For my weekly quiet time today, I’ll be blogging about Psalm 24. I have four items:
1. Psalm 24:1 affirms that the earth and everything in it belongs to the LORD. I Corinthians 10:26 quotes this to defend the proposition that one should freely eat the meat that is sold in the market, asking no questions for the sake of conscience. The idea here may be that, whether or not the meat was offered to an idol, it belongs to the LORD, and so there’s nothing ungodly about the meat itself—whatever idolatrous human beings may have done with it. And the Babylonian Talmud Berachot 35a uses Psalm 24:1 to exhort Jews to pray at their meals; if they do not, then they are thieves, for they are eating something that belongs to God, without acknowledging God.
2. Psalm 24:2 states that the LORD established the earth upon seas and rivers. John MacArthur says that “This is a poetic, not a scientific, picture of creation.” He then cites a bunch of Bible passages, and I’m not sure what his purpose behind each citation is. One of them is Genesis 1:9-10, in which God commands the waters to be gathered into one place so that dry land might appear. MacArthur’s point may be that Genesis 1:9-10 does not present land being created on top of seas and rivers, as if the land is floating; rather, there is land underneath the waters, and God is causing it to appear by bringing the water into one place. MacArthur may be thinking that the Psalmist knew very well from Genesis 1 that God did not establish land upon water, and so he was being poetic rather than literal and scientific when he wrote Psalm 24:2.
But, according to the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary, Psalm 24:2 actually reflects a Babylonian view of creation and nature:
“In the Babylonian conception of the cosmos the earth’s foundation is on what is called the apsu. This is a primordial watery region that is under the jurisdiction of the very important deity Enki/Ea. From the standpoint of physical geography it represents the water table that surfaces, for example, in marshes and springs as well as being associated with the sweet water cosmic seas and rivers. In Enuma Elish one of Marduk’s names, Agilima, identifies him as the one who built the earth above the water and established the upper regions.”
According to this quote, there was a Babylonian belief that the world indeed was established on top of a watery region. That’s how there are rivers and streams—their water is coming from a subterranean region.
3. Psalm 24:3-4 lists moral requirements for those who will ascend the hill of the LORD and stand in his holy place. The setting of Psalm 24 could be after a battle, as worshipers are gathered in Jerusalem, waiting for the Ark of the Covenant to enter the city. The worshipers have already affirmed the moral requirements—the implications of worshiping God. Now, they are eagerly awaiting the entrance of their victorious God into the city—or they are commemorating a past victory, or honoring God’s periodic defeat of chaos.
E.W. Bullinger, however, believes that v 6’s reference to the generation of those who seek God concerns the Kohathites, the Levites who were to carry the Ark of the Covenant (Numbers 4:2ff.). Bullinger seems to interpret Psalm 24 in light of the events of II Samuel 6: David has just seen the disaster of putting the Ark on a new cart that was carried by non-Levites, namely, the death of Uzzah, and so, for Bullinger, David in Psalm 24 was affirming that only Kohathite Levites can bear the Ark of the Covenant.
Marco Treves, in the October 1, 1960 Vetus Testamentum, likewise relates Psalm 24 to the priesthood—only he posits a post-exilic setting for the Psalm. According to Treves, Psalm 24:3-4 is about the purification of the priesthood during the Hellenistic Period. V 4 talks about clean hands—which means hands that have not shed innocent blood (e.g., Isaiah 1:15)—as well as not lifting one’s soul to vanity—which concerns avoiding idolatry (see Psalm 26:4; 31:6; 35:1; 86:4; 143:8; Jeremiah 18:15). For Marco Treves, these verses are talking about the expulsion of priests who, along with Menelaus, shed innocent blood and promoted beliefs and practices that were considered idolatrous. After the Maccabees have triumphed, Treves argues, they seek to foster a priesthood that is morally and spiritually pure, as God enters his previously defiled holy place. Treves contends that Psalm 24 reflects this situation.
4. Psalm 24:7-10 exhorts the gates to lift up their heads and the king of glory, mighty in battle, will enter. I like the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary‘s comments on this verse:
“In a Hymn to Shamash, the Babylonian sun god, various parts of the temple are said to rejoice over Shamash, including the gateways and entrances. A Nabonidus text refers to the gates of the temple being open wide for Shamash to enter. These would occur in the context of regular processions of the statue of the deity into his temple. If the ‘head’ of the gates refers to architectural feature, it would most likely be the beam or projection across the top of the gates that served as a cornice. This was a common feature in Egyptian and Mesopotamian architecture, and the Akkadian word for it, kululu, also refers to a headdress or turban. The idea that these would be lifted off the posts of the gates to allow something large to pass through is ingenious but not persuasive in that the usual design of gates would not have unencumbered cornices that could be so easily moved. The alternative, that the lifting of the heads is metaphorical, seems more likely. In Ugaritic literature the gods lower their heads when they are humbled, and they raise up their heads when they have reason to rejoice.”
I’m tempted to agree with the interpretation that the gates of Jerusalem are being instructed to be encouraged—as they lift up their heads—for the victorious king of glory (God) is about to enter. As the above quote demonstrates, there is a Babylonian song in which gates are addressed, and Ugaritic literature exhorts gods to lift up their heads because of the triumph of Baal over chaos.