Read Psalm 101.
In the New Testament, Pharisees get a bad rap, and rightly so. Jesus had a lot to say about the group’s hypocrisy, pride, and hardheartedness. The Pharisees, in large measure, could not see who Jesus was, because they were blinded by their own self-righteousness. They treated sinners with contempt, not compassion, and they twisted God’s laws for their own gain. But as someone once said, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
That road stretches back to the close of the Old Testament period. If you recall, the exile was caused by Judah’s unfaithfulness to the covenant. The people of the southern kingdom served other gods and ignored the law of the Lord. Though God had been patient with His people, sending prophets to sound the alarm, there came a point of no return. Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon rolled into Jerusalem, destroying the temple, the city walls, and much of the infrastructure. He took God’s people away from the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants.
So, when God graciously allowed His people to begin returning to the land some seventy years later, the Jews who made the trek were wiser for the wear—or at least that’s what one might expect. But before long, they were falling back into the same sin patterns as their ancestors, marrying foreign women and chasing after other gods. Things got so bad that Nehemiah started beating people up and pulling out their hair to get them to stop (Nehemiah 13:25).
Is it any wonder, then, that in the generations to follow a purity movement arose? Men who wanted to make sure they were adhering carefully to God’s laws began creating traditions around those laws, just to be sure they never got near to breaking the commandments. And because it was sinful people who brought about the exile, sinful people would not be tolerated. They would be shunned, shamed, and punished severely. The result was a legalistic sect called the Pharisees that focused so much on the letter of the law, they lost sight of the heart of God.
There’s a fine line between living a life of purity and becoming a Pharisee. Psalm 101 sounds like something out of the Pharisees’ playbook with lines like “Every morning I will put to silence all the wicked in the land; I will cut off every evildoer from the city of the LORD” (v. 8), but there’s something that separates these words of David from the cold actions of the Pharisees: David’s eyes are firmly fixed on God.
“I will sing of your love and justice; to you, LORD, I will sing praise” (Psalm 101:1). That’s how David begins his song. The attitudes and actions that follow in the remainder of the psalm are the overflow of time spent with God. David isn’t trying to justify himself, as the Pharisees did; he’s giving his life and his kingship completely over to the Lord as a response to God’s love. He’s experienced the kindness of heaven, and he wants to be holy, just as the Lord is holy.
A Pharisee is made of fear, not peace. A Pharisee looks at others for comparison, not to heaven for the true standard of holiness. A Pharisee sees Scripture as a rulebook and a weapon, not an invitation to discover the heart of God and find true life. A Pharisee’s piety is an ugly and false measure of devotion, not a humble response to the gracious love of the Father. In fact, it’s hard to spot a Pharisee just by looking at one. What makes someone a Pharisee is hidden in his heart.