Worshipping a holy God – Part 1 (Ps 99:1-3)

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.

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Worshipping a holy God – Part 2 (Ps 99:4-5)

We saw yesterday that God is holy because he is sovereign over all peoples. But it’s not as some kind of egocentric despot. He is holy also because in his sovereignty, he establishes justice:

4 The King is mighty, he loves justice– you have established equity; in Jacob you have done what is just and right.

This is the second reason God is holy – he loves justice, and establishes it throughout the earth.

Prov 11:1 ‘A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but an accurate weight is his delight.’

(A false balance? No, it’s not when the ATM screws up. Dishonest shopkeepers would cheat people by using a second set of weights, hollowed out. They wouldn’t do it to the educated or well-connected; only to the powerless, the poor. To  those who wouldn’t know they’d been cheated, or if they did, wouldn’t have the power to demand justice.)

God loves justice. And this doesn’t just relate to Israel in the Old Testament, or to us in the new, but includes all people everywhere.

Why does God love justice? Why does he delight in seeing all people act in fairness and equity? Because when he sees justice in the world, he sees the image of himself – however tarnished by sin – reflected back. In fact, wherever justice exists – even when executed by people still in rebellion to him – it is the work of God.

Prov 16:11 – ‘Honest balances and scales are the Lord’s; all the weights in the bag are his work.’

This is called ‘common grace’, called so because it is given to all. It is not ‘saving grace’, but is the same grace that makes the sun come up every day on believers and unbelievers, and sends rain to the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). It is what keeps society from disintegrating into anarchy – holding the world back from premature self-destruction. It’s a testimony to all people of the creative and sustaining work of God. God is holy because he rules the whole world with justice.

And yet the second half of the verse says God has done what is just and right ‘in Jacob’. (Jacob is another way of referring to his people Israel, as Jacob was the father of the twelve sons who formed the twelve  tribes – and later God changed Jacob’s name to Israel). This means that the main focus of God’s justice is in ‘Jacob’ – God’s justice is most obviously evident in his dealings with Israel. His plan was that all nations would see his justice reflected in his protection of Israel from her enemies; in his blessing her with prosperity; and in her obedience to his Law.

Particularly in this last aspect, Israel’s legal system given to Moses on Mt Sinai was to be a witness to the surrounding nations. There are many laws similar to those that existed in these other nations. But even though many of the laws may have been familiar, there is a number which contain significant – often shocking – differences to those of the nations around. Many of these show a concern for the poor, the oppressed, the slave, and the foreigner that was ‘ahead of its time’. For example:

Ex 22:21-23 Do not mistreat an alien (foreigner) or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.

Our society would consider these quite normal since our legal system grew out of Jewish and then Christian law. But at the time, this concern Israel was to show for the weak and oppressed – precisely because God had shown them concern when they were weak and oppressed – was a shining witness to the justice of God.

If we bring this now into the New Testament – our time – how does God demonstrate his justice in the world? Through us. Just like he did through Israel. First and foremost this is through what he has done for us in Christ. The fact that God has offered us a way of salvation (the gospel) demonstrates his justice – his righteousness – to the world through us. That alone should be sufficient witness, and this is our primary testimony and mission.

But just as God expected Israel’s society to reflect his justice in the world, he expects Christians to do likewise. Our concern for the poor, our concern for the outcast, the weak, the foreigner, the drug-addict… should testify to God’s concern for them.

In worshipping God, it’s empty worship indeed to say ‘you are holy, because you love justice’, unless our lives demonstrate that we, too, love justice. How much do we stand up for the poor, the oppressed, the weak in society?

Our God is a God of justice. For this, we should worship him, as the psalm goes on to say:

99:5 Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy.

What is God’s footstool? The Old Testament refers to various things as God’s footstool: the ark, Jerusalem, the earth! I think they all are in view here. You see, the point is that whether it is in God’s people (salvation), or through God’s people (Christian witness), or throughout the whole earth (common grace), God works to establish justice. Because he is holy.

Spend some time in worship now, praising God for his love of justice, and committing yourself to being like your Father in heaven:

Matt 5:44-45 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Worshipping a holy God – Part 3 (Ps 99:6-9)

So far in Psalm 99 we’ve seen that God is holy because he is sovereign over all peoples.  Yesterday, we were reminded that he is holy because he loves justice. Today, we look at the third aspect of God’s holiness provided by this psalm – his work in salvation.

In vv6-7 we see a few people in Israel’s history who prayed to God on behalf of the people and God acted to save them:

99:6-7 Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel was among those who called on his name;
they called on Yahweh and he answered them.
He spoke to them from the pillar of cloud;
they kept his statutes and the decrees he gave them. 

These verses recall three figures from Israel’s history who prayed on behalf of Israel – asking God to forgive their sin:

The Israelites rebelled while Moses was up on the mountain getting the 10 commandments (Exodus 32). They melted down their gold into a calf in order to create an idol for themselves. God, understandably, was angry with them. What happened? Moses interceded for the Israelites. And God forgave.

Some time later, Korah and 250 other men rebelled against Moses and Aaron’s leadership (Numbers 16), which was in effect a rebellion against God himself. God caused an earthquake to swallow them up. This led the rest of the Israelites to be angry with Moses and Aaron, and God sent a plague on them, in which 14,700 people died. But at the height of the plague, Aaron made a sacrifice of atonement, and interceded for the people. And God forgave.

A few centuries later, Israel was in the Promised Land. They had come under heavy oppression by the Philistines, as a punishment for their idolatry (1 Samuel 7). So they repented of their idolatry, and turned back to God and his ‘statutes and decrees’. Samuel interceded. And God forgave, delivering them from the Philistines.

All this is why the Psalm says in verse 8:

99:8a Yahweh, our God, you answered them; you were to Israel a forgiving God…

Just as God was a forgiving God to Israel, so he is a forgiving God to us. We have sinned. But Christ has interceded for us. And God has forgiven us, through the completed work of Jesus. That’s what we celebrate the most as we gather together as God’s people: the God of mercy and forgiveness.

However, the last part of v8 seems a bit jarring in the context of God’s gracious salvation and forgiveness:

99:8 Yahweh, our God, you answered them; you were to Israel a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds.

Though you punished their misdeeds? Isn’t this part of the Psalm celebrating forgiveness? But this phrase is significant. The theme of the psalm is ‘the holiness of God’ – so when God acts in salvation, he must also uphold his justice if he is indeed to remain holy. God’s mercy and justice go hand in hand – he can’t just overlook sin, or his holiness would be compromised.

The Apostle Paul put it this way:

Rom 3:25-26 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. 

God has forgiven us. But he has also punished our misdeeds. In some ways, part of the punishment is the temporal consequences of sin. They don’t just disappear when God forgives. But the eternal consequences have been dealt with in Christ. By his sacrifice, our misdeeds have been punished, so that God can forgive us while remaining just and holy.

Spend some time in prayer praising our holy, forgiving God, and thanking him for the sacrifice he provided in Jesus.

99:9 Exalt Yahweh our God and worship at his holy mountain, for Yahweh our God is holy.

(By the way, you don’t have to go to his holy mountain in Israel. Remember, you are now the location of God’s temple, in which he dwells by his Holy Spirit.)