All Saints Sunday (Year B)

Like Psalm 46, last week’s psalm, Psalm 24 is related to Jerusalem (see Psalm 46, Reformation Sunday).

November 4, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 24

Like Psalm 46, last week’s psalm, Psalm 24 is related to Jerusalem (see Psalm 46, Reformation Sunday).

Its content, structure, and movement strongly suggest that it was used in ancient times by worshipers as they entered the Temple, perhaps as part of a liturgical procession. An initial profession of faith (verses 1-2) is followed by what appears to be a liturgical exchange between priests (verse 3) and worshipers (verses 4-6) at the Temple gates.

The psalm concludes with another liturgical exchange that celebrates God’s sovereignty as priests and people enter the gates, perhaps in a procession bearing the Ark, the symbolic throne of God (see 2 Samuel 6; Psalm 132:8-10). So, Psalm 24 is usually categorized as an entrance liturgy; and as James L. Mays concludes, “The entrance liturgy of verses 7-10 is the dramatic version of the confession of verses 1-2.”1

Such specificity in placing Psalm 24 in its original setting might seem to reduce it to an artifact of an ancient past; however, what is confessed in verses 1-2 and dramatized in verses 7-10 has enduring importance — namely, the affirmation of God’s comprehensive claim upon and rule of the world. The universal sovereignty of the Creator God is clear enough in verses 1-2 and the five-fold repetition of “King” in verses 7-10 solidifies the point. The claim is simple but breath-taking: the world and its entire people belong to God. The socio-political, ecclesiological, and ecological implications are nothing short of astounding!

The structure of the psalm is important. Verses 1-2 and 7-10 surround the central section, verses 3-6. The effect is to expand the ancient question of who will enter the Temple (verse 3) into the more comprehensive and perennial question of who will live in submission to God’s claim on their lives and the life of the world. In short, to put it in terms that echo Jesus’ words, who will repent and enter the reign of God?

To frame the issue this way means that the priestly questions of verse 3 should not be construed as an examination but rather as an invitation — more specifically, as an invitation to readers in every time and place to recognize God’s claim and to live as God intends.

In this regard, it is not coincidental that the two entrance liturgies in the Psalter (Psalms 15 and 24) seem to frame a sequence of psalms in the following chiastic pattern:

A Psalm 15 entrance liturgy
B Psalm 16 psalm of trust
C Psalm 17 prayer for help
D Psalm 18 royal psalm
E Psalm 19 torah-psalm
D’ Psalms 20-21 royal psalms
C’ Psalm 22 prayer for help
B’ Psalm 23 psalm of trust
A’ Psalm 24 entrance liturgy

As a literary device, chiasm calls particular attention to the boundaries and central element of the pattern, and suggests their relatedness. In this case, the effect is to associate submission to God’s claim (symbolized by entering the Temple in Psalms 15 and 24) with a life that is shaped by God’s torah, which is better translated “teaching” or “instruction” rather than the traditional “law” (Psalm 19:7).

Given this interpretive direction, it is not surprising that verse 4 alludes to a key portion of The Torah — that is, the Decalogue. In particular, verse 4 is reminiscent of Exodus 20:7, a literal translation of which is as follows: “You shall not lift up the name of the LORD your God to nothingness, for the LORD will not hold clean the one who lifts up his name to nothingness.”

Psalm 24:4 and Exodus 20:7 share three items of vocabulary — “lift up,” “nothingness” (“what is false”), and “clean.” The Hebrew word translated “nothingness” (“what is false”) can refer to idols (see the NIV’s “who does not lift up his soul to an idol”). In short, both Psalm 24:4 and Exodus 20:7 suggest that cleanness derives from fully entrusting one’s whole self to God alone (especially in view of the fact that the Hebrew word translated “soul” would be better rendered as “self” or “whole being”). 

Complete trust in God will mean the willingness to be shaped by God’s torah, “instruction.” The resulting “blessing” (verse 5) is not a material reward for good behavior, but rather the satisfaction of being in full and right relationship with the God of life (“vindication” in verse 5 is more literally “righteousness,” indicating right relationship). It is this full and right relationship with God that characterizes those who accept the invitation to enter God’s reign and to live as God intends.

It is likely that Psalm 24 contributed to the Gospel of Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ first torah-session. In Matthew 5, Jesus begins his teaching ministry with a series of Beatitudes (or “Blessings”), one of which clearly recalls Psalm 24: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8; see Psalm 24:4, 6).

In view of Exodus 33:17-23 and the prohibition of seeing God’s face, it is striking that Matthew 5:8 speaks of seeing God, recalling Psalm 24:6 and those “who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” But these similar formulations certainly communicate the reality of a full and right relationship with God, including the willingness to be shaped by God’s torah.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and Psalm 24, especially verses 4-6, are often discussed in terms of their ethical implications. Because verses 4-6 do not function as a set of requirements (see above), the implied definition of ethics in Psalm 24 coheres with that of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon: “So the primary ethical question is not, What ought I now to do? but rather, How does the world really look? . . .  Our ethics derive from what we have seen of God.”2

This is exactly the ethical perspective of Psalm 24, which invites us to see(k) the God who claims the world and all its peoples (verse 1). If we indeed truly affirm that the world belongs to God (and not simply to us), and if we affirm that God wills the well-being of every human being (simply because everyone belongs to God), we join “the company of those who seek . . . the face of the God of Jacob” (verse 6) — that is, the communion of all the saints!

1James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 123.
2Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 88, 90.