Holy, Holy, Holy, (Psalm 99:1–9)

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This psalm is one of several in this section of the “the Lord reigns” variety (see Psalms 93, 96, 97). It is another of the royal psalms (93–100). But this one, in a particular way, emphasises the holy reign of the Lord. It emphasises what we call God’s majesty.

God’s majesty is His sovereign and holy grandeur. Holiness is mentioned three times in this psalm (vv. 3, 5, 9). We might say that its theme, therefore, is God’s majesty; His sovereignty linked to His holiness.

When we speak of God’s sovereignty we mean what the first words of this psalm mean: “The LORD reigns.” He is in control—absolutely. Steve Lawson describes it this way: “Unwavering in carrying out His eternal purposes, unhindered by man’s decisions to the contrary, God reigns supremely in absolute authority, the unrivalled ruler over heaven and earth. The entire universe is under His omnipotent rule.”1

But, as mentioned, this psalm also emphasises, in a threefold way, that God is holy. This threefold repetition was an ancient way of emphasising a truth, much like Isaiah’s experience of hearing the seraphim around the throne of God crying out, “Holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3).

Having some understanding of God’s sovereignty, so central to this psalm, it is important that we also have a proper understanding of what it means that He is holy. After all, each stanza ends with the people responding, “He is holy” (vv. 3, 5, 9).

Holiness means much more than being morally upright. It includes this, but is so much more.

Fundamentally, holiness speaks of separation. Rather than merely an ethical statement, it is an essential statement. When we say that something is “holy” we are saying that it is marked off, that it is set apart from other things. For instance, when we speak of the holy Bible, we are essentially saying that that book (biblios) is set apart (holy) from other books. There is an essential difference between the Bible and other books.

The word “saint” in the Bible literally means “holy one.” Again, this does not mean, fundamentally, that a saint is ethically different (though, of course, he should be), but rather that a saint is a person whom God has set apart to Him. There is an essential difference between a saved saint and an unsaved sinner.

So, when we speak of God being “holy,” we mean by this that He is essentially different from any and all others. As Kidner puts it, “‘Holy’ is a word to emphasize the distance between God and man.”2 He is distinctly different from His creation. God is transcendently different. His difference cuts across all comparisons. “He is removed from and far above all those limitations and imperfections that mark man.”3

Boice helpfully summarises, “At its root, ‘holy’ is not an ethical concept at all. Rather it is the very nature of God and what distinguishes him from all else. It is what sets God apart from his creation. It concerns transcendence.”4

Certainly God is righteous in His conduct (vv. 4–5), but He is so because He is holy in His character.

Now, having some understanding of this, we can turn back to the psalm and see that God’s holy sovereignty is the central issue. This is so important for us to grasp from the outset. Sunce God is holy, the exercise of His sovereignty will be much different than that of any other ruler.

A despotic tyrannical ruler may have “absolute” sovereignty politically (think Stalin, Hitler, Mao, etc.). In other words, an evil, unholy sovereignty is frightening. And though holy sovereignty can also be frightening, nevertheless the holiness of God gives great comfort to those who will bow the knee to Him. This is why Jonathan Edwards could write, “Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. God’s sovereignty has ever appeared to me, a great part of His glory. It has often been my delight to approach God, and adore Him as a sovereign God.”5 May our contemplation of God’s holy sovereignty produce such a delight in us.

If we frame the psalm by the threefold reference to God’s holiness (vv. 3, 5, 9), we might outline it as follows: (1) The announcement of God’s holy sovereignty (vv. 1–3); (2) the activity of God’s holy sovereignty (vv. 4–5); and (3) the acknowledgement of God’s holy sovereignty (vv. 6–9).

In each case we have a statement made about God’s sovereignty followed by the expected appropriate response

The Announcement of God’s Holy Sovereignty

First, we see an announcement of Yahweh’s holy sovereignty.

The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble! He dwells between the cherubim; let the earth be moved! The LORD is great in Zion, and He is high above all the peoples.

Let them praise Your great and awesome name—He is holy.

(Psalm 99:1–3)

The Setting

The psalm offers no real clues as to the historical setting of this psalm, except, perhaps, that the mention of the cherubim, and therefore of the ark of the covenant, suggests that this was a pre-exilic psalm.

Perhaps, as with Psalm 96, this psalm was written in celebration of the return of the ark to God’s people and its being set up in the tabernacle at Jerusalem in David’s day. It may also refer to the time period under Solomon’s reign, or Hezekiah’s reign, or during the reign of any number of kings.

What we do know is that the writer is reflecting on the sovereign reign of the Lord over all of the earth, including “Zion, “Jacob” and the “peoples” (vv. 1, 2, 4).

So, whatever the original circumstances this psalm has much to say to the contemporary Christian. We need this reminder of God’s sovereign and holy reign. Perhaps particularly do we need this in our day. So, what does this look like?

The Lord’s Reign

The psalm begins, “The LORD reigns.” We must be convinced that He really does reign—over all things and over each and every event. Nothing occurs apart from His decree; nothing occurs apart from His allowance. And it is of eternal import and of practical consequence to grasp this. Everyone on the planet needs to grasp this. This announcement of His sovereignty must be made loud and clear to all peoples, and all peoples must hear and heed it. “The experience of confronting the holy is awe inspiring, even life threatening, which is exactly what the psalmist is indicating in verses 1–3.”6

The psalmist continues, “He dwells between the cherubim.” This, of course, speaks of the ark of the covenant, which symbolised the Lord’s glorious, authoritative and holy presence.

“The LORD is great in Zion and He is high above all the peoples.” Note the inclusiveness of this announcement: God is sovereign over His people and over those who are not His people.

We can conclude that God rules over all, in every sphere and in every way. And this must be taken very seriously, as the following instructive responses are noted.

The Response to His Reign

Note the appropriate response to the Lord’s reign: “Let the peoples tremble … let the earth be moved.”

The word “tremble” means “to be disturbed,” “to quake,” “to shake” or “to be moved.” The earth is quite literally to “be moved” at this announcement.

The sovereignty of God is a disturbing doctrine. It disturbs our complacency, it disturbs our self-confidence, and it disturbs our smugness. But it can also positively disturb us. The sovereignty of God is to move us. It is not merely a doctrine to be dissected and debated. It is not merely an intellectually stimulating idea but rather it is a deeply moving one. It is to astound us; it is to humble us; it is to comfort us; it is to warn us; it is to embolden us; it is to instruct us. Yes, it is to move us to reverent trust and obedience and worship.

This section concludes, “Let them praise Your great and awesome name—He is holy.”

The only appropriate response to God’s holy sovereignty is doxological. Again, the sovereignty of God redounds to God’s glory. As Spurgeon wrote, “The ignorant forget him, the wicked despise him, the atheistical oppose him, but among his own chosen he is great beyond comparison. He is great in the esteem of the gracious, great in his acts of mercy, and really great in himself: great in his mercy, power, wisdom, justice and glory.”7

The Activity of God’s Holy Sovereignty

Second, we see the activity of God’s holy sovereignty: “The King’s strength also loves justice; You have established equity; You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at His footstool—He is holy” (vv. 4–5).

The Lord’s Righteousness

The announcement or declaration of God’s sovereignty is now reinforced by highlighting the manner in which God exercises His sovereignty. He does so in holiness, and therefore in righteousness. God loves exercising equity. As Leupold translates the opening words of v. 4, “And the strength of the king is that he loves justice.”8

No doubt, the context indicates that God is seen doing so within the nation of Israel, what is referred to here as “Jacob.” The point being made is that God exercises His sovereign rule righteously, not capriciously. Again, because “He is holy,” we can trust God’s reign. He reigns according to His righteous standard. And He exercises this justice with “strength” or “might.”

It must be noted that, in Israel’s history, we often witness unrighteous rule by God’s appointed earthly sovereigns. Yet the point is that the Lord has set forth the righteous rules.

When those appointed by the Lord do not rule in the fear of God, they rule unjustly. And they will give an account. God, who rules with equity, will hold rulers to account. They may not exercise justice, but the sovereign Lord will.

I recently had a discussion with a young pastor about the responsibility of governments to rule according to God’s law. There is much debate in this particular area, but I think much of that debate is senseless. God’s law is a perfect standard, and surely any government appointed by God, and therefore ruling under God, would do well to rule according to that perfect standard. Surely Christians should long for a government that will submit itself to God’s standard as it rules its people.

The key to justice in our land—and in any land—is found in a proper understanding and appreciation of the sovereignty of God. The reason that there is so little justice, so little righteous treatment of one another in our society is because we have such little regard for God’s holy sovereignty. Imagine if leaders ruled coram deo. What a difference this would make!

I recently finished reading Lawrence of Arabia, a historical account which opened my eyes to much of the contemporary news we read almost every day. During World War I and the years surrounding it, Western nations horribly mistreated the Arab nations. Is it any wonder that we have begun to reap what we sowed? So much of the mess that we see today in that part of the world could have been avoided had leaders in that day properly grasped the truth that “the LORD reigns” and that He does so in “righteousness.”

This applies to you and me in our spheres as well. How do we treat those whom we lead or whom we employ? Keeping our eyes on the holy sovereignty of God will make a huge difference in our relationships.

This also profoundly applies when it comes to the ministry of the church. Consider the matter of the Great Commission. When we grasp the sovereignty of God, we will be careful to not fudge on the facts of the gospel. Rather, we will righteously handle the gospel in spite of it being so scandalous. When it comes to the leading of the church and how we treat one another, the sovereignty of God will have a major influence. We will follow His righteous standard for body life.

The Response to His Righteousness

We have already noted some practical responses to the sovereignty of God, but v. 5 highlights a particular one: “Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at His footstool.” And in case you have forgotten, “He is holy.”

This terminology is used in Scripture to designate either the earth being the footstool of God (Isaiah 66:1) or Zion as God’s footstool (Isaiah 60:13). In the light of the mention of the cherubim (v. 1), it probably here is intended with reference to Zion, the city of God (see 1 Chronicles 28:2). It pictures God’s sovereign and holy enthronement above His people, who are to worship Him in response.

We will see this exhortation to a reverent response again, because it is so important. The holy sovereignty of God is a truth that is meant to make us worshippers as well as workers. Humble submission is the only appropriate response to the sovereign Lord.

As Kidner notes with reference to this psalm, “In this group of psalms … on the kingship and advent of the Lord, the mood alternates between high festivity and a chastened awe—for God is all that stirs us and all that shames us.”9

We would do well to learn from the many saints of old who had an appropriately reverent response to the holiness of God. One thinks of Job who, despite losing all that he had, responded, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Or consider Peter’s response when the Lord miraculously provided an overwhelming catch of fish: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8). Again, consider Isaiah’s response to his vision of the reigning Lord: “Woe is me, for I am undone! because 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). The soldiers in Gethsemane were so overwhelmed with the majesty of Jesus that they literally fell backwards when He spoke (John 18:6). Sadly, they did not let His sovereignty register with them but continued in their rebellion.

And us? Do we submit our time, talents and treasures to Him? Do we submit our wills to Him in trying times? Do we acknowledge that He is worthy?

The Acknowledgement of God’s Holy Sovereignty

Third, we read an acknowledgement of God’s holy sovereignty:

Moses and Aaron were among His priests, and Samuel was among those who called upon His name; they called upon the LORD, and He answered them. He spoke to them in the cloudy pillar; they kept His testimonies and the ordinance He gave them. You answered them, O LORD our God; You were to them God-Who-Forgives, though You took vengeance on their deeds. Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at His holy hill; for the LORD our God is holy.

(Psalm 99:6–9)

The Lord’s Rescue

The author now mentions three individuals in the context of God’s active sovereignty: Moses, Aaron and Samuel. It is not completely clear as to why these three are mentioned, but it would seem that the emphasis is on their praying to the Lord—in recognition of His sovereignty—and the Lord’s gracious and sovereign response to their prayers. In other words, for these men, the sovereignty of God was not merely a doctrine to confess but a truth to practically embrace.

Moses, of course, was a man of prayer (Exodus 33:12ff; 17:10ff; Psalm 90), and though there are not many examples of Aaron praying we do have at least one (Numbers 16:44–48). Samuel is well known for his confession that failure to pray for those under his leadership was a sin against God (1 Samuel 7:5ff; 12:18ff).

These leaders of God’s people grasped that they needed God to rescue His people. They knew that, ultimately, they were reliant on the Lord’s intervention. In other words, they were not (for the most part) confused about who was reigning.10

Good leaders keep this before them: The Lord reigns. And this keeps them on their knees as it gives them perspective. The Lord is the one who rules, not men.

The Response to His Rescue

In this passage, we see three proper responses to the Lord’s revelation of God’s majestic rescue of His people.

Dependence

The first appropriate response to the Lord’s rescue is dependence. The dependence seen here has two aspects to it: obeisance and obedience.

We see the obeisance of these great leaders in the fact that they were men of prayer. Their prayers proved their belief in the Lord’s sovereignty. They showed their dependence on the Lord by prayer. This is precisely the response that such a revelation of God’s holy sovereignty enjoins.

If we have lost our spirit of prayer, it is because we are wrongly independent. Prayer is an admission of dependence. It is a confession about who is reigning. Those who do not prioritise prayer are merely confessing that they are confused about who is running the universe. Further, it may be a confession of criticism of the one who is running the universe. Effective leaders, as this text indicates, are people of prayer.

But these leaders further displayed their dependence by their obedience: “They kept His testimonies and the ordinance He gave them.” These men prayed to the majestic God because they could trust Him. And they obeyed this trustworthy God because He is majestic. Leupold helpfully comments, “The psalmist deems it worthy of note that these men whom God heard did not render themselves unworthy of being answered but ‘kept His testimonies and the ordinance that He gave them.’ Sanctity of life has also been a mark of great men of prayer.”11

If we truly view God as majestic, as holy and sovereign, we will live like it. We will practically acknowledge His lordship. We will obey Him.

I will go so far to say that the evidence of an encounter with the majestic God is submissive obedience. When we hear His voice in the cloudy pillar then we, more than ever, will be committed to keep His testimonies and the ordinance He gives us.

Perhaps this is why the Great Commission often lags. But when we come to appreciate the majestic lordship of Christ, we will gladly engage the nations with the gospel for His glory. This was the impetus for so many of our missionary heroes. They understood that if the church is humbled by the glory of God the nations will be glad (see Psalm 67). Isaiah’s vision of the Lord’s holy sovereignty led him to cry, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). It will have the same effect in the lives of all who truly see and submit to His majestic lordship.

The Bible speaks of “obedience to the faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26) and of the need to obey the gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8; Romans 10:16). Jesus asked, “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,” and do not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). Salvation is an authority issue, and those who understand the sovereignty of God will gladly submit to Him.

Forgiveness

But note, in v. 8, that, as these men prayed and called upon the Lord, they experienced His forgiveness. Our majestic God loves to forgive. He is holy in granting forgiveness.

This verse tells us that those who sin against God will experience chastening as well as forgiveness. “The negative lesson reinforces the positive, and is twofold: neither to despair of mercy nor to trade on it.”12 And this not doubts redounds to more obeisance and further obedience.

Delight

The psalm closes with a statement that seems to describe the delight that those who see God as majestic will take in being devoted to Him: “Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at His holy hill; for the LORD our God is holy” (v. 9). The awareness and experience of God’s majesty will produce worship—holy worship; corporate holy worship, that is. As Spurgeon writes, “No spot of ground is now fenced about as peculiarly holy, or to be regarded as more sacred than another; yet His visible church is His chosen hill, and there would we be found, numbered with His people, and unite with them in worship.”13

What does it meant to engage in holy worship? It means that we separate ourselves from the world as we bow to the God who is transcendently different from the world. Lawson notes, “The Lord requires that His people come together publicly to worship Him…Because God is set apart, His people should set themselves apart from the world when they worship Him.”14

But again, what does this mean, practically? What does holy worship look like? It is God-centred (in attitude and perspective). It is Word-centred. It is sin-confessing and Christ-embracing. It is self-forgetful and others-oriented. Such worship is intensely relevant. God is different, and so are those whom He saves (John 17:17, etc.). This difference is beautiful to the Lord and, deep down, is appealing to those whom the Lord desires to make beautiful to the gospel. Paul describes in 1 Corinthians the impact of a holy worship service:

Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.

(1 Corinthians 14:23­–25)

So let us “exalt the LORD our God, and worship at His holy hill; for the LORD our God is holy.” He is, in fact, holy, holy, holy. And others need to know this. “Oh for hearts made pure within, so that we may rightly perceive and worthily praise the infinite perfection of the Triune Lord.”15

Show 15 footnotes

  1. Steven Lawson, Psalms: Holman Old Testament Commentary, 3 vols (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2006), 2:128.
  2. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 354.
  3. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 696.
  4. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:805.
  5. Lawson, Psalms, 2:129.
  6. Boice, Psalms, 2:806.
  7. Boice, Psalms, 2:808.
  8. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 696.
  9. Kidner, Psalms, 353–54.
  10. I say for the most part because we are well aware of Aaron’s golden calf failure in Exodus 32, as well as Moses and Aaron’s failure in angrily striking the rock as recorded in Numbers 20. But, for the most part, they got it.
  11. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 697.
  12. Kidner, Psalms, 355.
  13. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: An Expository and Devotional Commentary on the Psalms, 4 vols. (Welwyn: Evangelical Press, 1978), 225.
  14. Lawson, Psalms, 2:130.
  15. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 225.