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(Sunday between October 16 and October 22)
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 in the first part of v. 3.

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 fulfils 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

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.
R: 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.
R: 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.
R: Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain;
for the LORD our God is holy.
Old Testament reading: Exodus 33:12-23

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