Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Hitting the Right Notes -Psalm 24

Music has been such a big part of my life and continues to be something that I enjoy today. Recently, I joined the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra Choir that travels around Virginia with the orchestra to give concerts. Just a few weeks ago we wrapped up a series of Christmas Concerts that featured excerpts from Handel’s Messiah and I was profoundly impacted by one entitled, Lift up Your Head! I became even more impressed with this song when I discovered its source, Psalm 24. Although the Messiah is often sung at Christmas, I can’t help but think that this one excerpt would more be accurately described as a New Year’s song (If I have permission to create such a genre?).

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Psalm 23 (perhaps the most famous Psalm in the songbook [like the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah]) was said to have been sung during a long journey many Jewish travelers would take to Jerusalem to visit the Temple to worship God . However, this lesser known psalm, Psalm 24, is said to have been a melody sung in the final stage of the journey, once the Temple was in clear view. Excited that their worship would soon commence, this song prepared the people who sung it to enjoy the presence of God in a special way.

Therefore, let us take a look at five notes found in Psalm 24 that, if applied, will help prepare us to enjoy the presence of God in a special way in this upcoming year.


This song begins with a very impressive note. David opens with a verse that praises the Lord for His incomparable dominion over the earth by saying, “the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains,…” (24:1). The first of a couplet, this clause describes the sovereignty of God by suggesting that He owns not only the earth, but everything contained within it. In fact, the theme of sovereignty over the things of the earth is repeated throughout this songbook.

Psalm 50:10-12-For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains, and everything that moves in the field is Mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, For the world is Mine, and all it contains.

This note of adoration is sustained with the second parallel phrase, “the world, and those who dwell in it” (24:1b). Not only is everything in the world a possession of God, but every living being belongs, at least in some way, to God. Though all belong to the human race as God’s possession, it is important to remember that not everyone is singing in the chorus of praise (just look around). Sin has ruined the harmony that was once achieved by all, leaving a large group of selfish soloists. Only some ever joining His glorious ensemble. Regardless of the dischord that is presently experienced in the world, these parallel phrases in verse 1 reveal that God has authority over and concern for all creation: inanimate and animate, vegetation and animals, lost and saved. But why?  

“For He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers” (24:2). God’s dominion over the world is predicated on His creative act. He owns it all because He made it all!

Many rulers, kings, or dictators in ancient times enjoyed sovereignty over their land because of their rise to power, military victory, or family name. However, God enjoys sovereignty over all sovereigns because He is the creator of all things. In this way, David sets God up as the King par excellence who is worthy of worship and adoration.

David’s imagery in spelling out God’s creative act is incredibly vivid. In ancient times, foreign lands believed that large bodies of water were gods who resisted the movement toward stability. Not only did these waters resist stability, but they threatened the stability of the creative order. Other people groups viewed the sea as a dark and treacherous place full of mystery and danger. This, the Lord God Almighty was strong enough to overcome. David suggests that the one true God was able to conquer the chaos and found the entire world on top of the waters, bringing order out of commotion and sustaining the entire planet in spite of the many threats against her.

This Psalm begins with praise for God’s ruler ship over the entire world and everything in the world, creating a sense of awe in the beginning of the psalm by means of a loud series of tones that is reminiscent of the opening notes in Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Such a chord should remind all of God’s people in the midst of the chaos that everything belongs to God and there is nothing to fear. Life, for God’s people, has purpose because God is in control. Life, for God’s people, has direction because God is moving. Life, for God’s people, has hope because God reigns. David encourages the Jewish worshippers and all who read this to praise the Lord because:

Why, as God’s people do we kick, wince, and scare so easily when all the while He is holding us and the entire world in his very capable hands. In order to sing your part well as one of God’s children this year, you have to get your first note right, you must adore the sovereignty of God, really stand in awe of His control over your life and find the same peace that my little Audrey eventually found as she fell asleep that special night.


After affirming the creative power and authority of God over the entire world, the psalm now turns its gaze inwardly to the individual who would enter the presence of God. In so doing, the next note reveals that though every living being enjoys the common grace of God by living in His sustained creation, not everyone enjoys the saving grace necessary to stand in God’s presence. “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place?” (24:3).

These questions are an admission of dependence on the merciful grace of God. Anyone who comes to grips with the absolute sovereignty of God will understand very quickly that they are unworthy in and of themselves to stand in His presence. Remember, this song would have been sung by people on their way to worship in the temple. Therefore, this stanza was preparatory. In fact, priests may have called out these questions to those preparing to enter the temple area. In the Old Testament setting, approaching the temple for worship was perforated with numerous ritual baths in which the worshippers would cleanse themselves before entering the holy precincts. However, what was achieved by these washings and admissions of dependence? What was it that worshippers so longed for as they approached God in the temple?

 “He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (24:4). Clean hands and pure hearts were necessary in order for people to enjoy the presence of God in any special way—clean hands referring to a person free from the guilt of outward or noticeable acts of sin and a clean heart referring to an unstained character on the inside.
Along with clean hands and a pure heart, one’s soul must not have been lifted up to another (24:4). Literally translated, this phrase means, “has not lifted up his soul to emptiness”. The word “soul” (nepes) in this context most nearly means one’s deepest commitment of the whole self.  Here, David says that those who are allowed in the presence of God are those who are not giving of themselves to emptiness. What is this emptiness? Anything other than God! Given what we have already been told of God in the first note, anything anyone gives themselves  to other than He is meaningless emptiness in comparison.

When I first heard the symphony orchestra Choir, I was impressed and enjoyed it a great deal! However, I was an outsider looking in, a spectator and not a participant. I knew that, at least for me I would enjoy things a lot better if I could, in some small way, contribute to the sound that I experienced. In order to participate in the symphony chorus of Roanoke, I had to tryout and meet certain qualifications. The chorus does not just take anyone off the street! I had to prove that I could sing, sight read, and agree to make rehearsals, etc. In the same way, not just anyone can enter into the presence of God. They could not back in the Old Testament and remain unable to today. The qualifications mentioned here are unusually high. Clean hands, pure heart, singularly focused on God! Sounds impossible! And it is! David knew this and all who read this must understand that these qualifications are beyond anyone’s grasp. The Jews of the Old Testament and believers today must rely on God to make this happen for them. God is the only one who can make someone clean and pure and attract one’s complete attention.

This is the second note contributing to the harmonious chord we are in the process of building today, dependence on God. In order for your life to praise God and sound pleasing to His ear, not only must you and I appreciate His sovereignty, we must also acknowledge our complete dependence on Him to purify and cleanse us, rendering us capable of being in His presence, joining His chorus, and walking with Him in our lives this upcoming year.


Those who sing the first two notes already mentioned are those who can anticipate God’s blessing. David continues by saying, “He shall receive a blessing from the Lord” (24:5). “He” refers to anyone who adores God’s sovereignty and acknowledges their dependence on the Lord (24:1-4). The worshiper whose inner and outer worlds are loyal to God will always receive a blessing from the Lord. Why?—because his or her loyalty reveals that God’s grace has been experienced in a transformative way.

Many people wrongfully anticipate the blessings of God without having first appealed to God for forgiveness. However, those who adore God and recognize their dependence on Him for their forgiveness are well-positioned for and should expect the blessings of God.

The greatest of these received blessings is the righteousness mentioned at the end of verse 5, “…and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” The word “righteousness” (sedaqah) is a legal term referring to a ruling handed out by a judge declaring someone justified and exonerated (i.e. vindicated). In the case of the pilgrim approaching the temple precincts, this declaration of righteousness would have given them permission to enter into God’s presence.

However, this permission had to be granted. The fact that this permission comes from “the God of his salvation” emphasizes that “righteousness” is only administered by God. It cannot be earned in any way. You cannot buy it, work for it, bargain for it, or win it based on achievement. It is freely given.

God is eager and willing to shower His people with blessings when they seek Him and approach Him in righteousness. “This is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek your face…” (24:6). The pilgrim’s journey to the temple is made even more clear with the word “seek” here (a technical term for the trip to the sanctuary). Those Jews who sought God’s presence in the Temple found Him with open hands full of the blessings He has waited to bestow on His children.

Similarly, this third note reminds all who belong to God (i.e. those who acknowledge their dependency on Him and have accepted His gift of righteousness) that because they have been saved by His grace, they can expect His blessings! 


The 4th note of this incredible song naturally follows once God’s grace has been recognized and His blessings experienced. When anyone recognizes how big God is, how dependent he or she is on Him, and how wonderfully he or she has been blessed, God’s involvement is readily accepted. For our pilgrim travelers in the Old Testament, having gained admission to the temple precincts, these would have then anticipated the arrival of God Himself. This is what is meant when David writes, “Lift up your heads, O Gates, and Be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the king of glory may come in” (24:7&9). Also the opening lines of Handel’s piece in the Messiah, these phrases welcome God’s involvement in the worship process.
So important was this idea to David that he implements a Hebrew poetic device of repetition of the very same phrase in verse 9. In the original context, “Lifting up the head” is a sign of joyous anticipation and hope. Here, the gates are instructed to lift their heads, metaphorically announcing the occasion of joy while at the same time asking for entrance.

This theme of joy and expectation is enhanced by the mention of the “ancient doors” which are also commanded to open. The lifting and opening is requested so that “the king of glory may come in!” This is the same King who created the world and possessed dominion over all. This is the same King who along could give mercy and bestow righteousness. He is the center of the worship service envisioned by David here. “Let Him in!” David Says. “Let Him in!”

You could not have a birthday party without the birthday girl or boy. You could not celebrate an anniversary without the couple. You could not hold an award ceremony without the honoree. Worship of almighty God is no different. You cannot worship God privately or corporately without God’s involvement. David knew this and so must we.

However, we also know that worship does not start at 11:00am and end at noon [depending on what service you go to]. Worship is a life lived for God. Therefore, this note compels us to request and accept God’s involvement in every aspect of our lives so that we might be excellent in our worship of Him. Let Him come in! Open to doors that you try to close off and welcome His involvement in every aspect of your life! This is what is necessary in order for the song of your life to please the one who gave it to you in the first place.


The last tone of this important song involves ascribing to God His praise. By question and answer, David ends with this final note by stating that this King of glory is the Lord who is mighty in battle. Because the Lord had shown Himself strong by giving the Israelites great victories He is the glorious King. One can visualize a procession of triumphant chanting as the Jewish travelers filed into the Temple precincts, half of the crowd asking the question and the other shouting the answer.

This final note of Psalm 24 involves ascribing praise to God. In response to all that David has said up to this point, he breaks out in poetic praise, again with repetition in verses 8 and 10, “…Who is this king of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle…Who is this King of glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the king of glory…”  In this way, David places an exclamation mark on the end of this passage and concludes in much the same way he begins, praising God for His strength, His power, and His sovereign rule. This time, God’s sovereignty is described in the phrase, “The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory” (24:10). 

The bookends of this song, its opening lines and closing bars, reveal that the Glory of God is both the very reason for our existence and the proper destination of all that we do. “Who is this King of glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of glory!” A life that is pleasing in the sight of the king is a life consumed with this refrain, a life that understands that one’s entire existence is not properly understood or lived unless God’s glory is what is being pursued. Therefore, this last note, ascribing to God His praise, is paramount.

So What?

With the song complete, the only thing left to do is learn how this all applies to our lives. Though sung by Jews as a final preparatory step on their way to the Temple to Worship God where his presence used to reside, things have changed considerably since this song was originally recorded. However, its principles are timeless. Worship no longer takes place exclusively in temples or churches, requiring pilgrimages, washings, and priests. Instead, the Bible says that a believer’s body is a temple for the indwelling Spirit of God (1 Cor. 6:19), a portable and forever open sanctuary for the same God envisioned in this important lyric. Therefore, in order for our lives to be pleasing to Him, we must adore His sovereignty (play g), acknowledge our dependency on Him (play a), anticipate His blessing (play b), accept His involvement (play c), and ascribe to Him the praise that only He deserves (play d). In this way, our lives will be consumed by Him and in this way these collective notes will be music to God’s ear.

Are you prepared to head into next year? Are you a part of the glorious chorus that we have talked about? Or, are you still a soloist, living life on your own, trusting yourself with everything? Such a life is only a cheap imitation of the real thing. Can I encourage you to join the chorus of God through faith in Jesus Christ? He is the only one capable of turning your struggling solo career into an eternal partnership with the one who created, owns, and rules over everything. He is the only one that can guarantee the blessings of salvation.
Perhaps you are a part of the chorus already. Are you sticking out in an attempt to steal focus from where it rightfully belongs? Maybe you are missing some of these notes and need to relearn your part. Never forget that only those lives enamored with God, dependent upon God, that anticipate God, accept God’s involvement, and ascribe back to God His praise, are those lives that will receive rave reviews from the only one that matters.  May our lives be a living sanctuary, pure and holy, tried, and true, full of worship for God this year and for every year to come.