Paul F. Evans
GATES OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
The fact that gates are spoken of here, means that there is an entry to be gained. But an entry to what? What sort of entrance is to be gained? The gates are described as gates of righteousness, which is the characteristic manifestation of God to his creation. God is holy and righteous, above everything else . When we see God, experience God, know God, walk with God, love God and fellowship with God, it is always under the shadow of his righteousness. There is no compromise to be had, no negotiation. His righteousness is absolute, and he requires righteousness from those who enter into fellowship with him. Righteousness is the absolute moral and spiritual purity of God, that John describes a light, saying that God is light, absolute moral purity, and there is no darkness in him at all (1 John 1:5). In order to have fellowship with God, to experience his presence and to know him, his people must walk in light, righteousness or moral purity (1 John 1:7). Righteousness is a condition for fellowship with God! God will disown the persistently unrighteous, while he will cleanse and forgive the repentant sinner, and by his grace establish righteousness of heart and of action (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; 2 Cor. 3:3). In another place the psalmist asks who may approach the Lord, and he answers his own question with the assertion that only those with a pure heart (inward moral and spiritual purity) and he who has clean hands (whose behavior is moral and upright before God) (Psalm 15; 44).
The entry to be gained in this psalm is into the presence of God, to have fellowship or communion with him. It is to enter his presence for worship, which is an interactive activity between God and his people, in which both communicate with one another and enjoy the interchange and fellowship. As hard as it is for us to comprehend, there is a joy and satisfaction to be gained by God when he engages in fellowship with his people. Isaiah speaks of God acting like a bridegroom, rejoicing over his bride (Isa. 62:5). The picture is of God exulting over his redeemed and pure people, joined to him in covenant, pure and righteous in his sight, fully acceptable to him and gloriously joined to him in fellowship! Just as the pure and chaste virgin brings exultant joy to her bridegroom, because she is the love of his life, and she has devoted herself him in purity and covenant, so God rejoices over his righteous people, joined to him in covenant, for the purpose of everlasting fellowship! But the fellowship cannot proceed without righteousness. Without purity the fellowship cannot even begin and no entry can be gained into the presence of God that does not first come through the gates of righteousness. This means that those who approach God must first accept his salvation, in which forgiveness and moral-spiritual cleansing is offered to the sinner. It is through repentance and faith that God cleanses his people and establishes righteousness in them. Invariably in the Old Testament, when the worshipper approached God, he must do so with the blood of a sacrifice, signifying cleansing from sin, and the requirement of God for righteousness in the worshipper.
The worshipper could not come on his own merits before God or into his presence, but must come with a sacrifice, trusting the grace of God to supply forgiveness and cleansing. Once a year this was enshrined in a feast called the Day of Atonement, whereby the high priest would offer blood on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant. This sacrifice covered the rationale for all other sacrifices, which once offered provided forgiveness because atonement had been offered to God in acknowledgement of sin, and the need for his mercy and forgiveness. The writer of Hebrews picks up on this Old Testament worship ritual, and declares that the blood of bulls and goats could not cleanse the conscience of the worshipper from sin, but that Christ offered himself once and for all to atone for the sins of the sinner and to cleanse him from moral impurity in the sight of God (Heb. 10:1-18). It was by faith in the promise of God that the Old Testament worshipper found grace, forgiveness and cleansing, because God had promised redemption, of which the sacrifices in the law were merely a foreshadowing. So the writer of Hebrews says that now we can come boldly before the throne of God’s grace in a new living way, right into the presence of God, not stopping at the veils, because through the blood of Christ, God has once and for all established atonement, leading to forgiveness and righteousness in the hearts and lives of his people (Heb. 10:19-22). The entrance into the presence of God to hold communion with him, that the writer of Hebrews speaks of, is based on the cleansing that comes from the blood of Christ, and the righteousness established in the worshipper and on his behalf by Christ’s sacrifice, so that he is declared pure in the eyes of God, and in his own conscience, heart and body! He may come beyond the veil into the very presence of God, because in Jesus’ death the veil was torn, and the way to God’s presence laid wide open to all who will believe. There is an entrance into the presence of God and it is through the gates of righteousness that have been opened by the sacrifice of Christ.
This is the last of the Egyptian Hallel Psalms, a groups of psalms that exalt the theme, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good!” The word hallel means to praise or can mean give thanks! The focus of the procession, of the festival, of the feasts, of the celebration is praise to God, and giving thanks to him in particular. The reason for giving thanks to God is that he is good to his people! His providence, blessings, mercy and salvation are all poured out upon them in such away that they are supremely benefited by God. In response, God’s people can do nothing be reder grateful praise and to bring their devotion, worship and honor before him, through the gates of righteousness and into his presence, under the shadow of his glory in the temple!
The picture here is of the people of God coming to Jerusalem in joyful festival procession from their towns to worship God on the important feast days (cf. Ps. 68:24; 118:27). The worship leader is at the head of the procession, be it the king or a priest, as they approach the gates of righteousness (Gaebelein, Frank E. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: with the New International Version, Psalms Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991, 773). It is the worship leader that calls out on behalf of the worshippers, “Open the gates of Righteousness, and let God’s worshipping people in!” They are approaching the temple to worship God, to come into his presence, to fellowship with God. As they come before the gates of the temple, they call for them to open, recognizing that only the righteous may enter there to come under the shadow of the Almighty! Just as Israel journeyed under the shadow of the cloud and light of the pillar of fire in the wilderness, now they are invited to come into the presence of God, under the shadow of his glory that dwells in the temple, enthroned as king over Israel! But there is only entrance and communion for the righteous. the unrighteous are not only not welcome, they are excluded from coming through the gates into the presence of God to experience his glory and to enjoy fellowship with him. The reference to the stone that builders rejected, that it has become the chief corner stone of the temple, reminds us of Christ (Isa. 19:13; Matt. 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7) . He was rejected by Israel in God’s building of his kingdom, but has become the chief cornerstone of the temple that God is building as a habitation for him through his Spirit (cf. Eph 2:11-22). He has already gone through the veil into heaven carrying the blood of a more perfect sacrifice for sin, in order to cleanse the sinner (Phil 2:9-11; Heb. 9:24-26; 10:12). It is Jesus that lead the triumphant procession of the redeemed and cries out “Open the Gates of righteousness.” He has risen and led captivity captive, and ascended to God the Father (Eph. 4:8-10), in anticipation of leading a procession of saints made righteous through his sacrifice, into the very presence of God, to worship and abide in fellowship with him forever (1 Cor. 15:20; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Rev. 19)! But there is a sense that through worship and fellowship with God, we are bidden by Christ to enter his gates, and to come before the throne of God regularly and often. The gates of righteousness are open because he is our salvation, and he has presented the blood of his own sacrifice at the throne of God’s grace and mercy!
So when the righteous gain entry what is the appropriate approach to God? How do we enter his presence once the gates have been open to us? Thanksgiving! The psalmist says that he will enter the open gates. There is no hesitancy. He had come for that purpose, to enter the presence of God, to come under the shadow of the Almighty, so that now the gates are opened through the mercy of God, he will come into God’s presence, under the light of his glory. Like Isaiah in the temple, the glory of the Lord fills his house and the worshipper is enveloped by it and becomes totally conscious of God’s holiness and his own uncleanness in comparison to the purity of God (Isa. 6). And all the worshipper can do is confess and worship! Throw himself upon God for mercy and cleansing! The worshipper comes to praise God, and to give thanks, because that is all he can do, because min recognizing his own sin, God has become his salvation (Ps. 118:21)! This is literally yeshuah which is how the name of Jesus is rendered in the New Testament; the Lord is salvation (cf. Ps. 27:1). His sin has been forgiven, his wickedness cleansed, his life sanctified by God… there is nothing to do but worship, praise and give thanks! That is all that is appropriate! So it is for thanksgiving we enter the gates of righteousness, nothing else – to render to God the praise of a grateful heart, to rejoice and exult over him whose grace has redeemed us and who desires fellowship with us! Thanks-giving, that is giving thanks to God, is the only appropriate thing to when we come before God, boldly into his presence. All of our petitions and prayers, requests and intercession follow our giving thanks to God. Paul said let you petitions be made known to God with thanksgiving (Phil 4:6; 1 Thess. 5:18; 1 Tim. 2:1).
Psalm 100:4 is probably one of the most famous of the psalms, with its references to entering the gates of God with thanksgiving and the court with praise. “It may originally have been a psalm for bringing a thank-offering” (Knowles, A. (2001). The Bible guide (1st Augsburg books ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg). The first thing to notice is that the call goes out to all of the earth to enter into the courts of God to worship him (The Pulpit Commentary: Psalms Vol. II. 2004 (H. D. M. Spence-Jones, Ed.). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software). Literally to all people who populate the earth (Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (2002). Commentary on the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson). The temple was the place for Jewish worship, where God’s chosen people came to worship him. But here the psalmist anticipates the doors of the temple being thrown open to all people, all nations. They are not only invited to worship God, but like his people to come before him. The worship of God begins with the invitation from God to come before him. But how do you approach God?
The pattern of the psalm is interesting.
A A Call to Come and Worship (1, 2)
B Celebration or Reason to Worship (3)
A’ A Call to Come and Worship (4)
B’ Celebration or Reason to Worship (5)
The arrangement of the psalm is significant because the repetition is reinforcing the urgency and need to worship God. The reason for the urgency is given in two parallel sections or strophes (3, 5). Because of God’s covenant love toward his people, acting as a shepherd would toward the sheep, providing for them, guiding them and protecting them, his people should declare his praise, voice it, express it (3). The worshipper should also exalt and worship God because of the extent of his protection and provision, of his love and mercy. They are all permanent, unshakable and unending; they are enduring (5). The worshipper has entered into a permanent and enduring covenant with God where there is mercy, protection and provision.
There are two things that the psalmist mentions to those who approach God. They are to come to worship before him with gladness and joyful songs. Coming before God, into his presence is a matter for exuberance and celebratory praise. There is no room for the gloomy Gus in worship, or before the throne of God! It is also a matter for confidence in God. We are to know YAHWEH is God (v. 2)! That is the creator and sustainer of the heaven and earth, the mighty God of Israel’s past, the God of miracles and power, is LORD. He is the God of covenant, of relationship. It is because of and to experience his covenant love (hesed – v. 5) that we come before God in worship, because inevitably the experience will result in a flow of intimacy in both directions (Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers). This is truly the origin of Reverse the Flow confidence when we pray! When we come before him we can be sure of a welcome and enthusiastic greeting, of acceptance and delight in our approach. We do not have to fear being turned away.
We are the sheep of his pasture. We are his people. he has redeemed us. He has become our shepherd. He cares for us, tends to us, protects us. We are his, and he wants us to come confidently before him. he is not aloof, but accessible, ready to share love and grace, to express mercy and to encourage us. There is not end to his faithfulness. It continues to all generations. He can be relied upon and trusted not to fail or change his mind. We can count on him fulfilling his promises and following through on his covenant with us. He is also good, so that we do not need to fear evil from our God! His actions toward us will always be good and for our benefit and blessing. His actions spring from and eternal love he has for us that is as reliable as his faithfulness. God is favorably disposed toward those he has created. he has a genuine desire for fellowship and relationship with us, because of a great and eternal love that desire to be united with us in fellowship.
So how should we approach God? The psalmist suggests that we approach him with thanksgiving and praise. Our approach to God should be one of gratitude because of his grace and generosity to us, the blessings, protection, provision and place of refuge in his will and under his shadow (Psalm 91). Thanksgiving requires that gratitude be expressed by speaking (Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc). The Hebrew, yada, literally means to offer recognition and declaration of praise, and is a synonym for praise (hallel) that follows. In verse three the worshippers are to “know” the LORD is God, or literally to declare it (Gaebelein, Frank, Gen. Ed. The Expositors’ Bible Commentary: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991)! Thanksgiving literally means to give thanks to God, by giving expression to gratitude from a heart that is stirred with a sense of thankfulness toward him. It is not enough to be moved to be moved to gratitude, or to go through the motions. Gratitude has to come from a genuine sense of thankfulness in our hearts and it must be expressed to God with our mouths, not merely internalized. If we enter the presence of God, we should do so at first expressing gratitude. It is appropriate to express thankfulness to God as we approach him. We should also praise him. Praise means to rehearse and give expression to our sense of wonder of who God is and all he has done for us. Praise it to exalt in the wonder of the greatness of God, to give outward, enthusiastic, expression to our deep wonder and excitement about God. It is an act of rejoicing in God for who he is and what he means to us. Praise is personal, but it finds its best and most satisfying expression in the company of others who are equally excited about expressing their wonder about God.
Obviously the psalmist is using the annual pilgrimages of the Israelites to Jerusalem to worship at the temple as an analogy for devotion and worship of God. The invitation to approach God, is an invitation to enter into fellowship or covenant with him, to become involved in relationship and to offer devotion and worship. Metaphorically worship can be conceived as approaching God in his temple, or entering into his presence, as one would appropriately enter the presence of a king, first into his place grounds and then into his courts or throne room. As the Israelites would come up from their towns in joyful procession to worship, they would be singing the psalms if praise (hallel). At the gates of the temple the cry goes up from the worship leader, “Open the gates of righteousness, so that the saints may enter!” (Psalm 118:19-20). In this psalm the worshippers enter with thanksgiving, expressing gratitude to God. But the journey is not complete until they have reached a place of intimacy with God, until they have come into his courts, where the altar is and where the priests are ministering, where the activity of worship is occurring. It is in these courts that periodically the glory of God spilled out and the people were bathed in God’s presence. There they are to offer praise, render before God joyful expressions of wonder and excitement about him, to rejoice in him and their covenant with him, their relationship with the creator of the whole earth who has joined himself to them as their shepherd, protector and guide!
There is parallelism in verse 4. To enter his gates with thanksgiving and to enter his courts with praise are two almost synonymous ideas. They are expressions of intention, that the worshipper will worship God appropriately. This a poetic way of calling the worshipper to worship before God. There is a sense that this parallelism is progressive. To enter the gates and the courts is to come closer, to progress toward greater intimacy with God! The psalmist probably is alluding to the pilgrimage, so the idea is that the worshipper is finding a himself drawn into close fellowship with God bit by bit, as he engages himself in devotion toward God. He begins with thanksgiving, expressing the gratitude that he genuinely feels in his heart toward god or all that God mens to him and has done for him. But thanksgiving turns to praise… to sheer wonder at God and who he is. Praise erupts, because thanksgiving gives way to praise as gratitude gives way to wonder and adoration of God.
The New Testament offers a third location for the worshipper to go, in his journey into the presence of God, the throne room (cf. Heb. 4:14-16). Because the veil has been torn (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45), the New Testament teaches that the believer has the opportunity for at a greater intimacy with God. The worshipper no longer has to stop at the Holy Place, but is invited through the Spirit to worship God in his very presence, figuratively in the Holy of Holies (Heb. 10:19-22). The worshipper in the New Testament is able to experience God as only the priests and high priests did, and a few chosen leaders in the Old Testament. Through the Spirit the fullness of God’s power and fellowship is made real to every disciple of Jesus Christ. We are not longer stopping at the courts but we can enter the throne room of god through prayer and faith to talk intimately with him and to hear him speaking personally to us.
If thanksgiving and praise are appropriate to coming before God, as far as the courts, what is appropriate when we approach him beyond the veil? The writer of Hebrews mentions three things. First, bold confidence in God and our salvation through Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:16; 10:22). This is not arrogance but confidence that we are cleansed and forgiven, and that the invitation to come before God is real and genuine, that God will receive us with grace when we come. We are sure that we will not be turned away, as they were in the Old Testament, forbidden to come close! We are invited close in! We are to come seeking God’s grace and mercy, to expect his provision and power, his sustaining and encouraging word and help (Heb. 4:16). We find a God involved with us not aloof, and unapproachable. We should come in sincerity, not falsely, flippantly, nonchalantly or without due reverence (Heb. 10:22). Our approach to God should be genuine and real, honest and deliberate. And we are to come sanctified, our hearts sprinkled with the blood and washed in the water of the word (Heb. 10:22). We cannot come before God with unresolved guilt and sin in our lives.