The metrical version of Psalm 24 is an appropriate item of praise for Palm Sunday. In the older version of the psalter, the two stanzas which cover verses 7-10 of the psalm were traditionally followed by a third stanza that (in a slightly unPresbyterian style?) contained lots of Hallelujahs and Amens. When I first sang it, the third stanza seemed a bit out of place.
The second half of the psalm represents a song that was probably sung at one of the great temple feasts, perhaps the festival of New Year when God’s people celebrated his enthronement as king of the world. It is an antiphonal song that was sung by two choirs. One choir would be approaching the temple is solemn procession, carrying the sacred ark or some other symbol of God’s presence. They would be chanting and singing: “Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.”
The other choir from within the temple precincts sings back: “Who is this King of glory?” And the first choir responds: “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.”
There is an important question posed near the beginning of the psalm, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?” to which the second part of the psalm actually gives the answer. There is only One who has clean hands and a pure heart. There is only One who has not lifted up his soul to an idol or sworn by what is false. There is only One who is qualified to ascend the hill of the Lord. It is the King of Glory. It is Christ our Lord and Saviour. He alone can approach the presence of the Great and Holy God.
So it is not surprising that the words of this psalm have been used by the Christian church as we have recalled the significant moments in the history of redemption. This is a psalm that can be sung on Palm Sunday with great significance. We remember the journey which Jesus made. Jesus travelled down the Mount of Olives, across the Kedron Valley, and up the other side towards the gate of the city of Jerusalem. He rode ahead of his disciples on a borrowed donkey. The children gathered around him and shout their hosannas. Some eager people laid their garments across his path, and others waved palm branches. And all the passing pilgrims seemed to understand what was happening as they cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The psalm clearly points to Christ who is our Lord, mighty in battle. He alone has clean hands and a pure heart. He alone can ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in his holy place. Christ enters Jerusalem as the Lord of hosts. He comes to do battle with the cosmic forces of sin and evil. He is the only one qualified to do that. These gates of the city must open for him.
We can fast-forward to another moment in redemptive history, to the day of Christ’s ascension. Christ has finished the work which his Father gave him to do. And from the cross he has spoken those memorable words, “It is finished.” It’s over; it’s accomplished. Christ had lived in this world and had taken on Satan on his own territory. In spite of the most attractive of temptations, Jesus had remained resolute and determined. He could have succumbed so easily. But he has proven himself to be the Lord, strong and mighty in battle.
Now he returns to the heavenly glory from which he came. And as he approaches the gates of heaven, a choir begins to sing, “Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” “Who is this King of glory?” It is the Lord, the Saviour of Calvary, who alone has lived a sinless life and died a substitute’s death. He has won the victory. He is worthy to approach God. And Christ, the Risen, triumphant Saviour, ascends the hill of Zion and stands in God’s holy place. It is Christ who by his life, death and resurrection is qualified to ascend the hill of the Lord.
But that still leaves us with the pressing and urgent question: What about us? We see a joyful, triumphant procession, and we want to be part of it. It is frustrating to know that others may be conducted into the presence of the Lord to stand in his holy place, but how can we be included?
The answer is that by faith we can be united to Christ and can share in his victory celebration. This psalm must be understood against the background of one other episode in the history of redemption. The incarnation or the birth of Jesus was really the story of this great King of glory divesting himself of heavenly glory and entering our world.
“From heaven you came, helpless babe, Entered our world, your glory veiled.”
We remember that the story of our redemption doesn’t begin with us ascending God’s hill and standing in his holy place. The story of redemption begins with God descending from his holy hill and entering our sinful place. It’s a complete reversal of the movement of this psalm. So instead of answering the question “Who is worthy to approach the presence of God?” it actually eliminates the question altogether.
The story of salvation celebrates the truth that we don’t have to be worthy to approach God, because God in Christ has first approached us and has come to us where we are. God has condescended to be with us. That word “condescended” is not a patronising word. It simply means that he has waived his superiority and has stepped down. Even though the great and might King of glory, he has come to us.
You can almost imagine God looking at this world and seeing the great gulf and distance that separated him from us. He saw all the religions of this world concealing him in mystery, hiding him behind more and more man-made rites, and in placing more and more burdens and obligations on their shoulders. Even the Jewish religion hid him behind a curtain in a space that only one man could enter one day every year. And as this human race in its sinfulness drifted further and further away from God, God himself took the initiative and he bridged the gulf. And the story of salvation is God saying to us, “Lift up your heads, all you people who feel unworthy to approach me. I will come to you.”
When he came, he didn’t come with all the trappings of his majesty and dignity and glory. He came in humility and poverty and lowliness. This is God’s way of coming to be with us in our sinful place, so that we might ultimately be qualified to be with him in his holy place. For the story doesn’t end in Bethlehem, but it continued to Nazareth, to Galilee, to Jerusalem, and eventually to a skull-shaped hill outside the city wall. And there the Lord of glory proved himself to be strong and mighty in battle. There he won the victory over sin and death. There he gained the qualifications to enter God’s holy place and to open the scroll and to break the seals. And he did it for us, on our behalf, in our place.
We don’t have to stand by as disqualified spectators and simply watch the triumphal procession enter the presence of God. Our Lord takes us with him. The King of Glory is our Saviour. We can ascend the hill of the Lord and we can stand in God’s holy place. All because of Jesus. Understanding that truth, the Hallelujahs and the Amens of the third stanza don’t seem out of place at all.