Saturday, August 10, 2019

Psalm 99: "He is Holy!"

Overwhelming Majesty

By a curious shift of meaning, the modern world has largely drained the word 'holy' of its majesty. Applied to God it seldom suggests to our contemporaries the glory that is too dazzling to approach (cf. 1 Timothy 6:16); while applied to His servants it tends to taunt them with (in Milton’s phrase) a fugitive and cloistered virtue. Perhaps significantly, we drop our voices at the words holy, holy, holy, whereas in Isaiah’s vision “the doorposts and thresholds shook” at the sound of the seraphim’s acclamation. (The great “Sanctus” in J.S. Bach’s B Minor Mass does better justice to their praise!)

The opening stanza of our psalm creates a proper sense of the Lord’s tremendous presence as it leads up to the first of the three refrains of “He is holy” (Psalm 99: 3, 5, 9). The mention of the attendant cherubim (Psalm 99:1) has already added its own warning against a careless or presumptuous approach, by its implicit reminder of their flaming sword at the gate of Eden, and their symbolic guardianship of the Holy of Holies, where their forms adorned its concealing curtain and overshadowed even the mercy seat (Exodus 25:17–22; 26:31–33).

Not only in the psalm but everywhere in the Old Testament this formidable aspect of holiness is impressed on us. The first time the word holy appears in Scripture is at the burning bush, where Moses is warned, “Come no nearer; … the place … is holy ground.” This initial lesson was soon to be thundered out at Mount Sinai and embodied in the ritual laws and in the very architecture of the tabernacle. In Isaiah’s vision, even the sinless seraphim covered their faces before God’s holiness and glory, since not only as our Judge but as our Creator, He is simply too much for us in the full blaze of His being.

Overwhelming Purity

The seraphim had no guilt to confess; but Isaiah had, and at once he knew it. Our second stanza (Psalm 99:4–5), with its praise of God’s moral perfection, shows why divine holiness drew so desperate a cry of “Unclean!” from this man. He was in the presence of absolute and dynamic righteousness, indeed of its ardent and personal source: its Lover, Upholder, and Doer, as our psalm’s verse 4 acknowledges with its repeated and (in the Hebrew) emphatic Thou. A later prophet would put it unforgettably: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). So the repetition of the refrain, “He is holy” (v. 5) has this special content; and as Scripture unfolds, it is this burning purity that the word holy conveys to us above all, since it takes its color from the character of the living and true God.

If this seems obvious, it is worth remembering that holiness outside the Bible may have little or no moral challenge, being concerned with cult rather than conscience, reflecting the disposition of the gods that are worshipped and the powers that are cultivated. Even the religious prostitutes, male and female, at Canaanite shrines, were called “holy” men and women—it was their actual title, as in the Hebrew underlying our versions of Deuteronomy 23:17. But see God’s names for them in the next verse there: “a whore or a dog.”

We used the expression “burning purity” because holy is a word that cannot be secularized—unlike even such noble terms as good, true, great, upright, which have a limited reality at the natural level. One scholar has said, “There is always an energy in the holy which is lacking in the pure or clean.” Both the Old Testament and the New have to remind us that “our God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29). For the second time we respond, “He is holy” (v. 5).

Redemptive Holiness

The remaining verses (Psalm 99:6–9) make it clear that God’s holiness cannot be torn away from His love—nor indeed His love from His holiness. Because He is holy, He wills holiness for us, so that at last, as like facing like, we may “see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). The once-for-all redemption that ensured this, and God’s patient discipline that cultivates it, are classically expounded to us in Hebrews 10:14 and Hebrews 12:10; but already they are glimpsed in this section of our psalm, as we contemplate its sample of human characters whom God listened to and took in hand, individually and collectively. Nowhere is His generosity and faithfulness—His holy love—more justly expressed than in verse 8: “O LORD our God, you answered them; You were to them a forgiving God, though You punished their misdeeds.” Then this formidable psalm ends with a call to worship which is both a rebuke to any casual attitude we may be tempted to adopt and at the same time assurance of the grace of God’s covenant. The final version of the refrain is no longer the bare statement “He is holy” but the declaration which makes room for us: “for the LORD our God is holy.” So it’s a psalm to sing!