The Bible presents a story. Actually, it is the Story that lasts through eternity. It’s the story of God the Creator making a world in which His glory dwells and is displayed in everything that exists.
But like the stories of novels and history, there’s also the counter-story, in this case, the conflict with the Creator and the effect upon His creation. The counter-story takes place in the Fall. Why is that a counter-story? God is so holy and His creation so glorious, that one act of defiance in the Garden obscured the beauty and glory of God in the creation. That one sin replicated itself in unnumbered sins throughout the human race, each defying the holy One, each tarnishing His glory. Yet that tarnishing and defiance did not limit itself to humanity but spread to the entire cosmos. Everything that God created is so tied to His glory, that when sin entered the world, it affected everything. Nothing escaped. Without God countering the counter-story through Christ, all hope vanishes.
We’ve witnessed the cosmos echoing the fall as hurricanes savaged several states, floods devastated many communities, and earthquakes tumbled a neighboring country. Lives were lost, businesses wrecked, homes destroyed, and communities ravaged by the fury of the natural order displaying the effects of the fall. And that’s just a snapshot of the ongoing events that we witness week-by-week, reminding us that we live in a fallen world that longs for restoration of all things to once again reflect the glory of God.
Some shake their fists at God, as though continued defiance will somehow curb the consequence of the fall. Others hold no hope. But they do not understand the Story. They live in the counter-story, thinking that it is ultimate. So they live for the moment, seize all they can, indulge every desire, and mindlessly curse and complain when the effects of the fall bash their hopes and dreams. But the counter-story is not ultimate; God’s story through Christ is. We face the challenge each day of whether we will live in the Story or the counter-story. The story in which we live affects us now and through eternity. Are you living in the Story or the counter-story? Psalm 24 helps us to understand the Story.
Scholars conjecture the background for this psalm. It could have been used when David brought the ark up from Kiriath-jearim to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6); or as “the liturgy for the autumn festival”; or triumphant returns from war to Jerusalem with the ark in the lead; or when Solomon dedicated the temple and brought in the ark (1 Kings 8). However, as Ralph Davis explains, all of these are but scholarly “guesstimate” of the psalm’s background [Slogging Along in the Paths of Righteousness, 177–178]. “The primary burden of the psalm,” he points out, “is to tell Israel (and us) to be ready for the King” (178]. With that in mind, we’ll consider the three stanzas of the psalm as the Story of the King who creates, the King who welcomes, and the King who triumphs.
1. The King who creates
The Bible begins at the beginning. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Everything mirrored God’s glory, so much so that the Creator declared it “very good” (Gen 1:31): no trace of sin, no defiance, no corruption, no floods, no hurricanes, no dictators, no wars, no grief, no despondency, no hopelessness—just God’s beauty and glory manifested in everything. That was no aberration, no one-and-done. Here God’s intention for manifesting His glory, love, and care would continue in the people and the world He created. That’s why the end of Revelation brings us back to the Story, by returning us to “a new heaven and a new earth,” where everything lost and tarnished in the fall returns to the creation’s original design (Rev 21). The King who creates will see to it.
Here we rejoice. Despite the wickedness of humanity and the multiplied effects of the fall, the Creator has not abandoned His creation. “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.” How can David, the psalmist, make such magnificent statements? “For He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” That second clause establishes the reason for God’s ownership over the world: He “founded” and “established” it, seating the dry land upon the waters. God narrates this creative act in correcting Job:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who enclosed the sea with doors when, bursting forth, it went out from the womb; when I made a cloud its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and I placed boundaries on it and set a bolt and doors, and I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no farther; and here shall your proud waves stop’? (Job 38:4–11)
The counter-story scoffs at the idea of God as Creator and the creation as a display of His glory. It pontificates on cosmic bangs, primordial slime, one-celled amebas, and evolutionary generation. But in doing so, misses creation’s glory and abandons its purpose to glorify God. Hopeless humanity then lives in the counter-story with nothing but the end of their noses in view. No wonder God-ordained relational structures of gender, marriage, and family get abandoned for counter-story alternatives. No surprise then, that corruption in governments become the norm, racism breeds strife and hatred, greed steps all over those in need, and suspicion, betrayal, and disloyalty seem more common than not. When we turn away from God as Creator and His creation full of eternal purpose, then there’s no bottom to the messes that we can make. We’re not created to live in the counter-story but in the Story.
God could rightfully throw creation aside. But take encouragement from this passage. The Hebrew places “The Lord” at the beginning of this declaration: “The Lord owns the earth; the Lord founded it” [Michael Wilcock, BST: The Message of Psalms 1–72, 88]. Despite the fall, despite the continued rebellion, and despite the effects that we’re seeing in the counter-story, including hurricanes, earthquakes, and rogue nuclear dictators, the Lord still owns the earth and cares for it. The counter-story is not ultimate. He has reclaimed His creation through the restorative work of Jesus Christ’s cross and resurrection. God, as Creator, means, as Al Wolters explains, “. . . we must not for a moment lose sight of the Creator’s sovereign activity in originating, upholding, guiding, and ruling his world” [Creation Regained, 14]. God “sacrifices his own Son to save his original project” of creation. “If the whole creation is affected by the fall,” writes Wolters, “then the whole creation is also reclaimed in Christ” [70, 72].
That reclamation will be finalized in the restoration of all things in Christ. At that point, the cosmos will be loosed from its fallen corruption into the same glorious freedom that belongs to those bodily resurrected in Christ (Rom 8). Until then, the earth, with all its people, is still the Lord’s, and He still rules it in the unfolding of His eternal purposes.
But where does that leave us? We’re deeply affected by the counter-story of rebellion against the Creator. Is there hope for us?
2. The King who welcomes
The Story does not abandon humanity but declares that God redeems a vast multitude that He welcomes into His holy presence. But none can come into His presence as they are; none can enter unless counted worthy to enter.
“Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place?” We wait for the invitation into the Lord’s presence. What will it take? The psalmist clues us in by posing the sphere of the invitation as “into the hill of the Lord” and “His holy place.” So normal people are welcomed into the holy presence of the Creator and King of the universe. Let that stagger you! We think it extraordinary, as regular people, if we’re invited into the home of royalty or someone of high political standing or someone of great wealth. Karen and I stood outside the gate to the north entrance to the White House on Monday, but no one invited us in. We drove past the Capitol and the Senate and House offices, yet no one welcomed us to come in. Yet who are they compared to the Lord? If the nations are “as a speck of dust on the scales” and a mere “drop from a bucket,” then why get enamored with those of fame and power (Isaiah 40:15)?
As we saw a couple of weeks ago, we’re not to “walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers” (Ps 1:1). There the psalmist counseled us to delight in and to meditate day and night on God’s Word. It’s to sink into us, for in doing so we begin to discover that the invitation to come before the King exceeds anything imaginable. Who may come into His holy presence? “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood [or vanity, likely idolatry or false ways] and has not sworn deceitfully.” David accomplishes three things by declaring who can enter the King’s presence.
First, the holy King welcomes a holy people into His presence. “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior,” wrote Peter, “because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15–16). We’re not to treat the Christian life as mere fire insurance to keep us from hell but the call to holiness. Since our God is holy we’re to be holy. One who has no interest in holiness has no interest in God. We expect the followers of Baal to be like Baal, and so they were, with all of the fickleness, immorality, and deceit that characterized Baal. In the same way, those who follow other gods reflect something of the character of those gods.
That’s why Paul reminded the churches that he wrote of this holiness by calling them “saints,” or holy ones. It’s why Jesus in the Upper Room Discourse reminds His followers of their identity as those who abide in Him (John 15). It’s why we see the eternal city in God’s presence excluding the unclean, those practicing abomination and liars (Rev 21:27). It’s why Paul explains, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9–10).
Second, none are worthy in themselves to enter into the King’s presence. “Clean hands and a pure heart,” indicate actions and motives. Clean and pure, through and through. Does that characterize us? Then he calls for untarnished devotion to God and to one another: “Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood [“to what is false” CSV] and has not sworn deceitfully” [and so broken trust with others]. So do we think holy thoughts, act with holy intentions, worship as holy people conscious of a holy God, and relate to others in a holy way? We might say that there are moments that we strike a good note on some of these things—maybe. But does the King ever lay aside holiness to welcome unholy people? He cannot for He is always holy. So how do we respond to the welcome invitation of the King?
Third, the King has provided the way into His presence. He invites and He provides. While the call to live holy as a redeemed people shouts at us through this passage, it also sobers us if we dare have a thought that we are worthy in ourselves to “stand in His holy place.” “For the Lord’s hill is also ‘his holy place’ (3b)—hence those who come there must share in that holiness” [Davis, 183]. We need the King to act on our behalf so that we might “receive a blessing from the Lord.” Spurgeon reminds us, “There must be a work of grace in the core of the heart as well as in the palm of the hand, or our religion is a delusion” [The Treasure of David, 1:376]. And that blessing comes through Christ in whom we stand with “righteousness from the God of his salvation.” But how?
The requirements of verse 4 constitute the whole of morality: motive and action, worship and relationships. Alec Motyer calls it personal integrity, spiritual integrity, and social integrity [Psalms By the Day, 62]. What right have we to claim entry before the King on the basis of our morality? None, absolutely none. But verse 5 brings us into the legal realm—or the realm of standing with God: “righteousness from the God of his salvation.” Who is the one who has ascended the hill of the Lord and stands in the Lord’s holy place? Oh, not us, for we have no right due to our sin. The very best of us remains unworthy, affected by sin at every point. It is Christ Jesus, the God-Man, who stands on our behalf so that the God might welcome us. Jesus has enough righteousness for all of us. The Lord “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). Plus, He has removed the stain and guilt of our rebellion against God through His bloody death at the cross. In Christ, the King counts us holy, righteous, and worthy to enter His presence.
‘But,’ someone might say, ‘I have no confidence that the King welcomes me.’ Then notice the call in verse 6. “This is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek Your face—even Jacob.” Translators struggle with the end of this verse. The Hebrew just has Jacob. So some translate it, “who seek the face of the God of Jacob” (ESV, CSB); others, “who seek your face, God of Jacob” (NIV). Ralph Davis proposes that we translate it “like Jacob,” with Jacob “parallel to ‘the generation’ (6a) that seeks Yahweh and seems to be laid down as a sample of the ‘seekers of your face’” [Davis, 186].
Here’s what he means. It’s not that Jacob was an exemplary person throughout his life. Far from it! But who had the earnestness and longing of Jacob as he wrestled with the angel of God, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”? (Gen 32:26). So Davis suggests that Jacob is “a model in only one matter. He knew how to hold on to God for dear life” . He was not casual or flippant or non-committal when seeking God. He would not let go without the blessing.
So, would you “stand in His holy place?” Then you must stand in Christ who receives sinners, like us, by faith. Like Jacob, faith in Christ is not squishy, half-hearted, or fence-straddling. Faith clings to Christ alone. Faith rests in His righteousness—period. Faith trusts in the death and resurrection of Jesus as sufficient to cleanse from every spot and stain of sin. Jesus’ place in the holy hill is ours through trusting Him.
3. The King who triumphs
No wonder that David breaks forth in what almost, at first glance, seems to be totally unrelated to the previous verses. Something of a celebration emerges in the psalmist’s thought, as he considers the Lord God as the King who creates and rules, and then who welcomes us into His holy presence by providing the way through Messiah. It is this Christ that David celebrates, for Jesus Christ has triumphed in the redemptive mission for which the Father sent Him into the world, entering humanity, dying at the cross, rising from the dead, and ascending to the Father’s right hand (John 17:3–5).
How else can we read these verses? “Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” W. S. Plumer wrote, “It seems almost impossible to give to this verse an interpretation that should confine its import to any scene ever enacted in Judea” [Geneva Series of Commentaries: Psalms, 324]. Sure, we might find something similar in David or a later king in Judah returning victorious from war, with the cry for the doors to open and receive the triumphant leader. That would not be out of the ordinary in that era. But what king of Israel and Judah, including David, could be called “the King of glory”? While there certainly may have been some immediate uses of this psalm for expressing the triumph of their king in battle with the ark in tow, there’s something grander in it, just as in all of Scripture telling the Story until the Story unfolds in the revelation of Jesus Christ (Luke 24:13–27). As we look in verse 10, that becomes clear. “Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory.” Davidic kings merely foreshadowed through their triumphs the One King in the Davidic line that would ultimately triumph over every foe—Jesus Christ. They were little stories pointing toward The Story of the risen, ascended King of kings.
What we see in this utterance of praise is that The Story triumphs over the counter-story. And how desperately we need to live in The Story instead of allowing the counter-story to bog us down in hopelessness and misery.
“Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in! Who is the King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates, and lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in! Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory.”
Picture the scene 2000 years ago. Jesus Christ walked among men and women. He saw their sin yet He never sinned. He listened to their cursing and complaints, yet He never complained. He received their insults, marveled at their unbelief, and discerned their motives for bread and fish but not for Him as the Bread of Life. Yet He went to the cross to bear the sins of the very ones accusing Him. The sins of all that He would ultimately redeem fell upon Him in the agony of God’s wrath that met Him at the cross. “It is finished!” He declared with His last breath, and died.
He lay in a borrowed tomb for three days, wrapped in a burial shroud, his body covered in burial spices. Early on Sunday morning, the stone that held fast that tomb rolled away. He burst forth bodily, death unable to hold Him, as the triumphant King. Sin, Satan, and death had battled Him but just when they thought that they had conquered the King, He turned the battle against them in an eternal defeat, as He rose from the dead.
For forty days Jesus waited, revealing Himself to Mary Magdelene, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and finally to the eleven. Over five hundred followers saw Him, and gazed in amazement upon the wounds of His triumph at the cross. Then one day, He called His disciples together with Him at he mountain. He gave them instruction to wait for the Spirit to clothe them in power and then to proclaim the gospel in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Then He ascended back to the infinite glory that He knew with the Father before He left on His redemptive mission.
The scene transfixes us as He nears the gates of the heavenly city. A voice cries out, “Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient (eternal) doors, that the King of glory may come in!”
Another voice is heard from within. “Who is the King of glory?” The reply echoes, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.” So again, “Lift up your heads, O gates, and lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!”
With the smiles of heaven the chorus resounds, “Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts (the Almighty Lord; the Lord of Armies), He is the King of glory.”
So which story do you live in—the Story or the counter-story? Only those who trust in the King of glory, the Lord Jesus Christ, will live forever in the Story.