By Rabbi Avraham Norin
Some psalms are meant to be read, others are meant to be sung. Psalm 24 is meant to be sung by two singers, each with a different outlook on life. Their “back and forth” song shows the tension between their two different outlooks, one focusing on God and the other on man.
What exactly is the outlook of each and who has the last word in this conversation?
Below is an explanation of the verses of the psalm, together with the subtext of what each verse expresses:
Singer #1: God owns the earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants. God is everything. Man’s only role in this world is to serve God. Other aspirations of man are not important.
Singer #2: But He founded it upon the ocean, set it on the rivers. God made the earth a place livable for humans. Therefore, people and their aspirations do matter. In fact, man was the sole purpose of creation!
Singer #1: Who may ascend the mountain of God? Who may stand in His holy place? What person in this world can claim to have achieved a Godly level of existence?
Singer #2: He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life or sworn deceitfully. Many people! God doesn’t demand superhuman achievements. Therefore, many people are able to “ascend the mountain of God”.
Singer #1: Who shall carry away a blessing from God, a reward from God, his deliverer? Even if we assume that many can “ascend the mountain of God”, who is worthy of a blessing from God?
Singer #2: This is the generation that seeks him: the ones who seek Your presence, (i.e.) Jacob! (Selah) Answer: The people of Israel, the children of Jacob, all are worthy of God’s blessing since they seek out God’s presence.
Singer #1: O gates, lift up your heads! Be uplifted, you everlasting doors, so the King of glory may come in! What worldly item is spiritual enough to enable God to enter the world?
Singer #2: Who is the King of glory? — God, mighty and valiant, God, valiant in battle. God comes to this world because of human physicality. By walking in His ways and following His commands, we bring Him down to earth. When people cry out to him, he comes to help them.
Singer #1: O gates, lift up your heads! Lift them up, you everlasting doors, so the King of glory may come in! But is there anything in this world intrinsically worthy to “lift up the gates” and bring God into this world?
Singer #2: Who is the King of glory? — God of hosts, He is the King of glory! (Selah) The title “God of hosts” belongs to God since he is the king of the people of Israel (see Jeremiah 7:21, 16:9, 32:14). Furthermore, God’s glory resides within the People of Israel (see Leviticus 9:23). Therefore, it is the Jewish People who bring God to this world. In fact, it is our mission to do so!
This psalm, through the voice of singer #2, is a response to the presumption that God is so awesome and other-wordly that there is no way to emulate Him or bring Him down to this world. The conclusion of the psalm is exactly the opposite. While it is true that God is great and that He created Man to serve Him, He encourages human achievement and self-fulfillment. Furthermore, by following His commandments and walking in His ways, we can bring godliness down to this world. This is, in fact, the purpose of creation.
Based on the insight of Rabbi Yechiel Bin Nun in his book “Eretz Moira” (Hebrew), Tvnuot Press, 2006