Commentary on Psalm 99
Psalm 99 is one of a small set of psalms that exuberantly proclaim the counter-cultural message that the Lord reigns as king over the entire universe:
- “The Lord is king! Let the peoples tremble!” (99:1)
- “The Lord is king, he is clothed in majesty” (93:1)
- “The Lord is a great God, and a great king above all gods” (95:3)
- “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’” (96:10)
- “The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice!” (97:1)
- “Make a joyful noise before the king, the Lord!” (98:6)
- “For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! (47:7)
- “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of God … the city of the great king” (48:1a, 2b)
These psalms are known as the enthronement psalms, or more simply as the yahweh mālāk psalms, after a key phrase that occurs in many of these psalms. The key phrase yahweh mālāk is usually translated as “The Lord reigns” or “The Lord is king”. Not to be confused with the royal psalms that celebrate the human, Davidic king, the enthronement psalms celebrate Israel’s God Yahweh as the universal, divine king.
For Christians who are well-accustomed to confessing either “Christ the king” or “God the king,” it may be easy to miss the astonishing, counter-cultural claim of these psalms. But if we take a little time and exercise a little imagination, we can tune our ears to hear the proclamation of these psalms. Imagine where this psalm and others were performed in the ancient world: in a modest little temple (let’s be honest), on a smallish mountain (Zion), in a tiny little kingdom (Judah) that was constantly being dominated by the great empires of the age (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Seleucid, Rome, et cetera). In that setting, some priest, poet, or prophet struck up the courage to announce that its God—the Lord—was the king of the entire earth and heaven. And therefore “the peoples” should tremble because he is “exalted over all the peoples.”
Seriously? We can be pretty sure that the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, and Romans were not overly impressed. They were often quite annoyed by this little kingdom Judah, whose people so often rebelled against their imperial control. But they were not too impressed, as one imperial official—the Assyrian Rabshakeh—warned the Judeans during King Hezekiah’s rebellion of 701 BCE:
Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! … “Do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, ‘Yahweh will deliver us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered its land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of the countries have delivered their countries out of my hand, that Yahweh should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’” (1 Kings 18:28b, 32b-35)
And yet, the priests, poets, and prophets of Judah continued to walk in faith and confess to the world in song: “The Lord is king! Let the peoples tremble!”
After its initial claim that “The Lord reigns” or “The Lord is king,” the psalm continues to blend more calls to praise with a series of epithets about the Lord.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!
He is holy!
Strong king! Lover of justice!
You have established equity.
Justice and righteousness,
You have provided in Jacob.
Extol the Lord our God;
Worship at his footstool!
He is holy! (verses 3-5)
Having already recalled the name of Jacob as a metonym for the entire nation, the psalm now evokes the names of three key ancestral leaders—Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. The mention of Moses and the recollection of the theophany at Sinai in which the Lord “spoke to them in the pillar of cloud” is clearly the reason the psalm is assigned for this week. But in the psalm’s internal rhetoric, where the psalmist has just called upon “all the peoples” to “praise your great and awesome name” (verse 3), the three ancestors are recalled because they were “among those who called on his name. They cried to the Lord, and he answered them” (verse 6). The psalm then concludes:
O Lord our God, you answered them;
You were a forgiving God for them,
And an avenger against their wrongs.
Extol the Lord our God,
And worship at his holy mountain;
For the Lord our God is holy! (verses 8-9)
The Lord both forgives and avenges. It is not clear whose “wrongs” the Lord avenges. The enemies of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel? Perhaps. But it is more likely that the sense is that the Lord both forgives their sins and yet holds them accountable. The stories of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel would confirm this interpretation, since they experienced both God’s grace and also God’s accountability.
The psalm’s climactic note sings praise to the Lord because he is holy. Three times—in verses 3, 5, and 9—the psalm asserts the holiness of the Lord. The first two times the psalm simply states, “he is holy!” The third and final time there is a slight variation, “The Lord our God is holy.” Following the interpretive principle of repetition, we may conclude that this phrase is the central theological confession of the psalm.
But what does that even mean? We say it so often—God is holy—that the sentence has practically lost all sense of meaning. The basic sense of the Hebrew root qadash is “to set aside” or “to be set aside.” That is, to be different.
My generation uses the adjective “different” negatively. “Well, he’s different”—meaning “strange”. Or, “That was different”—meaning “not something I want to experience again”.
But my son’s generation also uses the adjective “different” positively. “Oh, I’m different now, I’m different!”—meaning “awesome at something.” After making a great play in athletics, a kid might yell out, “I’m built different!” Meaning “tremendous.”
When we call God holy, we mean a bit of each of these. God is holy, different—God’s presence is scary, unpleasant for those unused to it. For humans, God’s presence is even dangerous. But mostly, God is different because God is awesome, excellent, tremendous.