The Lord Our God is Holy
Passage: Psalm 99:1–99:9
The Lord our God is Holy
What is the start and end of the Christian faith? Why are we here this morning? What’s the point? The point, according to the Bible, is God. From beginning to end, the Scriptures are about him. The Bible begins with God in Genesis 1 as he creates the heavens and the earth. And the Bible ends in Revelation 22 with the throne of God and of the Lamb. God is the sunrise and the sunset of our faith.
And yet, God-centered Christianity is not as popular today as it used to be. Like the fluctuating current of the latest fashion, so-called big-God theology has run its course. Talking about the attributes of God used to be trendy and to “be most satisfied in God that he may be most glorified in us” used to be an exciting and sufficient vision for life. But not anymore. We have discovered that those things are not in style any longer. It seems that to be God-centered is outdated.
What are we to do as a church? If to be God-centered means that we are out of touch with the real needs of the culture, then we should rethink not only the way we do ministry, but rethink the Christian faith altogether. But if what we think about God really is the most important thing about us, then we must regain a theology and philosophy of ministry that is unapologetically God-centered.
The Scriptures give us a vision of the world in which the greatness and glory of God are both the center and horizon of human existence. The canopy that expands across the entire universe and the banner that the church carries is this: The Lord our God is Holy. The treasuring of the holiness of God is the foundation and ultimate end of all creation.
The holiness of God, as one theologian puts it, is his “freedom from all defilement…a purity that is total and utterly untainted.” The holiness of God is not simply one of God’s attributes among others, but the very essence of the Godhead. The holiness of God is the fountainhead of his Being; his attributes are the gushing and flowing streams of glory radiating from his intrinsic beauty. And it is the knowledge of his glory, his holiness revealed, which the prophet says will fill the earth “as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). That is the end goal of all creation. As long as God remains committed to the display and upholding of his glory, we do well to give our lives to the God-centered pursuit of his holiness.
Psalm 99 this morning shows us two ways in which God makes his holiness known and how we should respond to it. First, in vv.1-5, we see that In His Holiness, the Lord Reigns. And second, in vv. 6-9, we see that In His Holiness, the Lord Speaks.
We begin then with vv.1-5, In His Holiness, the Lord Reigns.
In His Holiness, the Lord Reigns
God’s reign in Psalm 99 is limitless; it knows no bounds. God created all things and therefore he reigns over all things. The Lord is exalted “over all the peoples,” v.2 says. God’s reign is not only boundless, but also majestic or we can say fearsome; it demands jaw-dropping and knee-knocking reverence. Look there in v.1, the peoples tremble before him and the earth quakes.
What’s more, God’s boundless and fear-inspiring reign is not simply a by-product of his majesty, but an extension of his holiness. His reign is the expansion of his glory being known. It naturally flows from who he is, just as the rays of burning light radiate from the sun.
The Lord reigns, the psalmist says, “enthroned upon the cherubim.” This throne is a reference to the Mercy Seat, which sat on top of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle. The Mercy Seat was guarded by the figures of two heavenly beings, the cherubim, whose wings concealed the holiness of God.
Psalm 99 envisions an Ark-like throne room from where the Lord reigns. A heavenly Holy of Holies like the one we see in Isaiah chapter 6. The point is that God’s reign overflows from his holy throne. It is the very nature of the holiness of God, that when it is communicated, it requires the allegiance and worship of the creature.
The holiness of God is without measure, his glory knows no bounds, and therefore his reign is over all and without limit. God is holy, brothers and sisters, so we should fall at his feet and worship him in reverence.
The psalmist goes on to locate the place from which the Lord reigns. Look there in the text, v.2, “The Lord is great in Zion.” Now, Zion here represents the people of God. Since the creation of the world, the dwelling presence of God has always been with and among his people. From the Garden to the Tabernacle, and to the Temple, God’s glory is found resting where his people are. That is the reason why the Temple, that massive and beautiful structure that stood on Mount Zion above every other house in Jerusalem, becomes in the Old Testament the focal point of God’s redemptive activity among his people and in the world.
Israel, however, as you recall, fails to keep their covenant with God, and therefore once again, just as it had happened before, God expels his people from the land. They are be banished from his presence. Jerusalem is ransacked and the Temple is destroyed.
Nevertheless, God is gracious and his sovereign purposes cannot be thwarted. The Old Covenant with its laws and structures was never intended to be final but to point to a greater and decisive work that God will do in the future. Through the mouth of the prophets, God promises to rebuild his dwelling place among his people. But this time, the house of God would not be made out of stones nor have a physical address, rather it is the people themselves who become the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. In the prophet Isaiah we see something marvelous. Jerusalem and Zion become synonymous with the remnant of the Lord, the people whom God has redeemed.
And that’s what we see here in Psalm 99. Zion in v.2 and Jacob in v.4, mirror each other. Jacob and Zion are one. And it is from Zion, from his dwelling place among his people, that God reigns over all the peoples of the earth. As one commentator says “[God] is above all great in Zion, in the midst of his covenant people, from whom his kingdom reaches out to the world.” If you want to see the greatness of God, according to Psalm 99, you need to look to God’s people. The Lord is great in Zion.
Now, to be sure, God is omnipresent. In a sense, God is present over the entire creation everywhere and at all times. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that God is present everywhere at all times in the same way. God’s omnipresence in the world is not equal with his redemptive and saving presence among his people. Yes, God made it all, and owns it all, and therefore he claims it all. Nevertheless, he does not reign all peoples in all places equally. That is why missions exist. That is why we go out and risk our lives to proclaim the gospel and to establish churches in unreached places. And God is not present redemptively in all places in the same way. That is why we gather with the church on the Lord’s Day instead of going to the park or staying in bed watching TV, because God is savingly present where the people of God are gathered under the word of the gospel. God’s presence, and therefore God’s reign, are tied up with God’s people. In v.3 all the peoples of the earth are summoned to praise the awesome name of God as his greatness is made visible in his people.
The psalmist makes a transition in v.4. He moves from God’s reign over the nations to God’s reign among his people. Look there with me in v.4, “The King in his might loves justice. You have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.”
It is as King in Jacob that God makes his manifold perfections known; both his might and justice are revealed in his kingly rule over his people. Some of us have heard the famous saying that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Acton). This is an accurate observation on the corruptive nature of power in fallen humanity. Power has a corrupting tendency. But not with God. God is all-powerful and he is just. The King in his might loves justice. Because God is holy, his absolute power and authority are exercised according to his absolute commitment to righteousness.
As King over his people, the Lord establishes equity, the psalmist says. Equity here is explained as God’s execution of justice and righteousness. These two words, justice and righteousness form a simple poetic pair. In other words, to speak of God’s justice and to speak of God’s righteousness is the same thing. The equity that God establishes among his people is the outwork of his love or perfect commitment to justice.
But here again I want us to see how specific Psalm 99 is, where does God execute justice and righteousness? In Jacob. The Lord is King over his people, so that he exercises his reign over them in a way that is different from the way he exercises his reign among other peoples.
This is important for how we think about God’s just rule today. The issues of justice in our country and in the world are critical, but what is missing in much of our conversation is the clarity of understanding that God’s execution of justice and righteousness has been accomplished in Christ among his people. The eternal plan of God, Paul says in Ephesians 3, is to reveal his manifold wisdom, including his justice, by what he has accomplished through Christ in the church. The righteousness or justice of God is and has been manifested, apart from anything else, in Christ, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22). If you want to see the justice of God, you must look to God’s people, where the gospel is.
Otherwise, if God would establish equity and execute justice in the world today, it would be dreadful. Justice is not cheap. Justice has a price. It requires blood, your blood and mine. The confusion with our ideas of justice is that they tend to impute moral culpability in uneven ways, as if accountability before God were inherent in our social status rather than in our standing before his holiness. But our ideas of justice lay flat before the Lord of glory, “For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). If God would give us justice today apart from Christ, we would all be crushed under the power of his wrath. Justice destines all of us to the place of eternal damnation, where the worm never dies and the fire is not quenched.
But the good news of the gospel is that the Lord of Holiness makes his righteousness known not by executing justice on his people but on his Son. In Christ, God has made a way for his people to be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It is not my blood nor yours, but Christ’s. Christ is the propitiation for sin.
How do you get justice without being crushed under the wrath of God? By faith in God’s execution of righteousness upon his Son. It is his innocence for your guilt, his obedience for your disobedience, his righteousness for your rebellion, his cross for your freedom, and his death for your life. That is the justice of God revealed in the gospel.
Now, to be sure, we want God’s righteousness to be shown, and known, and admired, and treasured, among all nations, including and starting with our own. We want the justice of God to make all things right again. The entire creation waits eagerly for this day. By all means, Christians are and should be involved in the kind of work that promotes human flourishing, whether be by acts of mercy or by being involved in the public square, according to one’s calling. But brothers and sisters, we need to remember that the kingdom of God is not of this world. The kingdom of God does not advance through either entrepreneurship, philanthropy, economic systems or political parties. Rather, the kingdom of God triumphs as the church, empowered by the Spirit, calls sinners to repentance and faith “through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).
The Lord reigns as holy among the cherubim. His rule extends over the entire creation. And his throne is among his redeemed people, from where he rules the world. And so, with the message of salvation in our lips and works of mercy in our hands we invite the world, as the psalmist does in v.5, to come and “exalt the Lord our God” and to “worship at his footstool.” God deserves the worship of all peoples. The church gives herself to the God-centered ministry of the gospel for the sake of the world and for the glory of God.
We come now to our second point in vv.6-9, In His Holiness, the Lord Speaks.
In His Holiness, the Lord Speaks
As one commentator says, vv.1-5 show us the holiness of God enthroned and vv. 6-9 show us the holiness of God encountered.
Look there in vv.6-7. Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, among other priests call upon the name of the Lord and the Lord answers them. “In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them; they kept his testimonies and the statue that he gave them.” The Holy God who reigns out of the purity of his holiness, who executes perfect justice, and before whom the peoples and the earth tremble, this God, speaks with his people. His holiness is concealed in the pillar of the cloud but he makes himself known by speaking his Word.
The psalmist again refers to the Tabernacle and to the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant was a kind of box overlaid in gold. And inside this box, among other items, were the two tablets of the Ten Words, or Ten Commandments, which summarized the testimonies and statues that God had given to his people in the Law. The Ten Words in the Ark marked the Tabernacle as the place from where God ruled his people by his word. It was the place from where the glory of God shone forth and where his people would draw near to commune with him.
Every time that Israel would make a stop on their journey, the presence of God would descend on the Tabernacle in the form of a cloud. Once the glory of God rested there, Moses would go in to speak with God face to face. This priestly ministry was later taken on by Aaron and his descendants. It was the role of the priest to call upon the name of the Lord on behalf of the people. “His priests” in v.6, are “those who call upon his name.” The Tabernacle represented something remarkable, the Holy God whose presence must be hidden in the pillar of the cloud and concealed behind the wings of the cherubim, reveals himself to his people by his word so that they may have communion with him. At the center of Israel’s life stood the glory of God communicated to them by his Word through the mediation of a priestly ministry.
We shouldn’t miss the centrality of the Word in these verses. The focus of God’s saving presence among his people is his mediated gracious communication of himself by his word.
God speaks to his people in v.7 in the giving of his testimonies and statues. The Word of God creates, forms, and sustains the people of God. And the people of God are entrusted with his Word that they may keep it. There is a reason why we print the word Holy in the cover or spine of our Bibles. These words are the deposit of God’s revelation of his holiness entrusted to us. Our responsibility is to keep his Word by trusting it, obeying it, and by passing it on to the next generation. Preaching God’s Word, praying God’s Word, singing God’s Word, and displaying God’s Word in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not add-ons to the church. They are essential to our identity and mission as the people of God.
In his holiness, God speaks to his people and reveals himself both as forgiving and as the one who avenges wrongdoing. Look there in v.8. “O Lord our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.” The priestly calling represented here in Moses, Aaron, and Samuel is a plea for mercy. That’s what priests did, they interceded on behalf of the people. Perhaps the most memorable passage of intercession in the Old Testament is Exodus 32, which is probably alluded here in v.8. In Exodus 32 Moses comes down from the mountain to find the people dancing around the golden image of a calf. Israel’s idolatry is an affront to the holiness of God, so God’s wrath burns against the people to destroy them. But Moses appeals to God’s mercy and to his name among the nations. He intercedes for the people before God and God relents from his holy fury. The Lord shows his people mercy instead of wrath. He was a forgiving God to them.
But because God is holy he cannot simply push his people’s idolatry under the rug, he must deal with their sin. Again, in Exodus 32, the Lord relents from destroying Israel but he still sends a plague among them to punish those who had caused the people to sin. He was a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
This is the mystery of God’s unimaginable grace now revealed to us in the gospel. How can God, being mighty in his love for righteousness, establishing equity and executing justice, be both a forgiving God and an avenger of sin? The answer is back in v. 4, isn’t it? The Lord has executed justice and righteousness in Jacob not upon his people but upon himself by sending the Righteous to die for the Unrighteous, that he may bring us to God.
As we saw earlier, justice and mercy meet in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that we see the loveliness and holiness of God revealed in its fullness. Christ is the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature. Christ is the invisible God, made visible. God no longer speaks from the pillar of the cloud, but has now spoken with finality in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Christ is also the ultimate priest of God’s people, making intercession for us by his blood, having opened the way not to a shadowy earthly copy, but to the very throne room of God in the heavenly places. In Christ our wrongdoings are avenged and forgiveness is found. And in Christ, we are made holy as God is holy.
As we come to the end, we ask the question, why? “Our God is in the heavens and he does whatever he pleases.” Why do it this way? Why did God execute righteousness and justice upon the Lord Jesus Christ? The answer is his own glory. God did this in order to show forth his holiness among his people, that the world may know that the Lord our God is Holy, that he is both just and gracious. And our response should be to admire his holiness and to worship him. That is what v.9 invites the world to do. “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain. For the Lord our God is holy!”
The start and end of the Christian faith is the holiness of God graciously and savingly communicated, that God may be all in all. This is how Jonathan Edwards puts it, “It appears that all that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God's works is included in that one phrase, the glory of God. In the creatures' knowing, esteeming, loving, rejoicing in and praising God, the glory of God is both exhibited and acknowledged; his fullness is received and returned. Here is both the emanation and remanation. The refulgence shines upon and into the creature, and is reflected back to the luminary. The beams of glory come from God, and are something of God and are refunded back again to their original. So that the whole is of God and in God, and to God, and God is the beginning, middle and end in this affair.”
Being God-centered will never be outdated because God himself loves his own glory. The church is God’s “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Brothers and sister, through Christ, we have come to Mount Zion that we may “exalt the Lord our God.” And, as one writer says, “God is holy; he is also, against all our deserving, not ashamed to be called ours. Well may we worship.”