The sound and the sense of Song 24 suggest a pageant. In contrast to the personal tone of Song 23, Song 24’s is formal, dominated by rhetorical questions and answers, as though two voices, or, more probably, two choruses are meant to sing the roles of questioner and responder.
The song begins with a declaration of allegiance: all of earth belongs to its creator —
The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness (v. 1)
The very word “fullness” connotes creativity, abundance.
The verse following explains the reason for the fullness; its source is God who “on the seas did found it, and on the torrents set it firm” (v. 2) — a re-iteration of the description in Genesis of God’s creation of the earth, of the initial separating of the firmament and the waters. The song’s concern is not with the act of separation or with the waters, but with the firmness of the earth; though its foundation is the torrents, it is, nonetheless, solid and its characteristic of stability the opposite of the churning motion of the waters.
Having established the undissolvable connection between God and the earth, the song adds a second theme — one melody leading to another. Verses 3 to 6 describe the qualities that the individual must possess in seeking God’s presence:
The clean of hands and the pure of heart,
who has given no oath in a lie
and has sworn not in deceit. (v. 4)
Those qualities are three: hands and heart, both must be pure; the “and” making clear that action and intent are joined, one the equivalent of the other. The stipulation to give no oath “in a lie”, nor “in deceit”, gives the third essential element –mouth; speech, acts, thoughts, all must correspond.
The image of the mountain in verse 3 introduces the theme that will dominate the rest of the song, that of humankind ascending, and God descending; their meeting-point possible only through those pure enough to be counted among the generation of seekers who venerate Jacob, he who is, afterall, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel:
Who shall go up on the mount of the Lord,
and who shall stand up in His holy place? (v. 3)
Those pure ones will receive God’s blessing and reward:
This is the generation of His seekers,
those who seek out His presence, O Jacob. (v. 6)
The final four verses of the song add a third theme, a melody in which the chorus divides into questioner and responder. The symbols of gates and portals join that of the mountain; indeed, earth, in its fullness, shows its readiness to rise up to greet Adonai: the Creator, the Ruler, the Warrior — all aspects of sovereignty — is hailed, proclaimed, beseeched to enter:
Lift up your heads, O gates,
and rise up, eternal portals,
that the king of glory may enter. (v. 7)
“Lift”, “rise” are the verbs of the earth’s greeting; “may enter”, the bounty that the king of glory bestows — the “may” expressive of the singer’s humble hopefulness.
Song 24 is recited during Monday, Thursday and Sunday services, when the Torah is returned to the Ark. The praisesong chosen for its appropriateness, for the Ark, the repository of God’s teachings, is the material embodiment of the gates, portals and mountain, the symbols of the people Israel’s responsiveness to God. Accordingly, it is also the praisesong sung in the High Holidays along with the prayer for sustenance.
A midrash from Talmud Shabbat (p. 30) emphasizes how essential a place this praisesong must have, not only in Jewish prayer, but, indeed, in its religious pageantry: when King Solomon prepared to open the gates of the Temple –the first Temple, his construction — to allow the Ark to enter for the first time, the gates refused to lift. Only when he recited his father’s song, song 24, verses 7 to 10, did the gates rise up, permitting the bearers of the Ark to bring it into the Temple.