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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Psalms 99

 

 

Verses 1-9

Psalms 99:1-9

DELITZSCH has well called this psalm "an earthly echo of the seraphic Trisagion," the threefold proclamation of the Divine holiness, which Isaiah. [Isaiah 6:3] It is, as already noted, a pendant to Psalms 98:1-9, but is distinguished from the other psalms of this group by its greater originality, the absence of distinct allusion to the great act of deliverance celebrated in them. and its absorption in the one thought of the Divine holiness. Their theme is the event by which Jehovah manifested to the world His sovereign rule, this psalm passes beyond the event, and grasps the eternal central principle of that rule-namely, holiness. The same thought has been touched on in the other members of the group, but here it is the single subject of praise. Its exhibition in God’s dealings with Israel is here traced in ancient examples, rather than in recent instances; but the viewpoint of the other psalms is retained, in so far as the Divine dealings with Israel are regarded as the occasion for the world’s praise.

The first strophe (Psalms 99:1-3) dwells in general terms on Jehovah’s holiness, by which august conception is meant, not only moral purity, but separation from. by elevation above, the finite and imperfect. Psalms 99:1 vividly paints in each clause the glory reigning in heaven, and its effect on an awestruck world. We might render the verbs in the second part of each clause as futures or as optatives (shall tremble, shall totter, or let peoples tremble, etc.), but the thought is more animated if they are taken as describing the result of the theophany. The participial clause "throned on the cherubim" adds detail to the picture of Jehovah as King. It should not, strictly speaking, be rendered with a finite verb. When that vision of Him sitting in royal state is unveiled, all people are touched with reverence, and the solid earth staggers. But the glory which is made visible to all men has its earthly seat in Zion, and shines from thence into all lands. It is by His, deeds in Israel that God’s exaltation is made known. The psalmist does not call on men to bow before a veiled Majesty, of which they only know that it is free from all creatural limitations, lowliness and imperfections; but before a God, who has revealed Himself in acts, and has thereby made Himself a name. "Great and dread" is that name, but it is a sign of His lovingkindness that it is known by men, and thanksgiving, not dumb trembling, befits men who know it. The refrain might be rendered "It is holy," referring to the name, but Psalms 99:5 and Psalms 99:9 make the rendering Holy is He more probable. The meaning is unaffected whichever translation is adopted.

Jehovah is holy, not only because lifted above and separated from creatural limitations, but because of His righteousness. The second strophe therefore proclaims that all His dominion is based on uprightness, and is a continual passing of that into acts of "judgment and righteousness." The "And" at the beginning of Psalms 99:4, following the refrain, is singular, and has led many commentators to link the words with Psalms 99:3 a, - and, taking the refrain as parenthetical, to render, "Let them give thanks to Thy great and dread name, [for it is holy], and [to] the strength of the King [who] loveth," etc. But the presence of the refrain is an insuperable bar to this rendering. Others, as Delitzsch and Cheyne, regard "the strength of the king" as dependent on "established" in Psalms 99:4 b, and suppose that the theocratic monarch of Israel is represented as under Jehovah’s protection, if he reigns righteously. But surely one King only is spoken of in this psalm, and it is the inmost principle and outward acts of His rule which are stated as the psalmist’s reason for summoning men to prostrate themselves at His footstool. The "And" at the beginning of the strophe links its whole thought with that of the preceding, and declares eloquently how closely knit together are Jehovah’s exaltation and His righteousness. The singer is in haste to assert the essentially moral character of infinite power. Delitzsch thinks that love cannot be predicated of "strength," but only of the possessor of strength; but surely that is applying the measuring line of prosaic accuracy to lyric fervour. The intertwining of Divine power and righteousness could not be more strongly asserted than by that very intelligible attribution to His power of the emotion of love, impelling it ever to seek union with uprightness. He is no arbitrary ruler. His reign is for the furtherance of justice. Its basis is "equity," and its separate acts are "judgment and righteousness." These have been done in and for Jacob. Therefore the call to worship rings out again. It is addressed to an undefined multitude, which, as the tone of all this group of psalms leads us to suppose, includes the whole race of man. They are summoned to lift high the praise of Him who in Himself is so high. and to cast themselves low in prostrate adoration at His footstool-i.e., at His sanctuary on Zion (Psalms 99:9). Thus again, in the centre strophe of this psalm, as in Psalms 96:1-13; Psalms 98:1-9, mankind are called to praise the God who has revealed Himself in Israel; but while in the former of these two psalms worship was represented as sacrificial, and in the second as loud music of voice and instrument, here silent prostration is the fitting praise of the holiness of the infinitely exalted Jehovah.

The third strophe turns to examples drawn from the great ones of old, which at once encourage to worship and teach the true nature of worship, while they also set in clear light Jehovah’s holiness in dealing with His worshippers. Priestly functions were exercised by Moses, as in sprinkling the blood of the covenant, [Exodus 24:1-18] and in the ceremonial connected with the consecration of Aaron and his sons, [Leviticus 8:1-36] as well as at the first celebration of worship in the Tabernacle. [Exodus 40:18 sqq.} In the wider sense of the word priest, he acted as mediator and intercessor, as Exodus 17:12, in the fight against Amalek, and Exodus 32:30-32, after the worship of the golden calf. Samuel. too, interceded for Israel after their seeking a king, {1 Samuel 12:19 sqq.} and offered sacrifices. {1 Samuel 7:9] Jeremiah couples them together as intercessors with God. [Jeremiah 15:1]

From these venerable examples the psalmist draws instruction as to the nature of the worship befitting the holiness of Jehovah. He goes deeper than all sacrifices, or than silent awe. To call on God is the best adoration. The cry of a soul conscious of emptiness and need, and convinced of His fulness and of the love which is the soul of His power, is never in vain. "They called, and He"-even He in all the unreachable separation of His loftiness from their lowliness-"answered them." There is a commerce of desire and bestowal between the holy Jehovah and us. But these answers come on certain conditions, which are plain consequences of His holiness - namely, that His worshippers should keep His testimonies, by which Hehas witnessed both to His own character and to their duty. The psalmist seems to lose sight of his special examples, and to extend his view to the whole people, when he speaks of answers from the pillar of cloud, which cannot apply to Samuel’s experience. The persons spoken of in Psalms 99:8 as receiving answers may indeed be Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, all of whom were punished for evil deeds, as well as answered when they cried; but more probably they are the whole community. The great principle, firmly grasped and clearly proclaimed by the singer, is that a holy God is a forgiving God, willing to hearken to men’s cry, and rich to answer with needed gifts, and that indissolubly interwoven with the pardon, which He in His holiness gives is retribution for evil. God loves too well to grant impunity. Forgiveness is something far better than escape from penalties. It cannot be worthy of God to bestow or salutary for men to receive, unless it is accompanied with such retribution as may show the pardoned man how deadly his sin was. "Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap" is a law not abrogated by forgiveness. The worst penalty of sin, indeed-namely, separation from God-is wholly turned aside by repentance and forgiveness; but for the most part the penalties which are inflicted on earth, and which are the natural results of sin, whether in character, memory, habit, or circumstances, are not removed by pardon. Their character is changed; they become loving chastisement for our profit.

Such, then, is the worship which all men are invited to render to the holy Jehovah. Prostrate awe should pass into the cry of need, desire, and aspiration. It will be heard, if it is verified as real by obedience to God’s known will. The answers will be fresh witnesses of God’s holiness, which declares itself equally in forgiveness and in retribution. Therefore, once more the clear summons to all mankind rings out, and once more the proclamation of His holiness is made.

There is joyful confidence of access to the Inaccessible in the reiteration in Psalms 99:9 of Jehovah our God. "Holy is He," sang the psalmist at first, but all the gulf between Jehovah and us is bridged over when to the name which emphasises the eternal, self-existent being of the holy One we can add "our God." Then humble prostration is reconcilable with confident approach; and His worshippers have not only to lie lowly at His footstool, but to draw near with children’s frankness, to His heart.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 99:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-99.html.

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Tuesday, January 28th, 2020
the Third Week after Epiphany
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