Saturday, February 23, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 24

Psalm 24 has always been one of my favorites. I like its themes. I like its promises. I even like the rhythm of its language. On the surface, it appears to be a simple psalm that reads easily and flies by with almost a march-like tempo, but as in all the psalms, there are deeper meanings to explore here. 

The first two verses firmly establish God's authority over all of creation: “The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it...” Everything on earth belongs to the God, the land, the sea, the air, the animals, the plants, the minerals, everything. No exceptions. Moreover, the whole world belongs to God, everyone who lives on earth, every single person. No exceptions. Just as a side note, this verse seems a bit repetitious, but in the Hebrew, the word for “earth” refers more to the natural environment while the word for “world” points to the inhabitants of the earth. In any case, everything belongs to God. No exceptions. Why? Because God created the earth and everything and everyone in it. He founded it and established it. The Hebrew word for founded is yâsad, which implies a beginning, a setting up or ordaining of how things are and should be. The Hebrew word for established is kûn, which seems to refer to an arranging or ordering or perfection of things. So God created all things and ordered them according to His will; they belong to Him. Knowing this, we need to ask ourselves how well we take care of God's created world and our fellow human beings. Do we treat them with the respect they deserve as the property of God? 

The psalm continues with two questions: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place?” Who shall be able to approach this creator God Who has authority over the whole earth and everyone in it? Who can come near His dwelling place? For the Jews, that holy place or hill, was the Jerusalem temple. For Christians, that holy place may be both the tabernacle in every Catholic Church where God dwells Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist and the soul where God dwells within each person who is in a state of grace. What qualities must people have if they wish to approach God? The psalm tells us they must have clean hands and pure hearts. In other words, they must be free from both external and internal sin. One might wonder how this can be since everyone sins. God Himself gives us clean hands and pure hearts, for He forgives our sins. So God makes it possible for us to approach Him, for He loves us and longs for relationship with us. 

Those who wish to come near to God must also, as the psalm says, refrain from lifting up their souls “to what is false” and from swearing deceitfully. In other words, they do not worship idols. They seek truth...the one true God and His true plan for the world. They do not chase after things that are fleeting, vain, and useless (the Hebrew word for false, shâv', can also have these meanings). They do not enter into covenants with “deities” other than God, nor do they swear a covenant oath to God that they don't intend to keep. Instead, the psalm implies, they swear a true oath to the true God and enter into a true covenant, a bond of self-giving love, with Him. This is real worship. 

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts and worship correctly, the psalm continues, will “receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.” The Hebrew here says that such people will receive berâkâh (benediction but also prosperity and peace) from the Lord and tsedâqâh (righteousness and justice) from the God of salvation. Why? Because they seek Him. They seek His face, His presence. And in doing so, they find Him. 

In verse 7, the psalm changes its tone. It becomes a rhythmic sequence of command, question, answer, command, question, answer. The psalmist commands, “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.” Then he asks, “Who is the King of glory?” He provides his own answer, “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle.” Then the sequence repeats using the same words, except for the answer, which this time the psalmist gives as “The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory.” 

What's going on here? On a literal level this psalm might commemorate the entrance of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem when David brings it in from the countryside. As he dances before the ark, on which the presence of God was said to rest, David cries out to the gates and doors of the city to open wide to receive its true King, its divine King, of Whom he is merely a representative. This King is the King of glory, the Lord Who is a powerful force, able to win any battle. He is the true Commander of armies, Who is responsible for the Israelites' victories. 

The Fathers of the Church interpreted this psalm as a foreshadowing of Christ's victorious entry into the heavenly Jerusalem at His Ascension. In that case, the words would be spoken by angels who call to one another in awe that the God-Man is entering Heaven. “Make way for Him!” they cry, but at the same time, they ask, “Who is this? Who is this King Who enters into Heaven with a human nature yet also a divine nature?” “He is the One Who has won the victory!” others respond. “He is the strong One, the mighty One, coming back to us in glory!” They wonder at the miracle that has taken place. God has died and risen and ascended into Heaven as a Man! 

Finally, we might also interpret the second half of this psalm in a personal way. We are all called to throw open the doors of our hearts and our souls and our minds that the King of glory may enter into us. We are called to welcome Him as the Lord of our lives, Who wins our battles for us by His grace and desires to make His home with us and in us. 

Indeed, Psalm 24 seems simple on the surface, but when we dig into it, we discover depths of meaning that could change our lives if we would make this psalm our own.

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