of one who is devoted to Torah.
“…nor cast disgrace upon his intimate.” Though the last word is usually translated as ‘relative’ this denotes social intimacy and closeness rather than blood relatives. Even if this man is cursed and insulted he will not retaliate with harsh or ugly words. The Talmud describes this man as one who does not disgrace his close friends, but goes out of his way to establish even closer relations, drawing his near ones even nearer. "I am giving you a new commandment: That you continue to love one another in the way I have loved you, that you also love one another. This is how everyone shall know that you are my disciplined ones, if you have that love toward one another." (John 13:34-35)
"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you: you continue in my love. If you keep my commandments, you shall remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and remain in his love. I have spoken these things to you so that my joy might remain in you, and so that your joy might be full” (John 15:9-11).
“…be kind to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as YHWH for the Messiah's sake has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Verse 4; “In whose eyes the despicable is repulsive, but those who fear YHWH he honours; one who does not retract, though he has sworn to his hurt.”
“In whose eyes the despicable is repulsive…” Radak interprets this statement as a description of how the righteous man evaluates himself. He is not proud of his lofty moral accomplishments, although a bit of pride would seem to be justified. Rather he is despicable in his own eyes; repulsive. For, he realises that no matter how much he does, he has not yet accomplished even one thousandth of what he should do in honour of his Creator. Ibn Ezra adds: Such is always the custom of the righteous; they are never self-satisfied, rather they constantly strive to go higher and higher on the ladder of sanctity.
“…but those who fear YHWH he honours…” Some people, when they find fault with themselves, like to drag others down with them. They attempt to show that just as they are deficient in their service to Elohim, so are all others.
One of the thirteen principles of pure character traits is to recognise our own short comings but overlook the faults of others. Although the tzaddik is despicable in his own eyes, he sees only the good and praiseworthy virtues in others.
The Talmud applies this to Jehoshaphat, King of Judea, who, upon seeing a Torah scholar, would rise from his thrown, kiss him, and cry out joyously, ‘My father, my father! My master, my master! My teacher, my teacher!”
“…though he has sworn to his hurt.” The tzaddik pledges to neglect his body through fasting and abstinence from luxuries. Also, he has vowed to deplete his resources by giving large sums to charity. In this case an oath is necessary because such deprivation is difficult. The righteous person knows that his evil inclination will harass him incessantly in an effort to make him abandon his abstinence. He uses the solemn oath as a means of reinforcing his resolve (Radak).
Verse 5; “Who lends not his money at interest, nor takes a bribe against the innocent. Whoever does these shall forever not falter.”
“…Who lends not his money at interest...” As mentioned, this pious man has not inflicted any form of harm on his friend. He hasn’t cheated or robbed. Now David says that he has not taken advantage even of his fellow’s full consent and encouragement. An example of this is lending money at interest; a situation where the borrower is eager to get a loan even for a price.
“…nor takes a bribe against the innocent…”
"I can't understand it," said the coach of the football team. "It was such an important game that I bribed the referee, and yet we still lost." "Terrible, isn't it," the team captain agreed. "It's getting so you can't trust anyone any more..."
“The Torah also tells us "you shall surely pursue justice." It is hard to stay neutral, to be totally objective and not swayed by external or inappropriate factors. Yet this is the mark of true justice.” (Mordechai Wollenberg)
Deuteronomy 16:19; “You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favouritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.”
“Whoever does these shall forever not falter.” Even if the righteous would by chance falter, his collapse will not be forever. He collapses and rebounds to climb high once again. Proverbs 24:16; “A righteous person may fall seven times, but he gets up again. However, in a disaster wicked people fall.”
Job 5:19; "From six troubles (YHWH) will deliver you, Even in seven evil will not touch you.”