David J. Larsen on Celestial Ascent in the Old Testament, Provo City Center Temple Open House Lecture Series

solomon's temple

As part of our Provo City Center Temple Open House Lecture Series, David J. Larsen will be presenting on Temple Themes in the Psalms and the Book of Mormon. As a teaser, here is a post excerpted from his paper, The Order of the House of God: Ancient Practices and Modern Experiences. (Shared with permission.)

…The idea of priests and/or kings and others having to pass through gates guarded by gatekeepers to enter into the temple is arguably found in the Old Testament as well. In a paper I gave last year at the Temple on Mount Zion Conference, sponsored by the Interpreter Foundation, I spoke about Psalm 24 and how we can find in that psalm what appears to be a dialogue between a group of individuals in a procession desiring to ascend to the temple and the guardians of the temple gates. The participants in the procession apparently have YHWH at their head and request for the gates/doors to be opened so that YHWH and company can enter. The guardians ask questions regarding the identity of the leader of the group that desires entry. Many scholars have divided up verses 7-10 of Psalm 24 into a hypothetical dialogue between the members of the procession and the guardians of the gates.

Procession: Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.

Guardians: Who is this King of glory?

Procession: YHWH strong and mighty, YHWH mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.

Guardians: Who is this King of glory?

Procession: YHWH of hosts, he is the King of glory.

Craig C. Broyles, a Psalms scholar and professor at Trinity Western, speculates on some points of detail in this exchange:

…The name of God [is] used as a ‘password’ through the gates …

In the psalm’s closing sections (vv. 7-10) [YHWH] is celebrated under a new name [‘the king of glory] (‘new’ because it is apparently unknown to the respondents in vv. 8a, 10a’).[11]

The concept of passing through guardians of gates as one ascends to the heavenly temple can be found in Jewish literature many centuries later as well. The concept is found particularly explicit in a body of texts known as the Hekhalot literature (“hekhalot” meaning “palaces” or “temples,” referring to the various levels of heaven that one must travel through to reach the throne of God). Commenting on a text from the Jewish Hekhalot literature, James Davila, professor at the University of St Andrews, explains:

The Hekhalot Rabbati contains a long passage in which R. Nehuniah ben HaQanah instructs his disciples on how to undertake a heavenly ascent … The practitioner is to carry out ritual actions, recite divine names, give the proper passwords to the angels at each level of the ascent, and he will be welcomed in the divine throne room where he can take his place with the angels to recite the celestial liturgy before the throne of God…[12]

William Hamblin has commented on the same body of literature, further specifying that the names of divine beings constitute the passwords that are to be given. He states:

To move between the various sections or hekhalot of the celestial temple, the visionary initiate must pass through a series of doors or gates, each guarded by angels.

As the visionary ascends into heaven, he is often paralyzed with terror and confusion. He is able to progress from level to level only through the assistance of angelic guides who protect the visitor and explain what he is seeing. The assistance of the angels is not guaranteed, however. Some of the angels encountered in the ascent to the celestial temple oppose the admission of a mortal into the heavenly sanctuary. They will allow the visionary to pass only if he knows the proper passwords—often secret names of the angels—and has the proper tokens or seals. ‘All the different versions of the Hekhaloth lay great emphasis upon the knowledge of various seals (khotemoth) described as magical names either of the angels or of aspects of the godhead, that must be shown as passports to the gate-keepers at the entrances to the seven palaces.’[13]

Some have suggested that Jesus’ saying, in John 14:2, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” has some relationship to the traditions behind the hekhalot literature. As a side note, 2 Nephi 9:41 indicates that Jehovah, or Christ himself, is, ultimately, the guardian of the gate to heaven. Note the emphasis on knowing his name.

O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name.

The motif of passing by guardians of the gates is known in early Christian literature as well. The apocryphal Christian text First Apocalypse of James (31:2 – 34:20) depicts Jesus sharing with his brother, James, what James must do after he is martyred in order to pass by the archons/powers that aggressively guard the way into heaven. There are specific ways that James is to identify himself when questioned by the angelic guards.

James, behold, I shall reveal to you your redemption. When you are seized, and you undergo these sufferings, a multitude (of archons) will arm themselves against you that they may seize you … Not only do they demand toll, but they also take away souls by theft. When you come into these powers, one of them who is their guard will say to you, “Who are you and where are you from?” You say to them, “I am a Son, and I am from the Father.” He will say to you, “What sort of son are you, and to what other do you belong?” You say to him, “I am from the Preexistent Father, and a son of the Preexistent One” … When he says to you, “Where will you go?” you are to say to him, “To the place from which I have come, there shall I return.” And if you say these things, you will escape their attack.

Another pseudepigraphal text from the early Christian period, the Ascension of Isaiah, describes the journey of the prophet Isaiah through the various levels of heaven. In the text (7:25), Isaiah explains how “the glory of my appearance was undergoing transformation as I ascended to each heaven in turn.” In essence, his appearance changed at each level of heaven in order to match the glory of that kingdom. Isaiah has an angelic guide who helps him pass through each gate. At the gate to the highest heaven, the guardian impedes Isaiah’s progress and he requires help from the Lord himself to pass through. When Isaiah reaches the highest heaven, he is allowed to view “the garments, and the thrones, and the crowns which are laid up for the righteous” (8:26). He undergoes a final transformation so that he becomes like an angel in appearance and can participate in the praise and worship of God along with the other heavenly beings.

Following Robert Hall’s conclusions regarding the text, The Ascension of Isaiah presents us with the idea that each heaven is guarded by a gatekeeper and that these gatekeepers require a password for passage through the gate to the next heaven.  It also indicates that if the traveler does not know the password, and angel or the Lord himself can help him pass through. Only the Lord can ultimately allow passage through the gates of the highest heaven.  The reason that there are gatekeepers, Hall implies, is to prevent an individual from obtaining a glory for which he is not authorized.[14]


To hear more about this topic as it relates to the Book of Mormon don’t miss David’s lecture on Temple Themes in the Psalms & the Book of Mormon, which is part of our Provo City Center Temple Open House Lecture Series.