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“Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” — Psalm 99:4
Who Needs a King?
The book of Psalms consistently ranks as the most-read book in the Bible, but some psalms are easier to love than others. We like warm and fuzzy psalms like Psalm 23 and others that offer comfort or assurance. We like wisdom psalms such as Psalm 1 that offer sage advice for the faithful life. We like celebratory hymns such as Psalm 100 that exalt God as Lord of all.
Other psalms don’t connect as well: imprecatory psalms such as Psalms 69 and 109 may offend us, while royal psalms like Psalms 2 and 18 may seem alien to us. This month we’ll be studying four psalms, some of which are easier to connect with than others. In the process, we’ll look for ways in which we might convert archaic imagery into a meaningful message to us.
A God who reigns(vv. 1-3)
As you think about God, what images occur to you? “Father” comes quickly to mind, as do words like “Master” and “Lord.” Did the word “King” occur to you? We don’t live under a king, so the term may not come naturally to us, but it was typical for ancient folk who lived under monarchs to use royal terminology when thinking of God.
Today’s text is the last of a group of six psalms (47, 93, 96-99) that focus on God’s kingship over the earth, the universe, and all peoples, not just over Israel. The psalms would originally have been sung in worship at the temple in Jerusalem, and all of them include the happy affirmation “Yahweh reigns!”
While all six psalms recognize God’s universal sovereignty, each has a different emphasis: Psalm 47 celebrates God as the king of all the earth, Psalm 93 praises God’s kingship over chaos, and Psalm 96 emphasizes God’s kingship over all peoples. The manifestation of God’s kingship through earth-shaking theophanies is at the heart of Psalm 97, while Psalm 98 speaks of God’s manifestation in deliverance.
Psalm 99, our text for today, commemorates various ways in which God’s holiness is revealed, with a threefold declaration of divine holiness in vv. 3, 5, and 9.
The first section leaves no doubt as to the subject of the psalm: it opens with the stirring shout “The LORD is king,” or more literally, “Yahweh reigns!”
God rules, the psalmist claimed, with such power and magnificence that all peoples should tremble and the earth should quake at the very thought of Yahweh’s presence “enthroned upon the cherubim” (v. 1). The reference is to the “Holy of Holies,” where the Hebrews imagined God sat upon an invisible throne above the twin cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant, which served as a divine footstool (Exod. 25:22, 1 Sam. 4:4, 2 Kgs. 19:15).
The temple was in Jerusalem, alternately known as “Zion.” Thus the psalmist declared “The LORD is great in Zion,” where “he is exalted over all the peoples” (v. 2). This leads into a call for all to render praise to God’s “great and awesome” name, for “Holy is he!” (v. 3).
What do you think of when you hear the word “holy”? Typical answers might include piety, purity, an absence of sin, or a life of total devotion to God. The Hebrew concept of holiness was not so much one of purity or sinlessness, however, as it was of separateness or distinctiveness. For Israel to be holy was primarily to be “set apart” as God’s special people. The Hebrews considered God to be beyond sin, of course, but the prime significance of “holiness” is that Yahweh was unique, apart from all others, not just at the top of the created order but above it and responsible for it.
A God of justice(vv. 4-5)
Israel’s holy God could be praised for many reasons. What comes first to the psalmist’s mind is that God’s power is expressed in justice and equity for God’s people. The first few words of v. 4 are difficult to translate. A literal reading would be “and strength, a king, justice he loves.” Changing a single vowel – not part of the original text – would turn “strength” into the adjective “strong,” an option chosen by most translators. The NRSV renders it “Mighty King, lover of justice,” while NET has “The king is strong; he loves justice.”
In either case, the meaning is clear: the psalmist hails God as one who not only loves justice, but also has established it: “you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (v. 4b). Jacob is used as a symbolic name for Israel. He is remembered as the father of 12 sons who gave rise to the 12 tribes of Israel, and indeed, his name had been changed to “Israel” (Gen. 32:28).
Although Jacob clearly represents Israel, the psalmist’s use of his name Jacob is a bit surprising in this context, for Jacob was known as a conniving cheat who fast-talked his brother into surrendering his birthright (Gen. 25:29-33), and later deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that was due to his firstborn brother (Genesis 27). Some model of justice! That God could use such fallible people to establish a nation founded on principles of equity and justice for all people – including the widows, orphans, and immigrants who lived on the margins – is worthy of considerable praise.
As in the first stanza, the psalmist turns from his own praise of God to calling on others to join in the hallelujahs: “Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool.” Worshiping at God’s “footstool” is yet another reference to God’s imagined enthronement above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies – an apt image for the closing cry in v. 5: “Holy is he!”
A God who relates(vv. 6-9)
Having praised God’s power and justice, the poet reminds worshipers of how long God’s blessings have been evident. He recalls how Moses and Aaron led the people as priests. Even though Aaron was known as the first priest and Moses as the lawgiver, Moses also exercised the priestly functions of interceding with God on behalf of the people, which seems to be the psalmist’s concern. Samuel, a priest who also acted as the last of the judges, is also remembered. “They cried to the LORD, and he answered them” (v. 6).
We might expect the cry and response to be for deliverance or vindication for Israel, but the psalmist recalls something more basic: “He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them” (v. 7). This is the root of the justice the psalmist had mentioned in v. 4 and the holiness he has called to mind throughout: God’s gift to Israel of the law. God did not impose justice in the sense of forcing people to do what is right: that would violate human freedom. Rather, in the Torah God gave to Israel the basis for a society built on justice and equity. The people did not always obey the commandments, as the Hebrews’ narrative theologians and prophets often reminded them, but the gift of a just system was in place.
Moses, Aaron, and Samuel are named as examples of the type of life God’s people should live. They were not perfect, and their faults are chronicled along with their victories. Yet, their lives were characterized by faithfulness, and when they fell short, they turned to Yahweh for forgiveness. God answered them, the poet declared: “you were a forgiving God to them.” But, God also disciplined them when they sinned: “but an avenger of their wrongdoings” (v. 8). [See “The Hardest Question” online for more.]
As we have come to expect, the psalmist concludes his third section as he did the first two, by calling on the Israelites to praise their holy God: “Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain” (v. 9a). The holy mountain, of course, is another reference to Jerusalem, or Mount Zion. As he had closed the two previous stanzas, so the psalmist ends the psalm with a call to remember God’s unique nature: “for the LORD our God is holy.”
So much and so good for Israel, but what might this text say to contemporary Christians whose relationship with God is not based on obedience to the covenant law given to Israel? First, we should acknowledge our debt to the law: the moral principles found in the Ten Commandments and further elaborated in directives to love one’s neighbor and care for the marginalized are at the heart of our modern understanding of personal morality and social justice.
Second, we who come to God through Christ may recall that Jesus demonstrated a constant concern for justice. Luke suggests that Jesus adopted as his mission statement a text from Isa. 61:1-2 that spoke of justice for the oppressed and comfort for the brokenhearted (Luke 4:18). In his ministry on earth, Jesus healed the sick, showed special care for the poor, and taught his disciples to love God and to love others as they loved themselves (Luke 10:27). “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
As the psalmist praised Yahweh as the king of all, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God – or rule of God – in which God’s people are called to practice love for God and justice for all. Like Israel, we may also fall short of our calling, but our failure does not diminish the praise due to the powerful, just, and holy God who is king of all. BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for February 7, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Psalm 99
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Youth crave independence. How many times have you heard your students say, “I don’t need any help with that” or “My parents are always trying to get me to…”? Youth are trying to establish their own identity as they discover who they are. They do this, at times, by trying on different personalities. The catch is that youth still function well with structure and guidance. As developmentally they move from concrete thinking to more abstract thinking, youth will fall back into a safety net of concrete thinking where guidance is sought after. Remember this as you minister with your students; hold in tension providing structure and guidance with the freedom they desire.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Name Ten” from Prayer Stop via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Psalm 99