Expositor's Bible Commentary
A Psalm of David. The earth is the LORD'S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.Psalm 24:1-10EWALD’S widely accepted view that this psalm is a composite of two fragments rests on a somewhat exaggerated estimate of the differences in tone and structure of the parts. These are obvious, but do not demand the hypothesis of compilation; and the original author has as good a right to be credited with the uniting thought as the supposed editor has. The usually alleged occasion of the psalm fits its tone so well and gives such appropriateness to some of its phrases that stronger reasons than are forthcoming are required to negative it. The account in 2 Samuel 6:1-23 tells of exuberant enthusiasm and joy of which some echo sounds in the psalm. It is a processional hymn, celebrating Jehovah’s entrance to His house; and that one event, apprehended on its two sides, informs the whole. Hence the two halves have the same interchange of question and answer, and the two questions correspond, the one inquiring the character of the men who dare dwell with God. the other the name of the God who dwells with men. The procession is climbing the steep to the gates of the ancient Jebusite fortress, recently won by David. As it climbs, the song proclaims Jehovah as the universal Lord, basing the truth of His special dwelling in Zion upon that of His world wide rule. The question, so fitting the lips of the climbers, is asked, possibly, in solo, and the answer describing the qualifications of true worshippers, and possibly choral (Psalm 24:3-6), is followed by a long-drawn musical interlude. Now the barred gates are reached. A voice summons them to open. The guards within, or possibly the gates themselves, endowed by the poet with consciousness and speech, ask who thus demands entrance. The answer is a triumphant shout from the procession. But the question is repeated, as if to allow of the still fuller reiteration of Jehovah’s name, which shakes the grey walls; and then, with clang of trumpets and clash of cymbals, the ancient portals creak open, and Jehovah "enters into His rest, He and the ark of His strength."
Jehovah’s dwelling on Zion did not mean His desertion of the rest of the world, nor did His choice of Israel imply His abdication of rule over, or withdrawal of blessings from, the nations. The light which glorified the bare hilltop, where the Ark rested, was reflected thence over all the world. "The glory" was there concentrated, not confined. This psalm guards against all superstitious misconceptions, and protests against national narrowness, in exactly the same way as Exodus 19:5 bases Israel’s selection from among all peoples on the fact that "all the earth is Mine."
"Who may ascend?" was a picturesquely appropriate question for singers toiling upwards, and "who may stand?" for those who hoped presently to enter the sacred presence. The Ark which they bore had brought disaster to Dagon’s temple, so that the Philistine lords had asked in terror, "Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?" and at Beth-shemesh its presence had been so fatal that David had abandoned the design of bringing it up and said, "How shall the ark of the Lord come to me?" The answer, which lays down the qualifications of true dwellers in Jehovah’s house, may be compared with the similar outlines of ideal character in Psalm 15:1-5 and Isaiah 33:14. The one requirement is purity. Here that requirement is deduced from the majesty of Jehovah, as set forth in Psalm 24:1-2 and from the designation of His dwelling as "holy." This is the postulate of the whole Psalter. In it the approach to Jehovah is purely spiritual, even while the outward access is used as a symbol; and the conditions are of the same nature as the approach. The general truth implied is that the character of the God determines the character of the worshippers. Worship is supreme admiration, culminating in imitation. Its law is always "They that make them are like unto them; so is everyone that trusteth in them." A god of war will have warriors, and a god of lust sensualists, for his devotees. The worshippers in Jehovah’s holy place must be holy. The details of the answer are but the echoes of a conscience enlightened by the perception of His character. In Psalm 24:4 it may be noted that of the four aspects of purity enumerated the two central refer to the inward life (pure heart; lifts not his desire unto vanity), and these are embedded, as it were, in the outward life of deeds and words. Purity of act is expressed by "clean hands"-neither red with blood, nor foul with grubbing in dunghills for gold and other so called good. Purity of speech is condensed into the one virtue of truthfulness (swears not to a falsehood). But the outward will only be right if the inward disposition is pure, and that inward purity will only be realised when desires are carefully curbed and directed. As is the desire, so is the man. Therefore the prime requisite for a pure heart is the withdrawal of affection, esteem, and longing from the solid-seeming illusions of sense. "Vanity!" has, indeed, the special meaning of idols, but the notion of earthly good apart from God is more relevant here.
In Psalm 24:5 the possessor of such purity is represented as receiving "a blessing, even righteousness," from God, which is by many taken to mean beneficence on the part of God, "inasmuch as, according to the Hebrew religious view of the world, all good is regarded as reward from God’s retributive righteousness, and consequently as that of man’s own righteousness or right conduct" (Hupfeld). The expression is thus equivalent to "salvation" in the next clause. But while the word has this meaning in some places, it does not seem necessary to adopt it here, where the ordinary meaning is quite appropriate. Such a man as is described in Psalm 24:4 will have God’s blessing on his efforts after purity, and a Divine gift will furnish him with that which he strives after. The hope is not lit by the full sunshine of New Testament truth, but it approximates thereto. It dimly anticipates "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness"; and it feels after the great thought that the highest righteousness is not to be won, but to be accepted, even while it only asserts that man’s effort after must precede his possession of righteousness. We can give the words a deeper meaning, and see in them the dawn of the later teaching that righteousness must be "received" from "the God of salvation."
Psalm 24:6 seems to carry the adumbration of truth not yet disclosed a step further. A great planet is trembling into visibility, and is divined before it is seen. The emphasis in Psalm 24:6 is on "seek," and the implication is that the men who seek find. If we seek God’s face, we shall receive purity. There the psalm touches the foundation. The Divine heart so earnestly desires to give righteousness that to seek is to find. In that region a wish brings an answer, and no outstretched hand remains empty. Things of less worth have to be toiled and fought for; but the most precious of all is a gift, to be had for the asking. That thought did not stand clearly before the Old Testament worshippers, but it struggles towards expression in many a psalm, as it could not but do whenever a devout heart pondered the problems of conduct. We have abundant warnings against the anachronism of thrusting New Testament doctrine into the Psalms, but it is no less one sided to ignore anticipations which could not but spring up where there was earnest wrestling with the thoughts of sift and of the need of purity.
Are we to adopt the supplement, "O God of," before the abrupt "Jacob"? The clause is harsh in any construction. The preceding "thy" seems to require the addition, as God is not directly addressed elsewhere in the psalm. On the other hand, the declaration that such seekers are the true people of God is a worthy close of the whole description, and the reference to the "face" of God verbally, recalls Peniel and that wonderful incident when Jacob became Israel. The seeker after God will have that scene repeated, and be able to say, "I have seen God." The abrupt introduction of "Jacob" is made more emphatic by the musical interlude which closes the first part.
There is a pause, while the procession ascends the hill of the Lord, revolving the stringent qualifications for entrance. It stands before the barred gates, while possibly part of the choir is within. The advancing singers summon the doors to open and receive the incoming Jehovah. Their portals are too low for Him to enter, and therefore they are called upon to lift their lintels. They are grey with age, and round them cluster long memories; therefore they are addressed as "gates of ancient time." The question from within expresses ignorance and hesitation, and dramatically represents the ancient gates as sharing the relation of the former inhabitants to the God of Israel, whose name they did not know, and whose authority they did not own. It heightens the force of the triumphant shout proclaiming His mighty name. He is Jehovah, the self-existent God, who has made a covenant with Israel, and fights for His people, as these grey walls bear witness. His warrior might had wrested them from their former possessors. and the gates must open for their Conqueror. The repeated question is pertinacious and animated: "Who then is He, the King of Glory?" as if recognition and surrender were reluctant. The answer is sharp and authoritative, being at once briefer and fuller. It peals forth the great name "Jehovah of hosts." There may be reference in the name to God’s command of the armies of Israel, thereby expressing the religious character of their wars; but the "hosts" includes the angels. "His ministers who do His pleasure," and the stars, of which He brings forth the hosts by number. In fact, the conception underlying the name is that of the universe as an ordered whole, a disciplined army, a cosmos obedient to His voice. It is the same conception which the centurion had learned from his legion, where the utterance of one will moved all the stern, shining ranks. That mighty name, like a charge of explosives, bursts the gates of brass asunder, and the procession sweeps through them amid yet another burst of triumphant music.