You know, we’re people who take access to God way too casually, don’t we? We saunter into His presence like it’s nothing. There’s a story that surrounds Psalm 24, however, that reminds us that God’s presence among His people is an unparalleled privilege. And I pray that this morning, as we look at this text it would only deepen our reasons to be here every Sunday, gathered to His Name, with His church, with His people, met around the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If we’re to understand Psalm 24, I think that it’s helpful for us to consider the wider context and the immediate context that surrounds this passage, and so, let’s begin by going right back to creation, in your minds.
So in the creation account we read about how God made man in His own image to be a reflection of His glory. How miserably we’ve failed, haven’t we? To live before the Face of God that was God’s design, that was God’s intention. But anybody familiar with the Biblical text, and I trust that at this point a large majority of our church family knows this story, and so this is just a brief little reminder for you… you’re going to know that it wasn’t long after God had created everything beautiful and perfect and established a relationship with them that Adam and Eve in their sin, plunged all of us into the darkness of sin. Because God is holy, He could not allow man to be in His presence. And had it not been for the mercy of God, He should’ve killed those sinners on the spot, wiping out humanity forever and ever. But instead, God had an eternal plan. The sinfulness of mankind hadn’t taken God by surprise, had it? Not in the slightest.
God began to reveal to His people little by little, even there in the garden, He began to reveal to His people that He had a plan, and more brightly and more clearly it began to be manifested throughout the course of the Old Testament and on into the New… it began with a promise of God in the garden, that He would send a dragon-slayer to kill that deceiving serpent. God would make a way for his people to be near Him again.
And so, in time, God set His love on Abraham, named Abram at the time, a man from the land of Ur. God made covenant promises to Abraham, that He would make a great nation out of him. He would make a way for a chosen people to be near Him again, in His presence. In time God raised up a leader by the name of Moses who would lead God’s people out of slavery towards the promised land. And so God gave special instruction for a way that God would establish a sacred space on earth, a miniature Heaven on earth where God would meet with His people… a tabernacle where God would camp with His people in their journey through the wilderness.
And in the most holy place within the tabernacle, God had given instruction for the Ark of the Covenant to be placed… a golden box would be guarded there by cherubim, and the shekinah glory of God’s presence would rest there, between those cherubim. God would be near His people again. Yes, behind a dark veil, yes, behind a thick curtain in a tent… but He was near His people. He was camping with them in the wilderness, identifying with them in their sorrow and suffering and shame.
When God’s presence first came to reside there, it took the breath of God’s people away. How could it be that God was residing… God had taken up residence among His people in the wilderness. How could a holy God take up residence among a sinful people like them? But over time, they began to presume upon God’s presence among them. They began to forget how amazing it was that God was among them, and I think we do the same, don’t we? We have the promise of His presence, where two or three are gathered together in His name, we have His promised presence as we know that the Holy Spirit dwells within us but how often to do we presume upon such grace?
Well, the Ark of the Covenant had often brought God’s people victory in battle. It was the Ark of the Covenant that led them across the Jordan and brought down the walls of Jericho. And yet, when the Israelites stopped trusting God, the Ark was captured by the Philistines. 1 Samuel 4 describes that scene. And the Philistines though, they soon discovered how dangerous it is to live in the presence of a holy God when the Philistines started dying from disease because of the Ark being among them, and their god, Dagon, was falling on his face breaking apart before the Ark. It became a sign and a symbol it was time to get rid of the Ark, and so they shipped it back to Israel. And for a time the Ark remained at the house of Abinadab.
However, once David had established his kingdom some decades later, he decided it’s time to bring the Ark up to Jerusalem. The problem was, that the Ark was almost as dangerous for the Israelites as it had been for the Philistines. And so during the journey of bringing the Ark up towards Mount Zion, the Ark, which was being carried on a cart which wasn’t exactly protocol, it was supposed to be carried by, only the priests, but when the Ark began to tip because the oxen stumbled, Uzzah, a man who was walking alongside, very naturally thought, ‘woah, the Ark is tipping,’ and he reached out to keep it from falling, and Uzzah was instantly killed. Smitten on the spot. Killed on the spot.
Again we take the presence of God far too lightly, don’t we? And Uzzah, even in that moment, as probably well intentioned as he was in trying to keep the Ark from falling, was killed by it. So at that point it seemed to David, he became afraid of the Ark, the Bible says, and he decided it was best to leave the Ark alone. And so for several months the Ark remained at the house of Obed-edom. And when David saw that God was blessing Obed-edom for having the Ark among him, he decided again it’s time to bring the Ark to Jerusalem.
Now you may be saying, ‘what does that have to do with Psalm 24?’ Well, the most common view by Bible scholars is that this Psalm is written on this occasion. It’s written on the occasion when Israel, in Israel’s history when God made that royal entrance, in the Ark of the Covenant when it was brought up to Jerusalem, this is that occasion. And so the Psalm begins in praise to the Lord, the Creator and Owner of all things. In verse 1 & 2,
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.
In these verses, we’re explicitly told… God asserts His absolute ownership over everything that exists. The whole world belongs to Him, the universe is at His command. It includes everything, the world itself, not only the world but everything in the world. Everything in it from the tallest mountain to the smallest grain of sand; from the ocean to the prairies; whether the mightiest sea creature or the smallest molecule… everything belongs to God, everything is His. And so all the people belong to God as well. You and I belong to Him. He claims authority over everyone who lives in His world.
The great Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper said, ‘In the total expanse of the human life, there is not a single square inch on which Christ, Who alone is sovereign, doesn’t declare, “That is mine.” ‘
But then in verse 3 of our Psalm, the question is asked as to who is then qualified to stand before the presence of this God. Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place? In light of God’s sovereign ownership of over all the earth and everything that lives within it, David is wondering, who exactly has the right to stand before God? I am thinking that David has Uzzah’s experience with the Ark in his mind. Uzzah, he was a good guy. Uzzah, he only had good intentions with that Ark. But Uzzah was killed on the spot. Who has the right to stand before God if not Uzzah?
David, notice, is not talking about mountain climbing skills. He is talking about the right to come before God - who has that right? David clarifies his previous question at the end of verse 3 who shall stand in His holy place? Who has the right to stand before God in His holy temple? Now this is a question that really ought to concern each one of you this morning: every man, every woman, every boy, every girl among us. This isn’t, young people, this isn’t just for the big people to worry about, this is a question you need to be concerned about this morning. I know that the popular question today is more like something along the lines of, ‘how can I be happy.’ It tends to be our main concern, doesn’t it? ‘How can I get instant gratification?’ The most important question that you can asked is asked here by David, ‘How can sinful man be in right relationship with a holy, sovereign, Creator, Lord?’ ‘Who is qualified to stand in His presence?’ David did not feel qualified. David did not feel qualified.
2 Samuel 6 describes that exactly when he says, “Who am I to have the Ark in my presence? Uzzah was just killed, I’m scared. I’m afraid of the Ark. I want the Ark. I love the Ark, but I’m afraid of it.” This was a very fitting question for David and it’s a very fitting question for us. Who is qualified to stand in God’s presence?
Now with so many people having been smitten on account of the Ark of God’s presence, that question couldn’t have been asked at a more appropriate time. Here was Uzzah, a man who had simply reached out to keep the Ark from toppling to the ground and being damaged. A man well intentioned. A righteous man from human perspective, had died trying to prevent the Ark, a sacred box, from being damaged.
2 Samuel 6 verse 9 tells us, David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, how can the Ark of the Lord come to me? How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?
If Uzzah was unworthy, David certainly is.
So what is the answer to the question, ‘How can the Ark of the Lord’s presence dwell near David?’ Well he answers this question in verse 4, the one who dwells in the presence of God must have clean hands, must have a pure heart. He must not put his trust in idols. He must not make false promises. Now surely if any of us is honest while we read verse 4, we’ll realize that not a single one of us here this morning, not a single person in the universe is worthy in and of ourselves to stand before the King of the universe and survive. Verse 5 provides a clue to this problem… who then is qualified? Who has clean hands? Who has a pure heart? None of us. Then how will this ever be resolved? Verse 5, he will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Now on what basis can anyone stand righteous in the presence of God? Well, lest we deceive ourselves into believing that such a righteousness can be produced by our sinful hearts, look again carefully at verse 5. Look at what it says. Where such a righteous standing comes from. It says clearly, righteousness from the God of his salvation. The one who ascends God’s holy hill needs a Saviour. He needs righteousness given to him. He needs righteousness from outside of himself.
See it’s important to remember something that isn’t explicitly mentioned here in Psalm 24 but it’s essential to understanding it and any one of the original readers would have had this in their mind, and that is this: when an Israelite went up the temple mount in Jerusalem, they always took a sacrifice with them. God’s law demanded the removal of guilt through the offering of a perfect animal – a substitute for sin. And so every day the priests offered two perfect lambs, one in the morning and one in the evening so that no one would ever enter God’s presence without an acceptable sacrifice. No one ever came qualified in himself. Everyone needed a pure sacrifice.
The requirements for entering God’s royal presence, they haven’t changed, they’re the same today. The only people who are permitted to approach the throne of God are those who have both outward obedience, as the Psalmist indicates in verse 4, and inward integrity, who love God and other people. The only way to meet those requirements is to have that righteousness given to us outside of ourselves. To be justified as we come to understand more clearly in the New Testament, justified by faith. Believing in the God who saves. Trusting in Jesus as our sacrifice for sin.
Charles Spurgeon wrote this way, he says, ‘It is possible that you are saying, then I shall never enter into the Heaven of God, for I have neither clean hands nor a pure heart.’ Then he appeals, ‘Look then to Christ who has already climbed the holy hill. He has entered as the forerunner of those who trust Him. Follow in His footsteps and repose upon His merit. He rides triumphantly into Heaven and you shall ride there too if you trust Him. But how can I get the character described? says you. The Spirit of God will give you that. He will create in you a new heart and a right spirit. Faith in Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit and has all virtues wrapped up in it.’ Endquote.
So Exodus describes in painstaking detail how the Ark was to be handled. And the washing rituals that the priests had to go through in order to be qualified to even touch the rods that carried the Ark. No priest was to touch the Ark. But even to touch the rods that touched the Ark required ritualistic washings and ceremonies and the blood of animals and to be a priest. When you read through those tedious instructions it gives you a sense of how seriously God treats His holiness.
You know it’s easy to look at this list of requirements here in verse 4 and see that my hands are not clean. They’re not always clean. My heart is not always pure. Idolatry can be both subtle and stubborn in my own heart. I also find that it’s too easy for me to make promises with at least a tinge of deceit. We all, when looking at verse 4, recognize our own incapacity to meet this standard. And so what fear, yet what joy it is for God’s people to dwell in His presence with deliberate steps, with sacrifices of praise and joyful shouts the Ark was finally brought into the tent.
I want you to hold your spot here and I want you to see the ceremony as it was carried out. Go to 1 Chronicles chapter 15. So Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles. Go to 1 Chronicles and look at verse 15. It records in great detail the occasion when the Ark was finally brought back into Jerusalem. So verse 2, chapter 15 verse 2;
Then David said that no one but the Levites may carry the Ark of God, for the Lord had chosen them to carry the Ark of the Lord and to minister to him forever. And David assembled all Israel at Jerusalem to bring up the Ark of the Lord to its place, which he had prepared for it. And David gathered together the sons of Aaron and the Levites:
They’re named for us in verse 5 through 11. Go down to verse 12;
and said to them, “You are the heads of the fathers' houses of the Levites. Consecrate yourselves, you and your brothers, so that you may bring up the Ark of the Lord, the God of Israel, to the place that I have prepared for it. Because you did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God broke out against us,”
Notice that he’s saying, ‘you were suppose to do this the first time, and we did the whole cart thing and that’s when Uzzah died. We didn’t do it right last time and that’s why God broke out against us because we did not seek Him according to the rule.’
Verse 14: So the priests and the Levites consecrated themselves to bring up the Ark of the Lord, the God of Israel. And the Levites carried the Ark of God on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord. David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.
Skip down to verse 25:
So David and the elders of Israel and the commanders of thousands went to bring up the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from the house of Obed-edom with rejoicing. And because God helped the Levites who were carrying the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, they sacrificed seven bulls and seven rams. David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as also were all the Levites who were carrying the Ark, and the singers and Chenaniah the leader of the music of the singers. And David wore a linen ephod. So all Israel brought up the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and made loud music on harps and lyres.
There you get the glorious procession that is poetically described for us now as we begin in verses 7-10. In this final stanza of the Psalm this climactic final stanza. So David in the beginning of the Psalm has asserted God’s rule over all His creation. And he’s explained who has the right to enter into God’s holy presence. And now this King, this sovereign over all creation, comes into His glory, and so, verse 7, “throw open the gates. Open wide the everlasting portals. Enter the King of glory.”
Now if we want to understand what’s happening here in these final verses of 7-10, what you have to do is at least reach back into old English tradition. According to ancient custom when the king of England entered the city of London through the temple bar, a servant would herald his approach and the herald would stand outside the city wall and he would demand entrance in the king’s name. And he would cry, “Open the gates!” and then the royal party would hear the response from within, “Who is there?” To which the herald would then announce, “The King of England!” and then those gates would swing open and the king would enter the city and he would receive a royal welcome from his loyal subjects.
Well the scene for us, the end of chapter 24 is similar. This last part of the Psalm is what we call an antiphonal – it’s a song with a call and response. And so in David’s day it would have been sung by the choirs of Levites that we just read about in 1 Chronicles. So it must’ve gone something like this:
First the choir sang outside the city gates calling on behalf of the triumphant king, “Lift up your heads, o ye gates. Be lifted up, you ancient doors.”
Imagine one of these doors that raises up into the castle wall, kind of concept.
“Lift up you gates, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.”
That’s the choir singing. Before the gates could be opened there’s the gatekeeper. He’s also identified in 1 Chronicles as a Levite. Whether ritualistically or just to identify for sure who is this person coming in he had to be certain that it was actually the king and so he would demand,
“Who is this king of glory?” and then the heralds would reply,
“The Lord, strong and mighty. The Lord mighty in battle.”
And then the royal choir repeats their summons, “Lift up your heads, o you gates. Lift them up you ancient doors, that the king of glory may come in.”
And as those giant gates slowly raised, the gatekeeper repeats his question, not because he’s hard of hearing or in order to be difficult, but because he wants to hear this is happy news. He wants to hear this happy news again,
“Who is he? Who is this king of glory?” And together they all sing,
“The Lord almighty. He is the king of glory.”
While David wrote these words initially for the carrying of the Ark of God’s presence up to Jerusalem, what we see here really points beyond itself. It points to an even more glorious ascension. The ascension of our blessed Lord to the Heavenly Zion after He had accomplished His earthly ministry. All of this, this passage, as do all the Psalms really, points forward to the Lord and specifically, this Psalm points to his ascension accompanied by a host of ministering angels. So as Christ ascended after His earthly work, as He ascended back into Heaven, there’s a cry from the angelic hosts, a cry made for the admission of Christ back to His Heavenly realm,
“Lift up your heads o gates and be lifted up o ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.”
See Jesus Christ is the One, by Whom all things in Heaven and on earth exist as we were talking about in our talk this morning during Sunday School hour. He’s the One by Whom all things in Heaven and on earth exist and those that dwell therein. He’s the One Who from all eternity had known glory with the Father before the worlds were made. And from there, Jesus Christ descended down, down to dwell among sinful men like you and me. He who is equal with God took on flesh and dwelt among us.
The Psalmist describes Him further as the Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. What does that refer to? Well, the reason that Jesus descended from Heaven had been to rescue… to go on a rescuing mission. To rescue a ruined world from the clutch of sin and Satan, death and hell. Jesus entered into battle with Satan and He bound him and He has rescued millions from Satan’s grip and continues to do so, many who otherwise would have been bound with Satan in chains of everlasting darkness. We were among that crowd… he has rescued us. But Jesus was wounded in the battle as Genesis 3:15 foretold He would. It describes that His heel would be bruised, but He, Jesus, inflicted a deadly wound to the head of his enemy. Through death, the scripture describes, Jesus destroyed him who had the power of death, that is the devil, and delivered them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
In the eternal covenant, we talked about this this morning too, in the eternal covenant that the trinity made in Heaven before the ages began, God the Father promised the Son, that after His conflicts on earth, He would be raised in His manhood to the right hand of the majesty on high and that He would be enthroned very high and that all His enemies would be placed under His feet. That’s Psalm 110:1.
And then so having secured a way into the presence of God for His people by His own blood He has now entered into the holy place, there to intercede on our behalf, having obtained eternal redemption for us. He, Hebrews explains, has gone to appear in the presence of God for us and He ever lives to make intercession for us.
What a blessed thought this is. He has qualified us to be in God’s presence. How casually we take the presence of God. And look to what extent, to what extent Jesus Christ stooped in order to make that presence possible. What a blessed thought. Even now, Jesus Christ, this very moment, is standing at the right hand of the Father, pleading, in His Father’s presence, the merit of His blood.
Philippians explains that God exalted Him, Jesus, to the highest place. He gave Him the Name that is above every name. Hebrews says that Jesus, when He returned to Heaven, He took His seat on a majestic throne.
Hebrews 1:3 after He had provided purification for sins, He, the Son, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
Ephesians summarizes by saying that after God raised Jesus from the dead He seated Him at His right hand in the Heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that can be named.
These, and many other New Testament passages provide hints of the transcendent exaltation of Jesus Christ when He had finished His earthly work. But, interestingly enough, I think there is hardly a more clear description of that occasion than the one we have just read this morning in Psalm 24.
John Newton, in a sermon he preached on Psalm 24 said this, quote, “We conceive of Him, Jesus, therefore from this sublime passage as ascending to His Father and our Father… to His God and our God, accompanied with a train of worshiping angels who demand admittance for Messiah, the Saviour and Friend of sinners, the King of glory.” Endquote.
Now, can you imagine, can you imagine what it was like when God, the very Son, having finished the work of our salvation on a God forsaken cross, entered the glories of Heaven where He was welcomed back into the embrace of the Father.
In the words of one commentator, quote, “These verses pictured the scene, when after spoiling the powers of darkness, after abolishing death itself, the resurrected God-man, the Lord, returns to Heaven in triumph.
And as He approaches the Heavenly portals the celestial herald cries out, “Lift up your heads, o ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors. And the King of glory shall come in.
The angelic watchers within ask, “Who is this King of glory?”
The answer, “The Lord, strong and mighty. The Lord mighty in battle.”
Let’s bring this to conclusion. Friend, there’s one day when He who has ascended to Heaven in glory is coming back to take those who love and trust Him, who trust in the merits of our great High Priest, who are not trusting in our own strength to qualify us to be in God’s presence. He, Who has qualified us to be inheritors of all that is His, is coming again to take home His people who wait for Him. And Paul assures us in Colossians 3 that when Christ, Who is our life, shall appear, then we shall also appear with Him in glory.
This brings us back to our question, who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who is qualified to stand in His presence? Brother, sister, you are. You are, on the basis of One Who has made you qualified. On that day, He, the Lord Jesus, will demand admission for all of His redeemed. He will demand admission for all those who love Him, to come into the very highest of Heaven, into the very throne room of God and of the Lamb, into the very holiest of all… the holiest of all that that holy of holies in that tabernacle only represented. And here is what we will hear, as we, a train of Heavenly qualified guests of the Lamb, accompany the King of glory, we will hear these angelic strains, “Lift up your heads, o gates, that the King of glory with all of His ransomed ones, with all of the redeemed shall enter in.”
What shouts will then resound throughout the courts of Heaven, “The King of glory! The King of glory!” He will be our focus for all eternity. There is no other name that will then be heard but that of our redeeming Lord, to Whom all possible praise and honour and glory will be ascribed. Even to Him that sits upon the throne and unto the Lamb forever. And so shall we ever be with the Lord. We can comfort one another with these words as we close this morning.
Heavenly Father, we are so indebted to your grace. We are unqualified to be met in your presence this morning. We are unqualified to have the Spirit of God dwelling within us. We are unqualified to be tabernacles in which you dwell. To be a holy temple as a local body of believers. A holy temple in the Lord being built up. Being holy priests in the Lord. Lord in ourselves we are completely unqualified, our hands are unclean, our minds think sinful thoughts, we pursue idolatrous desires. And Lord, in ourselves, we are completely unfit to stand alive in Your presence. And Lord Jesus, because of Your great sacrificial love, you condescended to earth, You gave up Your life, You ransomed us, You lived the perfect righteousness that we could never live and have thus qualified us to be fit to come before your throne. We do so now at the invitation of Hebrews, we come boldly before the throne of Grace. And we anticipate a day when we will rise, at Your request, because of the merit of our great High Priest, we will rise and so shall we ever be with the Lord. What comfort this is for us. I pray that those who do not know You this morning, would be arrested by this reality - they need Christ. Pray that they would flee to Him for mercy. Those of us who have Christ, I pray that we would only desire more and more of Him. I pray that we would not take presence lightly but that we would treasure the presence of God now and for all eternity. We ask this now as we close, in Jesus’ name. Amen.