Yesterday I pointed out that Nahum Sarna in his On the Book of Psalms treated Psalm 24 together with Psalm 15. This was because the two psalms both ask and answer the question of who is worthy to enter the presence of God. However, in Psalm 24 it is really only vs. 3-6 that deal with this.
So for this psalm the problem is to see how the three sections cohere. The first two verses acknowledge YHWH as lord and creator of the earth. Then comes the question about who is worthy. Then in vs. 7-10 there goes up a cry addressed to the gates to admit the “king of glory.”
The 24th Psalm seems to have been a processional hymn or liturgy at one time. The people were moving and passed through “gates”. A prominent theory of the rabbis was that his hymn was composed for Solomon’s bringing of the Ark of the Covenant into his new Temple (1 Kings 8).
Another theory puts the composition back when David first brought the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:12-15).
Still another theory connects the psalm with holy war rituals. The early Israelites took the Ark to battle and then returned it to a shrine. So this psalm might give us a picture of an early Israelite victory procession as the tribal militias returned from battle.
Sarna did not choose between these alternatives. There is really no way to do so. But he did ask why the psalm was preserved, which he thought was a more fruitful question than how it originated. The Ark somehow disappeared before the 2nd Temple. So there would have been no processions carrying it into that Temple.
The fact that this psalm opens with an acclamation of God as creator reminded Sarna that underlying many of the psalms is the old mythology about the victory of God over chaos when the world was created. So the 24th psalm must have been preserved in order to be used in a creation festival.
From the story about Jacob’s dream about a ladder to heaven, the Hebrew Scriptures occasionally referred to a “gate” of heaven. Jewish worshipers conceived of the Temple as a kind of model of creation, with the entrance a sign of the heavenly gate.
So here is how Sarna finally understood the use of Psalm 24:
“. . .Psalm 24 was a liturgy for an annual festival. This explains how it came to be preserved. On that occasion throngs would appear at the Temple, and a ritual would take place at the foot of Mount Zion designed to inculcate the lesson that morality is a religious category of the highest order. God’s kingship is highlighted, and he is conceived as entering the Temple above and below–the two blend imperceptibly. He enters via the “everlasting doors” to ascend His throne of glory and judge the world” (p. 134).
Sarna thought the festival involved was the one that became Rosh Hashanah.
At first I thought that Sarna was getting way out on a speculative limb here. But I looked at the reference to Jacob Psalm 24:6 and then at Genesis 28:17. The gates in Psalm 24:7-9 may indeed have at least partial reference to the Jacob’s “gate of heaven.”