Grace In the Old Testament: A Meditation on Psalms 14-16

Bryan CribbBryan Cribb, Devotions

The synagogue in Antioch was in a state of chaos that day. A mob had formed. Lynching was on its mind. Raised fists, stomping feet and cries of “blasphemy” had kicked up a cloud of dust, fury and deadly intentions.

In the midst of the mob stood one man — now quiet, almost peaceful, yet determined.

The first rock hit him from behind. Suddenly, a barrage of boulders flew from the angry rabble. A young man in the back nodded his head “in hearty agreement” (Acts 8:1). He began to gather the clothes of the mob — returning them to their rightful owners. Saul was happy. Joyous. Another heretic had been exterminated. Judaism was being purified.  Indeed, as Paul would later write of himself, “He was advancing in his faith.” He believed he was doing right by persecuting a church which he thought to be false, foolish and out of God’s will. He believed that these “good deeds” would guarantee him salvation.  That opinion was soon to change. Some time later on a lonely road to Damascus, the One he was persecuting appeared to him — shining a light into Saul’s spiritual darkness.

Have you ever thought about what exactly Jesus showed Paul? Well, He revealed to him that the One he was persecuting was indeed God incarnate.  But he showed more. Paul, with one flash of light, came face to face with his total inability in the face of this Holy God. Paul, the Pharisee. Paul, who thought he had lived his life by God’s law. Paul, who was full of good works according to the Jewish authorities. This Paul now knew there was no good in him. All his efforts to justify himself were null and void. Providentially, Paul was rescued by God from his sin. He had come to realize in that road God’s requirements and God’s justice, but also God’s grace. But were these new ideas? Was this something that Paul invented? What does the Old Testament teach?

Most people think of the Old Testament as unbearable law and the crushing wrath of God. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Old Testament does speak of God’s provision of goodness where we have none, of God’s grace in salvation when we had no hope and of God’s gift of righteousness to needy, unrighteous sinners. Three Psalms — Psalms 14, 15, and 16 — tell this story. I came on this insight while reading these Psalms in my quiet time. I was struck with how they were arranged. Psalm 15 seemed to ask a question. Psalm 14 seemed to pose a problem to that question. And Psalm 16 seemed to solve the question and the problem.  I looked in several commentaries and no one talked about how these psalms were arranged. However, a lot of work is being done these days on seeing connections in the psalms. Some of the psalms are linked by key words. Some by ideas. And some ask questions, only to be answered by others. In a way, they may be expositing one another. I think the latter case is perhaps what we have here. These three psalms, I believe may have been deliberately put together by the “inspired compiler,” if you will, for the purpose of teaching a point and explaining each other.

First, Psalm 15. The Psalmist there asks, “Who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?”  Why is this important?  Why would we want this? See for example Psalm 24 — a parallel passage to Psalm 15. There, the one who ascends Yahweh’s hill (v. 3) will receive blessings and righteousness (v. 5). In a word, salvation is in God’s presence. However, there are some requirements. Reading on in Psalm 15, we find that, in order to dwell in God’s presence, we should walk blamelessly and speak truthfully (v. 3), be just and upright (v. 4) and be generous (v. 5).  So, we may be thinking, “Hey, I could probably do that. I’m not a bad person. I walk pretty blamelessly.” However, there is a problem. Psalm 15 comes immediately following Psalm 14.  In this chapter, the Psalmist proclaims that no one does good. No one seeks God. All are corrupt. So, the answer to the question in Psalm 15 — “Who shall dwell in your tent?” and “Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” — is no one.

Why? No one has walked blamelessly. No one has spoke truthfully. No one is just. No one is completely selfless. Etc. Etc. Why can’t someone still dwell in God’s tent though?  What’s the problem with sin in the presence of God? God is infinitely holy. And we are infinitely sinful. “Any sin is more or less heinous depending upon the honor and majesty of the one whom we had offended,” Jonathan Edwards wrote once. “Since God is of infinite honor, infinite majesty, and infinite holiness, the slightest sin is of infinite consequence. The slightest sin is nothing less than cosmic treason when we realize against whom we have sinned.” So, we have committed sin against the high God. Thus, not only should we not enter His presence, not only should we not dwell on His holy hill, but we also deserve death and eternal punishment. This is what Paul realized on the Damascus Road.

What is the solution to this unsolvable dilemma? Psalm 16:2 offers the answer. Look at Psalm 16, verse 2.

“I have no good apart from you” (NRSV, ESV, NAS), David writes.

The text here is quite uncertain, and its difficulties would take too long to explain. However, the text of verse 2 as it stands — and indeed the entire psalm — testifies of God’s grace, His watchcare in danger and His provision of a salvation unachievable through human means.  God causes David to dwell securely (v. 9). He does not allow David to go down to Sheol (v. 10). He makes known to David the path of life, and allows him to find pleasures forever in His presence (v. 11). So, this is the beauty of salvation — testified to even in the Old Testament. We need not depend on our own righteousness or works in order to dwell in God’s holy presence. Indeed, we are given the “good” we need by God.

As New Testament Christians we know this righteousness comes from Christ. God considers us, when we become Christians to have Christ’s righteousness — or right relation to God. So the non-Christian’s prayer must be as Martin Luther prayed. It is a prayer that Paul himself might have prayed. “Lord Jesus … You have taken upon Yourself what is mine and given me what is Yours. You have become what You were not so that I might become what I am not.” But, for the Christian, we must daily pray similarly.

As A.W. Pink writes, “Just as the sinner’s despair of any hope from himself is the first prerequisite of a sound conversion, so the loss of all confidence in himself is the first essential in the believer’s growth in grace.”

Commit to grow in grace by daily dying to self and living in the victory of the glorious knowledge of God’s work on our behalf — found in both the New and the Old Testaments.