This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Hope of Holy Week". See series.
First they heard the noise of the crowd, the cheering and shouting. As they drew closer they could hear what everyone was saying: "The King is coming! The King is coming! The King is coming!"
More curious than ever, they pressed forward to see what was happening. Some people were tearing off their coats and throwing them in the road. Others were scrambling up trees to pull down the branches. Children lined the city streets, waving their victory branches and singing, "Hosanna! Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" Then they saw the king himself—a man on a donkey, the symbol of royal authority, coming in peace. Grabbing the nearest elbow, they pointed to the gentle rider and demanded, "Who is this?" The crowds answered, "This is Jesus" (Matthew 21:1-11).
That is what happened on the first Palm Sunday, the day Jesus entered Jerusalem "gentle and riding on a donkey." But something else happened that day as well. While Jesus was making his triumphal entry, the priests were praising God at the Temple. It was the first day of the week, and according to the ancient rabbis, the priests were reciting Psalm 24:
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?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord Almighty—
he is the King of glory (Psalm 24:7-10).
So the people in the streets and the priests at the temple were asking the same question: "Who is this King?" The people said it was Jesus. The priests said it was the Lord Almighty. And in a way that nobody could yet understand, they were both right, because Jesus is the Almighty Lord. He is the King of glory.
The song of the King
Psalm 24—the song of the glorious king—is clearly divided into three stanzas. Some scholars say they are really three different poems, but as we shall see, all three stanzas belong together. The first praises the Lord as Creator (vv. 1-2), the second receives him as Savior (vv. 3-6), and the third welcomes him as King (vv. 7-10).
It is not certain when Psalm 24 was written, but we can make an educated guess. The psalm is about God making a royal entrance into his holy city. Therefore, most scholars think that it was written when David first brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The ark was the sacred, golden chest that represented God's presence with his people. It had been fashioned in the days of Moses (Exodus 25:10-22). Inside were two tablets containing the ten commandments, God's covenant with his people. On top was the mercy seat where the high priest sprinkled the blood of atonement.
The ark of the covenant had often brought God's people victory in battle. It led them across the Jordan and brought down the walls of Jericho. Yet, when the Israelites stopped trusting God, the ark was captured by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4), who soon discovered how dangerous it is to live in the presence of a holy God. When the Philistines started dying from disease, they shipped the ark back to Israel. For a time, the ark of God remained at the house of Abinadab. But once his kingdom was settled, David decided to bring it up to Jerusalem. The problem was that the ark was almost as dangerous for the Israelites as it had been for the Philistines. During the journey a man named Uzzah reached out to steady the ark and was killed instantly (2 Samuel 6:6-7). At that point it seemed safer to leave well enough alone, so for several months the ark remained at the house of Obed-Edom.
When David saw that God was blessing Obed-Edom, he again decided to bring the ark to Jerusalem. That may have been the occasion for his writing Psalm 24, which ends with God entering the holy city. The time in Israel's history when God made that royal entrance was when the ark of the covenant was brought up to Jerusalem.
The King of all
The psalm begins by praising God as the Master of the universe: "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters" (Psalm 24:1-2.
These verses assert God's absolute ownership of everything there is. The whole world belongs to him. This includes not only the world itself, but also "everything in it"—all the rocks and trees, all the birds and bumblebees. All the people belong to God as well, for he claims authority over everyone who lives in his world. The great Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) said, "In the total expanse of the human life there is not a single square inch of which Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, 'That is mine'."
On what basis does God claim such absolute authority? On the basis of creation. The earth belongs to the Lord because he made it; he founded and established it. God is the Creator, and because he is the Creator, he is also the King. God's power in creation gives him the right to rule over everything that he has made.
This is why the debate over origins is so important. When people disagree about the origin of the species or about the beginning of the world, they are not simply arguing about how the universe was made, but about who's in charge. If God is not our Creator, then he cannot be our King. In Handel's day the alternative was Deism, the view that God made the world and then left it to run on its own. Psalm 24 answers by saying that God is ruling the universe at this very moment. In the twenty-first century the prevailing scientific worldview is naturalism, the belief that nature is all there is and all there has ever been. Naturalism is more than a denial of creation; it is also a denial of God's sovereign rule.
One writer who understands this is Philip Pullman, the best-selling author of children's fiction. Pullman's explicit purpose is to persuade his readers that Christianity is false. One way he does this is by denying that God is the Creator. In The Amber Spyglass, one of Pullman's angels says:
The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—those were all names he gave himself. He was never the Creator; he was an angel like ourselves. The first angel, true, the most powerful. But he was formed of Dust, as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie.
It was not a lie, of course, but the absolute truth: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). Now everything in the entire universe is stamped with the inscription, "Made by God." That fact alone gives God the right to claim his kingly authority over every single person in the world, including every single person here this morning. The only way to escape his authority is to reject the teaching of Psalm 24, as Philip Pullman has done, and to deny that "the earth is the Lord's … for he founded it upon the seas."
The fact that God is ruler of all is essential to the meaning of this entire psalm. Psalm 24 ends with God's entrance into Jerusalem. However, the God of Israel is not just the King of the Jews; he is the King of the whole earth. So the psalm begins with his cosmic kingship. The entrance of the glorious king is an event of universal significance because the whole wide world is his dominion.
The King's audience
If God is the King of all creation, then obviously everyone owes him allegiance. However, David raises an important question: "Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?" (Psalm 24:3), meaning God's holy temple. To put it another way, Who has permission to enter the royal court to have an audience with the King? The second stanza explains who is worthy:
He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Savior. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob (Psalm 24:4-6).
To come into the presence of the King, one must have both outward obedience and inward integrity. This is what is meant by having "clean hands and a pure heart." "Clean hands" does not refer to personal hygiene, or even to ritual purity, but to keeping God's commands. "A pure heart" obviously refers to the life of the soul, so God requires inward integrity as well as outward obedience. The second half of verse 4 forbids idolatry and requires the telling of the truth. Idolatry has to do with worshiping God and truth-telling concerns human relationships, so this verse is about loving both God and one's neighbor. Thus there are four requirements for meeting the King. Only a person who has both outward obedience and inward integrity, who loves both God and his neighbor, "will receive blessing from the Lord" (Psalm 24:5a).
Who can possibly meet that royal standard and thus gain an audience with the King? There is a clue in verse 5: "He will receive … vindication from God his Savior." To vindicate is to justify, so this verse is about justification, about being declared righteous in God's sight. So the question becomes, On what basis can anyone be justified before God?
At first, Psalm 24 seems to teach justification by works. The person God vindicates is someone "who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false" (Psalm 24:4). It sounds as if God vindicates a person for doing what is right. But of course no one can meet that standard perfectly, which is why the last few words of verse 5 are so important: "from God his Savior." The person who may ascend God's holy hill still needs a Savior from sin. He is not justified by his own good deeds, but by God's saving work. The old Scottish theologian David Dickson said, "The holy life of the true believer is not the cause of his justification before God, … but he shall receive justification and eternal life, as a free gift from God, by virtue of the covenant of grace: therefore it is said here that he shall receive righteousness from the God of his salvation." Sinners can only be justified by a God who saves.
It is important to remember something that is not mentioned in Psalm 24 but is essential to understanding it; namely, that when the Israelites went up to the temple in Jerusalem, they always took a sacrifice with them. God's law demanded the removal of guilt through the offering of a perfect animal—a substitute for sin. Every day the priests offered two perfect lambs, one in the morning and one in the evening, so that no one ever entered God's presence without an acceptable sacrifice.
This remains true for Christian worship today. The requirements for entering God's royal presence have not changed. The only people who are permitted to approach his throne are those who have both outward obedience and inward integrity, who love God and other people. The only way to meet those requirements is to be justified by faith, believing in the God who saves, trusting in Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. Charles Spurgeon wrote:
It is possible that you are saying, 'I shall never enter into the heaven of God, for I have neither clean hands nor a pure heart.' Look then to Christ, who has already climbed the holy hill. He has entered as the forerunner of those who trust him. Follow in his footsteps, and repose upon his merit. He rides triumphantly into heaven, and you shall ride there too if you trust him. 'But how can I get the character described?' say you. The Spirit of God will give you that. He will create in you a new heart and a right spirit. Faith in Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit, and has all virtues wrapped up in it.
The King at the gates
The psalm's climax comes in the final stanza. David has asserted God's rule over all creation, and he has explained who has the right to enter his royal presence. Now the King comes into his glory. Throw open the gates! Open wide the everlasting portals! Enter the King of Glory!
The last stanza of Psalm 24 is in the form of a dialogue. To understand what is happening, it helps to recall an old English tradition. According to ancient custom, when the King of England entered the City of London through the Temple Bar, a servant would herald his approach. The herald would stand outside the city wall and demand entrance in the king's name, crying, "Open the gate!" Then the royal party would hear the response from within: "Who is there?" To which the herald would answer, "The King of England!" Then the gates would swing open and the king would enter the city and receive a royal welcome from his loyal subjects.
The scene in Psalm 24 is similar. The psalm is an antiphonal, a song with a call and response. In David's day it would have been sung by choirs of Levites, and perhaps also by some soloists. It must have gone something like this: First, the choir sang outside the city gates, calling on behalf of their triumphant king: "Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in." But before the gates could be opened, the gatekeeper had to be certain of the king's royal identity. Hence the demand: "Who is this King of glory?" The heralds replied, "The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle."
By this time the royal choir was starting to get impatient, so they repeated their summons: "Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in." As the giant gates slowly swung open, the gatekeeper repeated his question, not because he was hard of hearing, or in order to be difficult, but because he wanted to hear the happy news again: "Who is he, this King of glory?" Together they all sang, "The Lord Almighty—he is the King of glory" (Psalm 24:10).
The King of heaven
Whether or not this is exactly how the parts were divided, the main point of Psalm 24 is that the Lord of all creation is the King of all glory. This was revealed when the ark of the covenant was brought up to Jerusalem. It was revealed in a more magnificent way when Jesus made his royal entrance on Palm Sunday. But even that celebration was only an anticipation of an even more triumphal entry at his glorious ascension to heaven. And it was the ascension of Jesus Christ that George Friedrich Handel had in mind when he composed music for Psalm 24 in his Messiah.
After his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus greeted Mary Magdalene in the garden. But he gave her this warning: "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God' " (John 29:17). Jesus was speaking about his reunion with his Father, his entrance into glory.
Although the Bible does not offer a full description of that royal entrance, we are given some glimpses of its glory. In Philippians we read that "God exalted him [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name" (Philippians 2:9) The name the Father gave the Son was the very name mentioned in Psalm 24, the name "Lord," which signifies that Jesus Christ is the Supreme God and Ruler of all. According to Hebrews, when Jesus returned to heaven, he took his seat on a majestic throne: "After he had provided purification for sins, he [the Son] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven" (Hebrews 1:3). Ephesians summarizes by saying that after God raised Jesus from the dead, he "seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given" (Ephesians 1:20-21).
These and other New Testament passages provide hints of the transcendent exaltation of Jesus Christ. But perhaps the clearest description comes from the Old Testament. In his sermon on Psalm 24, John Newton said, "We conceive of Him [Jesus], therefore, from this sublime passage, as ascending to His Father and our Father, to His God and our God, accompanied with a train of worshipping angels, who demand admittance for Messiah, the Saviour and friend of sinners, the King of glory."
We can imagine, as the risen Christ approached the gates of heaven, that perhaps the angels sang Psalm 24: "Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in." If the gatekeepers had asked, "Who is this King of glory?" they would have responded, "The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle." For on the cross and in the grave, Jesus had done battle with sin, death, and Satan. He had been strong and mighty in the battle, breaking the stranglehold of sin and gaining victory over all the powers of hell. "He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Colossians 2:15). Therefore, as the conquering hero, it was his right to enter the heavenly city as the King of glory.
Can you imagine what it was like when God the very Son—having finished the work of our salvation on a God-forsaken cross—entered the glories of heaven, where he was welcomed back into the embrace of his Father? In the words of one commentator, "These verses picture the scene, when, after spoiling the powers of darkness, after abolishing death itself, the resurrected God-man, the Lord returns to heaven in triumph, and as He approaches the heavenly portals, the celestial herald cries out, 'Lift up your heads O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.' The angelic watchers within ask, 'Who is this King of glory?' The answer: 'The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle'."
There is one final place for Jesus to make his royal entrance, and that is your very own heart. Here it is important to understand that not everyone who sings God's praises receives him as King. Palm Sunday is the perfect example. On the first day of the week, while the priests were singing Psalm 24, the whole city welcomed Jesus' coming as King. However, by the end of the week, the same people were calling for his crucifixion. It is not enough simply to say that Jesus is the King of glory; you must enthrone him as the King of your heart.
If you are not a Christian, Jesus now stands outside the gates. He is not simply hoping to gain entrance; he is demanding it! He is doing it at this very moment, saying, "Open your heart to receive my grace." Jesus is persistent. He refuses to turn away, but remains at the gate saying, "Turn away from sin. Trust in my gospel. Receive me as Savior and King." Some may ask, "Who is this King?" The answer is that he is the Lord Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for sinners, who triumphed over death through the empty tomb, and who now reigns in glory as the King of heaven and earth. Open your heart and let the King come in.
Philip Ryken is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.