If we understand the historic back story to a popular song it can give us insights into its original meaning in the mind of the composer. During World War II – I know, I’m very old! -it was easy to understand some of the lyrics coming out of our wind-up gramophone, such as:
‘There’ll be blue birds over
the white cliffs of Dover
tomorrow, just you wait and see . . .’
After all, those cliffs are Britain’s nearest point to the continent of Europe where war raged, a war we hoped would end before long, granting freedom to our nation, and bringing home safely our relatives and neighbours who were risking life and limb in the armed forces.
So, before I offer my metrical paraphrase of two songs of King David, Psalms 24 and 15, let’s consider their back story. And it would also be helpful to ask why these songs should convey hope and reassurance to Christian people nowadays.
What that original ‘Ark of the Covenant’ signifies for us
In his original instructions to Moses as he led the nation of Israel, recently rescued from slavery in Egypt, God said that:
The gold-covered ark, overshadowed by the outspread wings of two cherubim, had a pair of ‘carrying poles’ that must ‘never’ be ‘remove[d]’. ‘I will meet with you there and talk to you above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant’ (Exodus 25:10-22; all quotations from the New Living Translation).
Only once a year was the high priest allowed briefly ‘to enter the Most Holy Place behind the inner curtain’ of the portable tabernacle of Moses (see Leviticus 16:1-34). That annual ceremony pointed forward to the Christ event that once-for-all fulfilled that annually repeated Day of Atonement, when ‘the . . . mighty power [of God] . . . raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honour at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms’ (Ephesians 1:20).
What had happened to the Ark in David’s era?
When David was a child he would have heard how that original Ark had been captured by the Philistines and taken into the temple of their god Dagon, where it caused spectacular disruption to their religion (see 1 Samuel 4:1 – 7:2). This persuaded them to send the Ark back to Israel: they placed it carefully on a cart towed by oxen. Back in Israel it remained in a temporary tent out in the countryside for many years until King David, after his many successful battles, decided to bring it home to Israel’s new capital city of Jerusalem. Unwisely, David copied the Philistines’ mobile method of transport and had it moved on a cart pulled by oxen – ignoring its ‘carrying poles’. When the animals stumbled, Uzzah tried to steady the sacred item of furniture with his hand – and was fatally struck by the angry Lord (1 Chronicles 15:3; see also 1 Samuel chapters 4 to 6 and 1 Chronicles 15).
David’s biblical ‘Plan B’!
According to 1 Chronicles chapters 15 and 16: ‘David . . . prepared a place for the Ark of God and set up a special tent for it there’ (15:1). ‘Then’ (15:2) ‘he commanded, “No one except the Levites may carry the Ark “. . .’ in contrast to the Philistine method of putting it on a cart hauled by oxen! ‘David’ the harpist ‘also ordered the Levite leaders to appoint a choir of Levites who were singers and musicians to sing joyful songs’ to the Lord, ‘to the accompaniment of harps, lyres, and cymbals’ (15:16). Psalms 24 and 15 were undoubtedly among the lyrics sung that historic day, for they included ‘gate keepers – Obed-edom (whose house the Ark had been lodged; see Psalm 24:7-10] 1 Chronicles 15: verses 18, 15, 23 margin and 24) ‘and Jeiel’, 1 Chronicles 15 verses 18, 15, 23 margin and 24). With what ‘a great celebration’ they brought the Ark to Jerusalem (also mentioned often in Psalm 87).
Here are my metrical adjustments into English of two of David’s psalms to celebrate that great day when God came home – after years of warfare.
- Yahweh owns the earth and all that fills it;
earth’s society and all its inhabitants.
- He laid its foundation upon the seas,
and planted its form on ocean’s currents.
- But which of them dares climb Yahweh’s mount
with the right to stand in his sacred space?
- One with blameless behaviour and pure motives;
who has not paid homage to a worthless idol,
nor taken an oath with intent to deceive.
- He will receive a blessing from Yahweh,
and vindication from the God of deliverance.
- Of such a kind are those who seek him.
who seek the face of your God, O Jacob.
[Pause, and let that sink in. And let the choir respond.]
7 and 9 Gates, raise your arches
Rise, ancient doors,
Welcome the glorious King.
8a and 10a Who is this glorious King?
Yahweh, strong and able;
8b Yahweh, who’s battle mighty!
10b He is Yahweh Sabaoth –
commander of all heaven’s armies –
the glorious King is he.
[Pause to let all that sink in]
- O Yahweh,
Who has the right to enter your tent
or live on your holy hill?
- The one behaving without blame,
habitually doing what is right,
speaking from the heart;
- Who never utters a treacherous word,
never defrauds any friend,
never slanders any acquaintance.
- The one who despises the reprobate,
and honours all who fear the Lord;
One who’ll keep a promise
even to his own discomfort;
one who’ll not retract a promise.
- One taking no interest on a loan,
who is not to be bribed against the innocent;
He who so lives will stand firm forever.