As we worship Jehovah for His infinite wisdom, right at the peak of our praises must be the recognition that His mercy to us is altogether holy. How He managed to do that is beyond all finite calculation. But fortunately, it is not beyond our ability to adore and praise. How can mercy be holy? The answer to that question is found at the crux of all history, which would be the cross of Jesus Christ.
“The Lord reigneth; let the people tremble: He sitteth between the cherubims; let the earth be moved. The Lord is great in Zion; And he is high above all the people. Let them praise thy great and terrible name; For it is holy. The king’s strength also loveth judgment; Thou dost establish equity, Thou executest judgment and righteousness in Jacob. Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship at his footstool; For he is holy. Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among them that call upon his name; they called upon the Lord, and he answered them. He spake unto them in the cloudy pillar: They kept his testimonies, and the ordinance that he gave them. Thou answeredst them, O Lord our God: Thou wast a God that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions. Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at his holy hill; For the Lord our God is holy” (Psalm 99).
Summary of the Text:
This psalm can be divided into three sections or strophes as well. Each one of those sections ends with exultation in the holiness of God. Holiness is therefore the three-fold refrain. His name is holy (v. 3). His judgments are holy (v. 5). His mercy is holy (v. 9). Because Jehovah reigns, His people tremble and the earth staggers (v. 1). He reigns from between the cherubim, which is where the mercy seat is (v. 1). The Lord is great in Zion, high over the people (v. 2). His name is great and terrible (v. 3), and is to be honored as holy. God is the king who loves judgment, who loves the justice of judgment (v. 4), and He establishes equity (v. 4). All of it is righteous (v. 4). Because He is like this, we must worship at His footstool, in front of the mercy seat, for He is holy (v. 5). He is the God who answers prayer, as He did for His priests, Moses and Aaron, and as He also did for Samuel (v. 6). He spoke to them from the cloudy pillar, and they kept His testimonies and ordinances (v. 7). When God answers prayer, He makes a distinction between sinner and sin. He forgave them, but took vengeance on their inventions (v. 8). Because all of this is truth itself, we are to exalt the Lord, and worship at His holy hill—for He is holy (v. 9).
His Merciful Name is Terrible:
This is a jubilant psalm, but the joy in it is not a frothy or lite kind of thing. The rejoicing people here tremble (v. 1). The name we are praising is a great and terrible name—with terrible here being understood as that which means the kind of awe that causes earthquakes. The earth staggers under the weight of His mercy (v. 1). This is a psalm that rejoices in forgiveness, but this is not a “boys will boys” kind of forgiveness. It is no gloss-over-it forgiveness. We are not talking about a mercy that winks at sin. This is forgiveness that maintains the highest and holiest of standards. The king loves judgment and equity (v. 4). And after He has separated our sins from us, He takes vengeance on them (v. 8). He separates us from our inventions, and then rains down wrath on those inventions.
Real Social Justice:
A recent thing in Christian circles has been the cry for “social justice.” On one level there should be no problem with this—we see in our text that the king we serve loves judgment, and He establishes equity. He executes both judgment and righteousness. How could we be against any of that? Biblically grounded, we are not. But we remember the warning the Lord gave us. “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).
Before programs or hearings, or reparations, or investigations, or reforms, before any of that, we must have definitions. What do we mean by justice? By what standard? If it is not biblical justice, biblically defined, then it is nothing more than a secular pursuit of continual unrepented unholiness. And that is precisely what the current “social justice” fad is—a love of the unholy.
From the Cloudy Pillar:
Not surprisingly, the merciful and most holy word comes to us from the awesome cloudy tower that accompanied Israel by day, and which was a tower of fire by night. This is where the word of forgiveness comes from.
“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people” (Ex. 13:21–22).
In the time of the new covenant, this blessing is for all the houses of Zion—which means you.
“And the Lord will create upon every dwelling place of mount Zion, And upon her assemblies, A cloud and smoke by day, And the shining of a flaming fire by night: For upon all the glory shall be a defence” (Is. 4:5).
The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians that the ancient Jews had been baptized, just as they had been, but they were baptized into Moses in the cloud, and in the sea (1 Cor. 10:2). The cloud was their baptism, and God spoke to them from it. It marked the place where they placed the tabernacle, which determined the place where they all pitched their tents. The cloud was their protection, their guidance, their revelation, and identity.
Both Just and Justifier:
So how is it possible for God to save us, and execute vengeance on our inventions? He sees that we keep His testimonies and ordinances, and He also sees the ways in which we fail to do so. He sees us following Him, and He sees us stumble. How is this to be dealt with? The answer to this question—and when it comes to a man’s salvation, it is the question—is double imputation. God imputes the sin and wickedness of our guilt to Christ on the cross, and He imputes the absolute purity of Christ’s life to us.
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
And He does it from the pillar of cloud and fire, with the tabernacle beneath. He does it from between the cherubim, from the mercy seat. The word rendered as mercy seat is literally “propitiatory.” Propitiation is the averting of wrath, satisfying wrath. The mercy seat is where wrath is dealt with.
Think of it this way. In an unholy world, the nation of Israel was set apart as a holy nation (Ex. 19:6). Within that nation, the Levites and sons of Aaron were set apart as holy (2 Chron. 23:6). The tabernacle was the holiest place in Israel, and later in the land, the Temple was the holy place where God determined to settle His name. The entire tabernacle was holy. Within the tabernacle was the holy place (Heb. 9:2). Inside that, there was a Holy of Holies, the most holy place, where the mercy seat was (Ex. 26:34; Heb. 9:3). Inside the Holy of Holies, the holiest place there was the mercy seat—it is was not the tips of the wings of the cherubim. The holiest place in all of Israel was the mercy seat. And why? Because it was the place where all the sin was brought. All the sin of Israel, and all the wrath of God, and all the forgiveness of God, occupy the same place.
We will know we have mediated on this in a fitting way when there is a great earthquake and the Spirit falls in Pentecostal power.
So in that tabernacle, there is the Holy of Holies, containing the ark of the covenant. On top of that ark are the two cherubim, facing each other, and between them is the mercy seat. And God dispenses His judgments from that place, the place where the blood was put, and which was the holiest place within the holiest place in all Israel.
And that means your forgiveness, our forgiveness, is not a matter of divine indulgence. Our forgiveness, our new life, our cleansing, is everlastingly holy, and all of it is the revealed mystery of divine substitution. Our life is based on vicarious justice.