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(Last Sunday after Epiphany)
Psalm 99

Psalm 99 is the last of a group of four psalms (Psalms 96-99) which speak about the sovereignty or kingship of God. There a certain patterns set up within the four psalms tying them together. Psalm 99 is close to Psalm 97 in this case. The psalms may have been used in some liturgy celebrating Godís sovereignty over creation. What that liturgy may have looked like is largely lost to us today. However, in Psalm 99 we may see a small remnant of it in the threefold response about Godís holiness, vv. 3b, 5b, 9c. The three psalms with which Psalm 99 forms a group, Psalms 96, 97, 98, were the psalms set for the alternative readings for Christmas Day.

The refrain noted above in Psalm 99 suggests a possible threefold structure to the psalm. After an initial statement about the kingship of God in the third person expressing the influence of that kingship not only in Zion but over nations (vv. 1-2), there follows an address to the Lord with the refrain ĎHoly is Heí (v. 3). It could be that this refrain is meant to be said by all people. There is a further address to the Lord (v. 4) with a final call to the people to repeat the refrain (v. 5). On this occasion the nature of Godís sovereignty is explored a little with references to God loving justice, establishing equity, and executing justice and righteousness in Israel. These are all the things earthly kings were also responsible for (cf. Psalm 72). Indeed the human monarchís ability to deliver such ideals was dependent on their relationship with God. This may be evident in the Hebrew at the start of v. 4 which translates Ďand a kingís strengthí implying that God is the strength behind any human monarch, rather than the NRSV emendation ĎMighty Kingí referring to God.

The psalm concludes with a lengthier third section (vv. 6-9) in which there is reference to Moses, Aaron, and Samuel as three of Godís particular servants, to each of whom God spoke, answered, forgave and avenged their wrongdoings. These three stand out as exemplars of faith from the past, and yet ordinary individuals within the history of the community. This section ends with a third call to the people and a longer concluding refrain for them to say (v. 9).

There are some points which we should note about Godís sovereignty from this psalm. First it is universal in nature (v. 1) but expressed in a special relationship to Godís people. There is a specificity in the psalms about Godís kingship which we canít ignore. God is always proclaimed king vis-a-vis someone, namely Israel. Godís sovereignty is never some abstract, absolute entity without ties to human affairs. So just as lament psalms are willing to name the enemies of God, so enthronement psalms such as this one name those who are faithful and define clearly the nature of the one to whom they are faithful (v. 4). Godís sovereignty over the world and over peoples proceeds from that point. The sovereignty of God is expressed in specific human instances of justice, equity and righteousness and in relation to the lives of real people.

In vv. 6-7 there is a twofold nature to the response to Godís sovereignty. There is the possibility of those who are faithful to cry out to God for deliverance from some trouble. The other side of that is obedience to Godís law, the Ďdecreesí and Ďstatutesí of v. 7c. If Godís sovereignty is expressed by an attentive divine response toward Godís people, then there is the requirement of an equally attentive response by those same people to Godís ways. There is an expectation of both divine presence and a corresponding obedience to divine will. Divine presence and obedience to divine will both involve justice, equity and righteousness.

Verse 8 of the psalm probes matters deeper and reveals two sides to Godís presence and will. First God is a forgiving God. But God is also an avenger of the wrongdoings of Godís own people. Therefore, when one proclaims ĎThe Lord is kingí, as called forth in v. 1, one must do so in full awareness of the nature of the relationship which that statement reflects and the demands attendant upon it. To cry ĎHoly is Heí, as the psalm calls for, is to proclaim Godís holiness not only in word but in relationship and is response to Godís exercise of over all. Holiness that is to be praised involves divine freedom which does not suffer human manipulation or insincerity.

Finally, we should remember that we noted this psalm is connected to Psalms 96-98, the selected psalms for Christmas services. This links the feast of Transfiguration with Christmas. This could be a point to explore in a sermon on the Transfiguration.

Suggestions for use of the psalm in worship:

The whole psalm lends itself as a prayer of adoration, with some congregational responses built in, especially the statements of ĎHoly is Heí in vv. 3, 5, and 9.

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 34:29-35

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