Welcome to the second installment of “Psalm putty”, which we’ll be doing in the gaps between series. Next Monday, guest writer Rev Dr. Marc Rader will begin a series in the book of Philippians. But for the rest of this week, we’re focusing on Psalm 99. This Psalm has a very simple message: God is holy: and our response to his holiness should be worship.
God is holy. But what does that actually mean? We often reduce the concept of holiness just to mean ‘moral perfection’ or ‘purity’. But it means far more than that. At it’s most basic, holiness is about separation; about distinction. The holiness of God refers to his ‘otherness’ – what theologians call ‘transcendence’. That is, God is holy because he is not like us. He exists outside our limits of time and space. He goes infinitely beyond our own understanding and capabilities. He is complete within himself, lacking nothing. He is holy.
Psalm 99 looks at three aspects of God’s holiness – which give us three reasons to worship. Over the coming three days, I pray you’ll be inspired to worship in response to our holy God.
God is holy, because he is sovereign over all peoples (Ps 99:1-3)Yahweh reigns, let the nations tremble. He sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake. Great is Yahweh in Zion, he is exalted over all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name— he is holy.
The first two verses of this Psalm contain three parallel pairs of statements. In each pair there is a statement relating to Israel, balanced by one relating to the nations:99:1a Yahweh [the God of Israel] reigns; let the nations tremble.
(In your bibles it probably begins with ‘The LORD reigns’. Whenever you see the word LORD in all capitals in your English bibles, it’s translating the Hebrew word Yahweh – the personal name of the God of Israel. Lord (only initial capital) translates the generic word adonai meaning master. We’ve translated it Yahweh here for reasons that will become clear.)
This is a powerful picture of God’s sovereignty. Firstly, God is seen as king above all else. ‘Yahweh reigns’. The Hebrew word order stresses that it is Yahweh, Israel’s God, and no other who reigns; he is the one who is king. And this sovereignty has an impact not just in Israel, but all the nations.99:1b He sits enthroned between the cherubim; let the earth shake.
The statement about God sitting enthroned between the cherubim refers to the ark of the covenant. In the Old Testament, the presence of God was the ark, which contained (among other things) the stone tablets of the 10 commandments, the symbol of his covenant with Israel. Above the ark were two sculpted cherubim – angels – which surrounded a throne on top of the ark. God is symbolically enthroned on the ark, representing his rule over and presence among Israel. Yet even as he does so, this Psalm says that the whole earth shakes.99:2 Great is Yahweh in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.
Mt Zion is the mountain on which the temple was built, in Jerusalem.
By these three parallel images, the two themes of God’s work in Israel and God’s work in the world through them are brought together. It reminds us that his choosing of Abram, then Israel, was always intended to have an impact among all nations.
As God’s new covenant people, this is true also for us. God is firstly sovereign in us. He rules in our life, and in our gathered community. Yet through that, his rule and holiness is to extend to those around us – and to all the peoples of the earth.
It can be summed up by John Piper’s observation that worship is the goal and fuel of missions. It’s a bit like a fuel tanker. Its goal is to distribute fuel to various service stations; but it can only do this because it, too, runs on fuel. (OK, maybe a different kind of fuel if you want to be picky, but you get the idea…) Worship is the goal and fuel of mission.
Worship is firstly the goal of mission – God’s goal is to bring more people into a relationship with him, so that they can worship him both now and into eternity. As it says in verse 3: ‘Let them praise your holy name’.
Yet worship is also the fuel of mission: if you are in a relationship with God, and know what it is to worship him, doesn’t that drive you to tell other people about this God, that they might worship him too? Think of your unsaved friends and family – doesn’t your experience of God compel you to want them to experience that, too? Isn’t your ultimate hope for them that they will be with you in heaven worshipping God for eternity?
And not only them, but people from all over the world. The NIV says ‘he is exalted over all the nations’, but the NRSV gives probably a better translation, ‘he is exalted over all the peoples.’
What’s the difference between ‘nations’ and ‘peoples’, you ask? A people group is usually smaller than a nation, with its own culture and language. This has been a critical concept in missions thinking ever since an evangelical missions conference in Lausanne, in 1974. It was recognised that every ‘nation’ – each geographical country – had received the gospel. Yet still 80% of people in the world could go from birth to death without hearing the gospel! This is because boundaries other than geographical ones prevented them – barriers of language, culture, and religious background.
The concept of bringing the gospel not just to ‘all the nations’ but to ‘all people groups’ gained momentum, based on a better understanding of this word. Not just in this psalm, but throughout the Old Testament.
In Genesis ch 12 – which I think is the most important chapter of the whole Old Testament – God made some promises to Abraham. The most significant was the promise that through him not just ‘all nations’, but ‘all the people groups’, or ‘all the families’ of the earth will be blessed’.
This is a principle many mission agencies are pursuing today: to bring the gospel to those people groups yet unreached. (See joshuaproject.net). It’s why mission workers around the world are doing the hard yards in countries with no established, indigenous church of their own.
The end result will be the picture given in Revelation – of great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb singing, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
This is how we recognise God’s sovereignty over all the world. Firstly, as the psalm says, we tremble. We praise him. And secondly, flowing out of this is a commitment to mission; a desire to tell all people groups and all individuals about his holiness, his majesty and his rule. Our goal is to bring others into the same worshipping relationship that we have with God.