Psalm 15 begins with the question, “Who can live in God’s tent, on his holy hill?” (15:1). In other words, what kind of a person can be in close proximity to the Almighty? Who can occupy the same space with a perfect and holy God? The psalmist answers this question by describing such a person: “He does not slander with his tongue, nor do evil to his neighbor, nor bring shame on his friend” (Psalm 15:3 NASB). The speech of such a worthy person should not be slanderous or defaming. Consequently, the actions of such a person would not be for evil and they will not lead to shame or reproach for any of his kin or associates. But what is “slander,” exactly? Most would understand this term as “false speech” but the Hebrew language offers a much deeper insight.
When the Psalm describes a person who “does not slander with his tongue,” it does so in an incredibly vivid way. English Bible translations do not fully capture this nuance. The verb for “slander” in Hebrew is רָגַל (ragal). It shares its root with the noun רֶגֶל (regel) which means “foot.” The word for “foot solider” or a member of the infantry is רַגְלִי (ragli). Many words in Hebrew can originate from this basic root. For example, the three “pilgrim feasts” in the Bible are called רְגָלִים (regalim), literally holidays for which “one travels on foot.” Finally, one word for “spies” in Hebrew is מְרַגְּלִים (meraglim), someone who “scouts on foot.” But what do “feet” have to do with slanderous speech? There is a clear connection, but it can only be seen in Hebrew.
The psalmist’s answer begins by describing a person who “walks with integrity” (Ps 15:2). And this “walk” includes thoughts, speech, and actions that can lead to slander, scorn, and contempt (15:3). The slanderer literally walks all over someone’s reputation with their tongue; slandering is like trampling another person underfoot! This is the mental image of slander which the Hebrew verb paints; something much more egregious than some false statements, and much weightier than a denigrating remark. To slander other people is to tread upon their very personhood. Instead of walking over others, the Psalms encourage the reader to be someone who can tell God, “I walk in your faithfulness” (Ps 26:3).