The holy God - Psalm 99

This is a sermon by Tom Hutton from the Riverside Church service on 24th June 2007.

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I wonder if you are the kind of person who loves big Royal events. You know like the Queens Golden Jubilee or her official birthday every year. Well the other week Lucy and I caught the end of the Queens official birthday parade on the TV. And it’s quite a spectacular event with all the cavalry units riding around in unison, the flyovers of the Lancaster bombers and the Red Arrows. And there in the middle of it all is the Queen. I’m sure some of you will remember her coronation or at least seen pictures of it. And right at the heart of events like these is the Queen on her throne. And the message is very clear. This person is powerful. This is a powerful nation. And that is kind of the picture that we have here at the beginning of Psalm 99.

‘The LORD reigns’ says the Psalmist. But unlike Psalm 97 where the Lord’s reign meant gladness for the earth, here we are told ‘let the nations tremble, let the earth shake.’ For in Psalm 99 we are presented with an awe inspiring God. A Holy God.

Three times in the Psalm we are told that He is a Holy God. And these three statements frame, if you like, the whole Psalm. And we’re going to look at these three sections as follows. The Holy God is reigning, The Holy God is just and The Holy God is merciful.

The Holy God is reigning

So firstly then the Holy God is reigning verses 1-3. So we’re back to that image of a king on his throne. And if you look down at verse one that’s exactly what we see. ‘He sits enthroned among the cherubim.’  Let me just explain the context of what the Psalmist is writing here.  In the Old Testament God symbolically dwelt with his people between the cherubim on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. So we read in 2 Samuel when King David is bringing the ark into his newly conquered capital of Jerusalem. ‘He and all his men set out... to bring up... the  Ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark.’ And remember the context of Psalm 98 that we saw last week. Psalm 98 was a song of joy because of the victory that God had won. And more specifically in the context of when it was written God had given Israel victory over the surrounding nations. Well here triumphant after his victories God is reigning. Reigning enthroned between the cherubim, the ark of the covenant, now in the centre of David’s new capital city.

And it’s a clear message to all the nations around Israel at the time. The God of Israel is the true God. The other nations should respond with trembling before Him. They should recognise that he is reigning. ‘He is exalted over all the nations.’ He is not just the God of Israel but the God of the whole world. He is no tribal deity.  And the call of the Psalmist is for the other nations to praise him for what He has done. To realise his greatness.

God is not just the God of our lives, or the God of England, or the west. No. God is the God of the whole world. There is no place on earth, no person over Jesus does not claim lordship. And like the Psalmist we need to remember that. We need to remember that all nations are called to worship the Lord.

And why is this? Verse 3 ‘He is Holy.’ ‘He is Holy’

But what does it mean for God to be Holy? Often we have such a negative or at least distorted view of what holy means. Often the first image that pops into my head when I hear the word holy is a ‘holier than though’ self righteous kind of character.  But what does it mean for God to be Holy? Because Holiness is part of God’s revealed character. ‘Be Holy because I am holy’ God says to Moses.

Well the Israelites would have known what it meant to have a Holy God dwelling in their midst. The Ark of the Covenant was a constant reminder. You see not only did it represent that God was with his people but it also represented how different he was from them. The Ark lived in the centre of the tabernacle and later the temple. In the bit called the Holy of Holies. The bit where nobody could go into except once a year when the High priest went in. And then only after having made the appropriate sacrifices to deal with his sins. It showed although God was present with his people he was also separate from them. God’s Holiness means that he can’t live among sinful people.

It’s a bit like that Cesspit in Bransholme the other week. If you saw the story, after all the flooding a cesspit formed which lots of children were playing and then they all got ill. Well to God that cesspit is like sin. It filthy and disgusting. And his purity means that he can’t live among sinful people.

Which leaves us with a massive problem.  Because the Bible tells us we are all sinners. None of us match up to God’s absolutely holy standards. We are like that cesspit that I just mentioned. And God’s holiness means that he must judge sin. Which leads us on to our next section.


The Holy God is just

The Holy God is just, verses 4 and 5. God’s judgement is a theme that we have seen crop up throughout the Psalms that we have been looking at this term. And in verse 4 we are reminded that ‘The King is mighty, he loves justice’ or more literally translated as ‘The strength of the King loves justice.’ The King’s strength is seen in his ability to execute justice when it is needed.

In Israel at the time of this Psalm the King’s role was to make sure that God’s people obeyed God’s law. However, if you’ve been at the family services you’ll know that the Kings’ of Israel didn’t always do this. But Israel also had another king, for the human King was only a representative of the real King of Israel, the Lord God. And in him we can have complete confidence that he will execute justice and do it fairly. We have seen already in this Psalm that he is exalted. He reigns over all the nations. Therefore he has the power to judge.

But he is not like any human judge. The history of this world is littered with examples of people who have had power but very few of them have been good judges. No quite the reverse. Because power normally corrupts sinful humanity, it tends to produce tyrants. So how can we know that God will judge fairly? Because v5 ‘He is Holy’ God is without sin and therefore we can trust that he will judge fairly.

Verse 4 tells us ‘In Jacob you have done what is just and right.’ Jacob refers here to the whole nation of Israel, which often in the Old Testament were called Jacob. So we’ve moved from God the ruler over all the nations and now we focus on his own covenant community. The people of Israel. And in Israel in the Old Testament we see an example of what it means for God to love justice. For it is to his people that he gave his law. It is by these standards that he judges. God has establishes equity and justice.

And the result is, verse 5, a call to the nations to worship the God of Israel

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

Because he is holy and therefore he has established righteousness. This is the only true God. He is the only God who deserves our worship.

So far in Psalm 99 we have a picture of a Holy God. One who must punish sin and promises to do so. We have seen in his example to Israel in the Old Testament that he will do this with righteousness. And therefore as sinners we face God’s judgement. And yet we are commanded to draw near and worship him. Yet how can we do this when he is so holy and we so sinful. Well verses 6-9 give us the answer. For these verses show us that no matter how exalted and holy God is, he has revealed himself and chooses to show mercy on his people.

The Holy God is Merciful

Verses 6-9 then the Holy God is merciful.

And Let me read verse 6 again:

Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
 Samuel was among those who called on his name;
   they called on the LORD
and he answered them.

Moses, Aaron and Samuel were all representatives of the people of Israel. ‘They were among those’ the psalmist tells us ‘who called on his name.’ And the result was that he graciously made himself known to them. He answered them.

And how did he do that? Well according to verse 7 it was from a pillar of cloud that he spoke to them. So what’s that all about there? Well, we need to dive in to our Old Testament background again. And this time we need to look back to the Exodus when God rescued his people out of the land of slavery. Out of the land of Egypt. And throughout this time God’s presence with his people was represented by a pillar of cloud during the day and at night a pillar of fire. And while the Israelite people were wondering through the desert the pillar of cloud went before them in order to guide them.

But it also fulfilled another role. Because once again we see in God’s holiness a separation between a Holy God and a sinful people. The pillar of cloud served to cover God’s full glory so that the people of Israel were not consumed. So God’s holiness meant that he was separate and yet mercifully he was still with them. Guiding them and leading them through the desert. And as we are told in verse 7 he was revealing himself to them.

But we still have a real tension here. Because on the one hand we have a Holy God. One who will judge fairly and must punish sin. But also a God who rescues a people for himself and shows mercy to them. So the question remains. How can such a Holy God live among sinful people, when his holiness leads him to judge sin? Well verse 8 gives us the answer.

O LORD our God,
       you answered them;
       you were to Israel a forgiving God,
       though you punished their misdeeds.

Here the Psalmist tells us that although God is merciful and forgiving to his people he does not leave their sins unpunished. God’s holiness means that he must punish sin yet he is also merciful. So how do God’s justice and mercy meet? Well they meet in Jacob through whom God has done what is just and right v 4. The King who is also the LORD. God himself.  The Lord Jesus Christ. Because ultimately it is in the cross where God’s justice and his mercy meet. Let me read a few words from the letter to the Romans:

25God presented him (that is Christ) as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

In other words on the cross Jesus was offered as a sacrifice for our sins. He bore God’s wrath and therefore God, the Holy God, remained just in punishing sin and yet forgiving those who trust in Jesus. He remains just and yet can justify. Or as the Psalmist wrote almost 1000 years earlier:

you were to Israel a forgiving God,
though you punished their misdeeds.

It is at the cross that we perfectly see God’s holiness. So it’s no surprise then in the light of God’s mercy and holiness that we are told to worship at God’s Holy mountain, verse 9. And notice the relational terms in which the Psalmist now relates to this Holy God.

for the LORD our God is holy.

Praise God because even though he is Holy he has rescued. He is merciful. He has chosen to reveal himself, to make himself known. And has rescued a people for himself.

What a great God he is, worthy of our praise and worship. Worship at his Holy mountain says the Psalmist.

But what does that mean for us today? We worship the King by submitting to his rule. By trusting in his cross. So maybe you’re here today, you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian. You’ve never submitted to Christ’s rule. Can I plead with you to remember the warning of Psalm 99? The God of the Bible is reigning over all nations. He is Holy and therefore he must punish sin. But God has provided another way. A way in which he has punished sin but can still forgive us. That is through the cross. So can I urge you to trust in his cross submit to his righteous and just rule before it is too late.

And if you are a Christian here today, the challenge for us is to remember v9.

Exalt the LORD our God
and worship at his holy mountain,
for the LORD our God is holy

Here we have a command to the nations to worship our God. Yet how are they to obey it if they don’t hear about it. Therefore we need to tell the other nations. In the Old Testament times it would have meant all the nations surrounding Israel. But for us it is all those people living around us who don’t trust in Christ. So we need to exalt them to worship our God on the basis of his character and what he has done for his people.

But it doesn’t end there because as Christians we are caught in a now but not yet state. We have a relationship with the living God through the cross of Christ but there is more to come. Remember our other reading that we had today from Revelation. For that is the future for God’s people. Here we have a picture of the heavenly throne. Where people from all different nations have been drawn to worship God because of what he has done for them. A place where a Holy God can live among his people because there will no longer be any sin. Why? Because he has dealt with it once and for all with the blood of the Lamb. Now that is a Holy God worth our worship.

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