This psalm is attributed to David. Of the significant events in his life relating to this composition would be the transfer of the ark of the covenant to Mount Zion. Among ancient cities, Jerusalem (or Zion) alone is called the “city of the great King.” (Matthew 5:35) The comments that follow take these factors into consideration.
The earth and all its bounty and those residing on the cultivated or developed land belong to YHWH, indicating that David recognized him as the Maker of everything. Based on its paralleling tevél (which can designate the cultivated or developed areas of the land), ’érets (earth) is doubtless to be understood as designating the land. This is confirmed by the fact that the psalmist spoke of it as being founded upon the sea and established upon the rivers. The land lies above the sea and rivers, giving the appearance that it is upon the sea (likely meaning the Mediterranean Sea) and upon the rivers.
YHWH’s hill evidently is Mount Zion. The question as to who would be able to ascend and stand in his holy place pertains to those who would make their ascent as his approved servants and stand as such at the sacred site. In David’s time, this would have been in the vicinity of the tent where the ark had been transferred.
Approved worshipers would be persons who had not misused their hands in lawless ways. Their actions would have been upright. In their heart, in their deep inner selves, they would be pure, free of deceit, jealousy, hatred and other base attitudes and motivations.
The upright person would not lift up God’s soul to vanity or worthlessness and would not make himself guilty of deceit when swearing. Lifting up “his soul” (God’s soul) may be understood to mean taking up God’s name in vain (as when swearing to a lie). A number of translations convey this basic meaning—“hath not taken My name in vain” (Margolis) and “has not taken a false oath by My life” (Tanakh). Numerous translations, like the Septuagint and the Vulgate, read “his” (not “my”). Regarding shav’ (vanity, emptiness, worthlessness) as meaning “idol” in this context, certain translators have rendered the Hebrew as “who does not lift up his soul to an idol” (NIV), “who are not devoted to idols” (NAB), and “don’t worship idols” (CEV).
The upright person is assured of YHWH’s blessing, which would include aid in time of need and the enjoyment of contentment and inner tranquility from having him as the unfailing source of security. For upright ones to be recipients of “righteousness” or “mercy” (LXX) would mean that they could always expect YHWH to respond to them as he has revealed himself to be—a just, merciful, and loving God. As the God of deliverance, he would come to their rescue.
Persons who are pure in deed, word, and motivation or attitude belong to the “generation” of those seeking YHWH, striving to live in a manner he approves. They would be seeking his face by conducting themselves in a way acceptable to him, allowing them to approach him as approved persons. Of all peoples then inhabiting the developed land areas, solely the descendants of Jacob recognized YHWH as the only God. Therefore, the psalmist’s designation “God of Jacob” was fitting.
At this point, the psalm focuses on the procession that brought the ark to Zion. By means of the ark, the symbol of his royal presence, YHWH was about to enter the gates of the ancient city, with a history dating back to the patriarchs. Those gates were told (likely by the priests carrying the ark), “Lift up your heads,” that is, elevate your height. Because the city was ancient, the entrances were also old, and so could be called “ancient entrances,” paralleling the designation “gates.” The reason for inviting these gates or ancient entrances (as a poetic figure of speech) to raise their height, enlarging the opening, was to admit the glorious personage, the great King YHWH.
In reply, apparently the guards stationed at the gates asked, “Who is this glorious King?” The answer from those in the procession (probably, more specifically, the priests transporting the ark), “YHWH strong and mighty, YHWH mighty in battle.” This was a fitting response, for David would have given YHWH the credit for the victory over the Jebusites that paved the way for making Zion the royal residence. Moreover, David would have acknowledged YHWH as having granted him two victories over the Philistines that frustrated their attempts to unseat him as king ruling from Zion. (2 Samuel 5:6-25)
Adding emphasis to the impressiveness of the event, a practically identical version of the refrain is repeated. The glorious King is identified as YHWH of hosts, the One under whose direction powerful forces of angels serve.
In the Septuagint, the superscription is longer. Depending on the manuscripts, the addition could mean “for the first of the week” or “for the first of the sabbaths.”
The apostle Paul quoted from Psalm 24:1 (23:1, LXX) to show that believers could eat meat sold in the meat market, “for” the earth and all that fills it are the Lord’s. (1 Corinthians 10:25, 26) With the exception of “for” (needed to link Paul’s statement to the quotation), the words are the same as in the Septuagint.
The Septuagint (in verse 4) is more specific regarding the kind of swearing—“he did not swear with deceit to his fellow.”
The expression “selah,” at the end of verse 6, comes at a point where there is a distinct change in subject matter. It is rendered diápsalma in the Septuagint, which may designate a pause or a musical interlude.
In verses 7 and 9, the rulers or leaders (according to the Septuagint) are to lift up the gates. Apparently the Septuagint translator understood the Hebrew term for “heads” to signify chiefs, leaders, or rulers, and not the top part of the gates.
While the Masoretic Text includes “selah” at the end of this psalm, the Septuagint does not.
For details about the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.