Who Shall Ascend into the Hill Of The Lord?

Adapted from a sermon preached on 29 Sep 2002 in PCC Morning Worship Service.

"Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully" (Psalm 24:3-4).

Psalm 24 is a familiar psalm. But it is also a very intriguing psalm because of its rich symbolism. At the same time it is also a psalm that has challenged commentators because its content appears to be quite disjointed—so much so that some have suggested that it is really two psalms joined together artificially. We do not think this is so. But we agree with the general consensus that this psalm was probably written by David for the occasion of the return of the Ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom into Jerusalem.

You will remember how the Ark of God was captured by the Philistines because the apostate sons of Eli brought the ark into battle, thinking that they could force God to fight with them. As a result, they lost the battle and the ark was captured by the Philistines. Then God plagued the Philistines, and they were forced to return the ark.

But the ark was not brought to Shiloh where the tabernacle was. Instead it went to the house of a man by the name of Abinadab, and it was there for the next 60 years (1 Sam 7:1-2; 2 Sam 2:10; Acts 13:21). Then David came to the throne; and he made Jerusalem his capital. Jerusalem sits on a hill about 2,300 feet above sea level. And so going to Jerusalem is usually spoken of as going up to Jerusalem.

Shortly after David made Jerusalem his capital, he tried to bring the ark into Jerusalem. But he failed because the ark was placed on a bullock cart instead of carried by the Levites. One man by the name of Uzzah was struck dead by God during that failed attempt. The ark remained in the house of Obed-Edom for three months before David plucked up enough courage to attempt to bring it back to Jerusalem again.

Psalm 24 was written either to be sung during the occasion when the ark was brought up, or it was written to celebrate the event. But in any case, it uses the image of the coming up of the ark into Jerusalem, as a picture of things spiritual and things to come.

The Psalm has three parts.

The first part,—v. 1-2,—glorifies the LORD as the sovereign King over the entire universe.

The second part,—v. 3-6,—refers to the men who accompany the ark up to Jerusalem,—to speak of the characteristics of the subjects of the Kingdom of Jehovah or the Kingdom of Christ.

And finally, the third part,—v. 7-10,—refers to the bringing in of the ark into Jerusalem,—to speak of the exaltation of Christ to his position of honour at the right hand of the throne of God.

Our text is found in the 2nd part. Let us meditate on it by asking three questions.

1. What is it to Ascend into the Hill of the LORD?

David asks: "Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD?" Now, it is quite obvious that David is not concerned about who can climb up to Jerusalem, for anyone can do that!

Surely, David must be asking: "Who qualifies to ascend into the hill of the LORD?" Or if we remember that this is a psalm about bringing the Ark of God up into Jerusalem, then we know that David is really asking, "Who qualifies to accompany the Ark of God up into Jerusalem?" But is that up to us?

Well, under the Old Covenant only the priests who have been consecrated to serve the Lord may stand in the holy place of the tabernacle or temple. But the answer that David supplies to his own question makes no reference to priests. He is not asking, "Who among the priests can ascend into the hill of the LORD and stand in the holy place?" He is asking, "Who among us qualifies to enjoy what the priests of old enjoyed as they served the LORD?" "Who among us qualifies to experience what the priests experienced as they accompanied the ark up the hill to Jerusalem, and then ministered in the holy place?"

Or to put it in terms familiar to us, David is asking: "Who among us qualifies to enjoy God?" Our Shorter Catechism teaches us that "Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." Now, it is our duty to glorify God. All men, without exception, are commanded to glorify God. But to enjoy God is slightly different. Whether we like it or not, not all of us will be able to enjoy God even supposing we want to. To ascend unto the hill of the LORD, I believe, is to enjoy Him today and to persevere on in His care unto all eternity. That is, ascending into the hill of the LORD is not only about getting to heaven finally, but about enjoying God today. The fact is those who would eventually enter into heaven must already be enjoying heaven or in other words, enjoying God in this life (cf. Eph 2:6).

To enjoy God is to experience the "love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us" (Rom 5:5). It is to enjoy the peace of conscience that the world does not understand. It is to know the joy of the Lord in the midst of troubling circumstances. It is to have the assurance of being found with Christ at the last day. It is to know the blessedness that the Lord Jesus speaks about in the Beatitudes. It is to know great and mighty things that God promises to reveal to those who call unto the LORD. It is to have the satisfaction of knowing that God is pleased with you. It is to enjoy communion with God through all the means He has appointed—be it in public worship, in prayer or in the reading of the Scriptures. It is to experience the full-orbed abundant Christian life that Christ purchased for us. It is to experience heaven on earth.

Are you enjoying God? Have you ascended into the hill of the LORD? Are you daily ascending the hill of the LORD, or are you standing at the foot of the hill, in the shadow of the valley?

Until you begin to ascend the hill of the LORD, you do not really know what you are missing. Nevertheless, I would ask you: Do you desire to ascend into the hill of the LORD? Do you desire to enjoy God?

By the fact that the psalmist asks—Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD?—we know that not everyone will qualify to ascend. But what are the qualifications?

2. Who Ascends into the Hill of the LORD?

David answers the question in verse 4, but before we look at the answer, let us realise that the primary qualification for ascending into the hill of the LORD is union with Christ.

This is implied from the picture that David is painting, which is, that of saints accompanying the ark as it ascended into Jerusalem. But the ascension of the Ark of God into Jerusalem is prophetically symbolic of the ascension of Christ into heaven after His death and resurrection.

This symbol is highlighted by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4, where he quotes from Psalm 68 (another ascension psalm) to show that Christ must ascend back into heaven before giving spiritual gifts to His church (cf. Ps 68:18; Eph 4:8). Psalm 68:18 read—

"Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them."

The apostle Paul quotes this verse in Ephesians 4:8 in the words "When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men." Notice the reference of the LORD leading "captivity captive" and receiving gifts for the rebellious, in order that the He might dwell among them. What do all these mean?

Whatever the leading of captivity captive means in regards to the ascension of the Ark of God, I believe the meaning with regard to the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ is very clear. The Lord Jesus Christ, in the words of the apostle Paul "was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification" (Rom 4:25); and God "hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2:6).

The mission of the Lord Jesus on earth was to redeem a rebellious people unto Himself. When He rose victorious from the grave and ascended to heaven, His victory was secured. He had in a sense, captured all His elect. They are His captives for their good. They have not all gone to heaven with Him yet, but their captivity is so certain that they are said to follow Him to heaven. One day the full number of the elect captives will be found in heaven with Christ. Not one will be missing.

But in the meantime, the Lord having ascended on high has sent us the gift of His Holy Spirit to dwell in us. Did He not tell His disciples:

"It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you" (Jn 16:7)?

So then, although we did not physically ascend to heaven with the Lord Jesus Christ, we have indeed ascended with Him in two senses:

First, we ascended with Him because our captivity in Christ is certain. We are the captivity that Christ led captive. And so it is certain that we will one day be in heaven. This is why the writer of Hebrew reminds us that we have already come unto mount Sion, unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb 12:22-23).

Secondly, we ascended with Christ because the Spirit of Christ indwells us, and therefore eternal life has begun. "This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3) says our Lord. Because the Holy Spirit indwells us, we have begun to have fellowship with God the Father and God the Son. We have begun to enjoy a heavenly existence on earth.

Let me put it in another way: Psalm 24 is an ascension psalm. It is about the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ascending the hill of the LORD is meaningless except we ascend in the train of the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, we will not be able to ascend the hill of the LORD but as the captives of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is made clear in our psalm in verse 5—"He [i.e. he who ascends the hill of the LORD] shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation" (Ps 24:5).

We are by nature children of wrath. Left to ourselves we can never enjoy anything spiritual. We were dead in sin and trespasses. And even our most righteous deeds are but filthy rags in the sight of God.

So in a sense, there is only one answer to the question: "Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?" The answer is Christ Jesus our Lord! God is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity (Hab 1:13). Who then can ascend the holy hill of God and stand in His presence. Only the Lord Jesus Christ, the God-Man who was tempted at all points like as we are, and yet without sin.

Ultimately, He alone matches the description that the psalmist gives in answer to his question "Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?"

"He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully" (v. 4).

Christ alone is holy. Christ alone has clean hands. Christ alone has a pure heart. Christ alone has not lifted up His soul unto vanity. Christ alone has not sworn deceitfully.

Therefore anyone who hopes to ascend unto the hill of the LORD may only do so by union with Christ. We, who ascend the hill of the LORD, ascend only on the merits of Christ. We ascend only on the basis of the "righteousness from the God of [our] salvation" (v. 5). Or in other words, we ascend the hill of the LORD and stand in God’s presence, only because we are justified by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But lest anyone of us think that it therefore means that anyone who claims to be united to Christ can enjoy God, let us realise that justification can never be divorced from sanctification. The Word of God instructs us: "Be ye holy; for I am holy" (1 Pet 1:16); for "without [holiness] no man shall see the Lord" (Heb 12:4). He who claims justification must also evidence holiness in his life. He who is truly justified will be holy. He will not have perfect holiness. But he will have a measure of holiness that makes it possible to distinguish him from the world.

And he can be distinguished from the world because of his Christ-likeness. So then, if Christ answers to those four qualifications, those who ascend with Him must also answer to them to some distinguishable degree.

So who is he who shall ascend unto the hill of the LORD?

i. First, he has "clean hands". That is to say, his actions are pure. He has an outward, practical holiness. He keeps his hands from doing that which is evil. Therefore he studies the Law of God diligently to know what duties God requires of him. And then whatever he knows to be against the law of God, or may be against the Law of God, he will refuse to do or to participate in. He strives to keep his hands clean.

Pilate knew that the Lord was innocent and yet he gave in to crucify Him. He knew his deed would dirty his hands. So he tried to wash his hands in water. But that does not make his hands clean. Excuses do not clean our hands. We are all experts at justifying our sins. Adam excused himself by saying it was his wife who gave him the fruit. Abraham excused himself for lying about his wife by saying he was afraid for his own life. King Saul said that he forced himself to offer sacrifices to the Lord because Samuel was slow in getting to him.

But such as would ascend unto the hill of the LORD must keep his hands pure so that he has no occasion to excuse himself. And if he fails, he does not leave his hands dirty. He goes immediately to the fountain of the blood of Christ, that he may wash it in repentance and faith.

ii. Secondly, he who would ascend unto the hill of the LORD must cultivate a pure heart. "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8). Not only must their hands be pure. More importantly, their hearts must be pure. It is possible for a man to be outwardly righteous,—having clean hands, but not inwardly righteous,—having clean hearts. The Lord Jesus call such persons "hypocrites… whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness" (Mt 23:27). While man looks on the outside God looks at the heart. A hypocrite is, in some ways, worse than one who has unclean hands.

Such as would ascend unto the hill of the LORD must keep his heart pure. He cultivates sincerity, and he gives priority to what God sees rather than what man sees.

iii. Thirdly, he who would ascend unto the hill of the LORD does not lift up his soul unto vanity. That is, he does not place his affections on idols. Idols are nothing, therefore it is vain to seek after idols. But it is more than vain to seek after idols. It is gross wickedness. God alone is our Creator. He alone is the living and true God and deserves our affections. Anyone therefore, who pursues after idols, demonstrates disdain for God, by foolishly worshipping something of man’s own imagination.

Moreover, as the apostle Paul reminds us, the worship of idols is the worship of devils. Therefore anyone who has anything to do with idol worship cannot participate at the Lord’s Table without incurring God’s jealous wrath. This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:20-22.

I trust that none of us are foolish enough as to worship lifeless idols. But there is another kind of idolatry that we must guard against. Paul teaches us that: "covetousness,… is idolatry" (Col 3:5). If you covet after anything in this world, be it wealth, health, good looks, status, academic results, etc, these things become your idols. "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other" says the Lord Jesus (Mt 6:24). To covet after any worldly thing is idolatry.

He who would ascend unto the hill of the LORD does not lift up his heart unto vanity. He seeks first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. He does not have anything to do with idols and false religions. He does not give priority to the pursuit of material wealth or honour or status. The cares of the world are not his masters because his primary affection is Christ!

iv. Finally, he who would ascend unto the hill of the LORD does not swear deceitfully. That is to say, he does not make empty vows or empty promises. God will have nothing to do with liars because Satan is the father of lies. The child of God makes sure that his yea be yea and nay be nay. He does not speak with equivocation. And if the child of God takes a vow, he will see to it that he keeps the vow. He who "fears the LORD [is] he that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not" (Ps 15:4).

Do you realise how important it is to keep your vows—whether it be your church membership vows or marriage vows? How can we expect to enjoy God’s blessing when we call God to witness our vows, but refuse to do that which we vow? How can we enjoy purity of conscience before God if we know in our heart that we had made some promises to God which we do not intend to keep?

He who would ascend into the hill of the LORD does not swear deceitfully. He does not swear "till death us do part," but mean in his mind is "till problems loom too large us do part." He does not swear to "diligently read the Bible, engage in private prayer, [and] keep the Lord’s Day," but in his mind is "I would read the Bible if I have the time, I will pray if there is nothing else to do and I will keep the Lord’s Day holy provided I have no other appointments."

Dearly beloved brethren, he who would ascend into the hill of the LORD is "He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully." Does this describe you? Yes, as we’ve seen, none of us can fulfil these qualifications 100%. Only Christ our Lord can. But if you would ascend into the hill of the LORD with the Lord Jesus Christ, you must be more like Christ than like the world.

If these 4 qualifications do not describe you, then you can only be described as salt that has lost its saltiness, or light hidden under the bushel! Christ would have no use for you in the world. You would not glorify God, and neither would you enjoy Him. Indeed, if you do not repent of your backsliding, you may find yourself to be one who, instead of ascending the hill of the LORD, is descending into the valley of Hinoam, being deceived by the hardness of your heart.

What then?

3. How can you be sure you will ascend the Hill of the LORD?

It is a most miserable thing to live outwardly as a Christian, but never experience what it is to ascend into the hill of the LORD. Yet the sad reality is that many professing Christians are not really concerned about ascending the hill of the LORD, or about enjoying God. Many of us are much too tied down to earth or earthly to be concerned about ascending into the hill of the LORD! We are glad to know that we are going to heaven, but heaven can wait!

Is that not true? Many of us live our Christian life the way that we would buy computers. We think of Christianity as something not vitally necessary—good to have but no great loss without. And it is something we add on to our lives. And we would pick and choose what components we want to add. Usually it goes like that:

Compulsory item: Attendance at morning service on the Lord’s Day.

Optional add-ons: Evening worship, prayer meeting, family worship, Bible Study, personal prayer and reading, witnessing to colleagues, living according to the Ten Commandments, etc.

I do not know if this is your Christianity. It is the Christianity of many people in this market driven, consumer society. But you know: It is a very sad thing. And I am sad for you if this is your Christianity. Because if your Christianity is like that it is very likely that you have never really experienced ascending into the hill of the LORD or are bothered about ascending into the hill of the LORD.

I say this because those who truly desire to ascend into the hill of the LORD will not want to miss any opportunity of ascending into the hill of the LORD at all.

You know, in this church, we do not emphasize activity. You are not going to be regarded as more holy or less holy by whether you are active in this or that fellowship group. We don’t even have any formal fellowship groups! But we do emphasize worship (morning and evening) on the Lord’s Day, on family worship and corporate prayer at our prayer meeting.

Why do we emphasize these things? We emphasize these things, because it is at such occasions that we particularly glorify and enjoy God. But sadly, many of us in this church,—and indeed, around the world do not seem to realise that. Otherwise why is it,—the majority of professing Christians today think that it is enough to go to church once a week? Oh yes, we all have our reasons for not attending the means or not doing this or that duty. But I quite agree with Pastor Maurice Roberts’ assessment. He says:

The real problem with those who neglect the Prayer Meeting or leave out family worship is that they have no heart for it. This is easy to prove because in every church those who are zealous for Prayer Meetings are zealous for every other form of service to God. We make an exception of some whose work-patterns are an obstacle to regular attendance. But in general it is true to say that attendance at, or non-attendance at, services and Prayer Meetings is all part of a person’s whole life-style. And our life-style is an index as to where our heart really is. This in turn is the thermometer which registers the measure of our spirituality and sanctification… When we are reluctant to attend to family worship or to go to church services, we soon find our hearts forming crafty arguments to say that "we do not believe in family worship or in too much attendance at church meetings."

Is it not amazing that the problems that Christians face are the same everywhere? Whether in Scotland or in Singapore; whether in this church or in other churches. Need I say more? I am urging you to begin family worship and to begin to come for all the appointed means of grace.

I am doing so not because we are concerned about numbers, but because I am concerned about your soul and about your enjoyment of God. Your failure to attend the means or to have family worship is very likely an indication of backsliding. I am not saying it is the case for every one of you, but you must examine your heart, and you really ought to repent if you know that you are backsliding.

Remember that there are two senses in which we ascend into the hill of the LORD. One has to do with our status or our justification; the other has to do with our state or our sanctification. But remember that justification and sanctification cannot be divorced. You cannot have steam but that you boil the water; you cannot boil water, but that you have steam. You cannot have justification but that sanctification follows; you cannot have sanctification, but that you are first justified.

But he who is sanctified will desire more and more of Christ. He will long to ascend into the hill of the LORD. Therefore, if you honestly search you heart and you find that you do not even have a desire to ascend into the hill of the LORD, or to enjoy God, then you must realise that you are in a very precarious spiritual situation.

Oh friends and beloved, if I am describing you, I do not know how you have fallen into that state. But I would urge you not to give yourself any rest until you know where you stand. Plead with the Lord until you be sure that Christ is formed in you. Talk to godly brethren about it, or talk to your pastor. Do not continue to fool yourself because God cannot be fooled.

But secondly, if you find yourself desiring to ascend unto the hill of the LORD, then I would urge you to cultivate those qualifications that the Spirit of God tells us are necessary for us to ascend into the hill of the LORD.

He who would ascend into the hill of the LORD is "He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully."

Have you sinned with your hands? Have you done that which transgressed the Law? Have you omitted to do what is required in the Law? Have you profaned the Sabbath of the LORD? Oh will you not repent of your sin and return to your first works? Review the Law of God. Read the commentary of it in our Larger Catechism, and write out an action plan. What are the things you need to do that you have failed to do? Is there restitution to be made? Is there a change in your way of life needed? Is there a relationship to be restored or broken?

Have you sinned in your heart? Have you been hypocritical in your relationship towards someone? Have you been hypocritical in your religious life? Oh will you not repent of your sin and return to your first love? Pour out your heart to the Lord. Confess your hypocrisy. Plead with the Lord:

"23 Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: 24 And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps 139:23-24).

Have you sinned by way of covetousness or idolatry? Will you not remind yourself again of the vanity of treasuring up things on earth where moth and rust does corrupt? Will you not remind yourself that the strait and narrow gate is too narrow for you to bring earthly baggage through? Unless you learn to put those things behind and seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, you will not begin to enjoy God. Unless you begin to seek after God wholeheartedly you will not begin to enjoy God.

Have you sinned by way of failing to keep your vows? Will you not go through your vows again and see how you may correct your life in order that you may again enjoy Christ with a clear conscience? Whatever your sin may be, you can be sure that unless they are confessed before the Lord and repented of, they will hinder your experience of ascending into the hill of the LORD. Your iniquities will be like a wall separating you and your God. He will not hear your prayers and His face will be hid from you (Isa 59:2).

Yes, there is a remnant of corruption in us, or a bent to sinning which only the Holy Spirit can take away, but that does not make you less responsible when you give in to temptation. Yes, there are such things as secret sins, and God will surely hear when we pray with the psalmist: "Cleanse thou me from secret faults" (Ps 19:12). But that does not mean that you can choose to glide along in ignorance without attempting to ferret out your sins one by one.

If you suddenly discover that you are loosing weight, will you not take the trouble to find out what is the cause and try to correct it? If your Christian life has become mechanical and you no longer experience what it means to ascend into the hill of the LORD, will you not take the trouble to examine your life to see if you are failing in this or that area in your life—especially in the areas that the Holy Spirit lists as qualifications for ascending into the hill of the LORD? Will you not, as you do, so flee to the Lord Jesus? Confess your faults before Him and by faith and repentance cling on to His train that He may lead you to the holy hill of God that you may enjoy God and glorify Him in all aspects of your life as you run the Christian race. W