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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Psalms 24

 

 

Verse 3

Psalms

A GREAT QUESTION AND ITS ANSWER

Psalms 24:3.

The psalm from which these words are taken flashes up into new beauty, if we suppose it to have been composed in connection with the bringing of the Ark into the Temple, or for some similar occasion. Whether it is David’s or not is a matter of very small consequence. But if we look at the psalm as a whole, we can scarcely fail to see that some such occasion underlies it. So just exercise your imaginations for a moment, and think of the long procession of white-robed priests bearing the Ark, and followed by the joyous multitude chanting as they ascended, ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in His holy place?’ They are bethinking themselves of the qualifications needed for that which they are now doing. They reach the gates, which we must suppose to have been closed that they might be opened, and from the half-chorus outside there peals out the summons, ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates! and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.’ Then from within another band of singers answers with the question, ‘Who is this King of Glory’ who thus demands entrance? And triumphantly the reply rings out, ‘The Lord, strong and mighty; the Lord, mighty in battle.’ Still reluctant, the question is put again, ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ and the answer is given once more, ‘The Lord of hosts, He is the King of Glory.’ There is no reference in the second answer to ‘battle.’ The conflicts are over, and the dominion is established, and at the reiterated summons the ancient gates roll back on their hinges, burst as by a strong blow, and Jehovah enters into His rest, He and the Ark of His strength. If that is the general connection of the psalm-and I think you will admit that it adds to its beauty and dramatic force if we suppose it so-then this introductory question, sung as the procession climbed the steep, had realised what was needed for those who should get the entrance that they sought, and comes to be a very significant and important one. I deal now with the question and its answer.

I. The question of questions.

That question lies deep in all men’s hearts, and underlies sacrifices and priesthoods and asceticisms and tortures of all sorts, and is the inner meaning of Hindoos swinging with hooks in their backs, and others of them measuring the road to the temple by prostrating themselves every yard or two as they advance. These self-torturers are all asking the same question: ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?’ It sometimes rises in the thoughts of the most degraded, and it is present always with some of the better and nobler of men.

Now, there are three places in the Old Testament where substantially the same question is asked. There is this psalm of ours; there is another psalm which is all but a duplicate, which begins with ‘Lord, who shall abide in Thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in Thy holy hill?’ And there is another shape into which the question is cast by the fervent and somewhat gloomy imagination of one of the prophets, who puts it thus: ‘Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who shall dwell with the everlasting burnings?’ There never was a more disastrous misapplication of Scripture than the popular idea that these two last questions suggest the possibility of a creature being exposed to the torments of future punishment. They have nothing to do with that. ‘Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire?’ If you want a commentary, remember the words, ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’ That puts us on the right track, if we needed any putting on it, for answering this question, not in the gruesome and ghastly sense in which some people take it, but in all the grandeur of Isaiah’s thought. He sees God as ‘the everlasting burnings.’ Fire is the emblem of life as well as of death; fire is the means of quickening as well as of destroying; and when we speak of Him as ‘the everlasting burnings’ we are reminded of the bush in the desert, where His own signature was set, ‘burning and not consumed.’

So the question in all the three places referred to is substantially the same-and what does it indicate? It indicates the deep consciousness that men have that they need to be in that home, that for life and peace and blessedness, they must get somehow to the side of God, and be quiet there, as children in their Father’s house. We all know that this is true, whether our life is regulated by it or not. Very deep in every man’s conscience, if he will attend to its voice, there is that which says, ‘You are a pilgrim and a sojourner, and homeless and desolate until you nestle beneath the outspread wings in the Holy Place, and are a denizen of God’s house.’

The question further suggests another. The universal consciousness-which is, I believe, universal-though it is overlain and stifled by many of us, and neglected and set at nought by others-is that this fellowship with God, which is indispensable to a man’s peace, is impossible to a man’s impurity. So the question raises the thought of the consciousness of sin which comes creeping over a man when he is sometimes feeling after God, and seems to batter him in the face, and fling him back into the outer darkness, ‘How can I enter in there?’ and conscience has no answer, and the world has none, and as I shall have to say presently, the answer which the Old Testament, as Law, gives is almost as hopeless as the answer which conscience gives. But at all events that this question should rise and insist upon being answered as it does proves these three things-man’s need of God, man’s sense of God’s purity, man’s consciousness of his own sin.

And what does that ascent to the hill of the Lord include? All the present life, for, unless we are ‘dwelling in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives beholding His beauty and inquiring in His Temple,’ then we have little in life that is worth the having. The old Arab right of claiming hospitality of the Sheikh into whose tent the fugitive ran is used in Scripture over and over again to express the relation in which alone it is blessed for a man to live-namely, as a guest of God’s. That is peace. That is all that we require, to sit at His fireside, if I may so say, to claim the rites of hospitality, which the Arab chief would not refuse to the veriest tatterdemalion, or the greatest enemy that he knew, if he came into his tent and sought it. God sits in the door of His tent, and is ready to welcome us.

The ascent to the hill of the Lord means more than that. It includes also the future. I suppose that when men think about another world-which I am afraid none of us think about as often as we ought to do, in order to make the best of this one-the question, in some shape or other, which this band of singers lifted up, rises to their lips, ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in His Holy Place’ beyond the stars? Well, brethren! that is the question which concerns us all, more than anything else in the world, to have clearly and rightly answered.

II. Note the answer to this great question.

The psalm answers it in an instructive fashion, which we take as it stands. ‘He that hath clean hands and a pure heart.’ Let me measure myself by the side of that requirement. ‘Clean hands?’-are mine clean? ‘And a pure heart?’-what about mine? ‘Who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity’-and where have my desires and thoughts so often gone? ‘Nor sworn deceitfully.’ These are the qualifications that our psalm dashes down in front of us when we ask the question.

The other two occasions to which I have referred, where the same question is put, give substantially the same answer. It might be interesting, if one had time, or this was the place, to look at the differences in the replies, as suggesting the slight differences in the ideal of a good man as presented by the various writers, but that must be left untouched now. Taking these four conditions that are laid down here, we come to this, that psalmist and prophet with one voice say that same solemn thing: ‘Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.’ There is no faltering in the answer, and it is an answer to which the depths of conscience say ‘Yes.’ We all admit, when we are wise, that for communion with God on earth, and for treading the golden pavements of that city into which nothing that is unclean shall enter, absolute holiness is necessary. Let no man deceive himself-that stands the irreversible, necessary condition.

Well, then, is anybody to go in? Let us read on in our psalm. An impossible requirement is laid down, broad and stern and unmistakable. But is that all? ‘He shall receive a blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.’ So, then, the impossible requirement is made possible as a gift to be received. And although I do not know that this psalmist, in the twilight of revelation, saw all that was involved in what he sang, he had caught a glimpse of this great thought, that what God required, God would give, and that our way to get the necessary, impossible condition realised in ourselves is to ‘receive’ it. ‘He shall receive . . . righteousness from the God of his salvation.’ Now, do you not see how, like some great star, trembling into the field of the telescope, and sending arrowy beams before it to announce its approach, the great central Christian truth is here dawning, germinant, prophesying its full rising? And the truth is this, ‘that I might be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, but that which is of God through Christ.’ Ah, brethren! impossibilities become possible when God comes and says, ‘I give thee that which thou canst not have.’ The old prophet asked the question, ‘What doth God require of thee?’ and his answer was, ‘That thou shouldst do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.’ If he had gone on to ask a better question, ‘What does God give thee?’ he would have said what all the New Testament says, ‘He gives what He commands, and He bestows before He requires.’ And so in Jesus Christ there is the forgiveness that blots out the past, and there is the new life bestowed that will develop the righteousness far beyond our reach. And thus the question which evoked first the answer that might drive us to despair, evokes next a response that commands us to hope.

But that is not all, for the psalm goes on: ‘This is the generation of them that seek Him, that seek Thy face.’ Yes; couched in germ there lies in that last word the great truth which is expanded in the New Testament, like a beech-leaf folded up in its little brown sheath through all the winter, and ready to break and give out its green plumelets as soon as the warm rains and sunshine of spring come. ‘They that seek Him’-’if thou seek Him He will be found of thee.’ The requirement of righteousness, as I have said, is not abolished by the Gospel, as some people seem to think that it substitutes faith for righteousness; but it is made possible by the Gospel which through faith gives righteousness. And what the Psalmist meant by ‘seeking’ we Christian people mean by ‘faith.’ Earnest desire and confident application to Him are sure to obtain righteousness. To these there will never be returned a refusing answer. ‘I have never said to any of the seed of Jacob, seek ye Me in vain.’ So, brethren! if we seek we shall receive; if we receive we shall be holy, if we are holy we shall dwell with God, in sweet and blessed communion, and be denizens of His house, and sit together in heavenly places with Him all the days of our lives, and then shall pass, when ‘goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our lives,’ and ‘dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’


Verses 7-10

Psalms

THE GOD WHO DWELLS WITH MEN

Psalms 24:7 - Psalms 24:10.

This whole psalm was probably composed at the time of the bringing of the ark into the city of Zion. The former half was chanted as the procession wound its way up the hillside. It mainly consists of the answer to the question ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?’ and describes the kind of men that dwell with God, and the way by which they obtain their purity.

This second half of our psalm is probably to be thought of as being chanted when the procession had reached the summit of the hill and stood before the barred gates of the ancient Jebusite city. It is mainly in answer to the question, ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ and is the description of the God that dwells with men, and the meaning of His dwelling with them.

We are to conceive of a couple of half choirs, the one within, the other without the mountain hold. The advancing choir summons the gates to open in the grand words: ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates! even lift them up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.’ Their lofty lintels are too low for His head to pass beneath; so they have to be lifted that He may find entrance. They are ‘everlasting doors,’ grey with antiquity, hoary with age. They have looked down, perhaps, upon Melchizedek, King of Salem, as he went forth in the morning twilight of history to greet the patriarch. But in all the centuries they have never seen such a King as this King of Glory, the true King of Israel who now desires entrance.

The answer to the summons comes from the choir within. ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ the question represents ignorance and possible hesitation, as if the pagan inhabitants of the recently conquered city knew nothing of the God of Israel, and recognised no authority in His name. Of course, the dramatic form of question and answer is intended to give additional force to the proclamation as by God Himself of the Covenant name, the proper name of Israel’s God, as Baal was the name of the Canaanite’s God, ‘the Lord strong and mighty; the Lord mighty in battle,’ by whose warrior power David had conquered the city, which now was summoned to receive its conqueror. Therefore the summons is again rung out, ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates! and the King of Glory shall come in.’ And once more, to express the lingering reluctance, ignorance not yet dispelled, suspicion and unwilling surrender, the dramatic question is repeated, ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ The answer is sharp and authoritative in its brevity, and we may fancy it shouted with a full-throated burst-’The Lord of Hosts,’ who, as Captain, commands all the embattled energies of earth and heaven conceived as a disciplined army. That great name, like a charge of dynamite, bursts the gates of brass asunder, and with triumphant music the procession sweeps into the conquered city.

Now these great words, throbbing with the enthusiasm at once of poetry and of devotion, may, I think, teach us a great deal if we ponder them.

I. Notice, first, their application, their historical and original application, to the King who dwelt with Israel.

We must never forget that in the Old Testament we have to do with an incomplete and a progressive revelation, and that if we would understand its significance, we must ever endeavour to ascertain to what point in that progress the words before us belong. We are not to read into these words New Testament depth and fulness of meaning; we are to take them and try to find out what they meant to David and to his people; and so we shall get a firm basis for any deeper significance which we may hereafter see in them. The thought of God, then, in these words is mainly that of a God of strong and victorious energy, a warrior-God, a conquering King, one whose word is power, who rules amidst the armies of heaven, and amidst the inhabitants of earth.

A brief consideration of each expression is all which can be attempted here. ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ The first idea, then, is that of sovereign rule; the idea which had become more and more plain and clear to the national consciousness of the Hebrew with the installation of monarchy amongst them. And it is very beautiful to see how David lays hold of that thought of God being Himself the King of Israel; and dwells so often in his psalms on the idea that he, poor, pale, earthly shadow, is but a representative and a viceroy of the true King who sits in the heavens. He takes off his crown and lays it before His throne and says: ‘Thou art the King of Israel, the King of Glory.’

The Old Testament meaning of that word ‘glory’ is a great deal more definite than the ordinary religious use of it amongst us. The ‘glory of God’ in the Old Testament is, first and foremost, the supernatural light that dwelt between the cherubim and was the manifestation and symbol of the divine Presence. And next it is the sum total of all the impression made upon the world by God’s manifestation of Himself, the Light, of which the material and supernatural light between the cherubs was but the emblem; all by which God flames and flashes Himself upon the trembling and thankful heart; that glory which is substantially the same as the Name of the Lord. And in this brightness, lustrous and dark with excess of light, this King dwells. The splendour of His regalia is the brightness that emanates from Himself. He is the King of Glory.

Next, we have the great Name, ‘the Lord,’ Jehovah, which speaks of timeless, independent, unchanging, self-sufficing being. It declares that He is His own cause, His own law, His own impulse, the staple from which all the links of the chain of being depend, and not Himself a link, the fontal Source of all which is.

We say: ‘I am that which I have become; I am that which I have been made; I am that which I have inherited; I am that which circumstances and example and training have shaped me to be.’ God says: ‘I AM THAT I AM.’ This name is also significant, not only because it proclaims absolute, independent, underived, timeless being, but because it is the Covenant name, and speaks of the God who has come into fellowship with men, and has bound Himself to a certain course of action for their blessing, and is thus the Lord of Israel, and the God, in a special manner, of His people.

‘The Lord mighty in battle.’ A true warrior-God, who went out in no metaphorical sense, but in prose reality, fought for His people and subdued the nations under them, in order that His name might be spread and His glory be known in the earth.

And then, still further, ‘the Lord of Hosts,’ the Captain of all the armies of heaven and earth. In that name is the thought to which the modern world is coming so slowly by scientific paths, that all being is one ordered whole, subject to the authority of one Lord. And in addition to that, the grander thought, that the unity of nature is the will of God; and that as the Commander issues His orders over all the field, so He speaks and it is done. The hosts are the angels of whom it is said: ‘Bless the Lord all ye His hosts; ye ministers of His that do His pleasure.’ The hosts are the stars that fill the nightly heavens, of whom it is said, ‘He bringeth out their host by number.’ The hosts are all creatures that live and are; and all are the soldiers and servants of this conquering King. Such is the name of the Lord that dwelt with Israel, the great conception that rises before this Psalmist.

II. Now turn to the second application of these great words, that speak to us not only of the God that dwelt in Zion in outward and symbolical form, by means of a material Presence which was an emblem of the true nearness of Israel’s God, but yet more distinctly, as I take it, of the Christ that dwells with men.

The devout hearts in Israel felt that there was something more needed than this dwelling of Jehovah within an earthly Temple, and the process of revelation familiarised them with the thought that there was to be in the future a ‘coming of the Lord’ in some special manner unknown to them. So that the whole anticipation and forward look of the Old Testament system is gathered into and expressed by almost its last words, which prophesy that ‘the Lord shall suddenly come to His Temple,’ and that once again this King of Glory shall stand before the everlasting gates and summon them to open.

And when was that fulfilled? Fulfilled in a fashion that at first sight seems the greatest contrast to all this vision of grandeur, of warlike strength, of imperial power and rule with which we have been dealing; but which yet was not the contrast to these ideas so much as the highest embodiment of them. For, although at first sight it seems as if there could be no greater contrast than between the lion might of the Jehovah of the Old Testament, and the lamb gentleness of the Jesus of the New, if we look more closely we shall see that it is not a relation of contrast that exists between the two. Christ is all, and more than all, that this psalm proclaimed the Jehovah of the Old Covenant to be. Let us look again from that point of view at the particulars already referred to.

He is the highest manifestation of the divine rule and authority. There is no dominion like the dominion of the loving Christ, a kingdom based upon suffering and wielded in gentleness, a kingdom of which the crown is a wreath of thorns, and the sceptre a rod of reed; a dominion which is all exercised for the blessing of its subjects, and which, therefore, is an everlasting dominion. There is no rule like that; no height of divine authority towers so high as the authority of Him who rules us so absolutely because He gave Himself for us utterly. This is the King, the Prince of the kings of the earth, because this is the Incarnate God who died for us.

Christ is the highest raying out of the divine Light, or, as the Epistle to the Hebrews calls it, ‘the effulgence of His glory.’ The true glory of God lies in His love, and of that love Christ is the noblest and most wondrous example. So all other beams of the divine character, bright as their light is, are but dim as compared with the sevenfold lustre of the light that shines from the gentle loving-kindness of the heart of Christ. He has glorified God because He shows us that the divinest thing in God is love.

For the same reason, He is the mightiest exhibition of the divine power-’the Lord strong and mighty.’ There is no work of God’s hand, no work of God’s will so great as that by which we are turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. The Cross is God’s noblest revelation of power; and in Him, His weakness, His surrender, His death, with all the wonderful energies that flow from that death for man’s salvation, we see the divine strength made perfect in the human weakness of Jesus. The Gospel of Christ ‘is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.’ There is divine power in its noblest form, in the paradoxical shape of a dying man; in its noblest effect, salvation; in its widest sweep to all who believe.

‘‘Twas great to speak a world from nought,

‘Tis greater to redeem.’

This ‘strong Son of God’ is the arm of the Lord in whom live and act the energies of omnipotence.

Christ is ‘the Lord mighty in battle.’ True, He is the Prince of peace, but He is also the better Joshua, the victorious Captain, in whom dwells the conquering divine might. Through all the gentleness of His life there winds a martial strain, and it is not in vain that the Evangelist who was most deeply penetrated by the sweetness of His love, is the one who most often speaks of Him as overcoming, and who has preserved as His last words to His timid followers, that triumphant command, ‘Be of good cheer! I have overcome the world.’ He has conquered for us, binding the strong man, and so He will spoil his house. Sin, hell, death, the devil, law, fear, our own foolish hearts, all temptations that hover around us-they are all vanquished foes of a ‘Lord’ that is ‘mighty in battle.’ And as He overcame, so shall we if we will trust Him.

Christ is the Commander and Wielder of all the forces of the universe. As one said to Him in the days of His flesh, ‘I am a man under authority, and I say to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. So do Thou speak and Thy word shall be sovereign.’ And so it was. He spake to diseases and they vanished. He spake to the winds and the seas and there was a great calm. He spake to demons, and murmuring, but yet obedient, they came out of their victims. He flung His word into the recesses of the grave, and Lazarus came forth, fumbling with the knots on his grave-clothes, and stumbling into the light. ‘He spake and it was done.’ Who is He, the utterance of whose will is sovereign amongst all the regions of being? ‘Who is the King of Glory?’ ‘Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ!’ ‘Thou art the Everlasting Son of the Father.’

III. And now, lastly, let me ask you to look, and that for a moment, at the application of these words to the Christ who will dwell in our hearts.

His historical manifestation here upon earth and His Incarnation, which is the true dwelling of Deity amongst men, are not enough. They have left something more than a memory to the world. He is as ready to abide as really within our spirits as He was to tabernacle upon earth amongst men. And the very central message of that Gospel which Is proclaimed to us all is this, that if we will open the gates of our hearts He will come in, in all the plenitude of His victorious power, and dwell in our hearts, their Conqueror and their King.

What a strange contrast, and yet what a close analogy there is between the victorious tones and martial air of this summons of my text. ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates! that the King of Glory may come in,’ and the gentle words of the Apocalypse: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice and open the door, I will come in to him.’ But He that in the Old Covenant arrayed in warrior arms, summoned the rebels to surrender, is the same as He who, in the New, with the night-dews in His hair, and patience on His face, and gentleness in the touch of His hand upon the door, waits to enter in. Brethren! open your hearts, ‘and the King of Glory shall come in.’

And He will come in as a king that might seek to enter some city far away on the outposts of his kingdom, besieged by his enemies. If the King comes in, the city will be impregnable. If you open your hearts for Him He will come and keep you from all your foes and give you the victory over them all. So, to every hard-pressed heart, waging an unequal contest with toils and temptations, and sorrows and sins, this great hope is given, that Christ the Victor will come in His power to garrison heart and mind. As of old the encouragement was given to Hezekiah in his hour of peril, when the might of Sennacherib insolently threatened Jerusalem, so the same stirring assurances are given to each who admits Christ’s succours to his heart-’He shall not come into this city, for I will defend this city to save it for Mine own sake’ Open your hearts and the conquering King will come in.

And do not forget that there is another possible application of these words lying in the future, to the conquering Christ who shall come again. The whole history of the past points onwards to yet a last time when ‘the Lord shall suddenly come to His temple,’ and predicts that Christ shall so come in like manner as He went up to heaven. Again will the summons ring out. Again will He come arrayed in flashing brightness, and the visible robes of His imperial majesty. Again will He appear, mighty in battle, when ‘in righteousness He shall judge and make war.’ For a Christian, one great memory fills the past-Christ has come; and one great hope brightens the else waste future-Christ will come. That hope has been far too much left to be cherished only by those who hold a particular opinion as to the chronology of unfulfilled prophecy. But it should be to every Christian heart ‘the blessed hope,’ even the appearing of the glory of Him who has come in the past. He is with and in us, in the present. He will come in the future ‘in His glory, and shall sit upon the throne of His glory.’ All our pardon and hope of God’s love depend upon that great fact in the past, that ‘the Lord was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory.’ Our purity which will fit us to dwell with God, our present blessedness, all our power for daily strife, and our companionship in daily loneliness, depend on the present fact that He dwells in our hearts by faith, the seed of all good, and the conquering Antagonist of every evil. And the one light which fills the future with hope, peaceful because assured, streams from that most sure promise that He will come again, sweeping from the highest heavens, on His head the many crowns of universal monarchy, in His hand the weapons of all-conquering power, and none shall need to ask, ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ for every eye shall know Him, the Judge upon His throne, to be the Christ of the Cross. Open the doors of your hearts to Him, as He sues for entrance now in the meekness of His patient love, that on you may fall in that day of the coming of the King, the blessing of the servants who wait for their returning Lord, that ‘when He cometh and knocketh, they may open unto Him immediately.’

 


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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Psalms 24:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/psalms-24.html.

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