Reading: Psalm 15
Alan L. Barrow
THIS psalm gives us a very impressive picture of the type of life that God approves and, if we were to believe what some people try to tell us about the remoteness and inaccuracy of the Old Testament, we might be surprised to find it there. In fact there is nothing more relevant than this passage. It strikes a chord in us. It is not only the life which God approves but that which we approve and wish to live.
I want to refer in particular to the words: “He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not” (verse 4). First of all, however, we need to consider the command given by our Lord: “Swear not at all” (Matthew 5:34). So far as I understand this, it means that there must be no question of double standards in our speech, as though we must speak the truth if we preface our words by such an expression as ‘honestly’ or ‘cross my heart’, but are excused from absolute veracity if we do not guarantee the truth in this way. No, there should be no need for special assurances by oath, for we must speak the truth all the time. For this purpose, then, we take the matter of swearing to mean promising. The sort of person of whom God approves is the one who keeps his promise even when such behaviour is unexpectedly costly.
We are not considering those who say what they are going to do and then do it, but with those who promise and then find that it is to their hurt. It often happens that we say that we are going to do something, only to find that it involves rather more than we had thought, and makes bigger demands on us than we had anticipated. We naturally shrink from what is going to hurt, and tend to look for some way of escape. It may be that some easier or cheaper alternative presents itself. It is true that we gave an undertaking, but we had not bargained for the hurt it would cause us, so we would be very glad to forget it all. The whole point is this. Are we ready for that sort of hurt? Is it a matter of established principle with us that when that sort of hurt emerges, we brace ourselves and say: ‘Yes, all right. We have given our word. We have said what we were undertaking to do. Hurt or no hurt, we continue.’ If we have not accepted this as a basic principle of our Christian life, then we will prove to be unreliable and by no means the sort of person described in this psalm. [108/109]
Of course, it is so easy to excuse ourselves. I have tried to think of some of the ways by which we try to get out of promises which prove costly. We can say that the circumstances have changed. We feel that this should be excuse enough. Things are different from what they were when we made the promise. Or we can say nothing at all, and escape by just letting things slide and hoping that nobody will notice. Even if they do not notice, we have failed in a basic quality of character. We have shown that we are not really dependable.
A POLICE SERGEANT once told me of an experience he had when he was posted to a very difficult station in the centre of London. Making the point of these difficulties, the officer-in-charge told him the names of four men whom he could always rely on. Subsequent enquiries showed that each of the four was a committed Christian. It should always be like this; bosses, principals, heads and others should be able to count on the absolute dependability of true Christians. One does not have to be bright or clever to be dependable. One does not need to have particular gifts. It is a very simple thing, and yet it is increasingly costly in contemporary society, where people feel free enough to change their serious undertakings, provided that there is no final, legal sealing of the contract. The same attitude is commonly adopted towards the matter of marriage. Modern society says that if it hurts more than you bargained for you should break it off. Now most of us find at some time or other that married life is not all ‘take’, but involves a great deal of giving too. There are moments in some marriages where the ‘giving’ is so costly, and perhaps so unexpectedly demanding that the world judges that it is not worth it. The Christian is never to adopt the world’s standards; he is committed to the will of God and part of that will consists in swearing to one’s hurt and not changing.
To continue faithfully with our original agreement is an important part of human relationships. Dependability is essential for true fellowship. We do not live in this world on our own. We have relationships with others which are tremendously important, for they concern our standing before God. The most important of all is obviously our relationship with God Himself, and for this it is absolutely axiomatic that we stand by what we have sworn. It is also fundamental that we be dependable in our fellowship relationships, since He has united us with others and the union cannot function for the glory of His name unless we are reliable in all our ways.
SURELY it is a valuable exercise to face up to this challenge. One thing will obviously emerge, and that is that we must be more careful of what we say. We must not be swept into rash, enthusiastic promises without considering what they involve. It is, of course, so pleasant to be able to make helpful promises. Our main motive may be to impress people or we may be genuinely anxious to give assistance, but the crucial point is, do we carry our promises into execution, even when it is most inconvenient to do so. Of course an even worse fault is to commit other people, in your church or in your group, saying: ‘leave that to us. We will attend to that’. It is more than likely that the others will let you down, and then you may feel that you have a valid excuse for opting out yourself. But have you? Are you really one who goes by God’s standards rather than men’s? It is not that this matter is so exceptional, as was the great historic case of Jephthah the judge. Swearing to one’s hurt is part of the fabric of Christian life. If it were so exceptional it would not have found a place in this psalm. Life is full of the ‘hurts’ which come from the unexpected cost of fulfilling an undertaking. Above all else, we must not involve the Lord by saying that our guidance has changed. It says nothing about that here. If we had resolved to do some evil thing, then of course God would convince us and constrain us to renounce our purpose, but I cannot believe that God provides special guidance just to get us out of the inconvenience of keeping our word. Nor must we imagine that God is always so keen to save us from ‘hurt’. He did not protect His Son from hurt, and is not committed to treating us in any different way.
IN fact we may get light on this psalm if we apply it to Christ, who certainly proved Himself fit to dwell in God’s holy hill. How dependable He always was! When He came into the world He described his future behaviour in the words: “I delight to do thy will, O my God …” (Psalm 40:8). Now if ever there was a statement, a promise, which was tested to the very limit, this was it. If ever anyone swore to his own hurt, the Lord Jesus did. This statement of intention was carried right through to the end — the bitter [109/110] end, for the cross is always painful. If by ‘delight’ we imagine superficial happiness or ecstatic feelings, we realise that the prophetic words could never have meant this. No, what He meant was that He intended to find a deep, heart satisfaction in keeping His undertaking to do the Father’s will, cost what it might. So He never thought in terms of evasion, of excuses, of leaving it to someone else, not even of calling in heavenly legions to deliver Him, but kept to His original undertaking to do the Father’s will. In Gethsemane there was no doubt about the ‘hurt’ of it. He cried out in anguish that if there were any other way it might be shown to Him. But He was God’s true Man, and as such He kept His word, praying: “howbeit, not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36). So Psalm 15 presents us not only with a standard and a challenge, but with a Person. He is the Person who will “never be moved” from His place at the Father’s right hand.
Recently I was called for jury service, and received some instructions which contained a paragraph under the heading ‘Excusal’. Among other things it said: ‘To be called to service on a jury necessarily involves to some degree a burden upon every person called. It is only for exceptional reasons, therefore, that excusal from service can be granted.’ How truly this applies to us as Christians. Those who are going to serve will necessarily find that this involves to some degree a burden. It was certainly true of Christ’s service. It necessarily involved for Him a burden to a very large degree. Unlike the burden of jury service, however, this one will result in our being conformed to the image of Christ, which is God’s objective whenever He places a burden upon us. What is being achieved in our lives now is something which is not only for time, but will affect our relationship with God for all eternity. It is all part of His work through Christ to number us among those who can sojourn in His tabernacle, and dwell in His holy hill. So let us ignore the ‘hurt’. Let us gladly accept the ‘burden’. One day we will thank God for it, when we leave behind the “light affliction” and enter into “the eternal weight of glory”.