In Psalm 36, the psalmist laments the ways of the wicked while at the same time contemplating the goodness of God. As it opens, the psalmist describes the wicked in the following terms: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God
before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated. The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit; he has ceased to act wisely and do good. He plots trouble while on his bed; he sets himself in a way that is not good; he does not reject evil” (vv. 1–4).
While the wicked plot trouble even as they lie down for sleep, in Philippians 4:8 the apostle Paul exhorts his readers to reject the way of the wicked, and to live as people who have been counted as righteous through faith (see also 3:9). To make his point, Paul enumerates six specific qualities that were well-known in popular Greek moral philosophy, exhorting his readers to “think about these things.” These qualities Paul mentions — that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable — are both good in themselves and beneficial for others, and they stand in sharp contrast to the traits of the nighttime plotter of Psalm 36. Note also that Paul thinks of his readers as Christians who have been justified by the merits of Christ, for he uses the affectionate term brothers to describe those who are not to contemplate evil, as do the wicked (Phil. 4:8).
The Philippians are to think on things that are true. In other words, Christians are not to fill their minds with pagan myths and fables, but they are to frame their thinking in light of the great Christian truth claim: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). It is hard to know how to act if one doesn’t know the truth, which is the foundation for all of our thinking, decisions, and actions. The Philippians are also exhorted to think on things that are honorable. The Greek word Paul uses here means “serious” or “dignified.” It was an adjective used of holy things such as the commandments and the temple. Christians are to regard holy things
with a proper degree of reverence.
The next two items on Paul’s list are closely related — justice and purity. For a Christian, any discussion of justice (conduct that is either right or wrong) must take place against the background of the commandments of God — the laws God revealed in the covenant made with Israel at Mount Sinai. Those who obey God’s commandments act in a just or upright manner before God as well as in relationship to their neighbors. Purity is a closely related term, referring to chastity and moral purity, as well as what we might call “integrity.” Christians are not to be characterized as those who plot and scheme how to defile themselves and violate the commandments of God; rather, Christians are to consider the consequences of their actions in light of God’s law. This is what it means to be upright.
When Paul speaks of things that are lovely, he is referring to things that reflect love toward others. This would include speaking and acting in a gracious and appropriate way. It is to be agreeable. Likewise, to think upon things that are commendable is to carefully consider and value things that are intrinsically worthwhile — not trivial or without purpose. In other words, we are to spend time thinking about things that truly matter, not things that are fleeting and have no lasting value.
Having listed six qualities, Paul now emphasizes both the importance and comprehensive nature of these things, introducing two conditions meant to be answered in the affirmative. “If there is any excellence” is Paul’s way of emphasizing that when Christians encounter any excellent things (as summarized in the six qualities above), they should think upon them. Although the term is taken from the Greek philosophy with which Paul’s audience would have been well-familiar, Paul’s ultimate point of reference is not Greek philosophy but God’s law. True moral excellence is manifest by conformity to the law of God. Paul also speaks of things that are worthy of praise. If Christians encounter anything praiseworthy, they are to think on it. Here, too, Paul uses a contemporary term from moral philosophy to exhort Christians to reflect upon conduct that is truly praiseworthy.
Whether or not Paul has the wicked person from Psalm 36 in mind (and he probably does), the contrast between the one who lies awake at night plotting evil and those Christians to whom Paul is referring could not be greater. While the wicked think on evil things, the Christian must learn to focus his thinking upon those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. Because the heart follows the mind, those who think upon these things will find themselves not reflecting the character of the wicked but the character of Christ Himself.