Literary Analysis of Psalm 15 – Standing as tall as humans

Click here to read “Psalm Fifteen – Translation of the Song

The form or structure of Song 15 matches its content or theme: the standards of moral conduct are set forth in 5 verses; each verse divides into 2 or 3 phrases, but for the closing verse, which consists of 3 phrases followed by a single declaration. The numbers 5,3,2 and 1 are prime numbers — just as they cannot be divided by numbers other than themselves (or 1), so too the stated rules cannot be broken. That is, they are immutable, not meant for a specific time or culture or society but meant for all individuals who seek to “reside in [God’s] tabernacle”, to “be present on [God’s] holy mountain” (v. 1). Indeed, to be granted God’s presence is precisely the blessing, according to the singer, bestowed upon those who follow the moral precepts which form the melody of Song 15.


The encounter between the human and the divine is not described. Though it may be that its nature is hinted at by the unusual spelling of the Hebrew word for “heart” in verse 2: בִּלְבָבוֹ. The word is here given an extra letter “bet”, so that it spelled with two rather than one “bet” usual to the word. The variant could be portraying, by its very doubling, the entrance of the worthy into God’s domain: within that domain, the human looks upon its source. It is, after all, only the letter “bet” that is doubled; the letter that begins the Tanach, and, specifically, the Book of Genesis, which describes humanity as created in God’s image. Thus the one letter, followed by its repetition, its echo, gives form to the connection between creator and created, source and image.

But while no specific description is otherwise given of that encounter, certainly very exact answers are provided by the remaining four verses to verse 1’s question, “Adonai, who will reside in Your tent? Who will be present on Your holy mountain?”. The answers do not lay down rules governing daily prayers or worship but concentrate upon the individual’s relationships with others. In fact, the precepts apply wholly to the human sphere but for the one phrase in verse 4, “those who are in awe of Adonai”. Yet though the verb is “in awe of”, it is not that which impels the moral individual, nor is it fear which prompts the rules’ insistence upon integrity. The inspiration, rather, is the desire to be as human –as humane– as possible.

The imagery in the song emphasizes the value of integrity. Parts of the human body are singled out — the heart (v. 2); the tongue (v. 3); the eyes (v. 4); the legs (v. 2, “walks”, and v. 5, “stumble”).  These images make clear the wholeness of intent necessary for moral behavior, that body and spirit must be one in purpose. Verse 2 stipulates “truth with his heart” — the individual need act without deception, be that deception the slandering of others (v. 3) or the lie within one’s own self (v.2).

The close of the song declares, “He who acts according to these will not stumble for all time” (v. 5). To stumble, after all, is to inadvertently take animal posture, to land on all fours. To act humanely, then –to act with deliberate compassion and integrity — accords the moral individual the blessing of being truly human.