Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 12, 2015
Psalm 24 Commentary
Scholars call Psalm 24 a processional liturgy that celebrates Yahweh’s entrance to Zion. They speculate that the poet composed it for either David’s bringing the ark into Jerusalem as reported, for example, in 2 Samuel 6, or a festival that commemorated that event, or the return of the ark to Jerusalem and its temple after Yahweh granted Israel victory in battle.
Of course, all of those things seem very remote to citizens of the 21st century. Jerusalem’s temple is, of course, little more than a memory. Jesus Christ was the new temple. Now by the Holy Spirit God graciously lives within Christians, transforming each of us into “mini-temples.” So when the Church uses Psalm 24, it often uses it to celebrate Christ’s ascension into the heavenly realm.
However, one underlying theme remains as relevant for modern Christians as it did to Israelite worshipers. After all, as Joel LeMon notes, “One message pervades Psalm 24: God conquers chaos.” To understand its initial relevance, worshipers need to realize that people in the ancient near east assumed chaos constantly threatened what the gods had created. The psalmist’s contemporaries particularly worried heavenly or earthly water would overwhelm the world.
Against those fears, Psalm 24 echoes passages like Genesis 1 by asserting that God conquered the pre-creation chaos at the dawn of measured time. God, it insists, is now sovereign over that creation. That, in turn, guarantees God’s continuing control of the chaotic forces that imperil not only creation, but also God’s Israelite sons and daughters. As Yahweh continues to preserve and restore order for Israel, she responds by worshiping him as creation’s ruler (7-10). What’s more, by obeying God’s law (4), Israel participates in preserving the order that God established at creation.
While some Christians question Genesis 1 and Psalm 24’s cosmology, the psalm remains hugely relevant. After all, we know about chaos. In a world instantaneously familiar with “natural” catastrophes like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes, we’re familiar with chaos. What’s more, we realize that we may be unleashing chaos through our behaviors that lead to climate change, starvation and environmental degradation. Many Christians also know the personal and relational chaos that is illness, alienation and uncertainty. In the face of that chaos that seems to threaten so much, we cling to Psalm 24’s promise that Yahweh is the king of glory over creation and the chaos that sometimes threatens it.
Psalm 24 begins by foreshadowing the Apostles’ Creeds’ claim, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” In doing so, it makes the radically counter-cultural profession: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.” That profession has numerous implications. For Israel’s neighbors (and all too often the Israelites themselves) who thought of the world as the handiwork of a buffet line of gods, Psalm 24 asserts Yahweh alone is God. Yahweh alone founded the earth upon the seas and established it upon the waters.
Psalm 24’s assertion of Yahweh’s ownership of the world also means that we must treat it as God’s property, not our own. Neither we nor anyone else gets to do with that earth and everything in it as we choose. We’re just tenants who are only using what really belongs to Someone Else. No part of the world ultimately belongs to nations, governments, corporations, organizations or individuals. It’s all the Lord’s.
Yahweh’s lordship over all of creation also has profound implications for human behavior. Since God is a God of righteousness, we seek to create and preserve right relationships with the world and everything as well as everyone in it. However, God’s sovereignty as expressed in Psalm 24 also grants freedom. So the apostle Paul, for example, cites it as support for Corinth’s Christians eating even food that’s been sacrificed to idols.
Psalm 24 emphasizes God’s creative work. Citizens of the ancient near east always worried that the seas and waters, such as rivers, were part of the unstable chaos that constantly threatened creation. Verse 2’s reference to them suggests that in many minds, such chaos continues to linger. The world continues to exist, then, according to Psalm 24 because God restrains those chaotic forces.
The “hill of the Lord” to which verse 3 refers is Mt. Zion on which Jerusalem’s temple stands. It’s a holy place, according to Psalm 24, because it’s the place God chose in which to make himself accessible to those who faithfully seek the Lord in worship. Yet Zion’s holiness also, in a sense, makes it a dangerous place for those who aren’t holy. So, according to verse 4, only holy people may approach this hill.
In fact, verse 4 sets a kind of standard for worshipers. It offers a guide for holy living for those whom God has saved by God’s amazing grace and among whom God now lives by God’s Holy Spirit. Psalm 24 indicates that those whose “hands” are “clean” may approach the King of glory at Zion. “Clean hands” refer to a posture of godly behavior that’s free from doing wrong to others. They’re especially the hands of those whom others’ blood hasn’t stained. Worshipers who have “pure hearts” cultivate godly attitudes and motives. They’re loyal to God alone in both their behavior and thoughts.
Worshipers who don’t lift up their souls to idols are those who worship Yahweh, the living God alone. They don’t assent to culture’s claims that other gods are creator and king. And those who don’t swear by what is false are those who don’t lie, who don’t create communal chaos by spreading falsehood.
Of course, God always saves God’s sons and daughters only by God’s grace that we receive by faith. However, we don’t see our salvation as license to do what we choose. We recognize that those whom God has given much have much obedience and faithfulness to give to the Lord in return. So as we approach God, whether in corporate worship or prayer, we always ask ourselves whether we’ve kept clean hands and pure hearts. Even as we continue to experience God’s acceptance and loving provision for life (5), where we’ve failed, we confess our sin and beg for God’s ongoing forgiveness.
Psalm 24 ends with the poet’s call to worship Yahweh, the King of glory. This God is, after all, strong and mighty … mighty in battle.” This King is the “Lord Almighty … the King of glory.” Verses 7-10’s series of questions and answers may be a kind of exchange between those who guarded Jerusalem’s gates and those who carried the ark through them. Perhaps the carriers seized the guards’ attention by calling them to “Lift up your heads … that the King of glory may come in.” The guards may have responded by asking for some kind of password: “Who is the King of glory?” The carriers would then have answered, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.”
Psalm 24’s final verses return to the theme of chaos. They remind us that Yahweh didn’t just conquer chaos by creating the world and everything in it. God also continues to protect the worshipping community from the power of chaos. It suggests that Yahweh must continue to intervene in human history in order to restore order. Of course, God’s greatest intervention came in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by which God triumphed over the chaotic forces of sin, Satan and death. Yet even as we celebrate the victory God has given us through Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Rev. 19:16), we remember that Satan and his allies haven’t yet given up the fight. So we trust ourselves, in body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Savior, the King of glory, Jesus Christ.
Some of us who attended school in the sixties and seventies were accustomed to fairly orderly and quiet classrooms. Teachers oversaw classes that seemed controlled. Students generally only spoke after their teacher acknowledged their raised hand by addressing them.
Were you to walk into a classroom today, you might think things far more chaotic. Modern classrooms are far noisier and full of more movement. Yet most of the time, teachers remain in control. What’s more, were teachers absent, classrooms would verge on anarchic.
We might think of God’s control over our world’s chaos in a similar way. Certainly things regularly occur that lead some to question God’s sovereign rule. The world is full of noise and movement. Yet God remains in control. The alternative would be truly frightening.
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