Psalms 15 and 24 are rooted in ancient Jewish traditions of priestly instruction and pose interrogative challenges to people of faith. Ritual processions of pilgrims approaching the Temple to worship may have chanted the words, perhaps with an antiphonal response (Alter 2007: 81).
Both psalms offer clear ethical guidance, progressively unfolding to create a picture of habitual integrity and steadfastness. Here, the good spiritual life is one of increasing intimacy, familiarity, and rootedness in the holy place of God. In Psalm 15’s opening question, for example (v.1), the verb ‘abide’ is also translatable as ‘sojourn’, while ‘dwell’ suggests a more permanent residence. The progression from nomadic tent to the solidity of the mount echoes this transition (Alter 2007: 43). Those who are steadfast in doing good, ‘even to their hurt’ (v.4), and who refrain from harming others, ‘shall never be moved’ (v.5). Psalm 24 culminates in an eruption of praise of ‘the King of glory’ (vv.7–10).
The three works of art brought together here might all be seen to trouble notions of place and personal sanctity in ways that are at odds with the psalms’ didactic certainties. But considering these visual works in dialogue with the texts can help to focus our attention on just that: how to respond with fidelity to God’s guidance while acknowledging that the attractions of wealth, sex, pleasure, and power—and their lasting consequences—are part of human nature, history, and fallibility.
Tracey Emin’s For You leaves many questions unanswered. But it also makes generous space for the imagination and for the possibility of the body as a site of redemption (‘I Felt You…’) and faith as a matter of relationship (‘I Knew You Loved me’). It poses its own implicit questions about ways of speaking, and about contact in the ‘tent’ (15:1). It beautifully disrupts expectations of encounter, intimacy, and inclusion on this kind of very public, if metaphorical, ‘holy hill’. Read in conjunction with these psalms, it might also challenge what we understand by ‘clean hands and pure hearts’ (24:4), and other criteria for ‘those who seek him’ (24:6)—and those who find him.
The title, For You, accommodates a range of meaning. It might connote a kind of public gift to the church, to the city, and to every visitor. It also speaks of something private and intimate, dedicated to a loved one. And it recalls the words of the eucharistic liturgy, spoken from the high altar, the table, which it directly faces, down the length of the great nave. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Seen from the vantage point of the priest who takes the bread and breaks it, or of the people who have held the body, eaten, and are returning to their seats, or going out into the world, this is a work that can be read as deeply eucharistic, and incarnational. It affirms both eros and agape—and that, in the Eucharist, the body is blessed, broken, given, both in and beyond the ‘tent’ where it is consecrated.
Psalm 24 begins with a proclamation of the power and dominion of the creator God: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it … for he has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers’ (vv.1–2). Ed Ruscha’s Pay Nothing Until April plays with two temporal registers and the incongruity of their juxtaposition. It brings into dissonant collision a base advertising slogan offering quick, temporary gratification with an image of a vast, ageless, geological form. Its Pop aesthetic is slick, secular, and wry, but with the succinctness of Psalm 15, it also reminds us that the ethics of money-lending, profit, and commerce are as complex now as they were in the ancient world.
Sir Laurence Whistler’s ‘forgiveness window’, as it is known, with its poignant depiction of that burdened figure of Judas, opens up the possibility for a vision of expansive, merciful, and regenerative grace. It also raises difficult questions in direct relation to places of abjection beyond the sanctuary, outside the ‘tent’.
The window allows for the themes opened up by both these psalms to come together. Who may dwell in the sanctuary—or not? Because this is Judas. He is the ‘betrayer’ and a man who has taken his own life. His window, whose acceptance was hard-won, is installed in a ‘blind’ corner of the church (the inside of the window is blocked by a wall). It is not seen from inside, where those who ‘may’ dwell are, but faces instead the place of death, and love, which is the cemetery.
Psalms 15 and 24 demand self-scrutiny of people who would seek to draw nearer to God. The three artworks considered here, with their sacral and their very secular references, open up fresh questions for how we might respond to these ancient texts and to the ethical imperatives for living and for living with one another today.
Alter, Robert. 2007. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.H. Norton & Co)
15O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent?
Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?
2He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,
and speaks truth from his heart;
3who does not slander with his tongue,
and does no evil to his friend,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
4in whose eyes a reprobate is despised,
but who honors those who fear the Lord;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
5who does not put out his money at interest,
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.
24The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein;
2for he has founded it upon the seas,
and established it upon the rivers.
3Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false,
and does not swear deceitfully.
5He will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of his salvation.
6Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah
7Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
8Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle!
9Lift up your heads, O gates!
10Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory! Selah