Poetry is well known as an concise, hence dense, text that appeals mostly to one’s aesthetic values. When used propagandistically it can become naive and blunt as any eulogy tends to be when the person praised is still alive and is too mediocre for adulations. Poetry used for propaganda tends to be more transparent than any other poetic sub-genres because its main purpose is to make plain the author’s submissive position. Such a poetry cannot afford ambiguous language or too many figures of speech. After all, I am not aware of many well-educated dictators and one cannot risk loosing freedom for few unclear verses.
Public formal flattery represents the popular obeisance to a dictator’s avid need for submission. It may be a psychological reaction to the regime of terror a dictator usually imposes on his people, a way of lying to yourself that the person who demands for submission is indeed worthy of it, a way of discharging the painful question: ‘Do I need to pay obedience myself?’
It is known that God also preferred to present himself as a king who holds absolute power. Occasionally the term translated most times as ‘the Lord’ appears as ‘the Despot’ (Gen 15.2, 8; Jos 5.14; Jona 4.3; Jer 1.6 but most times in Daniel) a tradition that is picked up by the New Testament (Luke 2.29; Acts 4.24; 2 Tim 2.21; 2 Pet. 2.1; Judah 4; Rev 6.10). Is this Sovereign of ours such a terrible master after all? Is the one calling for our adulation such a worthless imagination? If that were the case, then indeed we are just some mindless pityful creatures unable to discern the truth from our own imaginations.
I remember somebody’s wavering question once put to me, ‘why is there so much about this Jesus? After all is not God we are meant to talk about?’ The answer is so obvious that it bites you: Jesus is God and his work reveals the highest depth of our God’s Sovereignty. It is a sacrificing Absolute Ruler. His standards are so perfect that none of His subjects can fulfill them. Instead of crushing them all, God fulfilled the demands of his law himself and graciously accepted those he has chosen to share his kingdom. This is a completely different image of a Despot, is it not?
I believe the authors of Psalms 93-100 are particularly interested in drawing God as a Despot and here in Psalm 99 we have few more pieces added to this grand puzzle. This poem is relatively easy to divide into three stanzas following the repeating formula ‘He is Holy’. Therefore, we can identify three stanzas: vv. 1-3, vv. 4-5 and vv. 6-9. Note how the author chose to close each stanza with an open invitation to worship (vv. 3, 5, 9). The language of this poem is rather descriptive, with the exception of the aformentioned verses and the beginning verse (v. 1).
Given the thematic prominence the term ‘holy’ has in this poem, Psalm 99 has to say something about God’s holiness. In theological terms, ‘transcendence’ is preferred to ‘holiness’. It means that God is completely different from any other creatures; he is utterly distinct dissimilar to whatever exists. The legitimate question it then, what makes his otherness? The author of Psalm 99 suggests three main answers referring to God’s dwelling, God’s decrees and God relationship with His prophets.
The first stanza unravels the complicated theme of God’s dwelling. Unlike other gods, the Lord sits enthroned between the cherubim in Zion. Of course, the author had in mind the Temple in Jerusalem, home of God on earth. His presence was signaled during the wilderness years by the angel in the pillar of fire/cloud that accompanied the people and rested on top of the Tent of the Covenant. Now, that presence was lost as soon they entered Canaan, even though the symbol of His presence in the middle of the elected nation remained behind. Apparently, even the liturgical formulae that the priests used to pronounce on departure and/or arrival of the camps were preserved (cf. Num. 10:35-36).
In people’s mind, God’s effective presence on his throne in Jerusalem was signaled by earthquakes and the invincibility of His army (remember Ps 89). We all recall the incident whereby, in order to change the battle augurs in their favour, the Israelites had brought the Ark of the Covenant in the camp, but the Philistenes succeded in taking it. God does not identify blindly with things, institutions, and his covenant with humans allows Him to use even unfavourable circumstances to discipline his people. This understanding was based on the theophanic descriptions of God. When revealed to protect His people, God appeared in fire, thunder and smoke (Ps 18.7-15; also Hab 3).
As we know it, God’s earthly throne represents only a feeble shadow of the heavenly reality. There his throne is indeed carried by cherubim and angels serve him. What makes this God so exquisitely different from other gods who had their home in larger temples in fancier cities and were protected by more terible creatures (sphynx, dragons, demons, winged-serpents or chimeras)? Last time God defended his reputation against other gods was during the reign of Hezekiah and his authority was challenged publicly by Rabshake (2 Kgs 18.32b-35). Upon admitting his total dependence on God, king Hezekiah succedded in securing God’s assistence. Therefore, the different lays in the fact that the Lord God of Israel is alive. People and even theologians do not mind talking about God’s qualities, but nothing hinders the stability of one’s assumptions more that a living God. Once you have a living God you have no peace of mind unless you push Him into some remote corners of this universe. This is not possible, though, because He is both absolute in all His attributes and very much alive. HE IS HOLY.
The second stanza speaks about God’s holiness in terms of His decrees. Unfortunately, there is not much room for justice in our perception of a despot. The two do not come along very well. True, there were some people whom today’s historians consider enlightened despots (such as Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg), but still perfect justice is far from our human achievements. Some people tried to describe Alexander the Great as such a Despot, but his life was too short to prove it, hence irrelevant for our argument.
According to Psalm 99, God’s justice is not proven by some future too much delayed final judgment on the wicked people and the restoration of harmony in a universe that suffers from injustice for millenia. On the contrary, the sense of justice that describes God’s sovereign rule is historically based. Verse 5 refers to God’s just dealing with Jacob. In Asaph’s Psalms, references to Jacob denoted the Northern Kingdom. Here, it seems more likely that Jacob refers to the patriarch of old. Jacob’s destiny epitomizes indeed the history of ancient Israel. His story evolves from obscurity to a highly respected status, from disownment to ownership. God promised to him descendents, wealth, fame, and land and he received them all. God’s justice is perfect because He is the maker of the law and he upholds his standard. He is so different than all other gods because in His majesty, His absolute power does not compromise with His will to fulfill His promises. HE IS HOLY.
Thirdly, the unparalleled character of God is reflected in His relationship with His prophets. No doubt, God’s revelation through priests and prophets was extraordinary, but here God answering them had a strong impression on the poet. Although the first reference seems to imply that answering has to do with the conversation between prophets and God. The second utterance (v. 8) offers some insights into its interpretation. Surprinsingly, the verse connects answering with forgiveness and the punishment of misdeeds, a connection common in the context of the interceeding narratives.
Both Moses and Samuel were involved in situations where God expected them to exercise their responsability as mediators coherently connected to their status as prophets. It appears that both of them were instrumental for helping Israel to avoid a great disaster and stay alive after God reached a decision to uproot Israel. What is the relevance of these references to God’s holiness? The tone of verse 8 seems to be one of gratitude, the poet admitting that Israel deserved the punishment God has waved from His nation. Waving a rightfully deserved punishment bespeaks of authority and grace. Forgiveness involves an exercise of both authority and grace, and for that reason forgiveness is a quality of kings (Prov 16.15; Ps 130.3-4). GOD IS HOLY, indeed!
One more thing should be noticed, though. The exaltation the poet calls upon his people to bring has a clear object and a certain place for its practice: God has to be exalted in his temple, ‘his footstool’, and ‘at his holy mountain’. This is not a call for institutionalization but for integrating worship with a communitarian life. Therefore, although I agree with the theoretical idea that God would have sent his son even if it were only a sinner in this world, I strongly believe that he would not have done it having not had the certainty that there were a community of believers to be integrated in. God has chosen a people not an individual. His Majesty can indeed be approached with ‘Your Grace’.
We are called into His holiness as believers to join the great chorus of people who know that they have a holy God: alive, true to His word, and forgiving. Where else can one find better the reality of His holiness than in Jesus? Him, who was ressurected to impart to every believer the promise of the Holy Spirit and the blessings of the new life, including forgiveness from all sins. “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom of God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” (1 Cor 1.30)