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The majestic God - Psalm 97

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 10th June 2007.

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The Lord reigns.  Or does He?   Last week the American authorities foiled a plan to blow up New Yorkís JFK airport.     The FBI said that it represented the tip of the iceberg in terms of plots being planned.    But as we know itís not just America:  a few weeks ago, 5 al Qaíeda  men were found guilt at the Old Bailey of conspiring to cause a massive explosion using a fertiliser bomb.  And maybe you remember the controversy in the news because of the links between those men and July 7th bombers who did pull off their plot.  Last November, the head of MI5 publicly said that theyíd identified about 30 major terrorist plots in the planning stage and that they were monitoring more than 1600 people who were engaged in planning attacks here or abroad. 

And thatís just political terrorism.  Closer to home, in the first quarter of this year, there were 18 rapes in and around the Newland Avenue area of town.  And within our own congregations, people are struggling with various other issues:  health issues [like Edna and Glennys], issues of bereavement with for some people remains a raw pain after many years, especially on the various anniversaries;  I know of other struggles in peopleís families -  relationship problems or the problem with prodigal children.  For some, jobs and money are the issues:  interest rates are going up;  some factories have closed;  and even in the public sector, job security isnít what it used to be. 

But the Bible tells us that the Lord reigns.  Do you ever look at the Bible and then look at your world and begin to doubt Godís promises?  Is the Lord really reigning?  Is God really in control?  Does God really love me despite the problems in my life?  Does the life of true faith in the Lord and His promises mean we have to ignore reality?

Well Psalm 97 speaks into such a situation.  A fortnight ago, we started our series in the Psalms with Ps96.  And we saw that the original context of Ps 96 was in 1 Chron where David finally defeats the Philistines and Jebusites and makes the newly captured Jerusalem his capital city.  If you remember from 1 Chron 15, the ark was brought back to Jerusalem and set in middle of the Tabernacle.  And so in the middle of Jerusalem, God symbolically dwelt.   God had promised to give his people the land of Canaan.  The Promised Land.  And as weíve seen in our Family Services, under David, those promises to Abraham begun to be fulfilled.  God had made them into a large and great nation and heíd given them the Promised Land;  including the city of Jerusalem.  And so we looked at Davidís Psalm of thanks in 1 Chron 16, part of which is Ps 96.  Sing to the Lord a new song. 

But things werenít perfect.  Although the Lord had given His people Jerusalem, there remained pockets of resistance in the Promised Land God had given His people.  David spent most of his life fighting the enemies of Godís people.  Flick on a few chapters in 1 Chron and youíll see a whole list of battles.  And later on, after the reign of King David, as weíve seen from our Family Service series, things fell apart.   By the time the book of Psalms was completed and arranged in its current form, the Babylonians had demolished Jerusalem and taken Godís people off into exile.    And even after the exile, Godís people remained a small and demoralised people ruled by a huge regional super-power. 

So what does Ps 97 have to say to Godís people surrounded by war, terrorism and internal problems?  Well v1 says: The Lord reigns.    And so the question is, will Godís people trust the Word of the Lord?  Or will they look at the seen realities around them and reject the Lord and His Word? 

This then is the issue in Psalm 97.  When life seems tough, will Godís people continue to trust in His promises, even if those promises seems a million miles away from the world they live in. What did the Psalmist have to say to them? 

1.      Yes The Lord reigns

2.      Yes the Lord will judge His enemies

3.      And yes the Lord will save His people.

So as we look at the text under those heading, pl turn back to Ps97, which is on P [561/935] of the church Bibles. 

The Lord Reigns

First then, the Lord reigns.  But what kind of reign?  Letís look at v1:

V1: ďThe LORD reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice.Ē

The Lord is not like the empty idol pagan gods of the ancient world.  A god for here and a god for there; a god for love and a god for war;  a god for everything and everywhere,  all fighting each other with none of them in overall control.  What a contrast to Israelís Majestic God.  The Lord reigns over the whole earth, even the distant islands.  This is a central theme of the OT and especially the Psalms.  The Lord is sovereign not just over Israel, but over the whole earth.  But why?  What right does the Lord have to reign the whole earth? 

Well look back to v 4 of Ps 96:

For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
       he is to be feared above all gods.

 5 For all the gods of the nations are idols,
       but the LORD made the heavens.

The Lord is the rightful ruler of the whole earth because Heís the Creator.  The Lordís reign that the Psalms talk of is based on the central OT assumption that the Lord is the Creator.  The Lord created the heavens and the earth, so He owns it and can do whatever He wants with it.  God is not accountable to anyone.  Not to Parliament, not to the European Court of Human Rights or to anyone.  Is this a problem?  We donít like dictators, do we?  Why?  Because if theyíre not evil to start with like Hitler, then power eventually goes to their heads Ė perhaps like some our own PMs.  So, is God like the evil dictators of our world?  Letís go back to Ps97 and look with me at the second half of v2:

V2b: ďrighteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.Ē

Godís absolute rule is a good thing, because itís based on His character.   Heís the majestic God.  And His righteousness and justice are part of His holiness.  We can be sure that the Lordís absolute rule will always be right and just because Heís always faithful to Himself.  Holy holy holy is the Lord God Almighty.   The Majestic God.

And as New Covenant believers, we know that Jesus is Lord.  We know that Jesus is the creator.  Listen to these familiar words from the beginning of Johnís Gospel we looked at last year when we look at the first half of Johnís Gospel: 

Jn 1:1: ďIn the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.Ē

ĎIn the beginningí immediately reminds us of the creation.  The Word existed eternally with God the Father before the creation of the world.  And indeed, the Word was God as well as the Father being God.  And God the Father, weíre told, delegated the job of Creation to God the Word.  Later in his Gospel, John testifies that Jesus of Nazareth is the Word made flesh among us.  Jesus is the Creator God.  As because Jesus is one with the Father as we learn in Johnís Gospel, Jesus too is holy holy holy.  Justice and righteous are the foundation of Jís character and ministry. 

The Lord reigns. 

1.      The Lord reigns over the whole earth, because Heís the Creator.

2.      The Lordís reign is just and righteous, because itís based on His holiness.


The Lord Judges

But, like two ends of a magnet, the Lordís utter holiness means He canít be near sin.  Sin and all Godís enemies will ultimately be destroyed, because the Lord Judges, which is the 2nd main point this Psalm is making;  The Lord Judges.  Come back to the beginning of v2:

v2: ď Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.  Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side.  His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles.  The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. 

Itís a picture of judgement; judgement of the whole world.  In the OT, the Lord often appeared in a cloud.  The cloud symbolised the holiness of The Lord who is utterly separate from sinful people.  Not even his own people could see His face and live.  Darkness and fire are recurring symbols in the OT of Godís judgement.  The prophets are full of warnings that the dreadful Day of the Lord would come with fire, clouds and darkness.  Donít turn to it, but listen to the words of the prophet Zephaniah in chapter 1:

Zeph 1:14ff:  "The great day of the LORD is near and coming quickly. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness.  In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth."

This was good news for Israelites being surrounded or oppressed by their enemies.  Back in Ps97, v6 tells us that no-one, including the ancient pagan nations, had any excuse for rejecting the Lord.  Why?  Because Creation itself points towards the Creator and His perfect character.  Creation itself speaks of the majestic God.  Because the beauty and order of the Creation points to the beauty and harmony of the Creator God behind it. 

It certainly doesnít point to a pantheon of gods fighting each other for control of little bits of land in just one part of the world.  V7 is telling us that that all sin is ultimately caused by men and women suppressing the truth about their Creator and exchanging the glory of the Lord for worthless empty idols.  All who trust in idols of whatever kind, are without excuse;  they will ultimately be put to shame.

And just as we saw that Jesus was Lord and so Jesus reigns, so Jesus is also the Judge.  In the NT we learn that God the Father has given Jesus dominion to rule the World and to Judge it.    Jesus is not only Lord.  Heís also the judge. 

But thereís a problem with the Lord judging His enemies.  The O and NTs are united in telling is that:  "There is no-one righteous, not even one; there is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God." [Rom 3:10ff].  In other words, in our natural state, everyone of us is the Lordís enemy.    None of us loves Jesus naturally.   Left to ourselves, all we can look forward to is the Lordís just punishment of our sin.

The Lord Saves His people

So what comfort is that for Godís people?  If thatís the end of the story, then whatís the point in being one of Godís people?  When weíre facing such judgement, how can we rejoice and be glad as the Psalmist tells us in v8?  Well the clueís in v10: 

V10:  ďLet those who love the LORD hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.Ē

The command for those that love the Lord to hate evil is based on a presumption.  It presumes that they have been turned from being Godís enemies into those who love Him.  How has this happened?  Well, v10-12 tell us that itís only because of Godís grace.  Which is the Psalmís 3rd point:  The Lord saves His people;  The Lord saves His people. 

The second half of v10 would be better translated ďbecause He preserves the souls of His faithful onesĒ.  Likewise, v11 is better translated ďLight will dawnĒ. 

So v10-11 tell us that the Lord guards the souls of His faithful ones.  Light will dawn upon the righteous and joy on the upright in heart.  [Pause]  But how has God made it possible for His enemies to become His faithful ones;  how can the wicked be turned into the righteous and upright in heart? 

Well come back to verses 2&3, where we saw Godís judgement of sin.  The Jewish readers of this Psalm would immediately have connected v2&3 with the Exodus.  On Mt Sinai, the Lord appeared in the cloud and gave Moses the 10 commandments and the rest of the OT Law. 

But because Godís people could never live up to His perfect standards, He provided a way for them to be forgiven when they broke the law.  The sacrificial system, where sheep and other animals were sacrificed by fire.  Godís wrath against His peopleís sins was poured out on the animal sacrifices in the place of His people. 

And as NC believers, we know that the animal sacrifices that v2&3 point to were only  shadow;  a shadow of the sacrifice to come.  The Cross.  The animal sacrifices didnít work in themselves.  The Cross has fulfilled and replaced what the animal sacrifices only symbolised. God Himself bore our sins in the body of Jesus so that we might be forgiven.  The cross is where wrath and mercy meet.  Godís wrath was poured out on Jesus on the Cross.  That reading we had from Matthewís gospel reminds us that between 12n and 3pm as Jesus was hanging on the Cross, darkness came over the whole land.  At the moment Jesus died, there was an earthquake. 

The Judgement that v2-7 of Ps97 points to, has been poured out on Jesus.  Jesus bore the Lordís wrath so that we donít have to.    Itís what theologians call penal substitution.  We all deserve His judgement, but the Lord saves His people.  How?  On the basis of His gracious provision.    On the basis of penal substitution. And only on the basis of penal substitution.  This is why Godís people could rejoice and be glad in v8. Because God had provided a means of salvation.  Despite their sin, The Lordís people could be counted righteous.  They could look forward to the light of heaven dawning.  From this eternal perspective, anything the Philistine or the Babylonians could do to them didnít matter.  As Jesus said, ďDo not be afraid of those who kill the body, buy cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hellĒ [Mt 10:28].

So if youíre one of Godís people, be assured:  the Lord is preserving your soul.  Nothing can separate you from the love of God.  One day youíll be with Jesus in paradise.  And if thatís you, then just like the demoralised Israelites after the exile, these facts should put all the hassles of this life into perspective.  In the light of eternity, earthquakes, terrorism, poor health, bereavement and not even death itself can destroy the blessings that await you in heaven.  If you are one of Godís people, His message to you this morning is v12:  rejoice in the Lord, you who have been declared righteous, and praise His holy Name, because great is your inheritance in Heaven.  Stand firm then and be encouraged.     [pause]

But, v7 warns us that all who persist in idolatry will still face Godís judgement.  Only the faithful ones of v10 are covered by Jís sacrifice.  So how do we know if weíre the True Israel of v8?  How do we know if the Lord Jesus preserves our Souls in v10?  Are you considered righteous and upright in Godís sight?  Well the united answer of both the O and NTs is that the True Israelites are those who trust in Godís promises.  Because trusting in Godís Word is the antidote to idolatry.  Idolatry is trusting or valuing anything more than the Lord Jesus.  And the greatest example of idolatry is self-reliance;  trusting in yourself more than God;  trusting that you can be righteous enough for God on your own.  Itís the same God in the O and NTs. And He saves His people by the same grace. 

But this side of the Cross, trusting in Godís promises, means to believe His testimony:  it means to believe that Jesus is the Christ.  To believe that Jesus reigns.  To believe that on the Day of the Lord, the Lord Jesus will come to the earth a second time to wind up human history and Judge the world.  But most importantly, trusting Godís promises for us means that we trust in Jís death on the Cross alone for our forgiveness.  If weíre trusting in anything else, then weíll face Jís judgement with no hope of forgiveness.  And this is what the Bible calls hell.    And if you know in your heart thatís you, then donít delay.  Come to Jesus for forgiveness today. [pause] 

Is God reigning?  Is the Lord really in control?  Yes He is and His message to us this morning is the same as it was to His people long ago when this Psalm was first written.  If youíre a true believer, then be encouraged; be encouraged no matter what your circumstances;  stand firm and be encouraged.  But if youíre not one of His people, then cry out for mercy before itís too late.   Letís pray.


Closing Prayer

Dear Lord Jesus,

Thank you for the consistent message of the whole Bible, that you Created us, youíre reigning and one day youíll be our judge. Thank you so much that you have provided a way for us to be forgiven, not because of anything we do, but purely by your grace alone.  Thank you for those of us here this morning who know this truth and have the certainty of eternal life with you.  And we pray for any here this morning who arenít sure about this truth, that you might open their eyes to your amazing truth and so receive eternal life.

In Your name and for your glory we pray, Amen. 

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