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(The last Sunday in the season of Epiphany; the Sunday immediately before Ash Wednesday)
Psalms 2 or 99

The Uniting Church calendar sets two psalms for today. Either would make a suitable reading or source for worship.

Psalm 2
Psalm 2 has been set for this feast because of the divine declaration to the king ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you.’ (v. 7) This declaration is echoed in both the accounts of Jesus’ baptism and his transfiguration (see Matt 3:17; 17:5).

The psalm was apparently associated with the enthronement of the human king in Jerusalem. This is evident in vv. 6 to 7 where the Lord declares that divine imprimatur the king has been set in Zion. Verse 7 suggests that when a king was enthroned he was regarded as ‘the son’ of the Lord. Besides the echoes in the accounts of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration noted above, the verse is read by other New Testament writers as the statement of God about Jesus who is God’s ‘son’ in a new sense (see Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5 and 5:5).

Psalm 2 begins by speaking about the nations who conspire against the Lord and his king. The Lord’s response is to laugh at this opposition and threaten them (v. 5). The Lord is king in heaven and sets the king in Jerusalem as vice-regent so to speak. Kingship in Israel was tied closely to the concept of the Lord as king over the cosmos. The human king’s desire to be sovereign on earth will be fulfilled by the Lord and is based in the sovereignty of the Lord over all creation. Compare Ps 2:9 with v. 5.

The last section of the psalm, vv. 10 and 11, returns to the scene of the kings of the nations. It contains a warning to them to give allegiance to the one who is sovereign over all.

This psalm has some military overtones that may not sit easy with a Christian commitment to peace and reconciliation. We need to recognise that the psalm comes from another time and place. While we may not want to embrace what it says literally, nor even share some of the vehemence of its sentiment, the question of the sovereignty of the Lord over the creation is still a matter for concern. A commitment to a God who is love, and who desires justice and freedom for all peoples, will inevitably lead to confrontation with forces which seek to destroy those things. While violence is an extremely limited option for a Christian, if one at all, confrontation of evil in many forms cannot be avoided. This psalm expresses confidence in God in the context of such struggles.

Psalm 99
The structure of this psalm suggests ways it might have been used as part of a liturgy in ancient Israel. It keeps alternating between statements about the Lord and the people, statements made to the Lord, and others which could be uttered by the people. The psalm is a three way dialogue between a worship leader, the people and the Lord. However, it is not always clear who is speaking to whom.

Verses 1 and 2 contain statements about the kingship of the Lord. As with Psalms 93, 97 and others, this psalm begins with the exclamation ‘The Lord is king!’ The kingship of the Lord is then expressed in relation to the peoples of the earth. They are called to tremble even as the earth quakes at the enthronement of the Lord. The Lord is described as universal sovereign but in a special way God is sovereign to the people Israel (v. 3). There is a specificity in this psalm as in other enthronement psalms which we cannot escape. The Lord is always proclaimed king in relation to someone and that someone is usually Israel. The kingship of the Lord is seen to be expressed in specific human instances of justice, equity and righteousness (cf. Isa 5:16). Divine kingship over other nations in the world proceeds from that point.

Verse 3 follows with an address to the Lord wishing that the people may praise the name of the Lord. It is followed by the refrain ‘Holy is He’. Note that the refrain is repeated in v. 5 and v. 9. It is difficult to know who utters this refrain. One possibility is that it is said by all the people as a response to the injunction of a leader the statement at the end of v. 3 could be made by the leader as part of the injunction for the people to praise the Lord.

The presence of the refrain suggests a three-fold structure to the psalm. The content of the psalm falls into three distinct sections around the refrain. The first section contains an exclamation that the Lord is king in Zion and over the nations.

Verses 4 and 5 constitute the second section of the psalm. It is not absolutely clear in verse 4 whom the psalmist is addressing. If we assume that the Lord is addressed, then the Lord is seen as a lover of justice, an establisher of equity, and a doer of righteousness. Thus after the first section, in which the kingship of the Lord is exclaimed, this section outlines what that kingship entails. The Lord fulfills the royal role fully.

Verses 6 to 9 make up the third and longest section of the psalm. In vv. 6 to 7 reference is made to Moses, Aaron, and Samuel as examples of those who had cried to the Lord and whom the Lord had answered. Stress is not only put on the Lord’s attitude toward them but on their faithful attitude toward him (v. 7). While there is the assurance that a cry to the Lord will be met by the deliverance of the Lord, it needs to be recognised that the other side of that is obedience to the Lord’s law. Thus the kingship of the Lord is seen both in an attentive response to the people and in the requirement of an attentive response by the people toward the Lord. There is a dual expectation of the divine presence with the people and of obedience by the people to the divine will. Divine presence and obedience to the divine will both involve justice, equity, and righteousness.

The third section finishes with an extended address to the Lord (v. 8) who forgives the people and avenges the wrongs done by them. There follows an injunction for the people to praise the Lord (v. 9). It is clear that the leader of worship speaks throughout this verse. This section, following the exclamation of the Lord as king and then the statement of what that kingship entails, provides a specific set of examples from Israel’s past of a proper response to divine kingship and the result that response brings. So the one who proclaims ‘the Lord is king’ (v. 1) should do so in full awareness of the nature of his or her relationship with the Lord. The people who praise the holiness of the Lord should know that the holiness to be praised involves a certain divine freedom which does not suffer human manipulation.

Suggestions for the use of the psalms in worship

Parts of Psalm 2 could be adapted in the prayers of the people particularly in light of recent protests against dictatorial leaders in the Middle East and northern Africa.

L: Why do the nations conspire,
and their peoples plot in vain?
The leaders of the earth set themselves,
taking counsel together, against the Lord
and the people?
R: Happy are they who take refuge in the Lord.
Psalm 99 offers many more opportunities for use in worship. Verses 1-2 could be used as a call to worship with the final part of the refrain the response of the people.

Alternatively the whole psalm could be used with refrains as a combination of prayer of adoration and confession:

The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.
    Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he!
Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity;
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
    Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!
Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called on his name.
They cried to the LORD, and he answered them.
He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud;
they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them.
O LORD our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
    Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain;
    for the LORD our God is holy.
Old Testament reading: Exodus 24:12-18

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