A psalm to be sung as the ark was brought to Mount Zion
A Psalm of David.
“The earth is the LORD’s and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein.” (verse 1)
God holds the right of ownership over this world for one main reason: He made it. When seeking a copyright on a written work or invention, the main matter of concern is who the author or inventor is, as they hold the copyright by nature. By virtue of creating something, one becomes the owner of their creation. It is a natural law. The only exception is when the materials used belong to someone else.
If I take someone else's original ideas and publish them as my own, I could be accused of plagiarism or idea theft. If I steal someone else's building supplies and build a machine from them, the machine is not rightly mine, although the design might be. Yet here, too, we see God’s right of ownership. He made the universe out of nothing. He both made the materials and shaped them into this wonderfully habitable world. The whole earth, in all its fullness, belongs to God.
The people who populate this planet also belong to God, as His unique and special creation. On the sixth day of time, God created the first human being from the materials that make up this world, and breathed physical and spiritual life into him. He made him a female partner from his own body, and commanded them to have children and to rule the world He just made. From Adam, all peoples that fill the earth today have descended, and as God created mankind, mankind belongs to God.
“For He has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters.” (verse 2)
Notice the words “founded” and “established”. Organizations and charities often seek to establish credibility with possible customers or donors by advertising their heritage and long history of productivity. "Est. 1887" may often be seen above the door to some old establishment, and in others, great emphasis may be placed upon the “founders” who originally started the organization; their vision, their character, their efforts, and their donations all glorified in tributes and memorials.
David declares that the founder of Earth is the LORD, the One who brought it into existence, and also makes reference to the time of its establishment. The earth, on day one of creation, began as a dark mass of liquid and solid matter (Genesis 1:2) that was surrounded by the hovering energy of the Spirit of God. God spoke light into existence, and then on day two, separated the earth into land and water.
David could have written, in essence: “Earth. Founder: God, Est. 1CTF (creation of time forward)” Although David’s tribute to God’s establishment of creation could easily apply to the whole universe, as He is indeed the founder of the whole physical realm, David here refines his praise. He glorifies God for the habitable land of the earth, upon which mankind dwells.
“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in His holy place?” (verse 3)
Having established the ownership of the earth and all its inhabitants as belonging inherently to God, David now poses this question: “Who may?” And I ask, in turn, "Who may indeed?!"
The word “may” implies permission, allowance, ability. To “ascend” means to climb or be raised up, and implies a change of position from low to high. To “stand” is to hold oneself erect in full stature, as opposed to sitting, bowing, or laying down.
The “hill of the LORD” is Mount Zion, the future site of the holy temple located in Jerusalem. David had purchased the land, drafted the design, and acquired the materials for the temple, but God had told him he was not to build it. David thus made preparations for his son Solomon to construct it. In the mean time, David had the tabernacle relocated to the site, and sought out the Ark of Covenant from where it had been stored for many years.
In an elaborate parade, described in 1 Chronicles 15, in which he danced shamelessly before the Lord, David transported the Ark to its proper place in the tabernacle, the “Holy of Holies,” or the “Holy Place.” This was the part of the tabernacle where God’s presence had dwelt in time of old. David wrote Psalm 24 for this holy procession, to be sung by the Levites whose responsibility and high honour it was to carry the Ark of the Covenant to the tabernacle on Mount Zion, into the Holy Place.
David asks, “Whom among the men of Israel are worthy to carry the Ark up to the tabernacle on Mount Zion and enter with it into the Holy Place?” Intended, undoubtably, to be a question asked by the carriers of themselves, “Who, really then, IS worthy?” is the essential thrust of the question at hand.
If you recall the story in 1 Chronicles 13, this parade is not the first David had organized for the said purpose of relocating the Ark. In a tragic incident, David’s first joyous procession had been halted; one of the men chosen to oversee the transportation of the Ark had been struck dead by God. The Ark had begun to slip off the cart it was being carried on, and unfortunate Uzza had reached up to steady it. David had been devastated. He returned home to seek the scriptures and to discover what had gone wrong. It turned out that God had a particular way in which the Ark was to be moved, and this time around, David wanted to be sure of God’s blessing.
As the ones designated to sing this song as they ascended the hill, the chosen Levites undoubtably would have had ample time to consider the weighty words beforehand, (and to contemplate Uzza’s fate), as they practiced the new song in the days before the parade. The words of the song drew attention to the necessity of holiness in the lives of those who would accept service before the Holy God and before the holy Ark.
“He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully.” (verse 4)
Here are the job requirements. “Clean hands” indicates upright and just actions. Recall how Pilot “washed his hands” after unjustly sentencing Jesus to death; injustice causes “dirty hands”. Where these Levites living moral lives among their brethren?
A “pure heart” indicates singleness of devotion and goes hand in hand with “has not lifted up his soul to an idol”. The concept is of someone whose heart is fully set upon God, whose affection is not divided by a love of this world or the things in the world, specifically of a false god. Did these Levites seek after the one true God of Israel?
To “swear deceitfully” is to have hypocrisy of the tongue. When we speak one thing, but think or do another, we practice deceit not only with our neighbour, but with ourselves. God sees; He knows our hearts. Where these Levites faithful to their vows?
Did such men exist? Well, apparently there were men whose lives adequately qualified, for we read of their names in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16. Note Asaph, another psalmist and a contemporary of David, who was both part of the parade choir and appointed to minister before the Ark regularly.
"Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy. So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brethren, Asaph the son of Berechiah; and of their brethren, the sons of Merari, Ethan the son of Kushaiah; and with them their brethren of the second rank: Zechariah, Ben, Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattithiah, Elipheleh, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, and Jeiel, the gatekeepers;" (1 Chron. 15:16-18)
"And he appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, to commemorate, to thank, and to praise the LORD God of Israel: Asaph the chief, and next to him Zechariah, then Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, and Obed-Edom: Jeiel with stringed instruments and harps, but Asaph made music with cymbals; Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests regularly blew the trumpets before the ark of the covenant of God." (1 Chronicles 16:4-6)
While these men loved God and served Him loyally, there is only One in all of history who could actually stand in the presence of the Holy God with pure actions, thoughts, and words. Jesus alone could have perfectly fit David’s description, and He did ascend the hill of the Lord into the highest of heaven, which Zion typifies. He did enter into the Holy Place, as He entered even into the Throne Room of God on high. Jesus, our Saviour, made a way for us to stand in the presence of God through His sacrifice on our behalf. We may have unclean lives, thoughts, and words, but it is for that reason that Jesus came to save us!
The great question here is not who among the men of Israel qualified, or even who among the Levites, but rather, who among all mankind can claim such purity? I surely cannot. My heart, my thoughts, my actions, my words… they all betray the truth of my nature. I am but a sinner, condemned, and in need of God’s mercy. There is no one on earth who truly qualifies.
The Old Testament Law was given for one purpose; it was not to make men holy by means of adherence to a list of rules, but to prove to man their inherent guilt. In describing the character of this “perfect” man, David essentially sets the bar too high for any to reach, and in so doing, fulfills the purpose of his question- to make clear the necessity of God’s mercy.
If the Levites had approached their service with self confidence in their own inherent “goodness,” they would have been an affront to the holiness of God, to whom “all their righteousness was as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). It was better for these servants of God to enter into their appointed service with humble hearts, aware that it was the atonement provided by the mercy of God that allowed them access into the presence of God.
So too we, when faced with our own sinfulness, should not seek to improve upon our fallen human nature before coming to God, but should simply acknowledge it and rely instead upon the mercy of God offered in the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus paid the penalty for all our sins before God and offers us holiness through simple trust in Him!
“He shall receive blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” (verse 5)
When the Israelites first came into the land with Joshua, God instructed him to give the people a lesson in contrast. Placing half of the leaders of the people on Mount Gerizim and the other half across the green valley on Mount Ebal, they then heralded the promises of God towards the multitude. Those on Gerizim read the passages of the Law, written by Moses, in which God promised blessing to the Israelites if they obeyed Him. Those on Ebal read the passages in which God promised cursing to the Israelites if they disobeyed Him. According to the Law, obedience brings "blessing" and favour, and disobedience brings cursing and chastisement.
In reference to the man in question, (who was fit to stand before the holiness of God), David summarizes the simple message of the Old Covenant Law: If you fulfill your part of the deal, you will receive God's favour. This is the very reason why the Law called by the apostle Paul, a "tutor" to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Made aware, by means of His unattainable standard, of our own wretched inability to ever meet that standard, we are left seeking His grace, that is, His unmerited favour, which is found only in Jesus our Saviour.
And look here! David now mentions salvation. To “receive” implies not already being in possession of; a gift that one accepts. If this "blessing" and this "righteousness" (right standing before God) is a gift, then it is not earned. Not earned by holiness, not earned by adherence to the Law, but received freely from the Giver. This sheds an entirely new light on this passage.
David knew he was not a perfect man and he was under no delusion as to the holiness of others, either. Known as "a man after God's own heart" throughout the Bible, David was characterized by one thing: a dependence and trust in the mercy and salvation of God. Thus, his description of the kind of holiness needed to bear the Ark to the Holy Place was that of a different nature than legalistic rule keeping. It conveys not perfection, but rather a whole hearted devotion to a God of mercy who saves those who trust in Him.
Under the inspiration of the Spirit, David wrote this psalm for several purposes. The most practical being the reminder to the Levites ministering before the Ark of the need to walk uprightly before a holy God, lest the fate of Uzza should also befall them. The second is more far reaching, as it applies to all who would read his words in future generations. God saw to preserve them in the body of scripture, so we can be sure that He desires us to learn something from them. I believe that He would have us understand that God is holy and yet, He is merciful. He dwells in approachable light, and yet He came to earth and dwelt among sinful men, that we might be reconciled to Him through His own death and resurrection.
He does not look for perfection in us, but rather, faith. As 2 Chronicles 16:9 says, "For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him." David was a man after God's own heart, and describes in this psalm a man whose whole life is to be devoted to God, in heart, in action, and in word. In essence, a loyal heart. That is what God is looking for in a servant.
“This is Jacob, the generation of those who seek Him, who seek Your face. Selah.” (verse 6)
Paul said, "For they are not all Israel who are of Israel" (Romans 9:6). True Israelites are those who, like Abraham, seek after God and receive righteousness by faith in Him. It was at this point in the psalm that the Levites would have reached the gate of the tabernacles. They pause at "Selah".
“Lift up your heads O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in.” (verse 7)
The choir of Levites was here divided into two groups: the gatekeepers of the tabernacle and those in the procession with the Ark. The Levites who accompanied the Ark, now cry out in song: "Open the gates! Let us in! We bring with us the presence of God!"
“Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.” (verse 8)
The gatekeepers, singing their part, now ask for clarification that the majesty of God be declared loud and clear to all around. This is the finale of the parade. "Who is this King you speak of?" The second group cries out in a yet louder shout, "This is the LORD! He is strong! He is mighty! He is mighty in battle!"
“Lift up your heads, O you gates! Lift up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in.” (verse 9)
Again the parade choir cries, louder this time, "Let us in! Let the King of glory come in!"
“Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory. Selah.” (verse 10)
Rising now to fever pitch, the gatekeepers ask one last time, "Who do you say this is?", themselves as excited as the rest. With unrestrained zeal and joy, the procession now shouts as one voice, "The LORD of hosts!" This was an irrefutable title. Only the God of Israel, the God above all gods, who commands the heavenly host of angels, who defends and delivers His people, goes by this Name.
"HE is the King of Glory!!!"
They then become silent as they enter through the holy gates into the courtyard of the tabernacle, and a hush comes over the crowd. God is in the House. Selah.
This psalm is a popular Ascension Day reading used in liturgical churches, and rightly so. Although it was written for a specific occasion in the past that already occurred, there is a distinct element of prophesy to it, as all the emblems and services of the tabernacle itself are prophetic of the spiritual things they were designed to represent. The coming of the Ark into the tabernacle on Mount Zion is truly a picture of the Lord returning through the Eastern Gate into the city of David when He comes again in glory, leading His host into battle. Will we be there with Him, as He stands before the gate sealed by men, crying alongside the Levites of David's day, "Lift up, you gates! Lift up, you everlasting doors! That the King of Glory shall come in! The LORD mighty in battle! The LORD of hosts!"? I pray it be so. Come quickly Lord Jesus!