Eugene Peterson paraphrases Psalm 15:1 this way:
“GOD, who gets invited to dinner at your place? How do we get on your guest list?”
Or we might state it this way:
Lord God, what is it like to be the kind of person who is fit to live in Your Presence from day to day?
Verse 2 gives us the response to this question:
הוֹלֵךְ תָּמִים וּפֹעֵל צֶדֶק וְדֹבֵר אֱמֶת בִּלְבָבוֹ
“Those who walk perfectly, and do what is right, and speak the truth in their heart….”
I provided my own translation above, because the language is strong: “walk perfectly.” The word תָּמִים (tāmiym) occurs frequently in the Old Testament. One source I consulted says it occurs 85 times in the Old Testament. It refers to the sacrificial lamb that is “without blemish.” It has been variously translated: “without blemish”, “perfect” “complete” “finished” “blameless.” The translators of the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) generally translated this word by the Greek word τέλειος, also meaning “perfect” or complete. τέλειος is the word used in Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (NRSV) (ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι ὡς ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος τέλειός ἐστιν.)
This is the call to Christian perfection. The Bible raises this call throughout its pages. But, it is not “perfection” in an absolute sense — however strange that may sound. It is “perfection” in the sense of a heart wholly devoted to God.
Our common ways of thinking make this call heard to hear. It is our reliance on Platonic conceptions of ideal perfection that causes us to draw back. Nobody’s perfect, we say. Well, yes, in a sense. But, an ideal, unachievable perfection is impossible by definition. The Old Testament writers did not have the problem that we do with words like “righteous” or “perfect.” We have become infected with some sort of Platonism in which such “perfection” is unachievable by definition. The Bible speaks to what can be achieved and experienced.
And, too often the Church’s “Gospel” has become something like this: God demands of us an unachievable standard of righteousness. No one can live up to it. God is so mad at us because we cannot live up to this impossible standard of righteousness that he wants to send us all to Hell. But, Jesus came and fulfilled the impossible standard of righteousness (try not to think about this part too much), and went to the Cross. Then God could vent His righteous anger on Christ instead of us so that we could be forgiven. All that is required is intellectual assent, and a person is forgiven. (Some churches teach that the person is forgiven for sins past, present, and future: suggesting that the believer has free license to sin from that point on.) We are just as Hell-deserving as before, but God now looks at Christ’s perfect righteousness instead of our sinful rottenness. They “say: Christians aren’t perfect they’re just forgiven.” (There is no part of that sort of “Gospel” with which I agree.)
It’s no wonder skeptics see Christians as people who condemn the world for their various sins, while making excuses for their own!
All too often, they do!
What kind of a Gospel is that? No kind!
And, anyway: the Biblical writers don’t seem to have been operating with this notion of an unachievable standard of righteousness at all! The Biblical language is relational, not philosophical. The Bible routinely speaks of “the righteous” — that is, people who live with an eye to God and God’s command. It is clear: they believed such people existed.
If we consistently translated תָּמִים (tāmiym) as “perfect” we would find the standard of perfection mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. Genesis 6:9: “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation; Noah walked with God.” Genesis 17:1: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be perfect.'” Deuteronomy 18:13: “You must be perfect before the Lord your God.” In 2 Samuel 22:21-25 David says: “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his ordinances were before me, and from his statutes I did not turn aside. I was perfect before him, and I kept myself from guilt. Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to my cleanness in his sight.” Psalms 18:32: “It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect.” Psalms 37:18: “The days of the perfect are known to the Lord, and their inheritance will endure forever.” Psalms 84:11: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is perfect.” Psalms 119:1: “Blessed are they whose ways are perfect, who walk according to the law of the Lord.”
This is just a small sampling. The word is used commonly. Sometimes it is used to describe the quality of the animals to be offered in sacrifice: “without blemish.” Sometimes it is used of God and God’s ways. “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the Lord is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in him.” (Psalms 18:30 NIV)
And it is in this context we must understand Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (See also my comments on this here: On Peace, Love and Perfection.)
Jesus speaks of the same “perfection” the Old Testament writers wrote about: not a static and absolute perfection, not a theoretical perfection: but, a lived-out devotion to God and to God’s purposes.
And, then, Psalm 15:2 reminds us: this is a life of honesty “Those who walk perfectly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart….”
This probably should be translated: “speak the truth in their heart.” Inner honesty is what God desires. This is the essence of personal integrity.
Good liars lie first to themselves. The deceit is internal before it becomes external. The liar is the first victim of the lie.
A life with God includes a commitment to honesty and integrity. Thus, the Bible often emphasizes truth and truthfulness. “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (Psalms 51:6 NRSV).
Confession of sin is a basic exercise in truth-telling. We tell the truth about ourselves to God and to ourselves. Our rationalizations and excuses end. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” (Psalms 51:4 NRSV).
The prayer of our heart is; “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalms 139:23,24 NRSV).
I do not want the character of my life to grieve or harm the cause of Your Kingdom in this world.
I offer myself to you.
I make no excuses.
Hear my prayer.
Fill me anew with your Holy Spirit,
that my desires and actions would glorify You.
And as I walk through life,
we would walk together
with one heart and will.
Through Jesus Christ,