A Psalm of David.
1 The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein,
2 for he has founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.
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3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
5 He will receive blessing from the Lord
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
6 Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
7 Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is this King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle!
9 Lift up your heads, O gates!
And lift them up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory!
There are again new cases in Shanghai these days. In an unexpected way, the pandemic itself makes us feel the beauty of being present with one another. As we look at Psalm 24 through the lens of presence, the psalmist says God takes the initiative to be present with us.
What Kind of God Is the Lord?
Although we like to talk about God’s presence, the word is abstract. In young adulthood, I spent half a year in the countryside as a missionary teacher, living with “left-behind” children whose parents had immigrated to the city to work. As I got to know these children, I asked what they looked forward to most. They did not hesitate: speaking with their parents on the phone, even in a brief call. The joy from being “with” their parents lasted for weeks, and worked magic. Presence makes a great difference.
As we return to David’s day, let us imagine the scene. The ark of the covenant, which represented God’s presence, was being carried up the mountain. As the priests walked and sang this psalm, they ascended the mountain in pilgrimage.
David’s perspective looks through the lens of the created world: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” (vv. 1-2) The Bible begins its narrative with God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. The psalmist begins his song by reminding the Israelites that the Lord is the God of the created world and all created things. Humans and the creatures that dwell on and fill the earth are under God’s control.
God did not create evil; he simply allowed a “lack of good.” The psalmist notes that God established the earth on the seas. For the Israelites, the “seas” represented the uncertain, the unknown, and the dangerous. God built his creation on these things. When the Israelites celebrated the return of the ark, they reminded themselves that God built all things on this foundation of the uncertain and the dangerous – and he is a good and loving God who is in charge of the unknown and the dark. The earth and all that fills it belongs to God. God is in control of everything, and nothing slips through his fingers.
For you and me, living today in Shanghai, God knows all about unemployment, struggles at work, and financial constraints. He knows about our fears, our cold-heartedness, our disappointments, our regrets. God is reminding us that he is in the midst of any bad circumstances we face – and he is good. We will never be without the presence of this good God.
What God Expects of Man
This God, who is in charge of all things, expects certain things of humans when he dwells with us on earth. Humans are made in his image to reflect his nature and glorify him. Yet we can also reflect the opposite of his nature.
As we return to the procession carrying the ark of the covenant, a voice in the front of the group asks, “Who is worthy to ascend God’s hill and stand in his presence?” (v. 3) God has set his chosen king on Zion, his holy mountain. The sanctuary is the place where God dwells in the midst of his people on earth, and represents God’s presence with his people. What kind of person is worthy to be with God? What kind of person ought we to be?
In Shanghai today, even a few dozen square meters are quite an asset. Yet David is not talking about the physical space of the sanctuary. The ark of the covenant brings up images of God’s presence with humans in Eden, before man sinned. Deep down, all people long for a place to which they can return, just as a child longs to return to his father. For left-behind children, a place without their parents is not a home. Yet their parents must always leave. Deep down, each of us are sojourners and wanderers in this world. We are all pilgrims.
Verse 4 shows the answer to who can be with God: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” The opposite of this is hands full of blood. Either your hands are clean, or your hands are full of murderous blood: there is no middle ground. A “pure heart” is not only outward behavior, but also inward emotions, thoughts, and motives. This is a picture of complete law-keeping and obedience. God’s law describes his own nature, and is the standard by which righteousness is measured.
This did not give the Israelites hope, but led them to self-examination. David did not fulfill the image of a man with clean hands and a clean heart. Yet verses 5 and 6 say that there is one who “will receive blessing… and righteousness.” If hope was not in David, then where did it come from? A thousand years later, also on a mountain, a voice came from the cloud, saying: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” This is their hope!
There is a man, the Son of God and the Messiah for whom they hoped. He would be blessed by the Lord and justified. A thousand years later, in this same city through which they carried the ark, Jesus Christ was crucified. Through him blessing came to all nations.
God himself became flesh to fulfill the requirements of the law. Because of that, we are blessed and justified to ascend his mountain, stand in his sanctuary, and be with him. This historical fact is our proof of a clean record. Because of it, we are able to strive to live as who we have become: those with clean hands and a clear heart. Whether your wealth shrinks significantly, or you get a red Covid test code for no reason: none of this affects the salvation we have received.
God Takes the Initiative to Be with Us
God will be irresistibly present with his people. Outside the gates, the priests carrying the ark called to those inside to open the gates: “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” (v. 7) The answer comes from those inside the gate: “Who is this King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle!” (v. 8)
The psalmist is saying the King of glory will come to all the cities of the earth. He will come irresistibly to be with us, and the gates of the cities will be lifted and will rejoice.
We are unworthy children, but because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, the Holy Spirit was given to us and thus we have God with us always. We can rejoice greatly in this. No longer do we need to use our wealth, position, education, or experience to show our personal glory. We do not want people to see in us the glory of this life, but to see Christ, who went through suffering, carried the cross, yet remained full of hope. There is nothing more beautiful than Jesus, setting aside his glory and laying down his life for us.
Christ’s gospel does not give us personal acclaim. Instead, it gives glory a new definition: glory does not come by our efforts, but by the irresistible gift of God; glory is not for our benefit, but in order that many may see God.
Jacob Zheng was born and raised in a rural area but now lives in a metropolis and works in the financial sector. He and his wife are parents to twin boys.