Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 22, 2017
Psalm 99 Commentary
Psalm 99 is the last of the Enthronement Psalms that proclaim that Yahweh reigns not only over little Israel, but also over the entire world. It is a particularly exquisite declaration of Yahweh’s reign because of its symbolic use of numbers, notably the numbers seven and three. The former is the number of perfection throughout the Scripture and the latter the number of divinity. Yahweh is mentioned seven times and the Psalmist uses seven independent pronouns in referring to Yahweh. And the Psalm has three sections highlighting some feature of Yahweh’s kingship, each of which is concluded by the word “holy.” (This three-fold holiness will remind readers of the vision of Isaiah in Isaiah 6, where angelic beings called seraphs cried out, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”) Psalm 99 is a perfect Psalm for a perfect King.
Further, it is a perfect Psalm for this imperfect time in history, a time of national and international turmoil. In a world filled with human claimants to the throne, we need to hear that there is only One who is worthy and able to sit on the throne of the world. All day every day we are bombarded with the words and deeds of imperfect “Kings,” from America’s mercurial Trump to North Korea’s monstrous Kim, from Syria’s cruel Assad to the Philippines’ punitive Duterte. African dictators, Afghan warlords, Latin American tyrants, Middle Eastern terrorists—the list of those who would rule the world goes on and on. Everyone one of them is a pretender to the throne of the world, because none of them is “holy.”
That is the central claim of Psalm 99. Yahweh the King is holy, holy, holy (verses 3, 5, 9). As all readers of this article well know, the main idea of holiness in the Bible is separateness, otherness, difference. The Lord God is, in Karl Barth’s famous phrase, the “wholly other.” He is unlike all the human contenders for the throne and, although Psalm 99 doesn’t mention this, also unlike the supposed divine contenders. While we naturally tend to think of that otherness in terms of sinlessness, that is not the focus here in Psalm 99 (though Yahweh is, of course, without sin, unlike each of the humans who would be king). Psalm 99 is much more specific about the ways in which Yahweh is other than those human and divine pretenders.
First, Yahweh is King over all the earth, so “let the nations tremble, let the earth shake… he is exalted over all the nations.” While some human kings may have immense kingdoms and even greater ambitions, the fact is that each is very much restricted in his/her reach and reign. Psalm 99 makes the audacious claim that the God of Israel, that a little pipsqueak nation huddled in a corner of the big wide world, is in fact the ruler of all nations. His throne is in Israel; “he sits enthroned between the cherubim (the angelic creatures that decorated the Ark of the Covenant)… in Zion (the city of Jerusalem)….” But he is not, like other ancient Near Eastern divinities, limited to certain geographical locations. He is not a tin pot tribal deity, merely the god of a specific nation. He is exalted over all the nations.
This claim, of course, is utter nonsense to the nations of the world, beginning with the Pharaoh who sneered to Moses, “Who is Yahweh, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Psalm 99 says that the nations tremble with fear before the King of all the earth. However, as Romans 3:18 says, the depth of human depravity is that “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” but Psalm 99 is confident that one day all the nations and their would-be Kings will “praise [his] great and awesome name.”
Indeed, even now Yahweh is using these human rulers to accomplish his royal will, even those who do not know him. Remember Yahweh’s words to Cyrus of Persia? “This is what Yahweh says to his anointed, to Cyrus whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him…. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. I am Yahweh, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:1, 4, 5). That is the first way in which Yahweh is holy; unlike the self-proclaimed rulers of the world and the non-existent gods they embrace, Yahweh really does exist and truly does rule all the world. “The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble.”
Second, Yahweh is wholly other in that “he loves justice” (verse 4). Unlike the kings of this world, who so often use their might to promote themselves and their powerful cronies while they persecute the weak and helpless on the margins, Yahweh uses his might to do justice. The kings of the ancient Near East were supposed to do justice; indeed, their frequent claim was that they were the defenders of the poor. But seldom was that the case, unless they were pressured by the populace. Yahweh, on the contrary, loves to do justice.
What I’ve just said raises the key question, what does it mean to do justice? Is the Psalmist talking about salvific justice or punitive justice, saving sinners or punishing the wicked? Or is he referring to what we call social justice, assuring that the needs of all members of society are safeguarded, with oppression and abuse of power eliminated? (Davidson) From the wording of verse 4 it seems that the latter is in view here. The equity that Yahweh has established is focused “in Jacob [where] you have done what is right and just.” Of course, that justice also includes deliverance from the oppression of hostile nations, but the main idea here seems to be that Yahweh does what human rulers so often don’t do, namely, take care of the needs of all their citizens.
And, as the prophets so often pointed out, Yahweh calls the powerful to account for their abuse of power. When we see how the “kings” of our day treat their subjects, especially the poor and powerless, we often say, “Is there no justice? Where is God in all this?” Psalm 99 assures us that Yahweh loves justice; therefore, we can be sure that he will judge with equity and do the right thing. Our response to injustice should finally be to “exalt Yahweh our God and worship at his footstool (verse 5),” because his holiness guarantees that justice will be done. Indeed, only Yahweh can do it.
Third, Yahweh’s holiness is demonstrated in his mercy. God’s mercy is not merely an idea or an attribute; it is an action, identifiable historical actions on behalf of his people. Psalm 99 focuses on three great leaders of Israel, Moses, Aaron, and Samuel who had called on Yahweh in time of need. In his holy mercy, God answered them. The need they all presented to the Holy One was forgiveness. Though verse 7 says that “they kept his statutes and the decrees he gave them,” that wasn’t always true, even of those three great leaders, and certainly not of Israel as a whole. God’s people routinely disobeyed, and as I noted in recent articles on both Psalm 78 and 106, God became very angry about that disobedience. Speaking to Moses, Yahweh even threatened to destroy all Israel and start his redemptive project all over again with Moses.
But Moses and his fellow intercessors called out to Yahweh, and in his mercy he answered: “you were to Israel a forgiving God….” Forgiveness is the greatest need of the human race, but it is something human leaders cannot and do not offer very often. Oh yes, a magnanimous President might pardon a lawbreaking sheriff whose crimes resonated with the political agenda of that President. But what political leader would forgive a sin committed directly against himself? While most wouldn’t go so far as to execute such offenders, as North Korea’s Kim and Syria’s Assad have done, most human leaders would struggle to show mercy to someone who defied their orders or threatened their person. The King of all the earth is different, wholly other, because he forgives those who have rebelled repeatedly and sinned dreadfully. “Exalt Yahweh our God and worship at his holy mountain, for Yahweh our God is holy.”
Psalm 99 does seem to qualify this forgiveness with a troublesome phrase in verse 8: “you were to Israel a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds.” The Hebrew of last phrase has led to many different translations: “you corrected all their misdeeds; you called them to account for their misdeeds; you were an avenger of the wrongs done to them; you exempted them from punishment.” All of those are possible because all of them are true of what God does with our sins.
But perhaps the translation in the NIV helps us understand God better than the others. While God completely forgives the sins of those who cry out for mercy as Moses, Aaron and Samuel did, he often allows the consequences of those sins to rebound into the lives of the forgiven. Think of Israel’s rebellion upon hearing the negative report of the 10 spies. God gets angry, Moses intercedes, God forgives, but then God says that none of the rebels will see the Promised Land. “I have forgiven them as you asked. Nevertheless… not one of them will ever see the land…” (Numbers 14:20-23). Moses experienced that “nevertheless” in his own life. His sin of striking the rock instead of speaking to it was forgiven, but he wasn’t allowed to enter the Land either.
Call it the principle of consequences. Sin can be forgiven, and God can cancel the consequences. But sometimes God uses the consequences of that sin to teach us not to sin. Mercy doesn’t always cancel the consequences; what we sow we often reap. Is this what God meant in those mysterious words to Moses in Exodus 34:6, 7?
James Luther Mays puts it very well. “Forgiveness does not imply turning the clock back as if nothing had happened. In human terms, forgiveness does not mean that you do not have to face the consequences of the wrong you have done. It means that even in the midst of the such consequences, you can be sustained by a relationship which nothing you have done can ever break or change.”
God’s holiness sets him apart from human kings, who won’t forgive or who impose unreasonable punishment or who merely seek vengeance. Yahweh hears the cries of sinners, answers in mercy, and keeps on loving even when they reap what they sow. Not even the consequences of our sin can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God’s holiness is complex and mysterious. We cannot expect to fully understand it, because God is, by nature, other, separate, different. But what we cannot comprehend, we can embrace because the Holy One “became sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Cor. 5:21). In Jesus Christ we see the Holy One who said to Moses, “No one can see me and live.” In Christ, we see holiness incarnate. The Wholly Other is with us. Mercy and justice meet on the cross. Forgiveness is coupled with the demand to obey “everything I have commanded you.”
All this talk of Yahweh’s holiness should move us to do exactly what Psalm 99 commands three times. “Exalt Yahweh our God.” In a world that lifts up one ruler after another, each successive King the solution to the sins of the former one, and each one inevitably failing, let us lift up the One who is different. You can talk about your Trump, your Kim, your Putin, and whatever other name dominates the headlines today or tomorrow. As for me and my house, we say, “Hallowed be thy name.” Join the Psalmist, and find peace and joy in a world that has so little of either.
During the recent total eclipse of the sun, people were advised to wear special glasses that would enable them to watch that eclipse without damaging their eyes. When Isaiah was given a glimpse of the three-fold holiness of God in Isaiah 6, he was afraid not just of losing his sight, but of losing his whole being. “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh the Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). We are not able to gaze on the holiness of Yahweh without special lens, the lens of God in the flesh. “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only (or the only Begotten Son), who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:18).
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