Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. Psalm 118.19-21.
The “gates of righteousness” here are the “ancient doors” of Psalm 24.7 — “Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” They were the temple gates that led respectively from the Court of the Gentiles to the Court of the Women (the one known in Jesus’ time as the Beautiful Gate), and from the Court of the Women (so-called because no woman could go beyond it) to the Court of Israel (the one known in Jesus’ time as the Nicanor Gate); and they were called “the gates of righteousness” because they were shut against all who were not covenant people … “the circumcision” as Paul calls them (Ephesians 2.11). Anyone could enter the outer court — the Court of the Gentiles; but no gentile could proceed beyond that court on pain of death.
By having the gates open to him, however, and being able to walk through them without challenge, the psalmist knew himself to be accepted as righteous, a child of God, an heir of salvation. He could go forward rejoicing in God. He could “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100.4).
Many times, Jesus himself would pass through those gates (which were really massive ornate doors) and many times he must have recited to himself this morning’s verses as he did so. So I wonder if they were in his mind as he said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10.9). In John 10, Jesus has been talking about being the gate to the sheepfold but in John 10.9 his thought seems to have moved to the temple and he seems to be echoing the words of this morning’s reading.
In point of fact, the doors of the temple were the earthly symbolic counterpart of the “gate of heaven” (Genesis 28.17). It was a common idea that heaven was closed off to earth by gates or doors. In the imagery of Psalm 78.23, those gates had to be opened so that God could drop the manna, the heavenly bread, to the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. And those gates would, of course, like the temple gates, only ever be open to those who were worthy of entry. It is imagery that Jesus uses in several of his parables.
Once I see that Jesus is this “gate … that leads to life” (Matthew 7.14) … this “door standing open in heaven” (Revelation 4.1), I see that “the gates of righteousness” have a double meaning. They are gates that are righteous in themselves because they represent Jesus who alone is “the Righteous One” (Acts 3.14) and who alone is the only one who was ever really entitled to pass through the gates of the temple in Jerusalem. And they are gates that actually make righteous those who pass through them in faith. Apart from Jesus there is “no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3.10), but to us “who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead”, God “credits righteousness” (Romans 4.24) so that we may pass through his gates too. Like Paul, I enter “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3.9).
Thank you, Lord Jesus, that through you … the door, the gates of righteousness … I can enter the Father’s presence this morning. Thank you that you have become my salvation. Amen.