Clean Hands and a Pure Heart (Phil Johnson)

Psalm 24:3-5   |   Sunday, September 23, 2012   |   Code: 2012-09-23pm-PJ

by Phil Johnson 

     I've chosen a text from Psalm 24, and it is a great one, reminding us that no one can stand before the Lord without clean hands and a pure heart. We're going to focus in this hour on three verses in the middle of a psalm of triumph about Israel's Messiah and king. Here's the text (Psalm 24:3-5): "Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? 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. He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation."

     Here's some good news to start with: This text actually points the way of salvation for sinners whose hands are already dirty and whose hearts are already defiled. But we're going have to work our way through the text in order for you to see that.

     Let me start from the beginning, though, and we'll get a quick an overview of this psalm that will help establish some context for you.

     Psalm 24 is the third in a perfect trilogy of messianic psalms. Psalm 22 is a famous psalm about the crucifixion of the Messiah. It is filled with prophetic references to the cross. In fact, Psalm 22 is cited repeatedly in the gospel accounts of Jesus' crucifixion. It is the most-quoted Psalm in the New Testament, and it depicts the crucifixion of Christ with uncanny accuracy. The precision and detail in Psalm 22 is one of the great proofs of the inspiration of Scripture, and the gospel writers point out that fact. They repeatedly remind us that the crucifixion of Christ was no accident or interruption in the plan of God for Christ, but everything occurred (in the words of Acts 2:23) "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God." God planned and prophesied (and sovereignly brought to pass) every aspect of our redemption. This was God's plan before the foundation of the world—and even the incidental features of Jesus' crucifixion were foreknown by God and foretold in Psalm 22.

     Matthew 27:35, for example, describes the crucifixion of Christ this way: "When they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots." And that's a precise fulfillment of Psalm 22:18: "They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots." Near the end of his sufferings on the cross, according to John 19:28, "Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), 'I thirst.'" What Scripture was fulfilled by that? Psalm 22:15: "My strength is dried up like a potsherd  [POT-shurd—a shard or fragment of broken pottery; not only dry and devoid of strength, but also broken and brittle and incapable of being filled again], and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death." Psalm 22:16 foretold the piercing of His hands and feet. Verse 1 of Psalm 22 foretold the exact words Jesus said when He cried out from the cross. And verses 7-8 describe the very words people taunted Him with as he hung on the cross. So the whole psalm is a graphic and vivid prophecy of those awful hours Jesus hung on the cross.

     Psalm 23, of course, is the most familiar of all the messianic psalms, a psalm about the Good Shepherd and his pastoral care of the sheep.

      And this psalm, Psalm 24, portrays Christ as victorious king. Verses 7-10 are a prophetic reference to His triumphant return, which is yet future.

     So you have this trilogy of psalms about the Messiah in all His major roles—and even the order is significant, I think. Psalm 22 portrays Him as the suffering Servant. Psalm 23 portrays him as the Great Shepherd. And Psalm 24 celebrates Him as the triumphant King.

     Now: Psalm 24 itself is also in the form of a trilogy. The first two verses speak of His sovereignty; verses 3-6 speak of His holiness—and the holiness he demands of His people; and verses 7-10 speak of His triumph. In that first section, the theme is the true God who is sovereign creator of everything. In the second section, the theme is true worship, which as Jesus taught, can be offered only by those who worship in spirit and in truth. And in the third section, the theme is the true Messiah—portrayed as a conquering monarch (verse 8), "The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!."

     Some commentators have suggested that this psalm is really two unrelated psalms that have been edited together—because of the way the tone changes starting with verse 7. That is a real stretch, frankly, because there's a definite flow to the logic of the psalm, and it's all about the supremacy and sovereignty of God, embodied in the glorious Person of this triumphant King, the conquering Messiah. It builds to a jubilant climax, but it both starts and ends with praise to the Lord of hosts, who is not only the creator and therefore the rightful monarch of the universe, but who also will defeat evil in the end.

     I read a dozen or more commentaries on this psalm, and most commentators believe that Psalm 24 was written for a particular occasion—most likely the event described in 2 Samuel 6, where (in the words of 2 Samuel 6:1) "David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing." Let me take a little time to give you the background of that occasion, because it helps set the context for our text, and this background is important.

     You know that the ark of the covenant was the centerpiece of the tabernacle. It was a golden box overspread by the wings of two golden Cherubim, and it symbolized the fact that God dwelt in the midst of the Israelites and His glory resided with them, and that glory, seen as a fire by day and a great shining cloud by night, had led them in the wilderness. And the ark stayed with the tabernacle until the Israelites' wilderness wanderings came to an end and the tabernacle finally rested permanently, along with the sacred ark, in the city of Shiloh.

     But during the time of Eli, the Israelites superstitiously thought the ark would guarantee their victory against the Philistines, so they carried the ark into a battle, and the Philistines captured it.

     In that same battle, Eli's two wicked sons had been killed, and when Eli learned that the ark had ben captured and his sons killed, he fell over backward off his seat next to the gate in Shiloh and died. That was in 1 Samuel 4, and soon after that disastrous day, Eli's daughter-in-law bore a son and named him Ichabod, meaning, "The glory has departed," because Israel had lost the ark. That was the end of an era in Israel, and the beginning of a bleak time for the nation.

     Turn there and follow this story with me. That's the very end of 1 Samuel 4—verse 22: "And she said, 'The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.'"

     So now look at the beginning of 1 Samuel 5.

     After they captured the ark, the Philistines tried to put it in their national pantheon, as a kind of trophy—because they mistakenly thought that the capture of Israel's ark proved that their gods were greater than Jehovah.

     So according to verses 1-2, they put the ark in the city of Ashdod, in the temple of Dagon. Dagon was a kind of fish-god (a mer-man with the tail of a fish and the torso of a man). But the next morning they found the statue of Dagon on his face in front of the ark (verse 3). So they set Dagon back up in his place, but the next morning (v. 4), they found him fallen over forward in front of the ark again, this time with his head and his hands broken off.

     Then (verse 6) the Philistines started to get tumors and die, so they carried the ark to Gath (verse 8), but people there started to get tumors and die, too. So they took the ark to Ekron (verse 10), and the same thing happened there.

     So (chapter 6) after seven months of this, the Philistines consulted their priests and diviners about what to do with the ark, because by now they were desperate to get rid of it. They put it on a cart (verse 7), along with a chest containing five golden images of the tumors and five golden images of rats—as a sort of peace offering—and they strapped the cart to two cows and sent it away. In 1 Samuel 6:9, the priests of the Philistines told the people, "Watch. If it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is [the God of Israel] who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence [by chance]."

     So they turned the cart loose, and verse 12 says, "the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left."

     So that's how Israel got the ark back. But a tragic thing happened at Beth-Shemesh. According to verse 19, the men of that city opened the ark and looked into it (which was strictly forbidden by Numbers 4:20—and the penalty was death), so the Lord "struck seventy men of them [. In other words, He struck them dead], and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people [of Beth-Shemesh] with a great blow."

     Now look at verse 20 (1 Samuel 6). "Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, 'Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?'" That's the very same question the Psalmist raises in our text, isn't it? Psalm 24:3: Who can stand before God? So many Philistines had died because of the ark; and now this great slaughter had hit the Israelite inhabitants of Beth-Shemesh. People were getting the idea that the ark was a dangerous thing.

     So look at 1 Samuel 7:1-2 "And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the LORD. From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years."

     Twenty years. Those were twenty years of backsliding and apostasy, and for twenty years (v. 2), "all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD." Now, don't misread this. The twenty years marks the length of Israel's backsliding, not the amount of time the ark remained there. The ark actually stayed at Kirjath-Jearim for another 80 years beyond that—a total of 100 years. But after the twenty years (v. 3), Samuel "Said to all the house of Israel, 'If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.'" And the rest of chapter 7 describes how Israel returned to the Lord—and therefore they were finally delivered from the Philistines.

     Nothing more is said in this chapter about the ark. But as I said, we know it remained at Kirjath-Jearim for another 80 years.

     Here's how we know that: We hear almost nothing about the ark again until 2 Samuel 6. Turn there and let's pick up the trail of the ark. We come to the time of David, a full century after the ark was returned by the Philistines. Second Samuel 6:1:

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.

2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah [that's just another (the later name) name for Kirjath-Jearim] to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim.

David wants to bring the ark to Jerusalem, because it is there, on the holy mount, where David's son Solomon will build a permanent Temple for worship, to be the symbolic dwelling place of the Lord. That's where the ark rightfully belonged.

     Notice what happens. The ark has been at Kirjath-Jearim for 100 years, from the beginning of Samuel's time until the reign of David was at its height. Notice the expression I just read in verse 2: "the LORD of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim." The ark symbolized God's presence, between the cherubims—these two golden angels whose wings stretched across the lid of the ark.

     And they put the ark on a cart (verse 3). That was a serious mistake, because Moses' law gave explicit instructions for how the ark was to be transported. It was to be carried by the Kohathites, the one tribe of priests who were designated to transport the ark. No one else was to carry the ark. And furthermore, even the Kohathites were not permitted to touch the ark, according to Numbers 4:15. That verse says: "When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die." Moses' law carefully describes how the ark was therefore designed to be carried by poles that were slipped through golden rings on its sides, so that no one ever had to touch it. (Exodus 25:12-15):

You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.

The Kohathites were supposed to carry it on their shoulders by those staves.

     But instead, these guys put it on a cart. After all, the Philistines had sent it back to Israel on a cart. And look what happens. There is a great celebration (2 Samuel 6:5): "David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals." This is a celebratory scene, with great joy and music and laughter. They were "making merry," is how the ESV says it. The NIV says they were "celebrating with all their might before the LORD"—and that's the sense conveyed by this. It's a joyous thing, and they were doing it as unto the Lord—celebration as worship.

     But then tragedy. Verses 6-7: "When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD's anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God."

     That instantly brought a halt to the proceedings. David's response? First anger, then fear. Verses 8-10:

Then David was angry because the LORD's wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.

9 David was afraid of the LORD that day and said, "How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?"

10 He was not willing to take the ark of the LORD to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it aside to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite.

And that's where the ark remained for three more months.

     Now imagine if you were Obed-Edom the Gittite. You'd probably be a little nervous about having the ark in your house. Not the sort of coffee table or conversation piece you'd be comfortable with in your living room. But it turned out to be a great blessing for him (verse 11): "The LORD blessed Obed-edom and all his household." Scripture doesn't say how God blessed Obed-Edom and his household, but it was in some obvious, remarkable way. Perhaps his crops that year were extra-abundant. No doubt whatever he did was prosperous in such an extraordinary way that it was obvious to everyone that God's favor rested on him.

     So when this was reported to David (verse 12), David's fear about bringing the ark to Jerusalem was swept away, and he finally "went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing."

     That was the same occasion when Scripture tells us (verse 14) that "David danced before the LORD with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod." This was also the very event that some of the best Old Testament scholars believe was the occasion for Psalm 24.

     So let's go back to Psalm 24, and with those events as background, the Psalm takes on a new depth of meaning. Psalm 24: "The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein." God is not merely and only the One "who dwells between the cherubim." The whole earth belongs to Him. Psalm 22:3 says He is "enthroned on the praises of Israel." Isaiah 57:15 says He "inhabits eternity." Listen to Acts 7:48-50:

the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,

49 "'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest?

50 Did not my hand make all these things?'

And because God created everything, He is sovereign over all. The earth belongs to him, and all who dwell therein. So those opening two verses celebrate the greatness of the Lord, who alone is worthy to be worshiped.

     But who is worthy to stand before Him and worship? Verses 3 through 5 raise and answer that very question. And we're going to look at those three verses in particular detail. First, however, I want you to skip down to verses 7-10, and with the historical setting in mind, notice how these verses might have been sung.

     The passage is evidently written for antiphonal choirs, or more likely a cantor and choir—like a responsive reading. So when a question is asked (or perhaps sung by the voice of a single cantor), then the response is given (most likely by a choir or a chorus of voices). And as the ark is brought into the city and taken to its final, permanent resting-place on the site of the future Temple, this was the song they sang. And it went something like this:

 [The choir sings:] Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.

[The cantor asks,] Who is this King of glory? [The Choir replies] The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!

[Then all the voices would sing again:] Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.

10  [And the cantor would ask again,] Who is this King of glory? [Then the choir would reply again] The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory!

And if you can picture David, clothed in a linen ephod (the style of garment a priest would wear) dancing before the Lord with all his might—then you have the image of celebration that goes with this psalm.

     Now, let's examine those three verses at the heart of the psalm. Bear in mind that this is being sung by people whose minds and hearts have been deeply impressed and brought to fear by the fresh memory of the death of Uzzah, and the knowledge that multitudes of Philistines as well as many people in the city of Beth-Shemesh had died because they handled the ark carelessly and irreverently. So they are asking the very same question that the men of Beth-shemesh asked in 1 Samuel 6:20 after the slaughter of those Israelites who foolishly and carelessly ventured to peek inside the ark: "Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?"

     Here's verse 3 of our text: "Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?"

     Now, I want you to notice one other thing about this psalm: It closely parallels Psalm 15: "LORD, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?" Psalm 15 gives a much longer answer to the question, taking 4 verses to list the qualities of a righteous person. Psalm 15 is five verses long, so let me read the whole thing:

O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?

2 He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart;

3 who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend;

4 in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD; who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

5 who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.

Our psalm (Psalm 24) answers the question in a single verse, but the answer is exactly the same: only the righteous are qualified to stand before God and render worship. Verse 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."

     And here's where I want to focus our attention. Notice that this text contains a lesson about true worship, a reminder of our need for Christ, and a promise of justification for needy sinners. We're going to let that be our outline as we look closely at verses 4-5, so if you want to take it down, I'll try to make it easy for you. Here's point one: It's—


1. A Lesson about True Worship

     One thing is crystal-clear from the chronicle of the ark in the Old Testament: God is not to be trifled with. He is a holy God, and He demands holiness from those who offer Him praise. In Leviticus 10:3, God says, "By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored." Hebrews 12:28 says that if we want to serve God acceptably, we must do it "with reverence and godly fear."

     Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4:24), "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." In a similar way, God is holy, and those who worship Him must "worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness." Here's how the psalmist addresses a call to worship to the angels (Psalm 29:1-2): "Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness." You say, Sure. That's the angels. They live in the splendor of holiness. But 1 Chronicles 16:29-30 echoes that same call to worship in virtually identical words, and applies it to you and to me: "Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name . . . Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth." And God Himself makes this demand of us (Leviticus 11:44): "I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy."

     We live in an age of casual worship. People literally demand for worship to be as relaxed and informal as possible. Some churches deliberately design their services so that worldly people who come in will feel comfortable and light-hearted and leisurely. That is not a biblical approach to worship. Worship is serious, and it's spiritually deadly to approach worship in a blithe or playful way.

     That's not to suggest that our worship ought to be grim and gloomy. Just the opposite. There's a tremendous amount of the deepest kind of joy in true worship from a pure heart. That's why David danced before the Lord with all his might. But he didn't do it flippantly. It was the very opposite of nonchalance—something he did with all his might. And it was the kind of joy that's only possible for someone who has understood the kind of soul-shattering fear David felt when Uzzah was struck dead for mishandling the ark. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10). And fear of God is also the necessary foundation of true worship. Psalm 33:8: "Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!" Hebrews 12:28-29: "let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire."

     Now, let's be honest about this: we are all guilty of worship that at times is shallow, heedless, inattentive—irreverent. Thank God that he is merciful, because we have probably all deserved to be struck dead for being foolish and flippant in worship like Uzzah, or for being insincere and artificial like Ananias and Sapphira. As Hebrews 10:31 says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." But normally, God shows us great mercy and patience that we don't deserve. He's gracious to us.

     But we shouldn't mistake that mercy for approval of our shallow worship. The worship that pleases Him is always and only the kind of praise that flows from "a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience"—to borrow words from Hebrews 10:22.

     Look at the expressions in our text: "Who [may] ascend the hill of the LORD? And who [may] stand in his holy place? 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."

     The phrase "clean hands and a pure heart" describes someone who is pure both within and without. It's not enough to be like the Pharisees—to look clean on the outside but be full of decay and corruption on the inside. God has no use for the artificial praise of whitewashed tombs, fine-looking monuments that are full of dead men's bones. But both our hands and our hearts must be clean and pure.

     In fact, this goes even further. Notice how comprehensive verse 4 is. It covers our deeds, our thoughts, our desires, and our words: "Clean hands"—that speaks of what we do. "A pure heart"—that speaks of what we think. "who does not lift up his soul to what is false"—that speaks of what we long for and seek after. "Does not swear deceitfully"—that speaks of what we say. And it all demands the utmost integrity in every way.

      This is by no means the only passage of Scripture that speaks of clean hands as a prerequisite to worship. Isaiah 1:15-17 says this (and this is God speaking): "When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good."

     Listen to James 4:8-10. Here's a fitting rebuke for the playful approach to worship that is so popular in our generation: "Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up." Notice the echo of Psalm 24:4 in that familiar passage from James 4:8: "Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded."

     Now, notice the phrase in the middle of Psalm 24:4. Who is fit to stand before the Lord? "[He] who does not lift up his soul to what is false." That's the ESV. The word translated "what is false" is "vanity" in the KJV, "falsehood" in the NASB. But it's not merely talking about spoken falsehoods. That's a translation of the Hebrew word shawv, which speaks of anything evil, false, or useless. In the New King James Version it's translated this way: "Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol." It's not speaking only of a stone idol; it means anything that might divert your affections from the One true God who is worthy of your worship. It includes everything in the spectrum from that which is purely satanic to that which is merely worthless; anything that might become an idol to you: entertainment, foolish things, worldly things, an obsession with sports or fashion or celebrities, or any of the many other useless things that people give their time and energy to.

     To "lift up your soul" to something speaks of offering yourself—your time, your energy, your heart and mind—to a thing. Notice that the same expression is used at the very start of the next psalm in the psalter: Psalm 25:1: "To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul." Whenever we lift up our souls to anything less, we're guilty of worldliness and idolatry, and our worship is unacceptable to God.

     Now let's face this squarely: This sets an impossibly high standard, doesn't it? If this is the requirement for worship; if this is what we must be in order to ascend into the hill of the Lord or stand in His holy place, none of us really qualifies, right? I read this psalm and I feel like the apostle John must have felt in Revelation 5, when it was time to open the seven-sealed book and the angel asked "'Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?' And [John writes,] no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it."

     And this is one of the main points this psalm is making. We ourselves are not worthy to "ascend the hill of the LORD . . . [or] stand in his holy place. . . stand in His holy place."

     But here's the second thing I want you to notice about this passage. First, it's a lesson about true worship. Second, it's—


2. A Reminder of Our Need for Christ

     There is really only one person in the history of humanity who truly fulfills the requirements of verse 4, and that is Christ. This verse is a description of Him. He alone "has clean hands and a pure heart, [and] does not lift up his soul to what is false [or] swear deceitfully." It's exactly like that scene in Revelation 5, where John begins to weep because it seems no one in all heaven or earth will be found worthy. And in Revelation 5:5, John writes, "One of the elders said to me, 'Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.'" Christ alone is worthy. He is able to do what no other man on earth is qualified to do.

     So what is the correct answer to the questions of verse 3? "Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place?" Only one man—the Lord Jesus Christ, who "has clean hands and a pure heart." In the words of John 3:13: "No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man."

     So this text is a reminder of our need for Christ. Because only those who are united with Him and clothed in His righteousness, whose hands are washed clean in His blood and whose hearts are purified by that blood—only they can ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place. And the only ground on which they stand is not their own righteousness, but His. In other words, the only way we can come boldly before the throne of grace and render worship to God is by being in union with Christ.

     That brings us to a third wonderful truth from this text, and it's expressed in verse 5. It's:


3. A Promise of Justification for Needy Sinners

     If you're following the outline, we've had a lesson about true worship; a reminder of our need for Christ. Now verse 5 makes this promise of justification for needy sinners: "He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation." Wherever you find a true worshiper you will find someone who has received righteousness from God—the righteousness of Christ imputed.

     Again, in and of ourselves, we don't have clean hands and pure hearts. Isaiah says our righteousness is like a filthy rag—a defiled cloth that has been used for personal hygiene. Paul says our righteousness is like dung. Those are both such vile expressions that I wouldn't use them at all, if it were not for the fact that Scripture is so emphatic about this. We desperately, urgently, badly need cleansing and purification.

     In the book of Job, one of Job's counselors, Bildad, says this (Job 25:4-6):

How then can man be in the right before God? How can he who is born of woman be pure?

5 Behold, even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes;

6 how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!"

If the heavens themselves are not pure in God's sight, and even the brightest star looks dim compared to God's own glory—and if that glory is the measure of true holiness, then how can sinful creatures ever be clean? That is the great dilemma of every sinner. Compared to God's holiness, we're no better than maggots, worms—human cockroaches.

     But our text answers the dilemma: "[We] receive . . . righteousness from the God of [our] salvation." God himself supplies the righteousness we lack. It is speaking of a righteousness that is imputed to us by faith. I quoted from James 4:8-9 already. Let me read that passage once more, and I'll add verse 10:

Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.

10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 both say, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." And that is speaking of the humility of faith. Faith—humble trust in the God of our salvation is the sole instrument by which we lay hold of the righteousness we need for justification.

     Jesus told a parable that illustrates this perfectly. Luke 18, starting with verse 10:

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get."

13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"

Now, the publican might have even been thinking of Psalm 24 as he went up to the Temple to pray. "Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?" The Pharisee, on the other hand,  was in effect claiming that he had clean hands and a pure heart. So he recites his own arrogant estimation of his righteous credentials. He thinks he is better than "other men," especially "this tax collector."

     The publican has no righteousness of His own. He knows his hands aren't clean and his heart isn't pure. So he humbly begs for mercy.

     And Jesus is teaching that this is where all true worship must inevitably start—with an acknowledgement of our guilt and a recognition of our need for grace. And God gives that grace. In the words of our text, "He [the one who confesses his need and casts himself on God for mercy] will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation."

     Jesus says the very same thing in Luke 18:14: "I tell you, this man [the humble sinner, not the arrogant Pharisee] went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

     Verse 5 is therefore the key to understanding Psalm 24. The only one who can stand before God is the one who has received righteousness from God. Listen to what Spurgeon says about this verse: "They do not ascend the hill of the Lord as givers but as receivers, and they do not wear their own merits, but a righteousness which they have received."

     That is the principle of imputed righteousness. Again, it's not our own righteousness, but the perfect, flawless, impeccable righteousness of Christ, which is ours by divine reckoning. That is the only way sinful people can be made fit to ascend the holy hill and stand in the presence of a holy God. That is the necessary starting place of all true worship.

     It doesn't mean we're free to pursue a life of unbridled sin and then claim the merits of Christ as ours. No one who genuinely trusts Christ would deliberately want to trample His grace under foot like that. But it does mean that Christ's righteousness is our only hope and the essential covering we need when we come to the place of worship, and those (like that Pharisee in Luke 18) who come trusting their own righteousness will be rejected. That is the very reason, according to the apostle Paul, that most of ethnic Israel remain outside the New Covenant (Romans 10:3-4): "For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law [the goal of the law; the fulfillment of the law's requirement] for righteousness to everyone who believes."

     So there's a lesson about true worship, a reminder of our need for Christ, and the promise of justification for sinners. This is a wonderful psalm, isn't it?

     Verse 6: "Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob." The Hebrew is somewhat obscure in this verse. The NASB says, "This is the generation of those who seek Him, Who seek Your face—even Jacob." The New King James Version says, "This is Jacob, the generation of those who seek Him, Who seek Your face." Here's the idea: This justifying faith is the mark of Jacob, the true Israel of God. And this is the blessing of all those who are redeemed: They receive righteousness from God. They are the true sons and daughters of Abraham by faith. They may ascend the holy hill and stand in the presence of God—not because of any inherent righteousness or earned righteousness of their own, but because they are in spiritual union with the one Person who perfectly fulfills the standard of verse 4, and they are being conformed to His image.

     So this is all about God's goodness and grace, and that is the very heart of the gospel message: Christ does for us what we could never do for ourselves. He has opened the way into the holy of holies for us. And in the words of Hebrews 4:15: "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."