Who not How (Psalm 24)

“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

The God of Israel is the God of all, and His majesty exceeds His domain, for His domain is finite, but His glory infinite. And thus the question,

“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3).

Does the answer of the psalmist distress you?

“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” (Psalm 23:4).

What of grace and justification by faith alone? Note that the question is not how, but who—same three letters, very different meanings. The grounds upon which the saints come before the Holy One ever remains Christ and Christ alone. But here we do not have an explanation of how we come before God, but of who comes before God.

The hill of Yahweh is Jerusalem and His holy place is the Tabernacle. God dwelt in the midst of His covenant people who He had redeemed by the blood of the lamb. Before bringing them into the promised land He brought them to Sinai to receive His law so that they might be holy as He is holy. The people of God are a holy people because the God of their salvation is a holy God. The saved are saints. We are not fit for His presence, but He is making us so.

Make no mistake about this, if you would see God, you must be holy. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:3). Elsewhere we are instructed to “strive…for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). J.C. Ryle warns,

“Most men hope to go to heaven when they die; but few, it may be feared, take the trouble to consider whether they would enjoy heaven if they got there. Heaven is essentially a holy place; its inhabitants are all holy; its occupations are all holy. To be really happy in heaven it is clear and plain that we must be somewhat trained and made ready for heaven while we are on earth.”

He continues,

“The favorite idea of many, that dying men need nothing except absolution and forgiveness of sins to fit them for their great change, is a profound delusion. We need the work of the Holy Spirit as well as the work of Christ; we need renewal of the heart as well as the atoning blood; we need to be sanctified as well as to be justified. …What could an unsanctified man do in heaven, if by any chance he got there? Let that question be fairly looked in the face, and fairly answered. No man can possibly be happy in a place where he is not in his element, and where all around him is not congenial to his tastes, habits, and character. When an eagle is happy in an iron cage, when a sheep is happy in the water, when an owl is happy in the blaze of noonday sun, when a fish is happy on the dry land—then, and not till then, will I admit that the unsanctified man could be happy in heaven.”

God saves none but sinners, but every sinner saved is a saint being sanctified. Sinners who come with open hands, claiming no righteousness of their own, will find those hands cleansed by the God they come to in the blood of the Lamb who is their righteousness.

The Full Range of the Psalms (Psalm​ 22)

“O LORD, in your strength the king rejoices, and in your salvation how greatly he exults!” —Psalm 21:1 (ESV)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” —Psalm 22:1 (ESV)

What a contrast between the opening of the 21st and 22nd psalms! In the 21st Psalm we see the king rejoicing in his salvation; a salvation that came in answer to his prayers for deliverance from his enemies. In the 22nd Psalm we step back in time to hear the king’s prayer for salvation as his enemies encircle him.

In David these two psalms very could have been written of two separate attacks and two separate prayers, but for the Son of David, David’s Lord, these two psalms speak of the same prayers, the same enemies, and the same salvation.

The 22nd is a most solemn psalm. Spurgeon comments, “This is above all others the Psalm of the Cross.” We should come to all of Scripture with the highest reverence, but do we not sense that especially here it is as though we should take off our shoes for we approach holy ground?

Upon hearing some songs, sublime in their sorrow, if one doesn’t cry, you might wonder if they are human. One is tempted to say, that if one can hear this song and shed no tear, you might wonder if they are Christ’s. Sure, just because your eyes are wet doesn’t mean your soul is cleansed. Tears themselves are no proof of regeneration, but surely the saints understand.

And yet, our tears of sorrow are turned to tears of joy as this cry of dereliction gives way to a swelling chorus of praise led by the delivered King (22:22–31). This song takes us as high as it begins low, and it cannot begin any lower. The 22nd Psalm ends preparing the choir of God to sing the 21st.

“The rejoicing of our risen Lord must, like his agony, be unutterable. If the mountains of his joy rise in proportion to the depth of the valleys of his grief, then his sacred bliss is high as the seventh heaven.” —C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David

Rejoicing in Our King’s Rejoicing (Psalm 21)

O LORD, in your strength the king rejoices, and in your salvation how greatly he exults!

…For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence. —Psalm 21:1, 6

In this psalm, the people of God rejoice in their king’s rejoicing. The people are rejoicing, but they are not singing about their joy, and yet it is their joy. The salvation the king exults in is their salvation. His joy is their joy. When David is saved, the kingdom is saved.

As this is fulfilled in Christ, it speaks to the joy that was set before Christ, for which He endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). This is not simply the eternal and infinite joy that the Son has always had in the Father. This is the joy which follows the Son’s salvation, meaning the deliverance from and destruction of His enemies (Psalm 21:8–13). This the the joy that falls on the incarnate Christ, our King, who acts as our covenant head. When He is “anointed… with the oil of gladness beyond [his] companions,” that oil covers His people who are in union with Him in the Spirit. His salvation is our salvation. His joy is our joy.

In John 17:13 Jesus prays that His joy might be filled in us (cf. John 15:11). Is there any joy like this? Spurgeon comments, “The rejoicing of our risen Lord must, like his agony, be unutterable. If the mountains of his joy rise in proportion to the depth of the valleys of his grief, then his sacred bliss is high as the seventh heaven.” Here we see the highest joy, the infinite God delighting in what is infinitely delightful. But again, we are not seeing the Triune God’s joy as it has always existed, but as it is in the redemption of man. This is no self-contained joy. This is a joy we are invited into.

You Probably Think this Psalm is About You (Psalm 20)

We’re so vain.

God has written the hymnary of humanity and it has parts. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to sing parts anymore. But the problem is much worse than ignorance or a lack of musicality. Discontent to remain a member of the choir, we insist on a solo part.

Thus it is that we can’t read God’s music—the psalms. We think we’re speaking when we’re being spoken to. Likewise, we think we’re being spoken to when we are to be singing. We sing the wrong parts and we fail to sing the right ones. We sing the solo and fail to sing the choir’s chorus. When we read the psalms, we fail to make individual and communal distinctions and identifications. Who is the individual? Who is the group? When we do make distinctions, we invert them. To top it off, we’re so self-centered, we don’t even realize it—“of course this lyric must be about me.” We too easily identify with David as a king.

Read the 20th Psalm. Did you hear blessings being spoken to you or did you hear yourself blessing someone? In this psalm, the people pronounce blessings on David as He goes out to battle, knowing that Israel’s welfare is found in him. Save the solo part in verse 7, this is a song of the people for their king.

In Christ we have a King, not whom we bless, but who is blessed. He doesn’t need our blessing, this blessing is on Him. And so it is that we can be all the more confident exclaiming:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
They collapse and fall,
but we rise and stand upright.

Make the Psalms all about you, and any “confidence” you sing with is a display of arrogance. Sing with humility, and you may belt this psalm out with true confidence. Your King is blessed. Your King is heard. His victory is established. Let us shout over His salvation!

A Refuge, as God (Psalm 18)

I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

David’s refuge is a loved refuge. An uncommon word is used for “love” here. Often translated “compassion” it carries the idea of a superior feeling pity towards and inferior. The psalm clearly indicates that David views God as God, as greater than himself. The idea then appears to be that David is deeply moved in love towards his God, such that although David clearly loves God because He is a stronghold, you know that God is indeed loved and not merely used.

God is not a fortress to be used as a means to enjoy something else. God is not a storm shelter. He is a refuge the way a wife takes refuge in her husband.

God is a refuge, but He is a refuge as God. He is not simply a refuge as a refuge. You cannot relate to God as a utilitarian thing but a relational person—a person who is the Lord of glory. You cannot flee to God to protect that which is most valuable to you. You must flee to Him as that which is most valuable.

God is not a refuge from the forces that threaten to interrupt your idolatry. God is a refuge for sinners, but not for sin. Repentant sinners find refuge in God from God. Flee to God to protect your sins and you run to your destruction. Again, God is not a vault for you to house your idols in. He is a refuge as God. There is an indestructible refuge for sinners, but there is no facility secure enough to house idols.

A Spiritual War with Human Meat Shields (Psalm 17)

There is an emphasis by some on spiritual warfare today, but most of it should be tossed into the looney bin. Many would have us flailing our spiritual fists wildly in the air praying against territorial demons and rebuking the evil spirits in hurricanes.

There is another contingency that thinks we’ll win by niceness. Love can be a potent weapon in war, but niceness is a limp-wristed way of handling a Scottish claymore that’ll result in hurting more friendlies than enemies. Love will make a man throw his body over razor wire so his platoon can escape enemy fire. Niceness will politely hold the wires apart for your allies while signaling the enemy, “We’re over here. Please come to our side.”

Then there are the Westboro militants. You get the impression that the only thing that keeps them from using Satan’s more gruesome weapons is the law of land. They say they’re building God’s kingdom, but they’re using the devil’s tools.

We are in a spiritual war that uses human meat shields. The meat shield shouldn’t keep one from using the imprecatory psalms. They enlisted for their own agenda. The psalms are not a dead language meant primarily for reflective reading and not for active singing.

How aware are we of this war? I think the pathetic nature of our strategies and tactics display that we don’t get it. While some are off playing Dungeons and Dragons in a virtual world, others think we’re in a Nerf gun fight with friends. There are real evils in this world, human and demonic. We must take refuge in God and we must call in heavenly artillery.

Jesus is a King and He is an opposed King. If you think Uncle Sam can draw a line down the middle of the back seat so that we kids play nice and get along, you’re as naive as a five year old. The agenda of the enemy isn’t to maintain space, but to advance space. Jesus said we’re sent out as sheep among wolves. We have all the tactical brilliance of thinking we are sheep among cows. Sure, they’re big and they may hurt us, but we can coexist, grazing peacefully in the same pastures.

Our fundamental confession is “Jesus is Lord.” All the pastures are His. That’s His grass. Repent and bow the knee to Christ as Lord. Persist in your hatred of Him and His bride, and know there is a judgment. 

Let us love our enemies, but let us also sing and lament all rebellion against our King, certain of His glorious judgment to bring us into the fullness of salvation and peace.

Reading the Characters in God Story (Psalm 15)

“ …in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord…” —Psalm 15:4 (ESV)

Nowadays there is fresh emphasis on Jesus as a friend of sinners. This is a welcome reprieve from the kind of legalism and fundamentalism that withdrew into a “holy huddle” refusing even a brother who enjoyed a beer in moderation. But just as fundamentalism could go to one extreme, there are many sinner-friendly folk veering off the other shoulder.

There is a problem if your theology is reactionary. We shouldn’t determine truth by seeing the consequences of folly on the other side. Republicans who set their policies based upon Democrat stupidities are only prepping to be a different kind of ninny head. Trying to stay far away from the extreme left means veering towards the alt-right. We should not react, but be principled people who act upon the truth of God. If we’re only reacting, someone else is determining the agenda; we’re not driving, we’re being driven.

I’m afraid that when many say “Jesus was a friend of sinners,” they’re looking for a Biblical text to support their reaction, rather than having digested Biblical truth and then acting upon it. The evidence in support of this is that often only one thing is being said.

Our relationships to people should reflect God’s relationships people. God both hates sinners and graciously determines to save sinners. God’s wrath abides on man and yet he is long suffering and benevolent to humanity. You should both love your neighbor as yourself and despise the vile person. This isn’t easy. The Spirit must give wisdom based on Biblical principles.

If we start with how to relate to some extremes I think it’ll help make sense of the middle. We honor the apostle Paul, missionary Adoniram Judson, and orphanage founder George Muller. We despise Nero, Hitler, and Kim Jong-un. We do this knowing that Paul was once detestable and hoping that all whom we despise might be so transformed. In Genesis 14 Abraham receives a blessing from Melchizedek but refuses rights to the spoils from the King of Sodom. This is the kind of discretion that is called for in this world. In-between is where most people are and in-between is how we need to relate to most people.

Now, back to a general dichotomy. Douglas Wilson offers a helpful paradigm. We must learn to distinguish apostles of the world and refugees of the world. The Israelite spies treat Rahab differently than Phinehas deals with the Midianite woman. Elisha speaks to Naaman one way; Moses speaks to Pharaoh another. While Paul was preaching the gospel to Sergius Paulus he turned to Elymas the magician and called him a son of the devil, an enemy of all righteousness, and full of deceit and villainy. Likewise, we should speak one way to the woman broken after an abortion and another concerning Cecil Richards and Kermit Gosnell. When the forbidden woman of Proverbs tries to entice us, we flee, and when the prostitute wishes to fall prostrate at Jesus’ feet washing them with her tears, we welcome her.

This kind of wisdom comes from the Word. Marinate in Proverbs for some time and you’ll find yourself honoring the wise, faithful, diligent, righteous and just while despising the fool, liar, slothful, wicked, and evil. You will value an excellent wife over an alluring adulteress. Spurgeon said Bunyan’s blood was bibline. Prick him and he’d bleed Bible. This is why Bunyan could write honorable characters like Hopeful, Faithful, and Old Honest and despicable ones like Hypocrisy, Talkative, and Formalist.

If we soak in the Psalms, we’ll not only think and talk this way, we will sing this way. If you are fearful this will curb a gracious spirit, can you think of many figures more merciful and magnanimous than David? David forgave as big as he fought and fought as big as he forgave. Ingest the Bible and you’ll learn to read the characters of this world and you’ll read them hoping that God will rewrite them just as He has you.