Commentary on Psalm 24
Psalm 24 is an entrance liturgy.
It is very likely that the liturgy was designed to accompany a procession into the Temple.1 The theme of entrance unifies the poem–it describes humans entering in God’s space (“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” verse 3) and God entering human space (“Lift up your heads, O gates!…that the King of glory may come in” verses 7, 9).
Similarly, the poem describes the contrasting natures of the God is who enters into human space and the nature of those humans who are able to meet the advent of this God. Psalm 24 is about the advent of human beings into the presence of God, and the mutual advent of the King of glory into the presence of “those who seek the face of God.”
The psalm bears a three-part structure:
1 Declaration of the Lord as creator of all (verses 1-2)
2 Liturgy of the entrance of humans into God’s sphere (verses 3-6)
3 Liturgy of the entrance of the Lord into the human sphere (verses 7-10)
The ending of the liturgical poem both completes the rhetorical movement of God into the human space and provides a fitting theological bookend to verse 1. The King of Glory of verses 8 and 10 is the same Lord who first established his kingship creating and founding the world (verse 1).
Creator of All
The opening verses begin the movement of the poem by asserting that the earth belongs to the Lord, because it was created by the Lord. The rhetorical point scored is that the earthly sphere–into which the Lord moves in this psalm–is already the Lord’s by virtue of the fact that he created it. The Lord’s coming is not the hostile act of an invader conquering that which properly belongs to another. Rather, the Lord comes precisely as the proper lord of earth.
Entering God’s Space
In the second stanza, the focus of the liturgy zooms in from the universal focus to a focus on the Jerusalem Temple–the intersection between heaven and earth. Who may process from the profane space of the world into holy space of God’s Temple? The surprise is that the requirements to do so are not ritual–as in much of the rest of the Old Testament and indeed throughout the ancient Near East–but moral.
James Luther Mays notes, “The adjectives ‘clean’ and ‘pure’ do not belong to the Old Testament vocabulary of ritual purification; they are ethical terms.”2 The requirements that the people do not take up my life falsely and do not swear deceitfully should be understood in light of this theological understanding and in light of the Decalogue prohibition against taking up the name of the Lord falsely. Cleanliness and purity is not for one’s own sake, but for the neighbor.
If the first half of this second stanza (verses 3-4) is about law (what is required of humans when entering into God’s presence), the second half (verses 5-6) is about promise (what is bestowed on humans when entering into God’s presence).
If entering into God’s sphere requires one to leave something at the altar, as it were, one also leaves the altar with something sacred: a blessing from the Lord. The connection between what is left and what one leaves God’s altar with is reinforced by the Hebrew verb “take up” or “lift,” which is used in both halves of the second stanza. One does not take up my life falsely and when one leaves, one will take a blessing from the Lord. Thus, there is a promise to balance the law. And like the law, the blessing is bestowed not for the sake of the individual per se, but for the sake of the neighbor.
The Coming of the King of Glory
The second stanza describes the coming of mortals into God’s space, while the final stanza heralds the coming of the King of Glory into the human space. The psalm’s key word lift now appears four more times in stanza three (verses 7 and 9). Ancient gates had no parts that moved up and down–this is not a metaphor for the raising of a portcullis to allow entrance. Rather, the metaphor refers to the lifting of one’s head to acknowledge the entrance of one who is greater, more important, more gracious than the self. To lift one’s head at God’s entrance to acknowledge God as God.
This reverent and faithful attitude, metaphorically commanded of the Temple gates, is the proper stance of all life toward the Lord. It is the confession that is required when the Lord enters human space to acknowledge the Lord as king. As with all confessions of faith, to confess one truth is to deny competing claims. To confess the Lord as king is to deny all other claims to sovereignty. To confess the Lord as king, means that I am not the ruler of my own life.
But again the psalm asks, who is the king of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty. But according to the New Testament, the strength and might of this king are unlike those of any earthly king. This King, who from eternity had the power, authority, even sovereignty–gave it up. Rather than kill, he chose to be killed. “You who were once estranged and hostile in mind…he has now reconciled in the body of his flesh through death” (Colossians 1:21).
And in his death, moreover, death has already reached out to grasp the world, so that we need not die in the same way. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death…we have been united with him in a death like this, and we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:4). Who is the king of glory? Jesus Christ−who did not count sovereignty or equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself into a manger, being born in human likeness, in human form.
1Some material in this essay is taken from The Book of Psalms, by Rolf Jacobson, Beth Tanner, and Nancy Declaisse-Walford (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, forthcoming). All rights reserved.