Knowing a holy God

A sermon on Psalm 15

In the middle of 1972, when I was four years old, a man on the other side of the world completed a book that would eventually sell over a million copies and be translated into more than a dozen languages. The author was theologian J. I. Packer, and the book was titled Knowing God.

Packer is a great modern Puritan. He knows a lot about God, and godliness. But in chapter two of Knowing God, he observes, “One can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of him.”[1]

The main purpose of his book is to encourage readers to move from an academic awareness of certain facts about God to a personal, vibrant, relational, experiential knowledge of God.

What does it mean to know God? And how does one do it? In this sermon, and the four that follow, I want to reflect on five biblical Psalms, discovering what they tell us about God, and how we can know God, or know God better, and how we can grow in godliness.

Christians have probably come to know God better through reading, praying and singing the Psalms than any other Old Testament book. The Psalms cover many themes. They are intellectually and emotionally stimulating. They answer some of our biggest questions. They raise new questions without providing tidy answers. They give voice to our deepest aspirations, fears, joy, pain, uncertainty, desperation, surprise, grief, courage and hope.

Central to the Psalms is the assumption that you and I may have a vibrant personal relationship with the living God, as God reaches out to us, a relationship shared by and enriching our community of faith.

The book of Psalms is not a collection of timeless religious poetry. It grew over time to become ancient Israel’s hymnbook, and selections featured in public and private worship of the ancient people of God. There are three major kinds of psalms: praise, lament, and thanksgiving; and four minor genres: psalms of confidence, psalms of remembrance, wisdom psalms, and kingship psalms.

Psalm 15 is a wisdom psalm, a teaching psalm, contrasting wise and foolish people, just and unjust actions. The psalm contains ten ethical phrases, or watchwords, that seem to pay homage to the Ten Commandments of Moses (Ex 20:2-17), and anticipate the nine radical Beatitudes of Jesus (Mt 5:3-12), although only one phrase specifically echoes a Commandment (v. 3b, about doing good to one’s neighbour, echoing Ex 20:16).

Like Psalm 1, this Psalm “is not so much giving rules as painting a portrait of the kind of man [or woman] who can remain in God’s presence.”[2] Not “Whom should we allow in?” but “Who dares to enter? Who is fit to stand before the God who is holy?” (v. 1, cf Lev 10:3; 1 Cor 11:27-32).

There are no rules of entry or initiation, no conditions that must be met by people who long to belong. What we have in vv. 2-5 is short descriptions of people who already belong!

While people long ago gathered at the Tabernacle, and later went to the temple, and we go to church, the reality is (both then and now) that God has made his home among us! This is the mercy and grace of God in action. This is the perfect God identifying with broken humans.

God first promised to live among his people when all of them were wandering, living in tents. Israel’s spiritual leaders never forgot that. For Christians, this idea of God dwelling in a sacred tent has deeper resonance still, for we believe that God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Word, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us … full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). Jesus pitched his tent among us, quite literally, as we saw in last week’s sermon (1 Tim 3:16).

Verse 1 asks a question, calling God’s people to examine their consciences, because God is among them, and God is holy (Lev 19:2). The answer says nothing about appropriate head coverings or clothes, or the removal of shoes, or desirable economic, ethnic, academic or age-related qualities, or gender, or social class. It says nothing about familiarity with the liturgy, or what are the appropriate words to recite, or what kind of offering to give.

What the living God requires of his people is a pure heart and an ethical life; those who belong to God must be people of integrity. There is a progression from the particular to the general, which is captured if we read the phrases in reverse order.

The last three qualities (vv. 4c-5b) urge legal and economic integrity, while the remaining seven (vv. 2a-4b) relate to personal and relational integrity: don’t abuse your position, or your resources.

v. 5b: “who does not accept a bribe against the innocent” – bribery and corruption were the absolute opposite of what justice demanded (Deut 27:25).

v. 5a: “who lends money to the poor without interest” – lending money to another Israelite at interest was forbidden by law (Ex 22:25; Lev 25:37; Ezek 18:8, 13). To do so would be to take unfair advantage of the needy, an abrogation of community relationship and responsibility.

Biblical scholar John Goldingay observes, “In any society people with power and money are subject to particular temptations, and this psalm reminds them that they need to resist them if they want to spend time in [God’s] presence.”[3]

An example? A recent Baptist Care Australia discussion paper on housing and homelessness advocates that landlords offer low rental terms to those who genuinely can’t afford to rent decent housing.

v. 4d: “who does not change their mind” – whose word is their bond.

v. 4c: “who keeps an oath even when it hurts” – solemn oaths must be kept, even reckless ones (e.g. Josh 9:14-15, 19-20).

v. 4a, b: “who despises a vile person, but honours those who fear the Lord” – that is, anyone whom God has rejected because of persistent evil or rebellion (cf Ps 101:6-7).

Be careful of the company you keep. Choose friends wisely, because they will profoundly influence you for good or ill.

v. 3c: “who casts no slur on others” – don’t harm the good reputation of others. Don’t verbally abuse people. Speak well of them, or not at all.

v. 3b: “who does no wrong to a neighbour” – instead, do good!

v. 3a: “whose tongue utters no slander” – again: watch your words.

v. 2c: “who speaks the truth from their heart” – accurately, sincerely, without exaggeration or resorting to half-truths to gain advantage over others.

v. 2b: “who does what is righteous” – over time, this becomes a habit.

v. 2a: “whose walk is blameless” – if people who know us well can legitimately say this of us, it is not too much to declare that we have reached the ideal, we may dare to have fellowship with God, to walk with God, to dwell with God.

Such a person “will never be shaken” (v. 5c) because they no longer trust in their own strength and abilities, but in God’s. Such people are also clothed with humility, and rarely seek the spotlight. Those who know them well clearly see that they are different, that God is their foundation, centre, joy and strength.

It is only in God’s presence, in God’s house, in God’s family, in fellowship with God, that we find true sanctuary from the unfriendly, uncertain, faltering, collapsing world. There is no better place to be than in God’s presence, in God’s house, in God’s family, in fellowship with the living God. And the path to this place is through Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn 14:6).

After his resurrection, Jesus walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and fell into conversation with two sad, seemingly hopeless men. Part of that remarkable, scintillating conversation involved Jesus explaining how “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Lk 24:44).

Psalm 15 anticipates Jesus. He is the one whose character, words and actions perfectly reflect the image of the godly person in Psalm 15.

Jesus is the one perfectly fit to dwell in the sacred tent of Israel’s God. He is the one whose character and actions are faithfully and consistently reflected in the virtues described in Psalm 15. He is the one who does no wrong, whose walk is blameless, and who will never be shaken.

Jesus calls us now to follow him, cultivating virtuous character, modelling godly behaviour, doing good to others, sharing hope, bringing glory to God, learning more about God and godliness day by day.

Above all, as we press on in radical Christian discipleship, Jesus calls us to know God ever more clearly and ever more deeply, and opens the way to find our place in God’s glorious presence forever.

Sermon 633 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 30 August 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). Image source:

[1] J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), p. 26.

[2] John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 1: Psalms 1-41 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 224, quoting Rogerson & McKay, Psalms, 1:64.

[3] Ibid., p. 224.

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