Unexpected Layers in Psalm 24

Because Psalm 24 is one of the psalms we read every day for a whole week at a stretch, this past week I decided not to follow my usual temptation to skip it after one day, but to keep reading it first each morning and see what I saw differently by doing this.

The first thing I noticed was how the earth’s foundation in God is not visible to the naked eye and lies below the motion and fluidity of our lives:

“The earth and everything in it — the world and all who live in
it –belong to YHWH. YHWH built it on the deep waters,
laying its foundations in the ocean depths.”

Our foundations lie in the watery depths, on a ground upon which we ourselves cannot stand — only let ourselves be carried by. This is a way of belonging to God that doesn’t deny our life’s experience of riding upon chaos, of the ground not always feeling solid beneath our feet, of constant motion.

Later in the week I noticed that the psalm as a whole describes the movement known in contemplative Christianity as the path from purification to illumination to encounter with God.

First the psalmist says that the only people who have the “right to ascend YHWH’s mountain” are those “whose hands are clean and whose hearts are pure. . . . Such are the people who seek YHWH, who seek your face, God of our ancestors.” While this could be construed as a kind of works righteousness (we must work to become pure enough to see God), read alongside Paul’s doctrine of grace, we can hear the psalmist speaking about the formation of Christ in us over the course of our lives, the Spirit fine-tuning our intentions so that they align with the magnetic pull of our hunger for God.

Then there’s a sudden turn after a “Selah” — a turn from our own pilgrimage to God’s place on Zion (the “mountain” in question, where the Temple stood), to our standing inside Jerusalem itself, awaiting God’s imminent arrival:

“Fling wide the gates, open the ancient doors, and the Glorious Liberator will come in!”

After purification, after illumination of the path to God’s face, the psalmist speaks of God coming to encounter us. It’s a startling image for many of us today, since YHWH is arriving as a warrior, a liberator. Yet — again reading with Paul in mind — our own hunger for God is not enough to save us. Purity of intention is not enough, for the patterns of sin (the old Adam & Eve) persist and the earth is built on a watery foundation: we are mortal, our forms dissolve over time. God’s arrival to us in the gated entrances of our earthly lives is something beyond our power to force, but within our power to welcome and celebrate.

If others pray some of the daily psalms with the sisters regularly, I’d love to hear what you have noticed in Psalm 24.

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