A psalm of ideals, and human frailty.
"A Psalm of David. LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?" (verse 1)
Who may, indeed? The previous psalm, Psalm 14, concluded with the declaration that no one is righteous ("no not one!" vs.3), and all are godless at heart. We are a fallen race, and apart from God's grace, a hopeless bunch! Yet, here David asks the LORD, in contemplating the future of Jerusalem, who would be fit to live in such a holy city.
David had just recently reconquered Jerusalem for the people of the Lord after centuries of Jebusite occupation. Previously known as the ancient city of Salem, Jerusalem had long ago been a center of the worship of the LORD (see Genesis 14:17-20 and Hebrews 7:1-10). David desires this holy city to once again be a place of worship, and even made preparations for a temple to be built on the sight he purchased to make a sacrifice to God (2 Chronicles 3:1); his son Solomon would complete this temple. In pondering the future of this holy city, David no doubt wondered if it's inhabitants would have the same heart after God as he did. If you founded a city, and stood looking out over it, pondering it's future, what kind of citizens would you hope would make up it's populace? Selfish, greedy, deceitful, immoral, lazy, or violent? Probably not. Characteristics like hard working, honest, intelligent, diligent, generous, peacemaking, and loyal might be a few that you would desire present in those who would call your city their home. So, David poses the question, "LORD, who may live here?"
"He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart; he who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but he honors those who fear the LORD; he who swears to his own hurt and does not change; he who does not put out his money at usury, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent." (verses 2-5a)
These are the characteristics David lists, and in reading them, I wish I lived in a city of people like that! Is there any such place on earth?
An "upright walk" is a lifestyle of integrity. To "work righteousness" is to do the right thing, no matter how hard or unpopular. To "speak the truth in the heart" is to be as righteous on the inside as you are on the outside... the main idea here is authenticity, not hypocrisy. To "backbite with the tongue" is to slander. To do "evil to a neighbor" implies two-faced and disloyal relationships with those who trust you. To "take up a reproach against a friend" means to turn on someone who would look to you to defend them. To "despise a vile person" is to see evil as it is in reality... as evil, and to hate it. Don't call evil good, and good evil, just to avoid offending a person who loves and practices evil. Conversely, the same discernment that calls evil evil, also calls good good. This ideal citizen would give honour to those people who fear God, praising and admiring them. To "swear to your own hurt and not change" speaks of oaths and covenants, and implies faithfulness, no matter how hard it is to keep one's end of the bargain. To "put out money at usury" is to be a loan shark... someone who lends money with a high interest rate, that in turn accumulates debt rapidly and can devastate the life of the borrower. To "take a bribe" is to accept money, gifts, or position in exchange for corrupting justice in favour of the "briber."
These eleven attributes are all alike in this: they speak of the character of a man in relationship to those he dwells near... his fellow citizens. This is the ideal governor, law enforcement agent, merchant, judge, tradesman, employer, employee, lawyer, doctor, pastor, co-worker, friend, or neighbor. This is a socially exemplary individual. There are many traits of godliness and Christ-likeness that could be listed as important for an inhabitant of the holy city, but here, the psalmist under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit simply lists the most relationally practical ones.
"He who does these things shall never be moved." (verse 5b)
David concludes that if Jerusalem was indeed packed with such upstanding citizens, nothing could ever shake or harm them. And he's right. God had promised the Jewish people blessing for living in obedience to His law, and these eleven characteristics certainly fall inside the laws of God. Thus, Jerusalem was guaranteed a bright future should many of such lawful people live within it's walls. Yet, in reading the history of Jerusalem, David's words of conditional blessing only serve to make the reality all the more grievous. The prophets and chronicles of the Bible reveal that, sadly, the citizens of Jerusalem were, at many times, no more righteous than people anywhere else... no more righteous than us. "They have all turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one." (Psalm 14:3) Tragically, but not unexpectedly, destruction always followed. A covenant of law, based totally upon man's commitment to do right, will always fail, for man himself is fallen. Although there have always been a few who have walked in God's ways as best as they were able, no entire lot of such perfect citizens have ever populated Jerusalem.
Take notice, however, of the singular form of the noun David uses in this last verse: "he." Not they, them, we, or us, but a singular "he;" David is not specifying gender, per say, but individuality. While contextually, this is about a group of people who make up a city and nation, David keeps the subject singular throughout the entire psalm. The reason, I believe, is that God looks, and always has, at the heart of the individual. Jesus died for all of mankind, yet He is also the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one lost sheep. God, it says in 2 Chronicles 16:9, searches the hearts of all people on the earth, looking for a single heart who He can show Himself strong on behalf of, one who will entirely trust Him. That is who He is looking for as citizens of His Kingdom. Not the perfect. Not the excellent. Not the best. He desires, rather, those whose boast will be not in themselves, but in His mercy. The broken heart, the shattered confidence, the contrite spirit.... these are the characteristics that God is seeking after. He seeks after those who will find their righteousness solely in Him.
Who may abide in the LORD's tabernacle and dwell in His holy hill? The one perfect Man, Jesus Christ, and all who are made righteous in Him. In Him, we shall never be moved. "But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God." (Acts 20:24)