The modern reader is at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to the metaphorical description of the “gates” of hell. Metaphors often draw from lived experience, and most modern cities no longer have gates in any literal sense. The word “gates” no longer immediately triggers the same set of associations for us as it would have for an ancient reader. Ancient cities needed protection from their surroundings, and so most cities end up with some sort of surrounding wall (Deut. 3:5). The gates of these walls act as a centralized entry and exit location, and this in turn makes them a suitable place to meet and converse (2 Sam. 15:2; Ps. 69:12), a central marketplace (2 Kings 7:1), a spot for public announcements and legal proclamations (Ruth 4), and the prime location for community gatherings and celebrations (Judg. 5:11). In short, the “town center” or “public square” in the ancient world usually was not in the center of town but on the edge of town, at its gates. The gate thus symbolizes the city itself; it represents the people, culture, status, prominence, and life of the city. Thus, when God promises His people safety and security and peace and prosperity, He is promising them a city with high walls and strong gates (Rev. 21:9–27).
It’s interesting, then, that the picture God paints for us of the heavenly city has its gates thrown wide open. “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in” (Ps. 24:7). The psalmist is speaking of God’s sanctuary here, describing it as a kind of city. When the King comes into the city, the gates are opened wide to receive Him. The tone is celebratory and victorious. “The Lord of hosts” has entered the city (Ps. 24:10); He will protect its walls and secure its safety. Revelation is even more emphatic. The high walls of the new Jerusalem are punctuated by a dozen gates (that’s a lot), and these gates “will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there” (Rev. 21:25; see Josh. 2:5). Indeed, the gates are always open, providing free and unhindered access so that all may “bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:26). So many gates! And they are always open? This is a stunning and brazen display of confidence, security, peace, and camaraderie.
By contrast, the gates of hell are shut. The devil would have us think that this is a sign of strength, but in reality it is fear that bars these gates. “The gates of hell shall not prevail” against Christ and His church. In this image, Satan’s city is besieged, its gates crumbling before the hosts of heaven and the people of God (see Rev. 12). Properly understood, hell isn’t a mighty fortress or a flourishing city; it is a “prison” (20:7), and when this city-prison is finally destroyed, its demonic citizens will be thrown “into the lake of fire,” no longer able to harm or hinder the blessed people of God (v. 10). Praise be to God! Come, Lord, quickly! “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in” (Ps. 24:7).