Commentary on Psalm 99View Bible Text
To call God “holy” is to acknowledge that God is radically different from anything in the universe that exists or that we could imagine.
Psalm 99 uses this profoundly powerful concept as a lens through which the awesomeness of God may be contemplated and praised.
Scholars disagree on how exactly to categorize this psalm. The exaltation of God as king prompts some to lean toward a designation of Enthronement Hymn.1 Hans-Joachim Kraus points out, however, that the psalm is less about the enthroning of God as king and more about praise for the holy one who already is king.2 Therefore, Hymn of Praise for God as King may be more accurate nomenclature.
In any case, Psalm 99 may be divided into three sections, each of which ends in a refrain of praise. This division is helpful in that each section provides a different way of perceiving the holiness of God.3
The first section (verses 1-3) opens with the declaration “The Lord is King.” The reference to God being enthroned upon cherubim (verse 1) is reminiscent of the ark of the covenant and its cherubim-adorned lid, upon which God was invisibly enthroned during the post-Sinai phases of the exodus and early years in the promised land. Allusions to God during this time in Israel’s history also bring to mind God as the Lord of Hosts, who fights for his people and leads them into battle against their enemies.
The image of the Lord of Hosts may be the prompt for the psalmist to declare “Let the peoples tremble” (verse 1). If not, certainly the sheer power of God as king over all that exists would alone be enough to evoke trembling. Even the earth quakes, an allusion that also takes us back to Sinai where the mountain smoked and shook at the sheer presence of God. No wonder the skin of Moses’ face was changed (Exodus 34:30)! The earth-shaking dominion of the holy one extends to not just one area or people, but to all of them (verse 2). As a result, the psalmist can do no more and no less than call for the “praise” of God’s “great and awesome name” (verse 3).
Shifting from God’s supreme sovereignty, section two (verses 4-5) illuminates God’s holiness through the attributes of justice and righteousness. The same all-powerful king of verse 1 is also a “lover of justice” (verse 4). However, this God goes the full distance to not only admire these principles, but to also install them as the guidelines of ancient Israelite life (“you have established equity”). Even further, God has the power and willingness to ensure these holy principles are actively implemented (“you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob”). Surely the only reaction to this divine love for, founding, and enforcing of justice and righteousness can be exaltation and worship, for “Holy is he” (verse 5).
Section three (verses 6-9) may provide the starkest illustration of God’s holiness in the psalm. Sovereign power alone does not make a deity truly unique, nor even does an affinity for justice and righteousness make one radically different from all others. However, in these closing verses, we find a God who is both sovereign king and lover of justice who also chooses to work through human beings and establish an intimate and lasting relationship with them. Moses, Aaron, and Samuel were among those who “cried to the Lord and he answered them” (verse 7).
God enters into forgiving relationships based on steadfast love with these individuals and others like them. Yet, God’s forgiving love is simultaneously tempered by divine judgment. While being “a forgiving God to them,” this holy deity is at the same time “an avenger of their wrongdoings” (verse 8). Neither of these attributes of God’s holiness nullifies the other. Instead, they stand inseparably together as the very heart of what makes the God of Israel profoundly different from all others, “for the Lord our God is Holy” (verse 9).
The psalmist’s presentation of the holiness of God is helpful not only for our understanding of just who God is, but also for our discernment of what it means to belong to a God who is holy. The priests of Leviticus repeatedly implore worshippers of God to be holy because the Lord their God is holy (e.g. 11:44, 19:2). Psalm 99 shows us that holiness on our part has little, if anything, to do with personal piety or religiosity. Instead, be different because the Lord your God is different.
Just as God chooses not to operate according to the norms of other deities, so also we who belong to God are called to march to the beat of a different drum. Following paths that that are not those of least resistance and operating according to principles that do not always put our personal wants and pleasures first may be the most profound means by which we can “extol the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain” (Psalm 99:9).
1Weiser, Artur. The Psalms: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 640-41.
2Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 60-150: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 268-69. Cf. Psalms 96 and 97.