Celebrating God’s presence – part 1 (Psalm 24)

We finished our series through 1 Cor 1-4 yesterday, and will begin something new on Monday. (I like starting at the beginning of the week.) So today and tomorrow we’ll have our first edition of “Psalm putty” – we’ll look at Psalm 24 to fill in the gap until the end of the week. This is a psalm all about celebrating the presence of God. Read the Psalm now – it’s only 10 verses.

I’ll begin with an admission: I never “got” the Psalms. Lots of fellow Christians found great inspiration in them, but all I saw was repetitive poetry with strange imagery that needed translation if it ever were to speak to me. (To be honest, with the exception of John Donne, that was my attitude to all poetry I studied in high school, and to some extent still is.)

What changed that was my time as an undergraduate at Bible College, when I found out the Psalms weren’t just about connecting on an emotional level about eagles’ wings and so forth. When I started to understand why and in what situation Israel used each psalm, they started to make more sense. If this was how and when Israel used them, then it gave me an idea of how and when I might use them, too. So whenever we look at the Psalms on this site it will be through this lens: how did a given psalm function in Israel’s life of faith, and how can they function similarly for us, too?

Psalm 24 is an ‘entrance liturgy’ – it’s what you sing as you come into God’s presence. This is something we’ve often lost in recent years, being replaced either by smoke, lights, and sustained synth chords, or a plaintive plea for people to come in from the foyer so we can start. Perhaps we need to reinvent the concept of an entrance liturgy for the 21st century. But I digress…

The psalm is in three parts. Some say it may have been originally three separate psalms put together. But in the form we have it today, it provides three different aspects of what it means to enter the presence of God to worship. It begins by worshipping God as Creator.

24:1 The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;

This reminds us the limits to the idea of “coming into God’s presence.” The whole earth belongs to him, and everything it contains. His presence is already everywhere. Even in the Old Testament, where God was seen as “dwelling” in Jerusalem – where he was enthroned between the cherubim above the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies in the temple – it was acknowledged that God was everywhere. In Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple, he admits as much:

1 Kings 8:27 But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

This is all the more so for us. Jesus came to replace the temple as the place where God lived. It was no longer a building, but a person. At his death, the curtain tore, symbolising that the old order had been done away with. Post-Pentecost, the place where God lives is in us, his people both as individuals (1 Cor 6:19) and corporately (1 Cor 3:17). We’re now the place where the nations can come and find God!

So when we “come into God’s presence”, his presence is already everywhere, and especially in us. It’s really a focusing of our minds on the reality of God’s presence with us, rather than “going somewhere to find God.” We don’t have to move the location of our body, but relocate our thinking.

Some of the songs we sing can contribute to a “sanctuary” mentality – suggesting it is “in this place” (i.e. the church building, or the Sunday worship “event”) that we meet God. That we need to go each week for our “fix” of worship to get us through the next seven days, dispensed by the new priesthood, being the music team and pastors.

This is why the language we use is important. Why we should even be careful about using Psalm-language, given that it’s from a pre-Jesus, pre-Spirit, temple-centred setting. When we “enter into God’s presence” we are focusing our minds on what is always the case: that God is with us, and we intend to worship him.

 24:2 for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.

And when we worship God, we worship him firstly as Creator. The one who made the world.

In Hebrew poetry, the “sea” is a symbol, representing the forces of chaos, of the unknown. It’s what we’re afraid of; that bit of the world we can’t control. It was more so back in those times, but even with modern shipbuilding techniques, the sea can’t be fully conquered by humans. It’s why there will “no longer be any sea” (Rev 21:1) in the new heaven and the new earth – not because God doesn’t like surfing, but because it will be free from chaos and fear.

This description of God “founding it on the seas” is also a statement against other gods and worldviews at the time. The dominant creation story in the region was the Babylonian one called Enuma Elish. Here’s a quick summary:

In the beginning, there was Tiamat (the female god of saltwater) and Apsu (the male god of freshwater). They get busy and have lots of kids, who start fighting with their parents and each other. To cut a long and rather violent story short, Marduk, the main god of Babylon, kills Tiamat, the goddess of saltwater, with a sword – cutting her in two. The top half becomes the waters above (or the sky) and the bottom half becomes the waters below (the sea). Humans are then created as an afterthought to serve the gods and make their lives easier.

In contrast to this, the biblical account is a defiant slap in the face for the Babylonian worldview, and all the cultures around who believed in multiple gods who created the world by fighting each other. It simply says: in the beginning God created the world. The only God. And he did it not out of the cut up bits of a dead God, but out of nothing.

Further, this process of creation wasn’t a fight between a bunch of squabbling gods – it was an intentional process. And finally, as the pinnacle of his creation, rather than an afterthought – as the ruler over it, rather than a domestic servant – he creates humanity to bear his image.

That’s why verse 1 says “The earth is the Lord’s”, not “the earth is the Lord.” The earth wasn’t formed out of the cut up bits of some dead god. It was formed out of nothing by the one and only living God. 

That’s why verse 2 says “He founded it on the seas”, not “he founded it from the seas.” God is separate from creation, not a part of it.

But what’s all this got to do with us? We don’t have a bunch of Babylonians next door worshipping Marduk! True. But we still have these ideas today,  just with different packaging. Modern paganism, New Age, or “Mother Earth” philosophies. But we say the earth is not a god to be worshipped, but the creation of the God who is.

This Psalm is also a word against atheistic evolution – a struggle to form order out of chaos that turned out alright by chance. The Bible says no – God did it, by design and not by chance (no matter whether you think that was in six literal days, over many millions of years, or “theistic evolution”.)

Like Israel, we, too, worship the God who made the universe, who created order out of chaos; out of nothing. And when we sing songs that declare God as Creator, we are also singing a resounding “no” to other world views.

To think about

How will you approach the next time you “come into God’s presence” in corporate worship with your brothers and sisters?

How might you use this psalm (and others) to “come into God’s presence” when you pray by yourself?

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