Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 7, 2016
Psalm 99 Commentary
On this Transfiguration Sunday, Psalm 99 provides us with a tantalizingly different way to preach on that brilliant Epiphany of Christ’s glory on the mountain. In our Transfiguration Day sermon we could do what the disciples wanted to do in Luke 9; we could build shelters/booths/museums to preserve the moment. We could keep retelling the story so that we’ll never forget that time when people like us actually saw the hidden glory of Jesus. Or we could do what Psalm 99 calls us to do; we could fall down and worship the holy One who manifested his glory on the holy mountain. In other words, we could commemorate the event or we could celebrate Jesus as the Lord our God who reigns over all the earth and over each of us. Psalm 99 provides a kind of liturgical guide for our worship on Transfiguration Sunday. The three disciples in Luke 9 would have benefitted if they had used Psalm 99 in their response to Christ’s Transfiguration. So will we.
Like all Hebrew poetry, Psalm 99 is very carefully constructed, because, of course, the King of all the earth deserves our very best. While many contemporary Christians value spontaneity and informality in worship, the ancient people of God were thoughtful and deliberate in their praise. So, according to some scholars, this Psalm is composed of 4 stanzas of 3 lines each in the Hebrew. It deliberately uses the Hebrew number of perfection and completeness, the number 7, mentioning the Lord seven times and using 7 pronouns to refer to that Lord.
And most significantly, it repeats a refrain three times (verses 3, 5, 9), emphasizing the theme of the Psalm. This Lord is “holy.” As in Isaiah 6, the Lord who reveals his glory on the holy mountain is thrice holy. While probably not a hidden reference to the Trinity, this theme does help us to praise God for his multifaceted holiness. Picking up on the original sense of holiness, the idea that the Lord is “wholly other,” Psalm 99 focuses on the three crucial ways in which Yahweh is completely different than anything in all creation, especially other lords and kings and gods.
In verses 1-3, we are called to praise the Lord for his universal, worldwide reign. I say “we” deliberately, because the Psalmist calls “all the nations,” not just Israel, to “tremble,” and all the “earth,” not just the Promised Land, to “shake” before the Lord. The God who sits enthroned above the cherubim, that is, above the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple located in Zion (Jerusalem), is exalted over all the nations. Though Yahweh has chosen to dwell in that place among those people in a special way, Yahweh is not a local deity, a national God who reigns over just one people in only one geographical area, like the gods of the nations. Yahweh is holy, wholly other, in that he reigns over all people, whether they acknowledge him or not. Israel does not reign over all the earth, but Israel’s God does. So “let them (everyone on earth) praise your great and awesome name—he is holy.”
In verses 4-5, we are called to praise the Holy Lord, because of his justice. Not only is Israel’s God all powerful, but he is also completely just, unlike the other kings and lords and gods of the surrounding nations. Indeed, he “loves” justice; he has “established equity;” he always does “what is just and right.”
This emphasis on justice and righteousness is something many North American Christians don’t appreciate as much as we should. We praise God for his grace and mercy and love, not his righteousness and justice and judgment. We emphasize that Jesus has satisfied God’s justice on our behalf, so that we don’t have to fear judgment. Oh, we may be motivated to seek social justice on behalf of the oppressed of the earth, but we’re mostly relieved that we that we don’t have to keep God’s law in order to counted as righteous before God. Given our relatively privileged place in the world’s pecking order, we don’t experience injustice as often or as painfully as many others. And our emphasis on the personal dimension of salvation might keep us from appreciating the corporate, even cosmic, aspects of God’s redeeming plan.
The Old Testament doesn’t have our limitations. As a tightly knit minority community that was often oppressed by others, Israel longed for God’s justice and righteousness for individuals and for the community. They took great comfort in the fact that God’s rule would establish justice all over the earth, even as they themselves struggled with injustice. In a world where things had gone so terribly wrong, they relied on the justice of God to set things right. They yearned for the day when God would reestablish his Shalom, where everything was right again.
God had already begun his reign of justice and righteousness in Israel, having delivered them from bondage in Egypt, and having given them that marvelous law, and having spoken to them by his prophets and priests, and having given them kings to rule them in righteousness. As verse 4 says, “in Jacob you have done what is just and right.” Other kings and lords and gods have a mixed record with regard to justice and righteousness. Not Yahweh. “Thus to the eyes of faith Israel’s history is a living testimony to the reality of the divine justice as the principle governing History’s life in general. It illustrates this fundamental truth of national life: ‘Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people.’” (Artur Weiser) That’s why the Psalmist ends this section with these soaring words. “Exalt Yahweh our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy.”
Verses 6-9 are the climax of the Psalm. Verse 9 increases the volume of this call to praise by reminding us a third time that “the Lord our God is holy.” This time his wholly otherness is seen in his covenantal care for his people. As the previously quoted Artur Weiser put it: “The greatest statement the Psalmist is able to make with regard to God’s nature is neither that God’s universal might has a power that can shake the whole world nor that God has established a rule of law that governs every life, but that he has shown himself to be the God of grace, who transformed the history of Israel into a Heilsgeschichte (salvation history).”
Those are fancy words for what the Psalmist puts so simply. Identifying three of the major priests that God appointed to be intermediaries between his sinful people and his holy Self, the Psalmist says, “they called on the Lord and he answered them.” Unlike the gods of the nations who cannot hear or speak, God both hears the cries of his people and speaks in words they could hear. Referring to Israel’s experience at Sinai where God gave his “statues and decrees” and to Israel’s wandering in the wilderness where God gave them directions for the journey, he “spoke to them from the pillar of cloud.” Yahweh is wholly other in that his people can have a personal relationship with him. He is not only powerful and just, but he is also conversational and covenantal. You can talk to him and he will talk back.
Even better, what he says is not only righteous and just; it is also gracious and merciful. “O Lord our God, you answered them; you were to Israel a forgiving God.” Over and over again, but especially in the moment of their greatest sin at the foot of Sinai, God forgave Israel’s grievous sin. He laid down his law, but then he “relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” (Exodus 32:14)
If you know that story, you know that Israel did not walk away from their sin unscarred. In Exodus 34:6,7, God summarizes his character in that famous epiphany to Moses. “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….’”
It is those last words of Exodus 34:7 that we hear in Psalm 99:8b, when it says, “though you punished their misdeeds.” An alternate reading avoids the theological difficulty of those words by translating, “you were an avenger of the wrongs done to them.” But such a reading is not the natural or the most helpful understanding of these difficult words. As one scholar said, the Psalmist is saying, “don’t presume on God’s forgiveness as easy or routine. God’s freedom to forgive does not negate the importance of obedience to God’s requirement (verse 7b) or excuse individuals from the consequences of doing wrong (8b).”
Unlike other gods who either forgive or punish, who either look the other way or who lash out in blind fury, the Lord our God is both merciful and just, both gracious and righteous. He takes sin seriously and he takes the forgiveness of sin seriously. He is holy and he is wholly other. He will not simply clear the guilty, but he is also merciful and gracious, forgiving sin of all kinds.
This seems like an intractable theological problem, until we come to the cross, where God’s mercy and justice met in Christ. Paul addressed this authoritatively as he explained the Gospel of justification by faith. We “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came through faith in his blood. God did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justified those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:24-26) We have an early intimation of that complex gospel here in Psalm 99. No wonder the Psalmist amps up his call to praise the God who dwells on his holy mountain. “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is (thrice) holy.”
How can we legitimately preach Christ from Psalm 99? The simplest way would be to connect the mountain of Psalm 99 with the Mount of Transfiguration, as I did in my opening words. Hebrews 1:1-3 might be helpful in making that connection. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being….” A sermon that followed this tack would legitimately attribute to Jesus the three dimensions of God’s holiness in Psalm 99. Jesus is “holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.”
But I think the most profound way to preach Christ would be to focus on the third stanza of Psalm 99, which praises God’s holiness that shows itself in his fierce grace. The uncomfortable combination of forgiveness and punishment affords us a perfect opportunity to show the necessity and the graciousness of his substitutionary atonement. The clearest Epiphany of Christ’s glory was not on the Mount of Transfiguration, but on Mount Calvary, which some scholars identify as Mount Zion. Then we can indeed call all human beings to “exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord is God is holy.”
The uncomfortable but important connection between forgiveness and punishment in Psalm 99 reminded me of Robert Lewis Dear. He is the man who shot up the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last November. Unlike some other recent shooters who have been identified as radicalized Muslims, Dear called himself a Bible-believing Christian. One of his former wives summed him up in these words. “He claims to be a Christian and is extremely evangelistic, but he does not follow the Bible in his actions. He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases.” What a classic distortion of the Gospel of justification! One can hear Paul bellowing, “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1,2).
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