Portraits of the King
Passage: Psalm 24:1-10
I was talking to another assistant pastor recently who said that although he misses preaching through entire books of the Bible, he enjoys preaching all “homerun texts.” I can identify with that. One of the fun things for me about preaching when Pastor Kit is out of town is that I get to choose specific passages that particularly interest me, and they’re usually “homerun texts.” And those things are certainly true of Psalm 24.
As you can see from the title, the psalm was composed by David; and although we text itself doesn’t give us its background, most scholars agree that the Psalm was written in conjunction with the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. I actually think there are three main events that make up this psalm’s background: David’s military victories, the transportation of the Ark to Jerusalem, and the giving of the Davidic Covenant. If you aren’t familiar with those stories, you may want to go back this week and read 1 Chronicles chapters 11 through 17. You can also find a shorter version of the same story in 2 Samuel chapters 5, 6, and 7. Here are the basics of that story.
Saul, Israel’s first king, turned out to be a failure–so much so that during Saul’s reign, God turned His back on Saul and chose David to succeed him. David was unrelated to Saul, so it wasn’t a typical succession. Instead, after Saul’s death in battle, the nation of Israel recognized David as their king in phases, with David’s home tribe of Judah recognizing him first and the rest of the country lagging behind. Finally, in 2 Samuel 5, David is made king over all Israel. One of his first actions is to conquer the city of Jerusalem and make it his capital. After this, the Philistines attack, and David drives them back out of the land.
Next, David attempts to bring the Ark of the Covenant, which for 20 years has been located in the house of Abinadab at Kirjath Jearim, to his new capital city, Jerusalem. His first attempt is spoiled when God strikes Uzzah dead for touching the Ark to steady it. So David does so more research and concludes that he had dishonored God by not transporting the Ark in the proper way prescribed by the Law. The next time he attempts the transfer, he does it the right way; the Ark is carried by Levites between two poles, and everything goes according to plan. They place the Ark in a special tent David had constructed for it in Jerusalem, while the tabernacle and the rest of its furnishings remain in Gibeon, and David divides up the Levites to serve between the two locations. Everyone is happy.
However, as time passes, David begins to feel guilty about living in his fancy palace while the Ark of the Covenant resides in a tent. So he runs an idea by Nathan the prophet: David wants to build God a permanent temple in Jerusalem. But that night, God appears to Nathan in a dream and tells him that David is not the man for the job because he has shed too much blood. However, God promises David that he will have a son named Solomon who will build the temple. And God doesn’t stop there. He goes on to give one of the most important set of promises ever made. Using a play on words, God says that He will build David a house–that is a dynasty–that will endure forever! And the seat of that dynasty will be in Jerusalem. It’s a breathtaking promise that the Bible gives tremendous importance to, and one that will be fulfilled ultimately by Christ when He returns to reign for one thousand years during the Millennium.
So that is the cluster of events I believe stands behind Psalm 24. The LORD is referred to as “mighty in battle” because He has given David victory over his enemies. When it talks about God entering through the gates, that’s a reference to the Ark of the Covenant, the visible representation of God’s presence, entering Jerusalem when David transferred it there. The gates referred to in verses 7 and 11 are probably the city gates. These gates are referred to as “everlasting” because, as Psalm 132:13-14 puts, God has chosen Zion (or Jerusalem) as His resting place forever. Jerusalem, which is literally on a mountain, is the “hill of the LORD” referred to in v. 4, and the tabernacle of David is “His dwelling place.”
So that is the context of the psalm, but now, what is its theme? The psalm breaks down into three main sections, and some scholars have been baffled at how these sections fit together. However, it seems clear and many scholars agree that the theme of this psalm is God’s kingship. Verses 1-2 picture God as the sovereign King who created and owns everything. Verses 3-6 picture God as the holy King who blesses and saves those who seek Him. And verses 7-10 picture God as the glorious King who has won the victory over His enemies.
So let’s take a closer look at these three portraits of the king.
Serve Your Sovereign Creator-King (vv. 1-2).
These verses describe God as the Creator of all that exists. Verse 2 says that God founded the earth upon the seas, and established it upon the waters. What does that mean? It sounds like some kind of ancient, scientifically inaccurate cosmology. Is that what’s going on here? Many scholars are quick to point out that verse 2 is poetic language and that it’s not to be read scientifically. Genesis 1 talks about how “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep” until God divided “the waters from the waters,” and caused the dry land to appear. By way of contrast, Canaanite mythology taught that Baal had conquered Yam, the “Sea Prince” and Nahor, the “River Judge.” Perhaps David is making the point that God is greater than Baal.
But it seems to me that we shouldn’t be too quick to say that verse 2 is unscientific. We know there is water in the earth’s crust. That’s why we have wells. Even more relevant, new scientific research indicates that there are vast amounts of water deep in the earth’s mantle–at least as much water as in all of the oceans combined! So to say that God founded the earth upon the seas and established it upon the waters may not be as unscientific as it might appear at first glance!
But the theological point of verses 1-2 is found in verse 1 (v. 1). Since God created the world and everything in it, He owns the world and everything in it.
Last week, we were on vacation in Seattle, and my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and their three kids stayed with us at my other brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s house. It was a three-bedroom, two-bath house with a basement, and there were six adults, six kids, two dogs, and three family units living there for ten days. I’m sure you can imagine what that was like. J
Since then, one of the things I’ve really appreciated about being home is that everything in the house is mine. I don’t have to worry about what I’m supposed to eat. I can just open up the fridge, and all of it’s mine. I don’t have to worry that much about what my kids are touching or what they might break or get mud on or spill on or pee on. Everything in the house is mine.
This world and everything in it are God’s. That includes you. I could just stop right there and preach a whole sermon. Do you understand what that means? That one simple truth has massive implications as it relates to your finances, as it relates to what kindsof food and drink and other substances you put into your body, as it relates to how you spend your time, as it relates to how we care for the earth, as it relates to human sexuality, and the list goes on and on. As Revelation 4:11 puts it, “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.” God deserves your praise because He owns you. He is the King of all the world, and you must serve Him. Are you living as if God owns you? Are you living as a servant of the sovereign Creator-King?
Seek Your Holy Savior-King (vv. 3-6).
Many scholars have suggested that these verses may have been sung as a question and answer, with the pilgrims from different parts of the country who had come to Jerusalem to worship singing verse 3, the priests responding with verses 4 and 5, and the pilgrims responding with verse 6. It’s important for us to remember that those types of reconstructions are all very much conjecture, but that picture does help us to understand the background of these verses. At least three times a year, all Jewish men were to appear before God to worship Him; and many times, the women and children would come, too. These were joyous, but also solemn occasions, and it was of paramount importance that the worshippers approach God reverently. Later on, during the reign of Joash, the gatekeepers were given the job of making sure that no unclean person enter the temple. If anyone was guilty of sin, it must be dealt with through sacrifice.
Of course, all of these stipulations were rooted in the perfect purity of God. God is holy, and sin cannot enter His presence. If the Law taught Israel anything, it taught them this! No one marches right into God’s presence unless he has a death wish! People who transgress God’s holiness are burned alive with fire from heaven or struck down dead like Uzzah!
We would do well to remember verses like these when we come to worship God in church. Worship is never to be flippant or man-centered. Although Christ has given us access to the throne room of heaven and made us God’s children, we must still approach God with reverence. This reverence should be reflected in our demeanor, the songs that we sing, the way we talk about God and His Word… even the way that we dress! I don’t think you have to wear a suit and a tie every Sunday, but I disagree with the move of some churches to intentionally “dress down” on Sundays in order to attract more people. Our primary concern when we come to worship is not whether the unsaved people who may be visiting are comfortable; it’s whether God is pleased. Do you approach God reverently?
Verse 4 lists some specific qualifications of would-be worshippers. They must possess clean hands and a pure heart. That means that they must have obtained forgiveness for both outward sins and sins of the heart. In addition, they must not have lifted up their soul to an idol (literally “to vanity”) or sworn deceitfully.
To lift up one’s soul to something means to worship and depend on that thing. We see that clearly in the first verse of the very next psalm, Psalm 25, which says, “To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, I trust in You; let me not be ashamed; let not my enemies triumph over me.” In addition, the word for “idol” in verse 4 is literally a Hebrew word for “vanity” or “emptiness.” So to lift up one’s soul to vanity would mean to worship and depend on idols or on other things rather than on God.
Have you lifted up your soul to vanity this week? That question gets to the heart of your sin nature. All of us seek to make gods of lesser things. We focus on them, we delight in them, we hope in them, we trust in them… we worship them. This past week, I was tempted to idolize my own comfort. How do I know? Because I was tempted to get angry at my kids when they made my life uncomfortable–when they were running around screaming with their cousins or when they disobeyed me or when they whined or didn’t fall asleep right away. And sometimes I fell to that temptation.
Every one of you should be able to give an example like that of something you were tempted to lift up your soul to last week. Because all of us have them. And it is vitally important to your sanctification that you learn to identify and forsake those idols. Don’t lift up your soul to vanity; lift up your soul to God!
It may be that you have sin to confess this morning. You’ve come to worship God at church, but you know that you don’t have clean hands and a pure heart. Perhaps you’ve fallen to that besetting sin and you know it. Praise God that there is forgiveness for that sin through the blood of Jesus! No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man, and if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Christ died for that sin. That’s a sobering thought, but it’s also a liberating thought! Christ died for every one of your sins, so run to Him for forgiveness!
Maybe you’ve never been saved from your sins. The most encouraging thing I could possibly say to you today is that Jesus died for you. You say, “Ya, but I’ve got these problems in my life….” No, you’re not listening. Jesus died for you! Those problems are real and I know that they hurt, but your most pressing need is not deliverance from temporary problems; it’s deliverance from the wrath of God. Apart from Christ, no one meets the qualifications of verse 4, at least in an ultimate sense. I just told you that I lifted up my soul to vanity last week. So did you. My hands are not always clean and my heart is not always pure. But Jesus meets the profile in verse 4 perfectly. He never sinned because He is God. And He came down to earth and died in your place, absorbing the wrath of God so that you could be forgiven. Now all that you need to do is repent of your sins and trust Christ as Savior, and God will forgive all your sins. Instead of seeing you as a dirty rotten sinner, He will see you just like He sees His Son–righteous. And you too can have fellowship with God.
That is the good news! If you’ve never embraced that message for yourself, I pray that today will be the day that you repent of your sins and trust Christ as Savior.
So that’s what it means to purify yourself to appear before God. But now, if you do that, what will you receive (v. 5)?
The word “righteousness” in this verse could be better translated, “vindication.” When a judge rules in your favor, he vindicates you. He is declaring, officially, “You’re right and the other person is wrong.” That’s what God does for those who purify themselves and seek Him. They are vindicated.
Sometimes Christians are falsely accused. Sometimes they are attacked verbally. Maybe that’s happened to you. Don’t feel the need to bend over backwards trying to defend yourself. You keep doing what’s right, and God will vindicate you in His perfect time.
Not only that, but He will deliver you. And He will bless you (v. 5). Who doesn’t want to be blessed? Who doesn’t want to be delivered? Why can’t we get it into our think little skulls that only God provides blessing and deliverance? Why do we keep searching for those things in idols which can never satisfy or deliver anyone? Seek God!
If you seek God, you will be among the generation of Jacob (v. 6). “Generation” in this verse does not refer to a physical generation, like the Baby Boomers or the Millennials. It is a metaphorical way of referring to a group of people who have something in common. Physical generations have a range of birth years in common. But the generation that David is referring to is a group of people who have in common the fact that they all seek God. What a cool generation! I want to be a part of that generation, don’t you?
In verse 6, the timeless generation of people who seek God are referred to as “Jacob.” Why Jacob? Do you remember the story of Jacob? What was he known for? You might immediately think of his deception, which is certainly significant, but that deception was rooted in a lack of dependence upon God. Jacob depended on his own strength and intellect rather than depending upon God.
But at perhaps the pivotal moment in his life, when Jacob was afraid that he and his family, including all of his wives and little children, were about to be slaughtered by his bitter brother, Esau, God in the form of a man caught up with Jacob. Oddly enough, the two of them entered into a wrestling match that lasted all night long. Jacob simply refused to let go until the Man blessed him. When the Man finally gave in, He said that Jacob had wrestled with God and had prevailed. By this, Jacob knew that he had not wrestled with any mere Man, and he reverently named the place Peniel, which means “face of God,” because he said he had seen God face to face.
Jacob had reached a point of desperation in his life, but he sought the LORD with all of his heart, and God rescued him and blessed him. Not only that, but he became the namesake for an entire generation of people who desperately seek God for deliverance and blessing. Are you a part of that generation? Are you desperately seeking God this morning?
See Your Glorious Victor-King (vv. 7-10).
The psalm reaches its high-water mark of intensity in these four verses. The verses are marked by two poetic devices: a direct address to the city gates and this question and answer part about the identity of the “King of Glory.” Both devices are repeated twice for emphasis.
Let’s start by considering the question and answer parts about the King of Glory. First, what does it mean? “King of Glory” means “glorious King.” Second, who is the King of Glory? Well, obviously, it’s God. Everybody coming to Jerusalem to worship God would have known that! You say, “If that’s that obvious, why even ask the question?” David asks the question in order to set up a fuller declaration of God’s character. Not only is He the “King of Glory,” but He is also “the LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.” (After all, He gave David victory over his enemies, and if you go back and read those accounts, some of them included clear evidence of miraculous deliverance!)
Not only is He “the King of Glory,” but He is also “the LORD of Hosts.” LORD of Hosts means, “God of armies,” referring to the angelic hosts. In a parallel passage, Psalm 68:17 says, “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of thousands; the Lord is among them as in Sinai in the Holy Place.” So God does not dwell alone in Jerusalem. With Him are countless angelic hosts. And lest we over-spiritualize this kind of language, I want to call your attention to the story of Elisha in 2 Kings 6 (if you don’t know that story, you can go back and read it later), when Elisha’s servant woke up in the morning and freaked out because the city they were in was surrounded by an army with horses and chariots! Do you remember what Elisha said? He responded calmly, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then he prayed that God would open the eyes of his servant, and the servant saw that the surrounding mountains were teeming with horses and chariots of fire! The army may have had Elisha surrounded, but God had the army surrounded!
Along the same lines, David recognizes that along with the Ark in Jerusalem are thousands of thousands of angels. Quick math: what’s one thousand times one thousand? A million! Millions of angels! Countless angels, all around Jerusalem! Should the people of Israel have felt safe, as long as they were serving God? You bet they should have!
So the picture in verses 7 through 10 is of a victorious God, having defeated His enemies, who is now entering His capital city in royal procession.
Starting in the days of the early church, this psalm came to be identified with Christ’s ascension to heaven after He died on the cross and rose again. At first, it might be difficult to understand how this psalm would be read that way. But when we remember that Jesus is God, and when we think of the symbolism of Jerusalem and the temple, it starts to make more sense.
Jerusalem is the place of God’s presence. Heaven in referred to in the book of Revelation as “the new Jerusalem.” And Hebrews and other passages refer to some kind of a heavenly temple. Also, we know that God’s greatest victory was won by means of the cross and the resurrection, through which Jesus vanquished sin, death, and hell. In light of those realities, it is completely natural for us as New Testament believers to see in this psalm a foreshadowing of Christ’s ascension. Just like God, as represented by the Ark of the Covenant entered the earthly Jerusalem and David’s tabernacle in a glorious victory procession, Jesus ascended to the right hand of God in a glorious victory procession. As the hymn we sing says, “Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious; see the Man of sorrows now; from the fight returned victorious, every knee to Him shall bow; crown Him! Crown Him! Crowns become the Victor’s brow.”
But I think we should also see in this psalm a foreshadowing of events yet to take place. Although Christ won the victory at the cross, every knee has not yet bowed to Him, as Philippians 2 promises will one day take place. Satan is still alive and actively stirring rebellion; the New Testament makes that clear. But one day, Jesus is going to return bodily on a white horse and slay all of His foes. After judging His enemies, Jesus will proceed to the literal city of Jerusalem, where He will reign for one thousand literal years. When all of that takes place, verses 7-10 of Psalm 24 will take on a whole new significance once again.
So we’ve seen the significance of the question and answer parts about the “King of Glory,” but now what about the direct address to the city gates? Why talk to gates, and why tell them to “lift up their heads?” The intended response to this instruction is to open the gates. How do gates “lift up,” so to speak? They swing open. But if that is the case, then why didn’t David just say, “Open the gates”?
First, the poetic imagery adds vividness and life to the song. “Lift up your heads, O you gates” sounds much more interesting than, “Open the gates!” But much more importantly, David uses direct address to the gates because doing so allows him to address us indirectly. The command to the gates is actually a veiled command to the reader (or singer) of this psalm.
You see, David is not concerned about gates; he’s concerned about the people of God who often live in defeat or despair, even though God has come to save them! David wanted His people to rejoice over what God had done! He had defeated His enemies! The Ark had entered Jerusalem! And God had promised to give David an eternal dynasty! The Israelites had every reason to look up and hope! In the same way, God wants us to rejoice because Christ has conquered sin, death, and hell for us. Our sins can be forgiven! Jesus is coming! We have so many reasons to hope!
Maybe you’re discouraged this morning. Maybe you have no idea how you will pay off your debts or where you will find a new job. Maybe you are older and your health is starting to decline. Maybe you’re divorced or your marriage is difficult and you can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe you are tempted to think that there’s no hope for you. God’s message to you this morning is “Lift up your head!” Rejoice! Jesus has come and He’s coming again. Don’t be discouraged! Look up, and behold your God!
As we close, I’d like to use my own picture. It’s going to seem pretty silly compared to the incredible paintings we’ve been looking at, but hopefully it will get the point across.
According to verses 7 and 9, we are to lift up our heads in recognition of our great King. But many times, we don’t do that. Why? Because as verse 5 puts it, we have lifted up our souls to vanity.
So here’s me; here’s you. And here are some of the good things that grab ahold of our attention: money (saving up for retirement, getting a raise, working a side job); vacation or other fun activities (going to Disneyland or going hunting); movies, games, hobbies, etc.; food and drink. You and I both know from personal experience that these good things can take up way too much of our attention! Pretty soon, we begin to live for that chocolate bar at the end of the day, or for that visit to the grandkids next week, or that new movie coming out. Instead of hoping in God, we find ourselves lifting up our souls to things that can never satisfy. They are empty and useless, like soap bubbles that pop when we grab ahold of them. Good things in life can distract us from the ultimate thing.
But bad things can also distract us and be equally problematic. Maybe during the holidays, you experienced an overabundance of very frustrating family drama. Maybe there are health concerns looming over your head. You’re waiting for a diagnosis, and you can’t seem to stop worrying about it. Perhaps you’ve gotten the impression lately that your job may be in jeopardy. Or maybe you’re in debt, or you don’t know how to pay the bills. The longer you think about these problems, the larger they seem to grow. You’ve become obsessed with escaping these difficulties, so much so that you are willing to do just about anything to get out of the mess you are in.
Often, we are totally consumed with gaining these temporary pleasures and avoiding these temporary pains, so much so that we have no energy left for worshipping God. We don’t make time for Him in the morning. We don’t pray. We don’t meditate on His Word. We may even skip church because we have more important things to do! (What could possibly be more important than worshipping Christ!?) What has happened? We have allowed these temporal concerns to block our view of Christ!
The crazy thing is that God wants to relieve our pain and give us joy! That’s why verse 5 says that those who seek Him receive blessing and deliverance. Those blessings and that deliverance do not always come in the form that we desire them, but God’s ways are always best, and we can trust Him.
So my main concern in this sermon is to enlarge your view of Christ. That’s why I chose those beautiful, powerful paintings. That’s why I’ve tried to bring out the grandiose language in this psalm. I want to make Christ so big in your eyes that the distractions vanish! I want you to see Him, the sovereign Lord of creation! I want you to see Him and to be among the generation of those who seek Him for blessings and deliverance like Jacob did. I want you to seek forgiveness so that you can come into His presence and enjoy being with Him. I want you to stop being discouraged and lift up your head because Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, having defeated every foe! I want you to hope in His return and ultimate victory! I want you to see the King!