This morning I would like to begin a series of messages on the Psalms that will take us until Christmas. Of course, since there are 150 of them, we won't look at all of them. There are a variety of Psalms and I have chosen a number of different types of Psalms, with different themes and styles which have spoken to me.
The Psalms are wonderful because they do some very significant things. They are poems or songs that draw our attention to God, however, they also express the full range of human experiences and do so in the presence of God. This makes them very valuable not only to direct our worship, but also to help us think about how we live our life as people who follow God through all the experiences of life.
On Sunday, Carla and I attended the final concert of the summer series at the Lyric Theatre at Assiniboine Park. It was a marvelous concert and at the end of it the whole crowd stood up and expressed appreciation for what they had just heard. We had appreciated it so much that we clapped loud enough to get another song. After that the clapping continued because we had appreciated the musicality of the musicians and the songs they had played and sung. We were letting them know that it was good.
Psalm 99 does that for God. The Psalmist helps us to see who God is and to acknowledge what has been experienced in relationship to God. It invites an enthusiastic response to God.
There are three parts to the Psalm and each of them focus on a different part of who God is. The first two verses focus on God's reign. Verse four focuses on God who is the just judge and verses 6-8 focus on God as the one who answers prayer. Each of the three sections ends with a call to praise God and if you look at the verses you will see the similarity between verses 3, 5 and 9.
One theme which unites the whole Psalm is the idea that God is holy. If you look at verses 3, 5, 9 you will notice that besides the fact that each of these three verses call us to praise God, each verse also declares God's holiness.
Holiness refers to God as one who is separated. We used to talk about our "Sunday best" which referred to clothing that we set apart to be worn only on Sunday. That is the major idea behind holiness. It is something which is set apart. When we read that God is holy, this idea is magnified. When we speak of God as holy, we acknowledge that he is separated from everything else. He is unique and different in every respect. He is perfect in purity, complete in justice, absolute ruler over all other rulers and one who listens to all people at all times. Holiness speaks of the complete and perfect separation of God from all other things and all other beings. It is what makes Him so worthy of our worship. As we examine God in the three respects mentioned in this Psalm, let us remember that He is holy in each of these respects. Waltner says, "Holy becomes the key word, directing attention to the essential nature of the reigning Lord."
Canada was in a somewhat unstable situation politically for a number of years because of minority governments. Don't get me wrong, I think that sometimes minority governments are a good thing, but they also leave some question about who is really leading the country. The majority party has to be very careful to do only those things which will be acceptable to the other parties. As a result, they are not completely in charge.
That situation does not pertain to God. He is the only and complete ruler over all. The Psalm begins by declaring, the Lord is King! This means that God is the ruler of all things. He rules all of creation to the very farthest reaches of space. He rules over all the nations that have ever reigned or ever will reign. Kim Jong-un may be the president of North Korea, but God is the Lord over Kim Jong-un. Mitt Romney may want to be president of the USA, but God reigns over Mitt Romney.
The next phrase, "He sits enthroned upon the cherubim" is an interesting one and we may wonder exactly what it means. If you look up cherubim in the Bible, you will notice that the most frequent mention of it is in reference to the cherubim which were placed over the ark of the covenant in the temple. They represent the glory of God in heaven according to Isaiah 37:16, "“O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth." Their image in the holy of holies represents God's heavenly presence among the people because God was present with His people in the temple. Expositors Bible Commentary says, "The imagery of the cherubim derives from the ark of the covenant, whose lid was a gold slab on which two cherubs with spread wings stood. The significance of the cherubim becomes clear in the traditions of Israel, as they spoke of God’s dwelling between the cherubim…" If God sits enthroned upon the cherubim, it not only meant for the people of Israel that God was the Lord, but also that He ruled over them from among them. Waltner says it is a "poetic way of dealing with the transcendence and presence of God…" It emphasizes God's reign, but also that His reign is among His people. The next line affirms both of these ideas when it says, "The Lord is great in Zion." What it meant was that God ruled over them, but also for them. The last line of verse 2 expands God's reign and announces that He is the one who reigns over all people.
This is significant. We can't just pass over this truth and let it fly through our brain without recognizing it. We have a king!
But formal recognition or even personal acknowledgement cannot be where this stops. There is something so worthy, so significant and so important here that there must be some response to this truth.
Last year we went to a football game with some friends. It was rather funny because Carla and the other fellow's wife were quite animated in their reactions to the game. They were cheering, jumping up and down and clapping and making lots of noise throughout the game. On the other hand, the other fellow and I sat there quietly. When the Bombers scored we got up and clapped for a little while, but mostly we just sat there quietly.
There is no doubt that there is a difference in personality when it comes to our feelings and how we show them, but when it comes to recognizing that God is the King over all people and the one who reigns over all, we cannot react like the other fellow and I did. We cannot leave the truth that God is King lie in silence! We must do more than acknowledge it in our heads as true. Something must happen in our hearts. We must feel something about this.
The response which is invited first of all in verse 1 is that we must tremble. If God is the ruler over all things, that means that He is also the ruler over our life. Whether we recognize and acknowledge God or not, the day will come when we will face Him. Even today He is Lord. The Bible speaks about fearing the Lord and trembling is a part of fearing. It does not mean that we have to be scared of God, but we must feel a deep and profound awe and a recognition of His power and sovereignty.
Praise is also encouraged because of the greatness, awesomeness and holiness of God. Praise is not just singing a song quietly without being heard. Praise involves feeling, it involves emotion. Many of us as Mennonites are like I and the other fellow were at the football game. We do not like to show emotion. I remember a fellow who had grown up in Trinidad who sometimes came to a church we were involved in. He could never understand how we could sit still when we were singing. It was part of his culture to be much more demonstrative. I think we need to learn from these kind of people. To obey the command to praise God means that we cannot just acknowledge without emotion that God, the one we call Lord, reigns over all. It requires some feeling. As we allow the truth of the fact that the Lord is King become real to us, let us not withhold the appropriate feelings that come with that amazing truth. Spurgeon encourages that we should "feel a solemn yet joyful awe."
In the next verse another aspect of the holiness of God is declared. The key word in this verse is the word righteousness. There are four words in this verse that communicate the same concept.
Earlier I spoke a little bit about the instability of our government when we have a minority government. Part of the reason for the instability is that we have different political parties who have different views about what should be happening. This seems to cause a lot of arguments and debates because of differences, but there is something important about this system. Because no one has all the knowledge and wisdom and no one is completely just and fair, the different political parties provide a system of checks and balances so that an unjust ruler doesn't stay in power. When the Liberals were in power the last time, they had such a strong majority that they began to think they could rule with impunity, but their arrogance has left their party decimated so that today they are not only not in power, they aren't even the official opposition. Wouldn't it be nice if we had someone rule who had all wisdom and who was completely just and fair?
Our Lord who is the King who reigns over all is such a ruler. The first phrase lets us know that He has no rivals. He is a Mighty King. That means that there is no one who has power over Him. Nations come and go because power is greater and lesser, but God's power is eternal and He is the Mighty King whose power and authority will never be taken away. Satan has tried to take power away from Him, but through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has established that He is the one who has eternal power.
He is also a King who rules with justice. We don't trust most political leaders because we have seen too many situations in which they have abused power. Spurgeon points out, "The annals of most human governments have been written in the tears of the downtrodden, and the curses of the oppressed." In contrast, I love the phrase that says that God is a "lover of justice." If you have ever gotten into an exercise program, you know that sticking to the program varies depending on our situation. If we are committed because we want to accomplish a certain goal, we will no longer be committed when we accomplish the goal. For example, I don't like walking on a treadmill, but I have done so at certain times to stay in shape when the weather was not good enough to do something outside. On the other hand, I love cross country skiing and I look for every opportunity to do it. As a result, there is no problem getting myself to do that activity. So to say that God is a lover of justice is great encouragement. He acts justly, expects justice and will judge all things justly because He loves justice. Sometimes we wonder where His justice is. This was the question in Abraham's mind when God was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 18:23 he asked, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" Yet Abraham knew that God was just and his hope, expressed in Genesis 18:25 was, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”"
The text says that he has "established equity." Wherever God reigns, He sets up systems that are right and just. We see this in the way in which He has brought salvation. Paul says in Romans 3:26 that "He himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus." Christ paid the penalty so that God is completely fair in forgiving sin and giving sinners eternal life.
God is also said to execute justice. He deals fairly today and in the end will judge justly. Today we see a lot of injustice and we even wonder how God can let such injustice go. But one day God will execute justice and when all is complete we will be able to look at every life, every situation and every event and realize that it has been handled fairly and justly by God. This hope is what allows us to experience persecution, to love our enemies and to proclaim the gospel of salvation to sinners.
Verse 5 encourages us to "Extol the Lord our God; worship at His footstool. Holy is He!" Once again such an amazing truth about God must be recognized. We must make a mental note of it. We must contemplate it and acknowledge the truth of it. We must firmly establish that we understand and see this truth that God is the powerful and just ruler of all the universe.
But once again our response cannot remain a mental note filed away in the back of our minds. The words "extol" and "worship" are words which invite a response.
To "worship at His footstool" indicates a response of humbling ourselves before the sovereign Lord and acknowledging that He has every right to reign in our lives. There are churches in which kneeling is a regular part of worship. Even in our church, I remember times when we have knelt as part of times of prayer. I believe that kneeling is a very important way of responding to the king who is our just ruler. Kneeling is a way of not only acknowledging in our minds that God is our Lord, but also declaring it with our bodies. There is something significant about a physical act of response to God. Sometimes it makes a difference for us to not only think something, but to respond physically. I would encourage you to consider, as part of your devotions, to spend some time on your knees in worshipping the Lord.
In verse 6, the Psalmist introduces three leaders from Israel – Moses, Aaron and Samuel. What was their experience and how does it tell us about God? What the Psalm says is that they "called on his name" and "he answered them."
Moses told the people to obey God's law and not to build images or worship idols. Then he went back up the mountain into the presence of God to receive more instructions and as he came down the mountain he saw that they had made a golden calf and were worshipping it. In Exodus 32:30-35, we read Moses' words to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Then Moses returned to the Lord and prayed, " if you will only forgive their sin…" This was one situation in which Moses called on the name of the Lord. As a consequence of his prayer, God did not abandon the people. He punished their sin through a plague and those who were guilty died, but he continued to lead the people.
Korah and many of the people of Israel rebelled against Moses and Aaron. God judged the people through a plague, but we read in Numbers 16:47, 48, "…Aaron… ran into the middle of the assembly, where the plague had already begun among the people. He put on the incense, and made atonement for the people. He stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped." This was one occasion in the life of Aaron when he prayed and God answered his prayer.
Samuel's story has many examples of prayer. On one occasion the Philistines attacked Israel. In I Samuel 7:7-12 we read that "The people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” In answer to Samuel's prayer it says in verse 10 that "the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel."
Each of these stories tells us about another aspect of who God is. When people who follow Him cry out to Him, He hears them and answers their prayer. In each of these stories, the people had not been righteous but had done something to deserve God's judgment. The prayer of a righteous man was effective in each case and God acted. There were two parts to God's acts. He was "an avenger of their wrongdoings." In other words, God does not allow sin to go unpunished. How could He if He is a righteous God. On the other hand, he was a "forgiving God to them." We see this repeatedly both in the history of Israel and also in our life. Over and again, God has forgiven us, especially through Jesus, yet He does not overlook wickedness. Waltner reminds us that "God forgives and God punishes. The tension reminds the hearer that forgiveness is not leniency, nor is one to take it for granted."
Once again we are invited to recognize what God is like. He is a gracious God who forgives sin and blesses His people. As we think about that, it is good for us to make that recognition a personal experience. How has God forgiven you? How has He blessed you? How has he held you responsible for your wrongdoing? How wonderful to experience God's forgiveness after we have sinned! To feel guilty is horrible. To know that we are forgiven when we repent is a wonderful experience of His grace.
In verse 9, the Psalmist once again invites us to "Extol the Lord our God, and worship at His holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy."
When we experience God's answers to prayer, particularly His answer to forgive our sins, we cannot remain silent. A response is expected and another aspect of what it means to "extol" the Lord and "worship" Him is that we must declare to others what He has done. Testimonies and expressions of praise are wonderful ways to do this. We are invited to affirm and declare what comes from our hearts. How often we remain silent about what God has done. We cannot do that. When we declare His praises, let us be bold to say, "This is what God has done." Scripture gives us so many examples of how this is done and we must not be shy to extol Him when we experience His forgiveness, His goodness and His blessing!
In this Psalm we have seen three different aspects of who God is. He is the holy King who rules over all. He is the holy judge who is just in all His ways and He is the holy and gracious one who forgives sin, but punishes those who remain in wickedness.
We have also been invited to respond to God by worshipping before Him, extolling Him and praising Him.
I hope that these words have given you some encouragement for your life. Each of us may need to be nudged toward God and towards responding to God in a different direction. Perhaps there is something about God that you have not understood. I hope that as you reflect on this Psalm you will understand it a little better. Perhaps there is some way of responding to God that you have been reluctant to do. Perhaps you need to allow yourself to feel something, or to be more expressive in worship or to raise to expression some aspect of what God has done for you.
The Psalms invite us to see God. They also encourage, and even command us to not let that just sit in our brains, but to respond. May we gladly declare the wonder of our holy God and praise Him.