Yesterday we began our quick look at Psalm 24, an entrance liturgy which Israel sang as she entered God’s presence. We, too, can use it to focus our minds on the God in whose presence we always are. He is firstly the Creator God, who is worthy of worship because he created the world, and everything in it (v1-2).
Drawing near to the God who is holy
The second part of the psalm begins in verse 3. It functions as a “song of ascent” in which worshippers ascend Zion, God’s holy mountain. It’s in the form of a ritual question-and-answer between worshippers and priest, and talks of the requirements of entering into God’s presence.
The worshippers begin, asking who is worthy to enter God’s presence:24:3 Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?
This is an acknowledgement that not everyone can stand in God’s presence. The priest then gives his reply:24:4-5 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god. They will receive blessing from the LORD and vindication from God their Saviour.
Then the worshippers reply that they are such people:24:6 Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, God of Jacob.
Only those with clean hands (which is symbolic of one’s actions) and a pure heart (symbolic of one’s thoughts and will) can enter God’s presence. Specifically in this case, those who are not idolaters (the second commandment) or liars (the ninth commandment.)
We see in Psalm 15 a fuller list of actions God considers acceptable:15:1-5 LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart; whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbor, and casts no slur on others; who despises a vile person but honors those who fear the LORD; who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind; who lends money to the poor without interest; who does not accept a bribe against the innocent. Whoever does these things will never be shaken.
When it comes down to it, no human can look on God in all his holiness. Not even Moses, who had to be content with seeing the “back of his glory” (Ex 33:12-23).Even to approach God’s dwelling place required a right heart, not correct rituals. The rituals merely symbolised outwardly what needed to happen inwardly.
The danger was that Israel would trust in the sacrifices and purification rituals to be right with God, without changing their hearts and actions. Purity is important in approaching God. Perfection is not required; that is impossible! But a right orientation and motivation in life and worship. Psalm 24 reminds us of this: he is a God of moral order, not moral chaos.
Sometimes we can be a bit casual about approaching God – our churches aren’t temples or sanctuaries, so we can just kick back and relax. But when we call upon God – when we relocate our thinking to be aware of his presence and seek to worship him – whether in church with others or in home group or by ourselves – we should firstly be aware of how we don’t measure up. We don’t deserve to be able to approach God. We often lack the awe we should feel at being able to communicate with the holy God of the universe.
The reason we don’t have to go to a temple is that as Christians we have God’s dwelling place in us – his Holy Spirit. We can commune with God anytime, anyplace, knowing he dwells within us. For this to happen, we need more than a right heart of our own making. We need to have a rightness that can only come from Jesus’ life credited to us (justification). Only then can the Holy Spirit dwell in the temple that is our body.
This reminds us that although we have been made right with God – and so the Spirit now dwells in us – we have a responsibility to live up to it. To pursue holiness. To honour God in our actions. To think pure thoughts.
We don’t have to go through purification rituals in order to approach God. We have already been justified in Jesus. But we should still ensure that we approach God with a right orientation and motivation. We should still “purify ourselves” by examining our lives, asking God to reveal to us areas in which we have fallen short of his perfect standard; and claiming the forgiveness that God promises to those who are his children:1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
So if we were to appropriate this part of the psalm for ourselves, it might read something like this:Worshippers: Who may gather together to worship God? Who may stand before him? Pastor: Those who have been justified by faith in Christ, who have confessed their sin and desire to grow in holiness; they will receive forgiveness from God and righteousness from Christ their Saviour. Worshippers: Such is the congregation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of the nations.
Celebrating the God who saves
The final section of the psalm was probably linked to the bringing of the ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem, when the conquest of the promised land was complete (2 Sam 5-6). The ark in the Old Testament symbolises God’s presence – firstly commemorating God’s presence in saving them from Egypt; then his presence guiding them in the desert; then his military presence conquering the land; finally his resting-place on Mt Zion amongst them.
It’s also another call-and-response, structured a bit like a knock-knock joke:
“Knock-knock.” “Who’s there?” “God.” “God who?” “The God who saves!”
OK, so the punchline leaves a bit to be desired in the humour department, but this is essentially its structure. It seems to be a call-and-response between the ark-bearers (carrying the symbol of God’s presence) and the gatekeeper of the city. The gatekeeper or watchman would ask “who goes there?”, challenging anyone who wanted entry into the city to explain who they were. The ark-bearers respond asking them to let the victorious Lord into his dwelling place, Jerusalem.
Ark-bearers:24:7 Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
Gate-keeper:24:8a Who is this King of glory?
Ark-bearers:24:8b The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. 24:9 Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
Gate-keeper:24:10a Who is he, this King of glory?
Ark-bearers:24:10b The LORD Almighty – he is the King of glory.
This part of the psalm acknowledges God as “Yahweh, the God of armies” (which is what The LORD Almighty means). God comes as the one who acts to save his people. He saved Israel from Egypt. He gave them the promised land, and saved them from being swallowed up by the peoples around them, fighting their battles for them.
Imagine yourself as an Israelite 3000 yrs ago. You were a tiny nation in comparison with those around, under constant threat of invasion. That meant, for mean, death or slavery if you were defeated. For women, it meant loss of family, children, and perhaps rape. How would you respond to a God who miraculously fought your battles for you, made you win against all odds, against armies stronger than you? How would you respond to a God who gave you security in life? Who created order amidst chaos?
Yet today, we worship God for something even greater. Not for fighting battles here on earth, but for winning the battle against sin and death through Jesus. And by winning the battle, he is able to dwell with us – not in an ark in a temple on a mountain, but within us by his Spirit. How would you respond to such a God?
Although Israel answered the gatekeeper’s question, “Yahweh, the God of Armies”, today we can answer the question Who is this King of glory? by quoting the words of Paul:Eph 1:3 [He is] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
This psalm, then, in its three parts finds its unity in the them of the God who creates order out of chaos:
in creating the world (v1-2)
in revealing his moral will (v3-6)
in saving his people (v7-10)
In all three, he shows himself to be the God of order, not chaos. Creator. Holy and pure. Saviour. And it is into this God’s presence that we can now come, any time we like, through the atoning work of his son, Jesus.
Spend some time in worship and confession as you work through the three sections of the psalm. Praise him as Creator. Confess your unworthiness to approach him. And end in thankfulness for the rescue he provided in Jesus.