Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Christian author Rick Morgan.
In the previous article, we looked at the qualities of integrity, righteousness and truth that define the man who abides in the presence of God, taken from verse 2 of Psalm 15. This poem written to the denizens of heaven deserves another look, and we’ll start at verse 3:
He does not slander with his tongue,
Nor does evil to his neighbor,
Nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
This man of God, who has woven the qualities of godliness into his life at every level, is now described in terms of how he treats others. These are the visible attributes of the character described in verse 2. The first three clauses are negatives, stating what this man does not do: he does not slander, he does no evil to his neighbor, and he does not attack the character of his friend.
The word that is translated by “slander” is the Hebrew word “regel” which means, oddly enough, the foot. In the original language this word was used as an idiom for traveling or patrolling through an area, placing the feet in a place to indicate discovery or arrival. We might translate this passage as: “He does not walk through the life of another with his tongue”, or more literally, “He does not set foot with his tongue”. There’s an interesting picture. We could imagine a man who verbally explores the life of another by conjecturing about his life with gossip; leaving trash and muddy footprints all through the character of someone for the sake of entertaining small-talk. Its like sneaking into another man’s orchard to steal some apples and then carving initials into some of the trees to pass the time. Doing harm out of boredom.
The fact that this man does no evil to his neighbor (the next clause) seems rather obvious- Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets under the heading of Love, and doing evil overtly contradicts all that love teaches us. We don’t really need to ask whether or not we should do evil, even the pagan understands that position; bad is bad. However we could ask what evil is. This is really what so much of our moral debate is about today. Many in the secular world shy away from applying the term “evil” because it implies a moral judgment that they find offensive. For the Christian, however, this question is easily defined. Evil is whatever God says it is. Not only that, but evil can be understood as the antithesis of good. In verse 2 of this psalm, we saw godly goodness defined as integrity, righteousness, and truth. Thus, evil would be hypocrisy, unrighteousness, and dishonesty. Jesus’ axiom of love is that whatever is unloving is evil. Not tolerance, but love. (We will discuss the vulgar abuse of the term “tolerance” by our culture some other time.)
In the third statement, to “take up a reproach” is an awkward term in modern English, but the sense from the Hebrew is to cast scorn upon, or to defame or dishonor another. Much more than gossip as mentioned above, this is to impute blame in order to harm the character of someone. Here, the goal is to urge others to doubt the moral fiber of the person. This is the worst of the three ideas in this verse, being an attack on the very core of another; trying to intentionally damage them in the forum of public opinion. The idea of “taking up a reproach” suggests to give ear to such things. We must never be eager to listen to these attacks any more than we should be willing to repeat them.
In these three statements there is an ascending order of harm. Gossip or tale bearing hurts by speculating on their lives, and generating innuendo. Taking some evil action hurts more by placing someone at a disadvantage in their lives. Scorning hurts most of all as it viciously attacks the soul of the person. We have not only chosen to entertain ourselves at the expense of others, we have a variety of flavors to keep it from getting dull. Sometimes we indulge in the milder forms of this character assassination and then celebrate our restraint.
That wind of conviction that you feel blows upon us all. These things ought not to be. Are our lives so devoid of interesting things to talk about that we must casually vandalize the integrity of others just to fill the air with our petty noises? Jesus said that we will be judged for every casual word we utter. In a culture filled with talking heads spewing endless chatter, perhaps our greatest Christian witness might be to just shut up. We could proclaim the Gospel in silence by living holy lives and refusing to be caught up in the endless diatribe; that would make us really stand out among those who don’t know Christ. Then, when they ask, we will finally have something to say that is worthy of the air in our lungs.
There is another phrase in this psalm that is one of my favorite statements of the Old Testament.
He swears to his own hurt, and does not change;
This also deals with the wagging tongues of men, but calls us to consider the promises we make. I am convinced that if this axiom was consistently applied to our lives, we would, on this basis alone, be known as men of integrity. Keeping the promises that are easy is no measure of character. Everyone shows up when the task is easy or fun. But what do we do when the obligation is greater than we anticipated, or we would rather be somewhere else? How enthusiastic are we when we realize that the pledge we made will become a real sacrifice?
The problem is that we separate what we claim from what we do. We make a promise and then fail to keep it because the terms were not what we anticipated. This is not a failure of circumstance, it is a failure of our character. When we obligate ourselves, that verbal pronouncement becomes a contract. To go back on our word is to devalue all that we say or claim; it reduces the significance of all our words. If we do this enough times no one will take us seriously, nor should they. Our words are the currency of our conversation, and the gold behind that currency is our action. Without the weight of action, the currency of our speech becomes useless for any exchange, and our only hope becomes a career in politics. God forbid.
In many cases we are guilty of simply saying “yes” too quickly. It is pleasing to respond with an enthusiastic affirmative when some great idea comes along, but then reality sets in and we wish had not volunteered so readily. If we connect action to word before we speak at all, we would be forced to count the cost of what we are about to say before our words commit us to a potential loss. When the phrase “swears to his own hurt” is used, it doesn’t mean we make promises that we know will harm us, it means that once the obligation is discovered to be more than we bargained for, we don’t back down. We have committed the weight of our character to the task, and the commitment is based on our promise, not our later regrets.
Once again, it seems the best policy is to just shut up. Stop and consider what will be involved before saying anything. This is not to say that we should never step up to an obligation, but we should realize that once we say it, its as good as done. There is no turning back.
The Rubicon is a river in northern Italy which marked the southern border of Caesar’s province of Gaul. When Julius Caesar crossed that river with his army in 49 bc, that event was considered an act of war. Since then, the term “crossing the Rubicon” has become a metaphor for passing the point of no return. When we open our mouth and promise something, we have crossed the Rubicon. We are completely obligated at that moment, and nothing less than our integrity is on the line.
On wings of deeds the soul must mount!
When we are summoned form afar,
Ourselves and not our words will count-
Not what we said, but what we are!
Throughout Psalm 15, the integrity of the godly man is the subject; connecting confession to obligation, and obligation to action. If our beliefs are evidenced by our words and our words are perfectly connected to our actions, then we are living as those who will abide within the tabernacle of God.
Rick is on staff at Calvary Chapel Tucson where he also serves as an elder, and writes to keep his rabbits fed. Fortunately they don’t eat much. Favorite pastimes are watching cheesy movies with his patient and understanding wife, and expending ammunition at inanimate objects. He hopes to have his book “So Excellent a King” published soon, an exposition on the kingship of Christ. Rick has been a Christian for almost 30 years, and in that time has developed an acute sense of his own ignorance and Christ’s truly astounding grace. Aside from writing, he is waiting expectantly for that next big break as a roller derby referee or pin monkey at a bowling alley. Pray for him.