Psalms 15 and 24
Who May Abide?
Bribery and Innocence
Commentary by Deborah Lewer
Who may dwell on your holy hill? … [Those who] do no evil to their friends … and who do not take a bribe against the innocent (Psalm 15:1, 3, 5 NRSV)
Psalms 15 and 24 teach that those who would come into God’s sanctuary and receive blessing must exhibit moral integrity in their dealings with others. They must ‘have clean hands and pure hearts’. They must not ‘lift up their souls to what is false’, nor ‘swear deceitfully’ (24:4).
In a small parish church in Dorset, there is a remarkable window by an artist who pioneered the modern rehabilitation of the unusual technique of engraving in glass, Sir Laurence Whistler. It indirectly dramatizes the stakes for these psalms’ ethical imperatives.
This was the thirteenth of a series the artist made, in clear glass, to replace the original windows that had been destroyed when a bomb hit the church during the Second World War. Its installation was long delayed, and controversial (Stanford 2015: 269–76). It represents Judas, known as the disciple who, in the psalm’s terms, took ‘a bribe against the innocent’, betraying Jesus in exchange for thirty pieces of silver.
Judas is shown at the moment of his death, hanging from a tree. The image draws on the brief account of his suicide given in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself’ (Matthew 27:5 NRSV).
But in Whistler’s vision of this act of desperation, there are hopeful signs of the potential for new life. A shaft of light falls on the disciple’s upturned head. As Judas releases the thirty pieces of silver from his hands, he lets them fall to the ground—which we might read as the abject place of exclusion (Akeldama: the ‘field of blood’ of Acts 1:18–19). But, as they fall away—and in a detail unique to Whistler’s image—the coins undergo a transformation. They appear to sprout tiny shoots. They are springing into bud. It is a profound and poignant image of hope, redemption, fruitfulness, and new life for and from a man dismissed from the Temple, a man who has ‘taken a bribe against the innocent’ (Psalm 15:5).
Stanford, Peter. 2015. Judas (London: Hodder and Stoughton)
Buying on Loan
Commentary by Deborah Lewer
With great economy, Psalm 15 distils no fewer than ten behavioural qualities that the faithful worshipper should embody (Brueggemann & Bellinger 2014: 82). Among the qualities of those who would ‘walk blamelessly, and do what is right’ (15:2) is that they ‘do not lend money at interest’ (15:5).
In ancient Near Eastern society, as today, money-lending at interest was ethically problematic. While yielding profits for those rich with the power to lend, it could worsen suffering for vulnerable borrowers. The psalm echoes its proscription in Jewish law (Exodus 22:25–27; Leviticus 25:35–38; Deuteronomy 16:19–20).
Pay Nothing Until April are the words emblazoned over a glossy, picturesque image of a snow-capped mountain. The phrase is familiar as an enticement to buy—to buy, perhaps, something not quite affordable.
Since the Pop era of the 1960s, from his adopted home city of Los Angeles, Nebraska-born artist Ed Ruscha has pioneered a distinctive art practice of exploring words in space—abstract, urban, and natural. Pay Nothing Until April is one of a series of mountain paintings he began making in 1997. Like a sign-painter (Ruscha worked as one early in his career), he superimposes over these scenes of geological grandeur seemingly banal or incongruous words and text fragments, using his own gawky typeface, which he dubs ‘Boy Scout Utility Modern’. Its qualities further reinforce the sense of ‘cheapness’ suggested by the shallow words.
This work features a concise slogan pressing a covert usury—the offer of lent money (15:5) with interest payment deferred—as a lure. The implied human commodification of the earth, which is ‘the Lord’s’ (24:1) in the aspirational image of alpine tourism suggests a secular ‘holy hill’ of its own kind in the cult of beauty and the sublime, here destabilized and ironically rendered cheap by connotations of pop and kitsch.
Brueggemann, Walter and William H. Bellinger, Jr. 2014. Psalms, (New York: Cambridge University Press)
Abiding in the Tent
Commentary by Deborah Lewer
O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? (Psalm 15:1 NRSV)
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? (Psalm 24:3 NRSV)
What qualities must a person have, to come close to God? Psalms 15 and 24 open with searching questions of worshippers seeking admittance—literally or metaphorically—to God’s Temple, evoked by images of a tent and of a hill (15:1; 24:3). The latter calls to mind the ‘hill of the Lord’ whose ascent Jewish tradition most celebrated: Mount Zion.
A different place of worship, Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, is today home to a richly suggestive work of contemporary art. Read in the light of these psalms, its very inhabitation of this sanctuary obliquely poses a modern echo of those ancient questions. Who may dwell on your holy hill? (15:1)
Tracey Emin’s For You, in joyously lurid pink neon, is at first sight an incongruous presence in Giles Gilbert Scott’s massive ecclesiastical building. It enshrines a sentence, in the artist’s own handwriting, glowing with a constant, chemical light below the large stained-glass window at the west end, near to where people enter. With a confessional honesty at odds with neon’s commoner associations—with advertising, city pleasures, and commodified sex—it reads: ‘I Felt You And I Knew You Loved me’. First installed as part of Liverpool’s year as European City of Culture in 2008, it has become a popular and abiding presence on this ‘holy hill’.
The words are intimate. The verbs—‘feeling’, ‘knowing’, ‘loving’—are as insistently relational as the capitalized ‘I-You-I-You-me’ of their confession. Such a confession might be one made in prayer, but it looks a lot more like one from a love letter or the bedroom. And it is of course for her unmade bed—‘My Bed’ (1998)—and for her embroidered tent listing ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995’ (1995) that Emin is best known. She has spoken openly of her experiences of underage sex, sexual violence, abortion, alcohol abuse, depression, and thoughts of suicide (e.g. Emin 2005; Cork 2015). The enshrining in this temple of the love of this woman—messy and ambiguous, sensual and devoted—makes space for real experience: for desire (eros), and universal love (agape) to dwell in the ‘tent’, ‘holy’ or otherwise.
Cork, Richard. 2015. Face to Face: Interviews with Artists (London: Tate Publishing)
Emin, Tracey. 2005. Strangeland (London: Hodder and Stoughton)
Laurence Whistler :
The Death of Judas, detail from the Forgiveness Window, 2013 , Etched glass
Edward Ruscha :
Pay Nothing Until April, 2003 , Acrylic paint on canvas
Tracey Emin :
For You, 2008 , Neon light
Varieties of Integrity
Commentary by Deborah Lewer
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)