Understanding Holiness (Psalm 99)
Passage: Psalm 99:1–99:9
I. A Holy Hat?
A number of years ago, I and some friends went to see a traveling Smithsonian exhibit called 'America's Smithsonian'. Included in this collection were a variety of American treasures, each being unique in its own right.
From George Washington's sword to Dorothy's ruby slippers in the Wizard of Oz, from the Apollo 14 command module to Dizzy Gilespie's trumpet, a variety of rare items were on display. Yet one of the items really caught my attention.
There, in the corner, in a glass case, was Abraham Lincoln's black stovepipe hat; his trademark. But as I examined it more carefully, it became apparent to me that there was nothing really that distinctive about the hat. In fact, it was no different than probably the thousands of stovepipe hats worn by men, all over the world in the 19th century.
Yet here it was, being venerated behind walls of thick glass; arguably one of the greatest treasures of our American heritage. Priceless. But why? Why was this single article of clothing, that was so distinctly ordinary, why was this hat considered to be almost sacred?
Keep this thought in mind as we delve this morning into the subject of holiness.
II. The Passage: "Holy is He!" (Psalm 99:1-9)
Turn, if you will, to Psalm 99 (page 500). 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 93, 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; that was the name of 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 particularly 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 whatever 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.
Holy is one of those words that either has negative connotations for people (like when people say someone is a "holy roller" or is acting "holier-than-thou") OR the word has a ritualistic and remote and religious sense (like "holy water" or his "Holiness the Dalai Lama"). For most people the word "holy" is just not a part of our everyday lives.
From my own experience among God's people, "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 term, this key idea from Psalm 99?
Well...holy is when something is covered with round 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.
At the heart of our rebellion against God is the impulse to somehow make God just "one more thing" in our lives; in a sense, to bring Him down to our level, so that He isn't really distinct at all. This is what the Bible calls idolatry. People did this long ago by carving and bowing down to statues. We do this today by making human things into ultimate things: money, success, sex, romance, and all sorts of other things we call addictions.
And when other things in Scripture are defined as 'holy' (ground, vessels, "holy mountain" (v. 9)), 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 and of themselves, but only by association with the Holy One.
The black stovepipe hat I described at the beginning of our time together was behind glass and considered incredibly priceless, not because of anything inherent in that object, but because of its association with a person who was distinct: Abraham Lincoln (only one! Even among presidents, he is distinct). Since that ordinary hat was his ordinary hat, it's now considered priceless because of that association.
If that's true, about Lincoln and his hat, how much more distinct are those things associated with a holy God?
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) 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?
So let's go back through this psalm, and as we do, let's think about the right response we should have to the holiness, to the divine distinctiveness of God.
A. In His Greatness (99:1-3)
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 [or we might say, your great and awe-inspiring] 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 authority, His "great and awesome name", in these things we see just how distinct He is. He is holy! When it comes to things specifically, there is no one like Him.
The holiness of God 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 the ones 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...
B. 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 [that is, in Israel]. 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. He always does what is right...perfectly.
Again, how do you respond to this, to the fact that God is perfectly good? 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; too distinct; we might conclude that it would be impossible to relate to a being like this. We might imagine that our response to him is simply groveling in the dirt all the time.
But look again at this psalm, at verse 99:6-9...
C. In His Grace (99:6-9)
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. You see, in our sin, we want to bring God down to our level. But in His grace, God chooses to come down to us, without ever compromising who He is.
As we see here, 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...with us (!)... with creatures who are like dust mites in the castle of a king.
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? Around 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 his 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, but it is still only a fraction.
How big is your God? Remember, the chief sin of the Old Testament was the sin of idolatry, that is, the sin of shaping God according to our imagination. 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 always worship Him for who He is.
III. 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, or we should say, 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 us, 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's holy love, isn't it? It is divinely distinct love. There's no love like it.
Remember what else Hebrews tells us about this High Priest, Jesus:
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 One before whom the earth quakes, this same God calls us to draw near with confidence to the throne of grace in order to find mercy and grace. And it's all possible because of Jesus.
This morning, I believe God wants to remind us of who He is. His the One described so beautifully in His word, but He remains the One whose beauty, whose greatness, goodness, and grace is ultimately indescribable. 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 NOT mean He is distant or disinterested.
This awe-inspiring 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 His incomparable love, Jesus has revealed God's holiness in a divinely distinct way.
That should cause us to tremble and worship, shouldn't it?
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.