Beyond the Lectionary Text: Reflections on Psalms 15-24
by Scott Hoezee
Scholars and pastors have long known that the Book of Psalms is not a random, haphazard collection of Israelite poetry. Rather, the book was thoughtfully edited and ordered. Psalm 1 lays out the most basic rudiments of the worldview to be reflected throughout the Psalter. Psalm 1 teaches that in this world there are two kinds of people: the righteous who root themselves deeply in God and so find stability and fruitfulness and the wicked who reject God and so lead lives that are tossed about by the wind, lacking substance or stability.
After Psalm 1 we find pious poetry that, taken together, manages to encompass every conceivable season of life. . “Our prayer life is our autobiography” C.S. Lewis once observed. As the prayer book for Jews and Christians along the ages, the Hebrew Psalter likewise includes psalms for all of life’s ups and downs, good times and bad times. And precisely because all of life can be brought to speech before the holy and compassionate God of Israel, the Psalter concludes on the rousing notes of praise found in the final psalms, capping it all off with Psalm 150’s riot of worship in which everything in creation is mustered to give God his due praise. A big part of the praise due to God as the Psalter concludes stems from the fact that all of life got included in the 149 poems preceding 150’s capper. Our God is a great God because nothing is excluded from his love and care.
The Book of Psalms has an overarching order and purpose. Thus it should be unsurprising to learn that within the Psalter there are likewise patterns among the poems that are likely the result of the editor’s intentionality so as to teach God’s people key truths about the nature of God, creation, and their relationship. Some have detected such a pattern in Psalms 15-24.
If we take the well-known Psalm 19 as the focal point of this clustering of poems, then we can see that flanking that 19th psalm are psalms with corresponding themes (this is a chiastic structure, to invoke the exegetical technical term, and to learn more about the scholarship behind all this, see the “For Further Reading” items at the end of this article). We begin with an initial approach to God (the key theme in Psalms 15 and 24) that then leads to ardent statements of trust in God (Psalms 16 and 23). But those who live before God and trust him know that trials come, too, and so we find a reflection of life’s crisis moments when we wonder if our trust was misplaced after all (Psalms 17 and 22) followed by a return to confidence in God’s providence and salvation (Psalms 18 and 20-21). At the climax of it all is the 19th psalm where believers who have been through a lot in life celebrate the gifts of Creation and Law, finally resting in God’s presence with a prayer that all of life will be acceptable in the sight of the “Rock and Redeemer” of all.
Cognizant of what this pattern among these ten psalms has to teach us, what follows is a series of brief reflections. These thoughts could become the rudiments from which sermons on these psalms could be built or occasions for a devotional/worshipful approach to the God whose goodness and mercy in all seasons of life are the substance of these prayers.
Some years ago the writer Annie Dillard wrote a now widely quoted observation that contemporary worshipers are altogether too casual in their approach to God in worship services. Whether it is in those churches that now have a coffeehouse feel to them with worshipers settling around tables with mochas and lattes in hand or more formal church sanctuaries where people nonetheless slide into the pews with no more thought than if they were settling in to watch a movie, there often does not appear to be a lot of holy fear, reverence, or hesitation about approaching God. Dillard thought that if we really reflected for a bit on exactly Who it was we were encountering in worship, maybe we’d be more inclined to wear crash helmets into church just in case. The Holy Almighty God of the universe is not to be trifled with!
Psalms 15 and 24 are “entrance liturgies” in the Hebrew Psalter and as such, they wonder just who is qualified to approach a God whose holiness was known to be white hot. Surely it cannot be the case, these psalmists say, that just anybody in any old spiritual condition could presume to be fit company for the God who—as Psalm 24:1 puts it—already owns the earth and every last thing upon it.
So who could dare to approach God in worship? Only those who are pretty close to perfect in head, heart, mind, and behavior. Clean hands and a clean heart are required. Those who come to worship should love God from the core of their beings and this will be reflected in how they speak, how they treat other people, and how true they stay to their word come what may.
Taken to an extreme, it’s not difficult to see why this attitude could empty out the average worshiping community on any Sunday morning! The bar seems to be set too high. In fact, as Christians we would have to say that the only human ever to clear that bar was . . . well, Jesus himself. The rest of us have hands that are typically at least a little dirty, hearts that harbor at least a few hidden sins, mouths that spout gossip and criticism as often as not, and lives that do not consistently contribute to the flourishing of our neighbors.
But perhaps that is why Psalm 24 concludes with a celebration of “the King of glory.” On our own we cannot approach God in worship. But our Lord is the one who leads the way for us and clears out a space for us to stand in God’s holy place. By grace, his righteousness has become our own. Baptism into him washes our hands, renews our hearts, forgives the sins of our mouths and of our lives, replacing our sinful tendencies with new life in the Spirit. If we have words and actions that glorify God, they are the result of his fruit being produced on the branches of lives grafted onto his good vine. Or as Paul will put it in Romans 5:1-2, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” We gain access to God by grace alone.
And so we do dare approach God in worship every week but not lightly, not casually, and not as though we’ve earned our spot in the sanctuary through our own peerless living. It’s all grace as we follow the King of glory up God’s holy hill, through God’s holy gates, and into God’s holy presence. And that grace, in turn, simply gives us that much more reason to worship God with everything we’ve got once we arrive again in the presence of the Lord of the galaxies.
Those who gain access to God through the grace of the Savior (as reflected in Psalms 15 and 24) immediately come upon another truth: God is on our side. God is for us. God has enthusiasm for our lives. Christians who read Psalms 16 and 23 cannot help but zip forward in Scripture to one of the most effervescent verses ever written: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
The psalmists who wrote this pair of psalms may have lived a long while before the fullness of God’s lovingkindness was revealed in Jesus but they knew enough about God’s love and care to sense that God desired to be an enveloping presence in the lives of his people. You could take refuge in the God who leads you along in life because he would stay true to his covenant promises to be there. Always. God desires for his people to flourish and even if at times life’s journey leads through the dark and chilly places where death rears its ugly head, God was both good enough, powerful enough, and tough enough to stay with his people even in the shadows. And as Psalm 16 says in its moving conclusion, when death finally comes for also each one of us, that is not the end. Resurrection is the name of God’s game. Even dead bodies can rest in hope. Sheol, dark valleys, the presence of enemies: none of that has the last word. Life has the last word because God has the last word.
Both of these psalms are well-known and well-loved, of course, but for sheer fame it is difficult to top Psalm 23. Some of us memorized this already in Kindergarten and if it was true that at that age we did not quite grasp the concept of what it means to have enemies in life, the rest of the psalm radiated comfort and joy. The shepherd, green pastures, and still waters are the images that went on to launch a million stained glass windows and other art forms across the millennia.
What’s more, the promise of Psalm 23 was not lost on the Gospel writers, chief among whom was Mark. When Mark told the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 in Mark 6, he managed to weave together a panoply of biblical threads. Jesus as the shepherd is evoked when Jesus sees the crowds as being like sheep without a shepherd. So Jesus feeds them, first spiritually in his teachings and then physically in the multiplication of loaves and fishes. But when Mark set up the story, he repeatedly emphasized the fact that this all took place in a “desert” place (eremos in Greek and repeated three times in Mark 6) and yet when Jesus has the people sit down, they do so—Mark goes out of his way to tell us—upon the “green grass” (and since biblical writers rarely mentioned the color of anything, the inclusion of “green” here should arrest the careful reader’s attention!). Not only has the desert now bloomed apparently (cue Isaiah), but the reference to green pastures puts us right back into the heart of Psalm 23.
The God who did not spare his only Son for us is invested in our flourishing and so we know we can trust in this God at all times, in life and in death.
Yet at any given moment there are faithful followers of God who cannot see themselves in the lyric portraits of Psalms 16 and 23. Are they, therefore, cut off from God? Has God released them from his care, turned his back on them? Do you have to feel like the writer of Psalm 16 all the time, every day, to know God still loves you? No, but to see this truth, we turn to the next pair of psalms.
The Holy Spirit not only inspired the words of Scripture but the composition and editing of the Bible, too. We confess this as believers but now and then can see the tender care of that same Spirit through how the Spirit so compassionately arranged something like the Psalms. Because no sooner does something like Psalm 16 sketch a lyric portrait of calm and confident trust, and the Spirit—in a pastoral desire to leave no one out—immediately follows that poem with a lament and cry for help in the 17th psalm. And if Psalm 23 is famous for its depiction of being constantly cared for by a hyper attentive shepherd, you cannot get to that hope-filled picture without first passing through Psalm 22’s cries of dereliction and terror.
All of life can be brought to speech before God, the Hebrew Psalter teaches us across the breadth of its poetry. Thus if at any given moment in any given worshiping community there are people experiencing a Psalm 16/23 season of life, there are also those who finds themselves in extremis as they deal with the apparent slowness—if not the complete abandonment—of God. Let no worshiping community celebrate “The Lord is my shepherd” if they are not equally willing to give time to those who on a Sunday morning need to stand up and scream “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!!??”
The Spirit put Psalms 16/17 and Psalms 22/23 back-to-back for a reason. The psalms need to be admired for their honesty, and the psalmists themselves need to be admired for the pluckiness of their faith, for their courage to stand before the face of God to say without fear, “You’re messing up, O God! You’re moving a little slowly this week, O Lord! You’ve put my call on hold for long enough now, God—pick up the receiver and answer me!” If you can be a believer even after saying these bracing things to God, then the believing community comes to see that God truly is great and full of lovingkindness.
That extends even to the bottom line of lament psalms like the 17th and 22nd psalms. These ancient poets were not at all adverse to cornering God, parlaying with him, by as much as saying, “You want praise again, O Lord? Well, then come through for me. Scatter these vicious dogs that surround me, rout my enemies, come through on your promises and then—I promise—I will get back to singing stuff like Psalm 23.”
And apparently okay with God, too.
Christians who read especially Psalm 22 connect this to Jesus on the cross, of course. And some claim that by crying out Psalm 22:1, Jesus was sending a signal that what was really on his heart was the whole psalm, including the boost of confidence with which the poem concludes. Yes, it appears that Jesus is accusing his Father of abandoning him but don’t make too much of this (some say) because Jesus really wants you to pick up your Bible at that point and read also Psalm 22:25ff. But commentator Frederick Dale Bruner disagrees. When you are impaled on a spit of wood, Bruner notes, you don’t recite memory work from Sunday school in order to teach a Bible lesson! Jesus did feel abandoned and if the first verse of Psalm 22 is how he chose to articulate that, so be it but don’t on account of that undercut the rawness of his experience at that moment.
Jesus was the Godforsaken God and so knows now from the inside what so many believers experience at one time or another in their lives when they pass through seasons of lament and dereliction. That is a bold and startling truth.
It is also one of the most hope-filled truths anyone on earth has ever heard.
None of these psalms is among the best-known in the Bible. They exist in the shadow of their better-known cousins in Psalms 19 and 23. But in the cluster of poems from Psalm 15 through to Psalm 24, these three psalms are vital to read and to savor as they show the flip side of the cries of deliverance and mercy in the lament psalms just before and after them. At the end of the day, God is the great Deliverer, the cosmic Champion of all justice. Cries for help may go on and on for what feels like forever but at the end of the day, they are never ignored nor, therefore, were they ever uttered in vain. Believers never cry out to a God with a calloused heart or a flippant attitude toward seeing all wrongs righted. God is passionate about gaining victory over all that vandalizes the shalom he intended for this creation and is constantly taking steps to make sure that just that shalom will bust out all over.
“After great suffering, a formal feeling comes” Emily Dickinson once wrote. But for believers in God, after great suffering something else will eventually come, too: the assurance that God is triumphing and will triumph over all that threatens our flourishing. It began already very near the beginning when before the dust of the original sin had settled God stepped in with mercy abounding and with the grand promise that the origin of this wickedness would have its head crushed by and by.
The project that accomplished that in the end took a long time and had more than its share of fits and starts from the human side of things. Even as Abraham, Moses, David, and Israel generally displayed glaring failings along the way, God stayed true, kept winning victories large and small, and finally brought his only Son to the planet. Yet one afternoon, on a garbage heap known as Skull Hill, even that Son of God appeared to meet a very bad end.
But three days later God won the victory once and for all. “Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand” the poet wrote in Psalm 20:6. Those of us who know the ultimate “anointed” one as Christ the Lord understand that the truth of that verse happened in such a powerful way on a day now known as Easter that it cracked all of history clean in two.
In speech class when students practice the public reading of Scripture, I always listen to see if the student assigned Psalm 19 knows enough to rest a beat or two between verses 6 and 7 in order to signal the shift from a half-dozen verses on the glory of the sun to the next set of verses that center on the Law of God. These are clearly the two discrete topics of the 19th psalm, but on the surface of this poem, that shift also seems odd. Few people today, for instance, would typically respond to a glorious sunset over the ocean with a disquisition on the Ten Commandments.
Preachers often struggle with this psalm, too. How can you make a unified sermon on a psalm that shifts gears and changes the subject halfway through? Maybe it is best to preach two separate sermons on Psalm 19. But that would be a mistake.
It appears that the psalmist saw no incongruity, no disjunction between his lyric reflections on the all-powerful sun in the sky to his equally rhapsodic praise of God for the Law. For one thing, both are gifts of Almighty God. Both are related, too. Israel knew that the Torah, the Law, of God was a grace (and not a burden) because it represented the operating instructions for the creation.
The idea of “law,” the writer Frederick Buechner once observed, can be understood in two ways. On the one hand there is the “law” behind someone’s setting a highway speed limit at 65 MPH or the “law” of a “No Hunting” sign posted on the edges of someone’s property. This sense of law is somewhat arbitrary: the speed limit could be something else (and maybe it used to be 55 MPH even as a year from now someone might deem 70 MPH to be safe enough after all) and the next owner of a piece of property might decide to welcome hunters. Some laws are arbitrary and, therefore, are amendable.
But there is also the sense of “law” behind something like “the law of gravity.” This law is not arbitrary and cannot be repealed. On a highway you can drive 50 MPH or 70 MPH if you wish despite the posted signs requiring 65 MPH. But if you decide you don’t care for the law of gravity and opt, therefore, to defy that law by stepping off a sheer cliff . . .
God’s Law is of the second type. God’s commands and statutes and ordinances are not arbitrary hoops God just enjoys making us jump through nor are they God’s current ideas that could be amended at some future point. God’s Law is the operating manual for how things work in this world and if you want to flourish, you color inside God’s lines and stay within the boundaries marked off by God’s moral fences. Creation and Law are two great gifts of God and they are intimately related, too. You cannot enjoy and flourish in the Creation unless you savor the wisdom of the Law that regulates how things work.
Psalm 19 is the center of the cluster of psalms that extend from Psalms 15-24. The poems at the ends of this cluster invite us by grace to approach the Holy God of the universe. As we draw near to this God, we find our trust in him rising as we sense his enthusiasm for our very existence. But in a still fallen world, that trust will be tested—the tough times come and we lament the apparent slowness with which God seems to come to help us at times. But in the long run God does win the victory. He never finally abandons those who trust in him. And if there were every any doubt about that, seeing the glorious goodness of God’s power in creation and his tender care for us reflected in his Law re-centers us on all that is good and holy and loving about God. The God who took care to fashion something as brilliant as the sun and the God who took care to reveal to his people the Law that leads to life abundant will never abandon the works of his hands.
What can grateful followers of God do but say with the psalmist that at the end of every day and at the end of the cosmic day, our fondest hope and prayer is that “the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart will be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
Brown, William P. Psalms. Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 2010, pg. 97-107.
Sumpter, Philip. “The Coherence of Psalms 15-24.” From Biblica, vol. 94, fasc. 2. Gregorian Biblical Press, 2013, pg. 186-209.
Sumpter, Philip. Erich Zenger, ed. “Here Comes the Sun!” from The Composition of the Book of Psalms. Peeters: Leuven, Belgium, 2010, pg. 259-277.