Psalm 24 is as familiar to church goers as it is offensive to non-church goers. Christians know it from our annual celebration of Christ’s Ascension, where it is nearly always read. It is also part of some classic readings that attend Holy Communion. But many non-Christians will be offended by verses 3-6, which certainly seem to say that there are some very definite moral and spiritual qualifications that seekers must have in order to approach God. In a day where many think they can approach God with a “Hey Dude, what’s up?” attitude and others assume that God is pleased to meet with anyone who is simply sincere, verses 3-6 are off putting. So how can we make this familiar Psalm fresh for believers and inviting for non-believers?
We could begin by trying to reconstruct the occasion envisioned in the Psalm, but that is notoriously difficult to do. Some think that Psalm 24 has II Samuel 6 in mind. That’s the story of David bringing the ark back up to Jerusalem after its Philistine captivity. Others envision an annual celebration of that Davidic event, a kind of perpetual re-enthronement ceremony. Still others see a deeper connection to redemptive history in that annual liturgical reconstruction of an historic event. That is, the bringing of the ark into Jerusalem marked the end of Yahweh’s long march from Egypt into his house in Jerusalem. After defeating all his enemies along the way, “the Lord Almighty (Hebrew, the Lord of Hosts)” takes his place above the Mercy Seat. The King of Glory has entered in. Finally, Christian scholars see the last verses of the Psalm as a prophetic anticipation of Jesus’ entrance into the Holy of Holies above, where he sat down as “Christus Victor,” far above all rule and authority for the church (Eph. 1:20-23).
Given the disagreement about its historical provenance, I’m not sure it’s valuable to spend much time on that. Rather, I would opt for a direct application of Psalm 24 to our day, focusing on the uncomfortable, even offensive question in verse 3. “Who may ascend the hill of Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?”
The Psalm opens and closes with a description of God that sets the stage for those questions. In verses 1-2, Yahweh is the Creator, Sustainer, and Possessor of the whole earth and everyone in it. In his power he overcame the forces of chaos, depicted here (as so often in the Bible) as the surging, swirling waters of sea and river. Upon a chaotic lifeless world, “formless and empty (Gen.1:2),” Yahweh imposed order and gave light and life. Every single thing that exists owes its life and its allegiance to Yahweh.
Verses 7-10 give a name, a number of names to the Creator, Sustainer, and Possessor. Obviously, given all that, he is the King of Glory. But what is the King’s name? Who is the King of Glory? And what is this king like? The King is Yahweh Almighty. To the ubiquitous covenant name of God, the Psalmist adds a Hebrew word that evokes images of armies and battle. The God who has taken Israel by the hand and led them to the Promised Land is strong and mighty, leading his armies to victory over all the forces of evil that would try to stop the progress of God’s kingdom. Israel’s tender covenant-keeping God is a mighty warrior who will protect them against all foes.
Against the backdrop of that overwhelming picture of God, the Psalmist asks what now seems like a perfectly appropriate question. Given who God is, who on earth may ascend into God’s presence? Who would dare to stand in his holy place? Yes, this is a God who wants to be approached and embraced and loved and trusted (Yahweh), but he is not a God to be trifled with (the Lord of Hosts).
The Psalmist answers his question with words that have puzzled and dismayed generations of readers. What exactly do they mean and who, realistically, can live up to them? The simplest explanation is that the Psalmist is referring to both actions and attitudes. But exactly what actions and attitudes? Is “clean hands” a reference to ritual hand washing, or to being innocent of shedding blood? Is a “pure heart” related to speaking truth, not swearing falsely? Or is it connected to not “lifting up [one’s] soul to an idol?” One scholar says that all of this is simply shorthand for ethics and piety, or what Brueggemann calls “Torah obedience.” The message of Psalm 24, he adds, is that “only obedient persons may enter into God’s presence.” Which, he admits, is totally offensive to the modern mind.
Indeed, many sincere seekers will be dismayed by the demands of these verses. Verse 6, looking back on the conditions and blessings of verses 3-5, says, “Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob.” We live in a world that glorifies “the journey,” the process of seeking God, whoever God may be. The only thing necessary for seekers is the sincerity of their search. Any sincere seeker will be welcomed into God’s presence. There are, of course, biblical passages that seem to agree with that modern emphasis. Hebrews 11:6c says, “he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” But the early part of that verse is crucial. “And without faith it is impossible to please God….”
That is exactly the message of Psalm 24. We must seek God in the right way. And we must seek the right God. There are, after all, “idols,” “false gods.” One could argue from Psalm 24 that the contemporary, casual, coffee-cup-in-hand approach to God is a far cry from God honoring worship. But I think that would be a misapplication of Psalm 24. It is not talking about appearances or style, but about what Jesus called “seeking God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).”
Psalm 24 gives some substance to those lovely but vague words of our Lord. Moral cleanness and spiritual purity are required if we would enjoy the presence of God. And we must approach God as God is, the King of Glory. Yahweh Almighty. We must not, in our search for God, “lift up our souls to an idol.” The Ten Commandments are still in effect.
Which leads us to Christ. If it is true that “only obedient persons may enter into God’s presence,” how can any of us get close to God? The Gospel answer is that Jesus has kept the demands of the Law and thereby ushers us into the presence of the One True God. “No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).” According to Father Patrick Henry Reardon, the ancient church always read verses 3 and 4 as a description of Christ’s ministry for us and verses 7-10 as a celebration of Christ’s victorious ascension into heaven, by which he completed our redemption. Psalm 24, then, points us to Christ’s atonement by means of which we “receive blessings from the Lord and vindication from God our Savior.” And it points us to Christ’s victory over the forces of evil, after which he was received back to his heavenly throne as “the King of Glory, Yahweh Almighty.” In Christ, we are both obedient and victorious. In Christ alone, we can ascend into God’s presence and stand guiltless and free.
In other words, Psalm 24 can be the basis for an evangelistic sermon that lifts up the God of glory, humbles seekers of every variety, and invites all to come to Christ and find the awesome God who created us all and who wants us to enjoy his presence.
In a recent issue, The Christian Century had a fascinating article about churches opening up their sacred spaces to non-traditional uses. As congregations decline in numbers, many churches are under-used. So as an exercise in the stewardship of their resources and as a way of connecting with the larger community, the author of the article urged churches to make their spaces available to, say, dance studios, theater groups, yoga classes, and even other religious groups. Her church is used not only by young hipsters and two immigrant churches, but also by Muslims. Anticipating a few raised eyebrows at the latter group, she says, “Why not be more inclusive? God won’t be hurt.” Presumably she feels that way because Muslims share Abrahamic roots with Christians. While we should applaud increasing connections with our community, we might wonder how the radical openness of many modern Christians fits into the restrictions of Psalm 24 on “lifting up one’s soul to an idol.”
I didn’t expand on that word “vindication” in verse 5, but it is a key part of the Gospel. Think about the Innocence Project, a group of activists whose mission is to revisit the cases of prisoners who have been unjustly convicted. These good folks work tirelessly to secure the pardon and release of men and women who have been imprisoned for years, even though there is evidence that they did not commit the crime. All along, these convicts have maintained their own innocence. What a happy day it is when they are finally vindicated and set free. We, on the other hand, are rightly convicted of having broken God’s laws. But in Jesus Christ, we are vindicated, pardoned, set free, and received into the Presence of the King of Glory.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 15, 2018
Psalm 24 Commentary