The Creator-King chooses to redeem his creation by creating a new people for himself. He elects them, saves them, imputes his own righteousness to them, blesses them, and lets them come to him. That’s not all. Mirroring the final act in the grand narrative of all of Scripture, Psalm 24 then shifts scenes. When the Creator-King has accomplished his purposes in redemption, he comes to dwell with his redeemed people, who receive him as their King of glory.
“Who is God?”—Ask such a question of any group, and you will likely receive a range of responses. A few respondents might reject the validity of the question and simply deny the existence of God. Most, though, will likely offer religiously-tinged answers. “God is all-knowing,” they might say. He is “all-powerful, all-loving.” A few more “all” expressions might then give way to the use of “omni,” like “omnipresent” or even the somewhat cumbersome “omnibenevolent.” Finally, the “alls” and the “omnis” may crescendo into an assertion of God’s perfection. What often gets lost in the course of the ensuing conversation is that stacking up thesephilosophical adjectives misses the point of the question.
Consider possible responses to “Who is the President of the United States?” Should someone answer with the words “important” and “well-dressed,” it is doubtful that the respondent actually knows much about the American presidency. In addition, despite the fact that these words accurately characterize whomever may hold that office in a general sense, it is safe to assume that the person who speaks this way and the sitting President are not mutually acquainted. Similarly, philosophical answers to the question “Who is God?” not only initially cast doubt upon whether the respondent knows of God, but also in the end upon whether the respondent actually knows God at all.
So, back to the question: “Who is God?”—or, as the psalmist puts it: “Who is this King of glory?”
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.
Creation theology includes a number of “givens” that many in atheistically- and scientifically-minded Western cultures find nearly impossible to accept. Among these “givens” is the unmediated, direct action of God in the creation of the world. Contrastingly, in Scripture God’s direct agency in creation is never in any doubt. God created on a grand scale; his “let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens . . .” speech act (Gen 1:14–16) ignited untold trillions of fusion reactions so that stars would blaze their heat and light throughout the universe. God also created on an intensely intimate scale; he fashioned the first man from dust and the first woman from that man (Gen 2:7 and 22). These acts are “givens” behind poetic allusion to the creation of land and sea in verse 2.
All the above having been said, it is important not to miss that the “givenness” of God’s creation appears after the “for” at the beginning of verse 2. This “for” means that the logic of Ps 24:1–2 is: because verse 2 is true, verse 1 is the necessary result. In other words, the fact that God is Creator (verse 2) entails that God rules over all (verse 1—His title as “King” appears later); the Creator is creation’s rightful ruler.
Even so, English word order might lead the reader to think that “the earth” is the focal point of the verse, and therefore that “the earth” is the psalmist’s major concern. Not so. Instead, the original language places the Lord in focus. The beginning half of verse 1 is an assertion that it is the Lord who owns the earth “and the fullness thereof.” The latter half then explains what this “fullness” (“that which fills it”) is: “those who dwell therein.” Therefore, since it is the Lord who rules the earth and those who dwell therein, whatever powers those “dwellers” may exercise, they are not the rulers of the earth. If any doubt on this point were to remain, verse 2 then falls like a hammer blow. Not only does verse 2 employ the “for” logic mentioned above, but it also emphasizes “he” in the original language beyond the capacity of an English translation to reflect. The cumulative effect is something like “It is the Lord who rules the earth, not those who dwell therein, because he created it!” Sandwiching humanity between two successive focused mentions of the Lord, the psalmist puts “those who dwell” in the world firmly in their place.
The One Who Seeks God
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?
In light of the absolute sovereignty of the Lord laid out in verses 1 and 2, verse 3 asks two questions for which the reader already knows the likely answers. That is to say, no one would dare to do these things! No one would climb the hill upon which the Lord’s Temple would stand, and then brazenly enter into its sacred precincts uninvited. How could a mere creature of dust stand before the Lord in his holy place? Yet verse 4 jolts the unsuspecting reader by claiming that there is, in fact, such a person:
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.
“Clean hands” refers to righteous behavior (see Job 17:9) and is surely opposite to the idea of having blood on one’s hands (see Isa 59:3, Ezek 23:37): a biblical metaphor that has fittingly come over into English to expose obvious guilt. “Pure heart” then alludes to righteous motives (see Prov 20:9). Jesus’s pointed assertion of adultery taking place within one’s heart (Matt 5:27–28) underscores that a person can technically have “clean hands” and yet lack a “pure heart.” Indeed, these hand and heart standards in this first half of verse 4 are rather difficult to attain.
The second half of verse 4 drills deeper into the soil of what constitutes “clean hands” and a “pure heart.” The amplifying illustration of one with “clean hands” appears second; this person “does not swear deceitfully.” Entering into agreements (the purpose of swearing) with no intention of keeping one’s promises displays a character completely opposite that of the Lord, who never breaks his covenants with his people (see Judg 2:1). Such a “dirty-handed” person could never ascend the Lord’s hill and stand in his presence. After all, even before starting the ascent, this promise breaker has no intention to follow through on any vows made to the Lord.
Next, verse 4 describes what the opposite of a “pure heart” looks like; it is a person who “lifts up his soul to what is false.” Every other time the Psalms mention the lifting of the soul, the action has to do with worship of the Lord (see Ps 25:1, 86:4, 143:8). Accordingly, as in Jer 18:15, committing “false” worship acts can entail a false object of worship: any or all of the world’s imposter false gods. That said, humans can also try to worship the Lord in a false manner. The prohibition against taking the name of the Lord “in vain” in the Ten Commandments uses the same term for “what is false” as in Ps 24:4.
We see that in just a few words, Ps 24:4 lauds a person of righteous behavior and righteous motives. Breaking promises and either worshiping other gods or presuming to worship the Lord wrongly would conflict so much with this person’s character that these displays of contempt toward God would be unthinkable. So, of course, such a righteous person would be welcome in the presence of the Creator-King.