The Psalms: Clean Hands and a Pure Heart

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
    Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
    who does not trust in an idol
    or swear by a false god.

They will receive blessing from the Lord
    and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
    who seek your face, God of Jacob.

Lift up your heads, 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, 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

In our modern context the opening words of this Psalm are a powerful reminder of and an incentive to care for creation. Sadly, it is an issue that many Christians have dragged their feet on and not made a priority even though it is our number one job according to the Bible (Genesis 2:15). ‘This bluegreen ball in black space filled with beauty even now’ (Bruce Cockburn) is a gift to be treasured and looked after not just for the meeting of our needs but for all the people of earth and for future generations.

In David’s day, the context was different and the opening line is an audacious claim, that Israel’s God was the God of all the earth, not a claim that would have been immediately obvious to most neutral observers either then or now.

Although the whole earth belongs to God, Mount Zion has a special place in his affections.  In human terms Mount Zion isn’t that impressive – Mont Blanc it is not! But maybe that says something about the God who reveals himself in Jesus as having a special concern for the unnoticed and the unimpressive.

In David’s time Mount Zion was where the Ark of the Covenant was housed and where God dwelt with his people. But that immediately raised the question of who could live in God’s presence.

The answer is only those who have clean hands and pure hearts (v. 4). It is the characteristic biblical emphasis that morality matters for this God, that we cannot live in God’s presence if our relationships with others are wrong. It’s also a worrying answer to the sensitive person aware of his or her failure, they might be at least disheartened, at worst despairing.

As followers of Jesus we know the true King of Glory is Jesus, the servant king. He was the Prince of Peace strong and mighty in battle driving out and defeating the forces of evil whether personal, spiritual or social. And we know that he journeyed to Mount Zion with ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ and there upon the cross won the ultimate victory that we, whose hands are dirty and whose hearts are impure, might live in God’s presence forever.