God's Holy Kingdom
Psalm 99 is a wonderful declaration of the kingship of the LORD. It exalts his holiness, justice, and mercy and his people respond appropriately with heartfelt worship.
The most common misunderstanding in dealing with the Psalms is to identify with the Psalmist too quickly. The Psalms are often seen as everyone's expression of spirituality in which, if you keep reading long enough, you will find something that resonates with your situation or mood. The corrective is not to close off the empathetic avenue, but rather to pay particular attention to the historical background the psalms. They point us to a particular moment in history because they are composed from a Davidic perspective. A proper consideration of the identity of the Psalmist as the LORD's anointed and his place in salvation history will allow the drawing of appropriate lines of application to the present.
However, that ‘false trail' is less of a danger with Psalm 99 where a major temptation would be to deliver a sermon with little or no reference to Jesus. Often the Bible is preached as if there are two Gods: God the Father in the Old Testament and God the Son in the New. Biblical Theology helps to deal with this, together with an emphasis upon the Triune nature of God.
Yet Biblical Theology can sometimes be abused especially when it is used as a ‘springboard'. The speaker is so concerned about getting us to Jesus and the New Testament that the details of the Psalm are not unpacked thoroughly enough and instead there is a scramble for a word, phrase or concept (e.g. in Psalm 99 the office of mediator) from which a successful jump into the New Testament can be performed. Familiar terrain is reached at last and so the sermon continues on safer ground.
Psalm 99 is a self contained unit and can stand on its own. However it is located within Book 4 containing Psalms 90-106, the background to which is the book of Exodus. It is likely that these psalms would have been read at the Feast of Tabernacles, ‘which as well as celebrating the completion of the harvest included every seventh year a reading of the law God gave through Moses, and recalled every year the time when God brought his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.' Not only do they reflect the Exodus story, but there are explicit connections made: Psalm 95 and Exodus 17; Psalm 99 and Exodus 24-25; Psalm 103 and Exodus 34. In addition Psalms 93-99 celebrate the kingship of the LORD and emphasize that Israel's security, and the worlds, depend on the LORD's reign, not David's.
The Impact of Biblical Theology
1. To avoid the second false trail (see above), I mentioned after my introduction that the LORD of the Psalms was the Triune God.
The first is that the LORD, written throughout the Psalm in capital letters, is the Trinitarian God. The LORD is God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The LORD in the Old Testament is not simply God the Father who somehow changes to be a Trinity in the gospels. No, he is three in one and one in three throughout the Bible. So whenever we see the LORD in Psalm 99 we are encountering Jesus as well. We are coming to the Psalm as Christian believers. This is Christian scripture and so what we learn about the LORD's character and kingship is just as true of the Lord Jesus Christ as it is of God the Father.
2. I wanted Biblical Theology to influence the structure of the sermon and so I attempted to interweave exposition of the text with New Testament resonances and contemporary application. In particular I wanted to apply the Psalm as I went along so that it did not come as one big section at the end.
3. Each of my three headings contained the refrain ‘God's Holy Kingdom'. This reflected Calvin's treatment of the Psalm as he prefaced his commentary by writing: ‘This Psalm differs form those which precede it in one respect, that it speaks of the kingdom of God, and the blessings consequent upon it, as confined within Judea...' The Psalm is concerned with the kingship of the LORD and the theme of kingdom also provides a connection with today as the people of God enjoy the benefits and responsibilities of membership of his reign.
The content of the sermon
The structure I used for Psalm 99 was:
- Philip Pullman
- Two comments: The Triune God & God's Holiness
- The Mercy at the heart of God's Holy Kingdom (v1-3)
- The Justice throughout God's Holy Kingdom (v4-5)
- The Lifestyle within God's Holy Kingdom (v6-9)
The theme of kingdom and the reign of the LORD also shaped the introduction, which dealt with Philip Pullman and his desire, in the Dark Materials Trilogy, to set up a ‘Republic of Heaven' to replace the tyrannical ‘Kingdom of Heaven'. I wanted people to realize the anti Christian nature of his writing and that his attitude is typical of our world in its attempt to dethrone God. Psalm 99 gives us great encouragement in response.
Philip Pullman is an Oxford man. He is also a prestigious writer. His Dark Materials Trilogy-Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass - have been growing in popularity since they were published and The Amber Spyglass has won the distinguished Whitbread Book of the Year Award, the first for a children's title. You have probably seen his work in Blackwell's and Borders or his picture around the town. He was a key note speaker at the Sunday Time Oxford Literary Festival which was held earlier this month. His books are very readable, full of creative imagination, roaring along with great adventures, all written in a fresh style.
But when we remove our rose tinted reading glasses and look through the amber spyglass at the stories which Pullman is penning we find a very disturbing message. Pullman's fiction is very anti Christian. The ultimate goal of the books is the setting up of the ‘Republic of Heaven' to replace the tyrannical ‘Kingdom of Heaven'. Pullman sets out to subvert the whole message of the Bible by seeking to dethrone God. As one of the characters remarks ‘The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all. The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty - those are all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves - the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are.' When God finally dies he is described as ‘the old one' and so old he ‘has no will of his own'. He disintegrates with ‘a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief'. Killing God seems the most merciful thing to do.
But not only does Pullman attack God and his kingdom but he also seeks to redefine morality. The books are full of lying and deception. Evil is promoted and Satan is the eventual winner.
Pullman's message in his books may be surprisingly explicit but it is the message which our world agrees with and supports. Day by day people around us deny the kingship of God. They refuse to have him rule over them and instead show a real determination to live their lives with themselves as number one. They live their lives as if God was dead and they are on the throne. But now only is God's kingship overthrown but his moral standards are rejected as well. A God who is holy and just and hates sin? Such a God is abhorrent. Our world wants to make up its own rules about how to judge its behaviour. The Christian message is twisted and distorted out of all recognition and a new self generated and self-centred morality is accepted. This is the Oxford; this is the world in which we live.
How should we, as the people of the Living God here this morning, respond? How can we counter the lies of the enemy? Are we simply wasting our time? Should we just give in and blend in with the world around us?
Well Psalm 99 gives us great encouragement because it proclaims the true character of God and his kingdom.
The Psalmist lifts our eyes upwards to the Heavenly Holy King.
He reveals to us what his kingdom is based on.
He states how it is governed and he instructs us as to how we are to live in it.
And above all the Psalmist states that the Philip Pullmans of this world are wrong and that the Lord our God is holy and he will be exalted forever.
The introduction was followed by two preliminary comments:
- The Triune God (see (i) under The Impact of Biblical Theology
- The holiness of God as positive, not negative, and a key feature of the Psalm.
If you look closely at the Psalm you will see that a phrase is repeated three times. In v3 it says ‘he is holy'. In v5 it states ‘he is holy' and v9 concludes ‘for the LORD our God is holy'. Our Psalmist wants to emphasize that the holiness of God is a key feature of this Psalm.
Holiness refers to the very God-ness of God. It means to be separate, to be set apart, to be distinctive. It means that God is not like us, he is not made of the dust of the earth as we are. He is God. He is holy.
We tend to think of holiness in negative terms don't we, such as in the phrase ‘holier than thou'. We think that a holy God is always stopping us from doing the things we want, preventing us from having a good time.
I am sure you have heard the story of the couple who were in the living room one evening with the kids upstairs. There had been a deadly silence from the bedroom for a long time so the wife turns to the husband and says ‘Go upstairs and find out what they are doing and stop them'.
But the Bible does not present holiness in a negative light. Instead it is positive. The holiness of God is a virtue not a vice. Being part of God's holy kingdom is not like living in a police state. Rather it is a place of God's blessing and favour. A Kingdom we should all want to be part of.
1. The mercy at the heart of God's holy kingdom (v1-3)
‘The LORD reigns' is the opening to the Psalm and draws forth the response of trembling and shaking (bowing down in submission and reverence) by the nations. As sinners this is appropriate. I then asked three questions:
Do we share this view of God which the psalmist has declared? Does our nation shake before the LORD? Do we tremble before him, conscious of our sin?
Quoting from Losing Our Virtue by David Wells, I observed that we have a world with a weightless God rather than a reigning one. But this is a situation that God will not tolerate.
Yet this is also a God who interacts with his people (v2) but how is this possible?
The answer comes in verse 1: ‘he sits enthroned between the cherubim'.
Where is God's throne?
Where is the seat of his Kingdom? It is between the cherubim.
I then read from Exodus 25:17-22 in order to explain this concept. These verses dealt with the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant. God reigns among his people in the place of mercy, on the cover of grace. It was at this stage that I made the connection with the New Testament:
God's holiness rightly terrifies and causes trembling among sinners, but it also draws us to him. God extends to us his unmerited favour. We receive what we don't deserve and we don't get what we do deserve. God reigns in the place of mercy and draws us to himself and in the NT we are given a fuller understanding of this because we see that Jesus has died on the cross to bring a sinful people into right relationship with a holy God.
It is as if Jesus is our mercy seat. His blood was shed so that God's love and justice could be satisfied. Through him we are brought into God's kingdom.
Where does the holy King Jesus reign? He reigns on the seat of mercy, having shed his blood. God's holiness draws us into relationship with him.
Verse 3 then provided the note of application: Praise the holy king for his sovereign grace.
2. The justice throughout God's holy kingdom (v4-5)
God's character determines the way his kingdom is ruled. He is passionate about justice and has established standards which are perfectly right and fair. God's revealed Law is a just one because he is a just God.
But the LORD has not just established equity; he has executed justice among his people. ‘The LORD's strength loves justice'.
He has the might and the power to carry through on his Law.
He accomplishes what he wills. He executes what he has established.
I used an illustration of corrupt sports umpires and referees, who instead of enforcing the rules of the game, ignore them and act independently.
All sports have referees or umpires of some sort. We need them in order to ensure that the rules are enforced and that fair play is maintained. What would we think of a tennis umpire, who faced with John McEnroe shouting at him about ‘chalk dust' on a ball that was clearly out, turned round and said ‘Well OK then. I guess it was in. I'll let you have that one, but don't try it again'.
Or a cricket umpire who doesn't give a star player out even though he is clearly LBW, but says instead ‘He has been playing some great shots. It would be a pity to send him back to the pavilion. The crowd have come here to see him play and I don't want to disappoint them'.
Or the football referee who has the power to send anyone off and yet chooses to ignore the player who elbows someone else in the face. What would we think? We would be angry and demand action, that the established rules of the game are executed.
In these verses the Psalmist is looking back over Israel's history and notes that God has fulfilled his promises to bless his people, but also punished them for their disobedience. They have no grounds for complaint.
As I began to apply these verses, I drew attention to v4:
In verse 4 God's people are called ‘Jacob'. This is deliberate because Jacob was an OT character whose name means deceiver or twister. He had a history of deception and lies, of manipulating situations and people to suit his own ends. In other words, Jacob is a man just like us, one whose heart is divided towards God, a member of the covenant community who struggles with sin.
This may have been reading too much into the name, as Jacob/Israel are often used interchangeably in the Old Testament, but I did think it captured the ‘divided' nature of Israel's following and paralleled with our experience.
This sermon was given at a morning service so my applications, which focused on how we resist God's commands and decrees, covered a range of ages. As we stand before the Holy King we must admit that we are guilty and desperately need forgiveness.
God establishes his just law, but we try to resist his commands and decrees, don't we? We think God is such a kill joy, someone who is always out to cramp our style, to curtail our freedom.
Why do I have to be totally honest on my tax form? Surely it doesn't matter too much which way I round up the figures?
Surely God doesn't expect me to honour my employer all of the time? Even when he has given me extra work to do? Am I really cheating on him if I leave early on a Friday?
Does God really call on me to respect my husband and to follow his lead? How about those days when his actions don't merit respect or he has abdicated his leadership within our marriage and home?
What's wrong with a second look at that pretty girl in the summer dress out in Christ Church meadows? Does God think that one lustful stare is wrong? Doesn't he know I am just a normal man following my instincts?
The list could go on and on. The LORD has established his just and prefect commands and, just like Jacob, we try and wriggle out of them.
And then we get angry when our sin is exposed and God executes his judgment on us. Oh how we resist when we know that that little sin which we have been protecting and growing must be put to death. That little sin of ...
Well, this is the career that I want above everything and everyone else and nothing is going to stop me from fulfilling my ambitions. I give the required 10% to the church so I don't need to give any more of my money. I can control the amount of physical contact which my girlfriend and I have and I don't need to be accountable to anyone for it. There are needs to be met in church and I know I could prioritise my time and energy better so that I could serve others and help out, but at the end of a busy day all I want to do is to go home and relax and watch some TV. Someone else can do it.
The LORD is not like Jacob. He has done what is just and right. He has established and he upholds his moral decrees and we are to submit to his holy governance fully and completely. We are called to be like our King, holy and just in all we think and say and do. The justice of God flows throughout his holy kingdom and when we look honestly at ourselves we realize that we have failed. We have disobeyed his law and broken his standards. We are guilty and desperately need forgiveness.
Here again the Psalm points us towards the place of mercy and ultimately Jesus (v5)
Once again there is great news because as people of God's holy kingdom we are to exalt the LORD our God and worship at his footstool. We are to praise God because he has revealed himself as a morally pure and just King and yet as sinful people we need forgiveness and God, in his mercy, provides it.
God does not diminish his standards, like some school inspector who lowers the grades so that all the pupils pass the test.
No, the Law remains the same and we are all guilty before it, but God provides his grace.
We are to worship God at his footstool and where is that? It is between the cheribum. It is the mercy seat. Only again God's holiness draws us into relationship with him. We remain members of his holy kingdom because mercy has been extended. The blood of Jesus has been shed and our sins are forgiven. It does not depend on our own good works or efforts but rather on God's grace and goodness to us.
That's awesome news, isn't it? What motivation that gives us to worship and exalt the LORD our God.
3. The lifestyle within God's holy Kingdom (v6-9)
I alerted people to the shift within the Psalm with the introduction of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel:
These men are mentioned because they were people of prayer, leaders of the community who interceded for others, who prayed for the nation and brought their thanksgivings and requests to God. That was one of the roles of the priest. They were men who called on the name of the LORD, but they were not alone in doing this. They were ‘among those who called on his name'. Moses, Aaron and Samuel are mentioned here as examples of a lifestyle of those who are part of God's holy Kingdom. Their behaviour should be typical of God's people.
Calling on the name of the LORD in prayer is something which we can all do. It is not the preserve of a small elite or a special caste. It is for all God's people
In response, God spoke to them from the pillar of cloud (v7). At this point I gave a little context on the Exodus theme in Book 4, but I didn't mention the Festival of the Tabernacles as I didn't want the whole sermon to turn into a theology lecture. I mentioned that God spoke to Moses on the mountain and that he speaks to us today through his word, the Bible. He prescribes the lifestyle in his kingdom.
The Psalmist outlines the two responses to God word. The first is prayer:
God spoke to the people, they responded by calling on his name and he answered them. If you want to make a Christian feel guilty quickly, ask them about the time they spend praying. We all know that we could and should spend more time praying and for more situations and individuals. These verses are a great encouragement to help us to do that because God hears our prayers and he has answered. As we cry to him for comfort, as we call on him for guidance, as we ask him to change the lives of our friends and family, as we thank him for his goodness, as we moan to him in our suffering, as we beg him to give us strength and mercy, the LORD hears the prayers of his people and he answers them. He speaks to us through his word, revealing his character and actions, giving us the comfort, guidance, change, help, strength faith that we need. And when we call on him to give us wisdom to help us understand his word and how it applies to our situations and lives he answers and gives that as well.
I know that God has answered some of my prayers this past week and I am sure you know that as well. So instead of asking each other ‘How long have you prayed for this week'? why don't we say ‘How has God answered your prayers'?
The second response is obedience.
But once again, if we are honest, we know what we are like. We don't obey God's Law. We are half hearted in our love and submission. Our holiness leaves a lot to be desired of.
The news of God's forgiveness is very welcome, but, in our sinfulness, we abuse it. God is a God of discipline (v8) and I mentioned the failure of Moses to enter the Promised Land as an example of someone who suffered the discipline of God.
This is a lesson we need to remember. We think ‘Well, I can give in to this pet sin now knowing that I will have my QT tomorrow morning and then I can confess it and God will forgive me', don't we? Don't we think that there are times when we can disobey God's word, enjoy some short-term pleasure and then expect God to forgive it and forget it later? The LORD does not honour such a casual approach. Forgiveness without discipline would make us complacent. Discipline without forgiveness would crush us. Together they are the guarantee that, while we will be forgiven when we truly repent, we will never take sin lightly.
The final ‘holy' refrain comes in v9, but, unlike the others, there is a note of intimacy: He is our God.
He is worshipped on his holy mountain. The New Testament equivalent for us is found in Hebrews 12: 22-24 and it is especially relevant for two reasons. Firstly it brings an eschatological perspective to the whole Psalm. The reign of the LORD is a present reality, but at the end of time it will be acknowledged by all nations and every person. The Hebrews reference points us towards that day. Secondly it also adds to the awesomeness of God. It is important to mention the intimacy, which comes from being members of God's covenant community and enjoying his mercy, but nonetheless he is a might and exalted world ruler. In the contemporary church, which has transformed God into a cuddly deity, we must not shy away from the need to fear and tremble, a theme I spoke about at the beginning of the sermon.
I finished off by saying:
So this morning we see that Philip Pullman is badly wrong and that his ideas should be resisted. Our God is not old and about to be defeated. His kingdom is not one of tyranny and immorality. The forces of evil will not prevail and Satan will not be victorious.
Rather ‘The LORD reigns'. His kingdom is holy and has God's mercy at its heart. God rules it with justice and righteousness and those who live in it enjoy God's forgiveness as they call on his name and obey his Word. This King is our King. We should be glad to say ‘Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the LORD our God is holy'.
Resources and Recommend Reading
John Woodhouse, Preaching Christ from the Psalms, 4 talks at Irish Ministers Conference 2000 (PT Media)
A wonderful example of how Biblical Theology helps us to interpret the Psalms. Any of John Woodhouse's talks in the UK are warmly recommended.
Geoffrey Grogan, Prayer, Praise and Prophecy: a theology of the Psalms, (Christian Focus, 2001)
A very good introductory book on the Psalms.
Michael Wilcock, The Message of the Psalms 73-150, (IVP, 2001)
This is the second of his BST volumes on the Psalms and was useful for the Exodus background to Book 4.
John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. 4, (Baker, 1989)
Helpful on the Kingdom theme.
Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150, (IVP, 1975)
His TOTC is a basic introduction.
David Jackman, Psalm 99. Talk at Ministers' Wives Conference 1996 (PT Media)
The material on Philip Pullman was taken from www.credenda.org , which is a wonderfully stimulating website
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature