Pastor William Flippin Jr.: Psalm 15: God's Tent Rules


Tents: a training ground for right living.

I am still very excited that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted the social statement of The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries. The statement was adopted at the 2013 Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh by a vote of 882 to 25 on August 16th, 2013.

The action of the almost 900 delegates reminds me of being in a tent, temporary housing as during our assembly time, also a tent is movable housing-reminiscent of what we must act upon on this statement. The scenery outside the tent is different with each move, but inside, it's the same. And when you're literally pulling up stakes day after day, the fact that you can count on your little nylon house to be the same at each place makes the moving easier. The tent that we embrace is that we are members of the ELCA, embracing the creeds and doctrines of our faith yet affirming that we must move toward the movement of justice and social change.

Who can abide in the tent of the Lord?

All this is to help us think about Psalm 15, which begins, "O Lord, who may abide in your tent?"

Actually, the psalmist is using "tent" in a metaphorical way, for he's talking about the temple, which was a substantial, permanent structure.

But it was common to refer to the temple as a tent because God's first dwelling among the people of Israel was a tent. In the wilderness, as the Israelites were on the move during the exodus from Egypt, God instructed them to construct a movable sanctuary with the Ark of the Covenant in its innermost chamber. Its outer area was for burning sacrifices. This was the tabernacle, the tent that members of the Israelite tribe of Levi moved from camp to camp. In each location, the Levites set up the tabernacle in the center of camp, symbolizing God's presence at the center of the Israelites' lives.

The psalmist's purpose is to give the Israelites a picture of holy living, the kind of living that fits with abiding in the Lord's tent. Thus, the opening questions are addressed to God, for only God can set the standard for entry into his dwelling: "O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?" The rest of the psalm answers those questions, with what we might call the Lord's tent rules. (It's possible that Psalm 15 was a kind of catechism, in which a teacher asks the questions and the learners recite the answers.) According to the psalm, the people who could abide in the Lord's tent were like the delegates of the ELCA who affirmed this statement:

  • those who walk blamelessly and do what is right,
  • those who don't slander others or mistreat their friends,
  • those who despise the wicked and honor the God-fearing,
  • those who keep their word, even when it costs them,
  • those who don't lend money at interest (those needing loans were generally the poor, so exacting interest from them made their situation even worse and was thus considered wrong),
  • those who don't take bribes against the innocent.

Clearly these "rules" defined a holy life, so that those who kept these practices were pleasing God. And such persons were welcome not only to enter the Lord's tent but even to "abide" and "dwell" there.

There are no exact parallels between the Lord's tent rules and those of group camping, but there's a similarity in how both sets apply to community life. Both sets of rules are intended to place limits on one's personal behavior so the whole community can live together in harmony and everyone can benefit.

Likewise, the Lord's tent rules weren't specific requirements. No one was at the temple door with a checklist examining each person who sought entry to certify that he or she had kept each of these "rules." Rather, they're a snapshot of what holy living looks like.

The "rules" reflect God's character.

It is ironic that, in spite of express biblical condemnation for the practice of charging interest on loans to the poor (Exodus 22:24; Leviticus 25:35-37; Deuteronomy 23:20-21; Ezekiel 18:13; Psalms 15:5; Proverbs 28:8).

Yet they aren't based merely on what strike people as good ideas; for elsewhere in Scripture, many of these same phrases are used to describe God's character. For example, Deuteronomy 10:17-18 says, "For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing." It is quite interesting that the tent rules in living in community require us to hear the cries of those who are disenfranchised; the poorest consumers in the American economy pay the very highest interest rates.

We need to abide with some tent rules to the 60 to 70 million adults in the U.S. that do not have any type of bank account. This allows pawnshops, rent-to-own stores, car-title lenders and payday lenders to be labeled the "usurers of the modern age" which dispel the cries of the poor, the widow and orphan.

The psalm's promise.

Psalm 15 ends with a promise. After giving the examples of holy living, it concludes with "Those who do these things shall never be moved." That's not talking about staying in the same location. The Hebrew word translated as "moved" here is rendered elsewhere in Scripture as "shaken" and as "fall down." The implication is that when we live a holy life, regardless of where we are, we're abiding in God's tent, and God is present with us to keep us from falling ... no matter what happens.


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