As we read this psalm, we’re to imagine the Lord’s people in the days of the Old Testament going up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. And it can be divided into three parts. The first part — verses 1 and 2 — is about the great Creator-King. The second part — verses 3 to 6 — is about ascending the hill of the Lord. And the third part — verses 7 to 10 — is about the coming of the Great King.
Verses 1 and 2
The first part is about the great Creator-King. The psalmist declares that the earth belongs to the Lord and everything in it; the world belongs to him, and all who live in it.
The name LORD is once again in capital letters, which tells us that the psalmist is referring to the God who appeared to Moses and who entered into a covenant with the people of Israel, whereby he promised to be their God. So, the first verse is telling us that the earth — that is, the whole world — belongs to Israel’s God. While Jerusalem was the city he had chosen as his dwelling place, his rule extends beyond Jerusalem and beyond the land of Canaan, because the whole world belongs to him and is under his authority.
And not only does the world belong to him, but all who live in it belong to him. He rules and reigns over the world and over the people of the world. This is so because he made the world and he made us. As the psalmist says in verse 2, he founded the world upon the seas and he established it upon the waters. The Israelites pictured the earth as something resting on top of water. For instance, the second commandment begins this way: ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.‘
So, the earth is below the heavens above; and below the earth, there’s water. This perhaps goes back to what we read in Genesis 1, where it tells us that when God created the heavens and earth, the earth for formless and empty and it was covered by darkness and water. And in the course of the six days of creation, God took what was formless and he shaped it; he took what was empty and he filled it; he took away the darkness by creating the light; and he made the dry land appear from out of the waters. In any case, the point the psalmist is making is that everything in the world belongs to Israel’s God because he made it.
Verses 3 to 6
And in verses 3 to 6, the people of Israel are on their way up to Jerusalem to worship the great Creator-God. Someone asks the question:
Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?
The hill of the Lord is Mount Zion, on which Jerusalem was built. And the holy place refers to the temple, where God dwelt among his people. But who can come before the Lord?
Our studies in Numbers help us here, because you might recall the way the camp was arranged whenever the people were travelling through the wilderness. The tabernacle was located at the centre of the camp; and the people were to arrange their tents by tribes around the tabernacle to form a square. But between the tents of the people and the tabernacle, there were the Levites; and it was their job to guard the tabernacle and to keep out anything unclean. Nothing unclean could come into God’s holy presence in the tabernacle. Or if you think of our studies in Ezra and Nehemiah, we read how, after Nehemiah repaired the wall of the city of Jerusalem, he posted Levites at the gates in order to prevent anything unclean from entering the city.
While the world and everyone in it belongs to the Lord, not everyone in the world may come before the Lord, because the Lord is holy and nothing unclean can come into his presence. And so, who may ascend the hill of the Lord and who may stand in his holy place? Only those who have clean hands and a clean heart and who do not lift up their souls to an idol or who swear by what is false. The little footnote in the NIV tells us that that last line can also be translated, ‘or swear falsely’.
One commentator summarises the requirements this way: you need to be pure; you need to be loyal; and you need to have integrity. You need to be inwardly and outwardly pure, because ‘hands’ refers to our outward actions and ‘heart’ refers to our inward thoughts and desires and inclinations. Then, you need to be loyal to the Lord, so that you worship him alone and not any idols. And then, you need to have integrity: instead of swearing falsely, you must always tell the truth.
Those who are pure, and who are loyal and who have integrity may come before the Lord to receive his blessing. And they will receive vindication from God his Saviour. The word translated ‘vindication’ is actually the word for ‘righteousness’, but the translation ‘vindication’ fits in the context, because by blessing such people, the Lord is making clear that they were right to keep themselves pure and loyal to God and faithful to their word. And, according to verse 6, these are the kind of people who seek the Lord. They want to ascend the hill of the Lord to meet with him.
Verses 7 to 10
And then, someone calls to the gates and the doors. In other words, someone calls to the gatekeepers and the doorkeepers. And whoever this person is, he calls out:
Lift up your heads.
Presumably he’s calling the gatekeepers and doorkeepers to wake up and pay attention and to open up the gates and doors, because the King of glory wants to come in. The people have gathered in Jerusalem. They want to meet the King of glory. And here he comes. So, open the gates and the doors to let him come in.
Someone else asks:
Who is this King of glory?
And the reply comes back:
He is the LORD.
It’s LORD in capital letters once again to indicate that this is Israel’s God. Their God is the King of glory, because he is glorious; and in the days of Moses, he led his people through the wilderness by means of that glory-cloud, which signified his presence. And the Lord their God is strong in battle. In other words, he’s a great warrior. And again and again, the Lord has proven that he’s a great warrior, because didn’t he overwhelm the Egyptians with his plagues? Didn’t he destroy Pharaoh’s army in the waters of the Red Sea? Didn’t he help his people defeat the Amalekites in the wilderness? Didn’t he help them overcome the kings of Heshbon and Bashan? Didn’t he help them destroy Jericho and take over the land of Canaan? The Lord their God, this King of glory, demonstrated again and again that he’s a mighty warrior, who will fight on behalf of his people.
So, lift up your heads, gatekeepers and doorkeepers; and let the King of glory come in so that he will appear before his people. Again someone asks:
Who is he, this King of glory?
And the reply comes:
He’s the LORD Almighty.
‘LORD Almighty’ can also be translated ‘LORD of hosts’. He’s the almighty God because he commands the host of heaven, which is a heavenly army of angels, waiting to do his will here on earth.
So, Israel’s God is the great Creator-King who made all things. And since he made all things, we all belong to him. But only the pure may come into his presence; everything impure and unclean will be kept away. And in the psalm, the psalmist depicts the Lord coming to meet with his people who have gathered in his presence to worship him.
I’ve said before that the book of Leviticus answers the question: Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? There were many things that made the Israelites unclean. Coming into contact with the the wrong kind of food made them unclean. Coming into contact with a dead body made them unclean. Giving birth made them unclean. Disease made them unclean. And, of course, sin made them unclean. There were lots of things which made the Israelites unclean and which prevented them from coming near the Lord.
But the Lord provided the people of Israel with priests and with sacrifices in order to remove their uncleanness so that they could before the Lord. And by offering the sacrifices to make them clean, the people could come before the Lord and the Lord was prepared to dwell in their midst.
But those priests only ever entered an earthly tabernacle. And the sacrifices they offered could not really take away their guilt. In fact, we’re told that those sacrifices were really only a reminder to the people that they were sinners. And those animal sacrifices were designed to fill in and to make do until the time came for the true sacrifice to be offered. And the Lord Jesus, who is the true priest, was the one who offered the true sacrifice, whenever he offered himself on the cross. He laid down his life as the ransom to pay for our sins; and he shed his blood to cleanse us.
None of us has clean hands or a clean heart. Every day we sin against the Lord so that our hands are unclean. And our hearts are full of sinful thoughts and desires and inclinations which make us inwardly unclean. Isn’t that what the Lord Jesus said about the human heart in Mark 7? The Pharisees were worried about ceremonial cleanness, but the Lord made clear that our real problem is that we’re inwardly unclean, because our hearts are full of sin.
The Lord requires inward and outward purity. But we’re not clean. He requires loyalty, but how often do we put other things before the Lord? And the Lord requires integrity, but we’re so often deceitful.
And so, none of us deserves to come into the presence of the Lord. All of us deserve to be shut of his presence forever. But the good news is that through faith in Christ — who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins — we’re cleansed from all our sin and we may come before the Lord to pray to him and to worship him. And one day, we’ll come into his presence in the new Jerusalem. Nothing impure will ever enter it, we read in Revelation 21. Nothing impure will ever enter the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful. We’re impure. We’ve done shameful things. We’ve been deceitful. We don’t deserve to come into the new Jerusalem. By ourselves we can’t ascend the hill of the Lord or stand in his holy place. But through faith in Christ, you’re washed and pardoned and you can therefore look forward to coming before the Lord and being with him forever.
We have been made holy — the writer to the Hebrews says in Hebrews 10 — we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Therefore — he goes on to say — since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let’s spur one another on — he’s writes — towards love and good deeds. And let’s not stop meeting together.
Instead of not meeting together, let’s meet together to worship the Lord, the King of glory, who sent his Son to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, to cleanse us completely from all our sin and guilt so that we can come before the Lord with confidence to worship him. And then, one day, we’ll come into his presence to worship him and the Lord Jesus forever and forever.
And the one we’ll worship forever and forever is the King of glory, who is a great Warrior; and who, by his Son, has conquered sin on our behalf and Satan on our behalf and death on our behalf so that we can live with him forever.