I’ve recently heard Psalm 15 preached, written a Bible study on it, and am contemplating writing a sermon on it. Below are some questions that I think are fundamental to correct interpretation of the Psalm within redemptive history. I’ve also included my initial answers to these questions. Please feel free to comment or add questions that you think are fundamental to understanding the Psalm.
Question: So what is this ‘sanctuary’ and ‘holy hill’ that David is talking about? Look up a number of cross-references: Exodus15:17; Exodus 25:8-9; 2 Samuel 7:1-17.
Answer: I think there’s more than one answer to this question depending upon which group of readers we’re considering. At the time of the writing of the Psalm, the sanctuary was the tabernacle (cf. Ex. 25:8-9) – this is especially in line with the original Hebrew which renders the word as ‘tent’. The ‘holy hill’ was most likely initially a reference to Sinai, but perhaps with expectation of a future ‘holy hill’ (cf. Ex. 15:17). The post-exilic community would have read it slightly differently, perhaps combining the two places into the temple on Mount Zion which was set up after David’s reign (cf. 2Sam. 7:1-17). The common denominator however, is that this sanctuary and ‘holy hill’ were synonymous with the presence of God. It was here, in its different expressions, that God’s deepest presence on earth was manifest.
Question: So what is David really asking then?
Answer: Who can live with God? Who can dwell, in some earthly sense, in the presence of God?
Question: Is that the same as asking who can go to heaven? Why or why not?
Answer: This is possibly the crux question for understanding how to interpret and apply this passage to the New Testament believer today, as well as the original readers. Common teaching on this passage is that ultimately it is asking the question, ‘who can go to heaven’, since God’s presence is ultimately in heaven. One presumes that this line of teaching is adopted in order to iron out any hint of works based entrance into God’s presence. The problem with this view is that it fails to take into account the psalm’s position in a redemptive historical context.
David, as the anointed king, of the redeemed covenant community is able to, along with the rest of the covenant community, offer sacrifices at the tabernacle. Similarly the post-exilic community can offer sacrifices in the temple. Their complete access is still limited and mediated through priests, but limited access has been apportioned the community. This limited access exists because the community has already been redeemed and so Wilcock, ‘the tent is also the Tent-as-Home, into which God invites those he has already made friends.’ (Italics mine). This paints the Psalm in a slightly different light, no longer is Romans 3, and man’s inability to be righteous, this psalm’s New Testament counterpart, but rather something more along the lines of the Sermon on the Mount – what life in the kingdom looks like.