God: Inconceivably Distinct
Passage: Psalm 99:1–99:9
God: Inconceivably Distinct
September 9th, 2007
Way of Grace Church
I. Introduction: Postcard or Reality?
This morning I'd like to begin with a shocking admission. Did you know that I lived in Arizona for more than 25 years before I ever visited the Grand Canyon? Pretty sad, isn't it? Don't ask me why I didn't go.
But like most people, before I went, I only knew the Grand Canyon from pictures on postcards. Now when all you know is the postcard, it still seems pretty impressive doesn't it? Some of the pictures you find on postcards are quite stunning.
But when you walk to the edge of the canyon for the first time, the reality of the Grand Canyon is so much more awesome than the postcard could ever communicate, isn't it? In fact, today, for most people, the Grand Canyon, or some equally impressive piece of planet earth is about the only thing that inspires awe.
This morning I'd like you to think about this relationship between the postcard and reality in light of God. I believe that for many, more than we'd like to admit, our view of God is like that postcard. In general, just like the photograph, our view of God may be accurate. From the postcard people would say that the Grand Canyon is large, that it's deep, that it's made out of rock. And they would be right.
In the same way, many people would say that God is good, just, loving, wise, and powerful. And they would be right. But oftentimes, we speak, and think, and live as if the postcard was everything; as if that was it.
But what happens when you slowly inch closer to reality? Accuracy is quickly coupled with intensity, just like when you slowly approach the Grand Canyon for the first time. You may have had an accurate view of what that canyon looked like, but now, when confronted with the reality of it, words seem inadequate, almost useless.
Over the next four weeks, I want to challenge all of us, including myself, to move beyond the postcard when it comes to God. My prayer is that God will give us the eyes to see even just a fraction more of the reality of who he is, the reality of the bigness of God.
To do this, there is only one place we can turn to learn more: to what God himself has revealed about his own nature. We begin our journey this morning in Psalm 99. Turn with me there.
II. The Passage: Holy is He! (Psalm 99:1-9)
Listen as I read:
The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! 2 The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. 3 Let them praise your great and awesome name! Holy is he! 4 The King in his might loves justice. You have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. 5 Exalt the LORD our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he! 6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called upon his name. They called to the LORD, and he answered them. 7 In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them; they kept his testimonies and the statute that he gave them. 8 O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings. 9 Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy!
Psalm 99 is in what we call the fourth book of the Psalter which includes Psalms 90-106. These are Psalms or songs that seem to describe Israel's return to a right view of God, to a big view of God.
More specifically, Psalm 99 is included in what are called the "Enthronement Psalms", which include Psalms 95-100. These psalms all emphasize the fact that God is the king over all creation. We certainly see that here, don't we. Look at the opening line, "The LORD reigns!"
Now as we look at this psalm, it's also important to remember that the term LORD here, when we see it in all capitals, is used in place of the divine name of God revealed in the Old Testament, probably best pronounced as Yahweh. I point this out because it's always important to see that God is a personal being and a unique God. In the OT he reveals himself as Yahweh, God of Israel.
Obviously, there is a lot packed into these nine verse, but what I want to focus on this morning is something that seems particular important to the writer of this ancient song. Did you notice what was repeated in this psalm? In three verses (vs. 3, 5, 9), God is described as "holy" "Holy is he!" "Holy is he!" "...our God is holy!"
Now whenever you see something repeated in the Bible, especially in a short section like this, you know it's an important part of what the writer is trying to communicate. And so what this songwriter is trying to say is vitally connected to the reality that God is "holy".
But what does this word mean? Holy. God is holy.
From my own experience, "holy" is one of those words that Christians use frequently, but don't always understand. For most people, the fact that God is holy means that he is morally pure. But that it is an implication of holiness, not a definition. So how do we define this key idea from Psalm 99?
III. Defining Holiness
Holy is when something is covered with circular openings, kind of like Swiss cheese...just wanted to see if you were really listening!
No, the Hebrew word that is used by this ancient author in Psalm 99 is the word qadosh, which seems to come from the basic word for "cut". The sense of the word as it used here is not "cut", but "cut apart", or "set apart".
God's holiness is God's distinctiveness. He is not distinct or "set apart" because human beings have set him apart. His very nature, the fact that He alone is God, makes him distinct from everything else. So we could say that holiness is a distinctiveness derived from deity.
When other things in Scripture are defined as ‘holy', they are described with that term because of their relationship to God; because they have been set apart for God. They are not holy in terms of their essence, but only by association with the Holy One.
Now defining the term ‘holy' like this does not mean we that we can completely understand this idea as it relates to God. In fact, included in that definition is the idea that God is a whole other category.
As Scripture declares in so many places, "O God, who is like you?" (Psalm 71:19)
Do you believe this about God? Sometimes, I think the fact that God has revealed himself to human beings, what we read about in His word, in Scripture, sometimes I think that revelation causes us to feel like we can master or have mastered God, just like any subject.
The problem is that's like confusing a postcard of the Grand Canyon with the Canyon itself. We can get our hands around the postcard, we can master the postcard, we can place the postcard where we want it to go (on our fridge, in a frame, in a scrapbook). But the reality of the Grand Canyon is distinct, overwhelmingly distinct. There's no way we can get our hands around it or master it. We can't take it where we want it to go. It doesn't serve our agenda.
Or how about the Eagle Nebula, 7000 light years away from Earth, captured in this image by the Hubble Space Telescope? This one pillar, if we can call it that, measures three or four light years in length. That's between 15-20 trillion miles. To give you a sense of how big that is, if you were to put a line of Earths, straight up this pillar from the top to the bottom, it would take 5 million of our planet to stretch from one end to the other. And look, this is this only one small part of a massive structure.
Can you get your mind around something like this?
If that's true of the Eagle Nebula, and the Grand Canyon, these wonders of creation, how much more is this true of the Creator of heaven and earth?
God is distinct; inconceivably distinct.
But we need to go back to Psalm 99. What do we learn from the context here about God's holiness? Remember, three times the writer of this psalm declares that God is holy. He weaves it through the entire song. But if it's woven through, how does it relate to the rest of the psalm?
Now as we go back through this psalm, we also need to think about the right response to the holiness, to the divine distinctiveness of God.
In His Greatness (99:1-3)
Well look again at how these proclamations of God's distinctiveness divide up this psalm. Look again at verses 1-3. Think about what these words might teach us about God's holiness.
The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! 2 The LORD is great in Zion [another name for Jerusalem in this context]; he is exalted over all the peoples. 3 Let them praise your great and awesome name! Holy is he!
Do you see the connection? Do you see why the writer is driven to this declaration of God's holiness? Because in the reality of God's all-powerful control over everything, in the reality of His "great and awesome name", we see just how distinct He is. He is holy! There is no like Him.
You see in this series on the bigness of God, we must begin with the holiness of God, because it is the one attribute under which every other attribute of God must be placed. It is the idea that describes the culmination of everything that makes God God.
So what we see here is that God's holiness, his divine distinctiveness is revealed in his greatness. He is indeed "exalted over all the peoples" (v. 2)!
But look at what else this tells us about the right response to God's holy power. The psalmist instructs us: "let the peoples tremble...let the earth quake". When men and women are confronted by the holiness of God, they are undone.
Remember Isaiah's vision of God in the temple? As the seraphim flew crying "holy, holy, holy", Isaiah the prophet said, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5)
And this is not simply an OT kind of reaction. Paul told the Christians in Philippi to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
How could a being so big, so distinct, not cause us to tremble? Especially in light of the fact that we so often want to be in control, we grasp for power. Everyday we are tempted to live like we are reigning and not God.
If that's true, how would you respond in the presence of the One who truly reigns? "Let the peoples tremble...let the earth quake!"
But notice what else we learn here in verses 4 and 5...
In His Goodness (99:4-5)
The King in his might loves justice. You have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. 5 Exalt the LORD our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!
God's distinct nature, his holiness, is not simply related to ideas like God's power and supremacy. It also seen in His love of justice. God's perfect justice, or we could say his goodness, or righteousness, is another example of how distinct he is from us.
Notice how it is stated here. God, the King, loves justice. He does execute justice, but God's holiness, his distinctiveness here is not simply about what he does. What he does come from who he is. And he is holy.
We live in a world of corrupt ion and injustice. But God is perfectly just, far beyond what we can even imagine.
Again, how do you respond to this, to the fact that God always does what is right? How do we respond as those who fall extremely short of always doing what is right? Look again at what the psalmist declares. In light of his justice, v. 5, "exalt the LORD our God; worship at his footstool."
"Exalt" means to lift up, above everything else. What are we lifting up in our lives? What are we telling others about what holds the highest place in our life, our number one priority? What are we worshipping?
If we could only get a tiny glimpse of God's divine distinctiveness, his holiness, we would worship him as the only one worthy of everything we are.
Now, up to this point, many people might imagine that a God like this is simply too big; that it would be impossible to relate to a being like this. They might imagine that our response to him is simply groveling in the dirt all the time.
But look again at the psalm, at verse 99:6-9...
In His Grace (99:6-9)
6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called upon his name. They called to the LORD, and he answered them. 7 In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them; they kept his testimonies and the statute that he gave them. 8 O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings. 9 Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy!
Again, what we see here is that God's holiness, his distinctiveness is not simply about how different he is in all of those areas we might call "God-like". Here we see that God's distinctiveness is manifested in his grace.
The whole progression of this psalm speaks of a great and awesome God who draws near to us. He appointed priests like Moses and Aaron. He heard the prayers of Samuel. He is a God who desires to enter into relationship with us...us!...who are like dust mites in the castle of a king. He even revealed his name to Israel!
God's grace points us back to His holiness. He is perfectly just, but he is also perfectly merciful. Can you get your mind around this kind of God? This kind of grace?
"O God, who is like you?"
And as we see from verse 9, the response is the same as that prescribed in verse 5. "Exalt the LORD our God, worship at his holy mountain."
In this greatness, his goodness, and his grace, we should be struck by the reality of God's divine distinctiveness. Words can only communicate a fraction of this reality. It is a fraction we can understand and cling to, it is accurate, like that postcard, but it is still only a fraction.
How big is your God? The chief sin of the Old Testament was the sin of idolatry, that is, the sin of shaping God according to our design. Idolatry is not extinct is it? Nor is it something we find only in primitive cultures. How often do we shape God according to our design, according to our agenda, according to our needs?
We should never want God to be who we want him to be. We should worship Him for who he is.
IV. Distinct...in the Likeness of Men
You know, when it talks about his footstool in verse 5, and his holy mountain in verse 9, it's pointing the reader to the Temple that was built in Jerusalem. This Temple again emphasizes the fact that God wants to have a relationship with us, so much so, that he instituted a way in which men and women who have tried to rob God of his distinctiveness, men and women who believed the lies in the garden and wanted to be gods themselves, he instituted a way that we could be right with him.
But that temple was only pointing to something, someone greater wasn't it?
Listen to what the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us about the greatest priest, greater than even Moses or Aaron.
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. (Hebrews 7:26)
The writer is talking about Jesus, isn't he? Look at those words he uses: holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. That's divine distinctiveness, isn't it? That makes sense in light of what the NT tells us about Jesus, that He is God in human flesh.
Wait a minute? The One of whom it was asked, "who is like you" was made, in the words of Philippians 2, in the likeness of men? The One who is divinely distinct became a human being, just like the rest of us.
The wonder of what the Bible tells, of what God reveals there, is that a God so big, so exalted, so great, so holy, would have such love for us in Jesus Christ. But it is holy love, isn't it? It is divinely distinct love.
Remember what else Hebrews tells us about this High Priest, Jesus:
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
The Holy One, that Psalm 99 tells us is enthroned on the cherubim, the before whom the earth quakes, this same God calls us to draw near to the throne of grace in order to find mercy and grace. And it's all because of Jesus.
This morning, I believe God wants to remind us of who He is. He is not the postcard. His word may give us an accurate view of who he is, but it simply describing for us One who cannot ultimately be described with words. And when we, through faith, in light of his word, get even a glimpse of the reality of who He is, we should be brought low...as creatures and as those who have turned away from Him.
But I believe God also wants to remind us this morning, as we see in Psalm 99, as we heard from the book of Hebrews, that His divine distinctiveness does mean He is distant or disinterested.
The awesome God who rules over all creation has come near to us in Jesus Christ. And in becoming like us, Jesus has not simplified God for us. No, through His cross, through incomparable love, Jesus has revealed God's holiness in a divinely distinct way.
That should cause us to tremble and worship, shouldn't it.
How big is your God? Have you stopped with the postcard? Or are you living in light of the fact that the postcard points us to something so big.
Let's pray and ask God to give us the eyes of faith to see Him, as best as we can, for who He is in light of what He's revealed.
Pray with me.