Psalm 24: Heads up

Ephesus: looks like bits of this gate have already been lifted.

‘Clean hands, pure heart’ (4)

Psalm 24 appears to be a gradual or entrance song, as the people ascend to the ‘hill of God’. It opens by declaring divine ownership of the creation, then asks who then can enter the holy places?

The answer, of course, is “those with clean hands and a pure in heart”. Verse 6 brings the additional insight that this might include whose who seek the ‘face’, the presence and influence of the God of Jacob.

The psalm then goes on to the familiar “Lift up your heads, O ye gates” section, made popular in some old hymns and in Handel’s rousing chorus in The Messiah.


Half way through the second half of G F Händel’s oratorio The Messiah we hear:

Lift up your heads O ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors and the King of Glory shall come in …

‘Lift up your heads’, chorus in 1902 Novello edition of Handel’s The Messiah

Händel chose to use this text from Psalm 24 antiphonally. A melodious trio by women’s voices (SSA) introduces these lines quite sweetly; mens’ voices then come in asking: ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ to be answered by the women: ‘The Lord strong and mighty’.

By page 3, the combined chorus is in full swing — a harbinger of more fiery music to come as Handel moves towards Psalm 2 with two later choruses, Why do the nations so furiously rage? and the energetic Let us break their bonds asunder.

If all that sounds familiar, you may also be thinking of the old hymn ‘Ye gates lift up your heads on high’ in various hymn books, including TiS 12 but also the old Scottish psalters, to the tune ST. GEORGE. In this venerable arrangement, the men again get to sing: ‘But who of glory is the king?’

Leaping a couple of centuries ahead, we find more antiphonal settings in both PFAS and TEP:

  • PFAS 24E is a setting of an Israeli tune (279 in TiS) The king of glory comes, the nation rejoices, with different words following the psalm text
  • Everett in The Emergent Psalter has used his typically innovative harmonies to write a simple but effective response with two lines that can be sung by two halves of the hall. In local practice, verses have been adapted to sing to the same tune — thereby making it both responsorial and antiphonal!
Domini est terra, et plenitudo ejus / The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is.’ Ps 24 in the Rutland Bible, c.1260 CE. British Library MS 62925

A different setting, which incidentally has an ascending trajectory, using the same text:

Cantor: Who shall ascend to the hill of God?
Response: Those with clean hands and a pure heart. (vs 3, 4)

Verses are sung to a tone which is drawn directly from the tune and harmonies, without the rhythm. Ps24 music here>

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