The Holy God
Reading Psalm 99
I cannot tell why He, whom angels worship,
Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wand’rers,
To bring them back, they know not how or when.
These words express the wonder of salvation from the perspective of man – many of us here this morning know what it is to have the salvation of God in our lives, to have that knowledge that God is with us, that His love surrounds us, that His purpose and plan moves us. That our sins are taken from us, that Hell is closed to us and we are made citizens of the Kingdom of God – and isn’t it wonderful! Glorious!
But have you paused and wondered why? Or how this glorious estate of belonging to God can be so at all?
Dear friends, our God is a Holy God! Heaven is filled with the song of God’s holiness, Rev.4:8 Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come! The heavenly creatures never cease singing it day and night. Holiness is a defining quality of God.
In Isaiah 6:3 we hear the song of the angels Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory! In Hebrew, repetition is used to intensify, or emphasise a word. The classic example is in Genesis 14:10 where the valley of Siddim is described as full of tar pits. In Hebrew it says literally “there were pits-pits”. The repetition intensifies the word, and we are to understand that these weren’t any old tar pits. No, these were particularly pitty tar pits.
So it is with the song of heaven: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord. Declares that God is not simply holy, He is not even holy, holy; but he is holiness cubed, He is the holiest imaginable being. In every dimension he is holy. There is nothing about him that is unholy.
But what does holiness mean? What does it mean for us to deal with a holy God? Let’s step into God’s word and see what holiness looks like.
In Psalm 99 we find once again the three-fold repetition of God’s holiness: at the end of v3, he is holy, at the end of v 5 he is holy and at the end of the psalm, the Lord our God is holy. The first section shows God’s holiness expressed in his Majestic Presence. The second section shows God’s holiness expressed in his Moral Perfection. The third section describes how a holy God uses Mediating Priests.
Holy in His Majestic Presence
V1 proclaims that the Lord reigns and he is enthroned. God is king; majestic. God’s majesty is part of his holiness.
V2 tells us that he is exalted over all the nations. Immediately we see that God’s holiness implies that he is distant from us. Because he is king, he is inaccessible to us.
He is enthroned between the cherubim, or perhaps better, enthroned above the cherubim. Now, the word “cherubim” is the plural of “cherub”, but when we read about cherubs in the Bible, we are not to think of the chubby little boys flapping around on tiny wings that we see in renaissance paintings. No, in the Bible the cherubim are mighty heavenly creatures.
It is the cherubim that God stationed at the entrance to the Garden of Eden with the flaming sword to guard the way back in after he had ejected Adam and Eve. It is the cherubim that Ezekiel saw in his visions, bearing up the throne of God: strange but mighty figures, with four faces and four wings that made a sound like the roar of a waterfall, or an army in battle. They burned with fire and flashed with lightning.
In Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, gilded models of cherubim were made 15 feet high with a wingspan 15 feet long. They were placed above the Ark of the Covenant in the innermost sanctuary of the temple to symbolise its function as the throne of God on earth: an earthly picture of the heavenly reality.
The point is that God is enthroned in the heavenly realms. Not only is he exalted over all the earth, he is enthroned above the mightiest of the heavenly creatures. God’s majestic presence distances us from him again: he is distant because he is King; and he is distant because he is the heavenly King.
And God’s majestic presence distances us from him in a third way: because it is simply awesome. We see in this psalm that the response of creation to his presence is terror: the nations tremble; the earth shakes. Everyone is filled with awe. Sometimes we sing “Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One is here” : well, nothing is very still in the picture here is it, what with the nations trembling and the earth shaking.
The effect of God’s majestic presence is similar to another of the Bible’s key passages on the holiness of God, Exodus 19. This is where, after God has brought Israel out of Egypt, he comes down to Mount Sinai to renew his covenant with the Israelites, and to deliver the Ten Commandments.
We read there that there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled… Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently.(v16-18)
Which of us would approach what looked like an erupting volcano? But just to make it sure, God warns them, Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. (v12)
All this is for the peoples’ protection. The majestic presence of the holy God keeps them at a distance. These are the warning signs — keep back! — because the holiness of God makes his presence a hostile environment. Which brings us to the second part of the Psalm.
Holiness in His Moral Perfection
In v4 – 5 we find that God’s holiness is shown in his moral perfection. The King is mighty, he loves justice — you have established equity; in Jacob you have done what is just and right.
A holy God is a God who loves justice. He establishes equity. He does what is just and right. The holiness of God means that he has complete integrity, complete moral perfection.
However, what God considers just and right is not limited to criminal justice, but God’s justice spans the whole moral spectrum. God’s law that we find in the Bible concerns every aspect of the lives of his people: their religious lives, their economic lives, their sex lives; their building regulations, their dietary habits, their hygiene routines; their education systems, their fashions, their work-life balance, and so on and so on. And as Jesus makes clear, God’s law extends to our inner thought-lives as well.
And God’s standard is moral perfection. When we read that God loves justice at first we are happy to agree: which of us wouldn’t say that we love justice? But are we ready for God’s justice to be applied to ourselves? When faced with the absolute moral perfection of the holiness of God, which of us would not come under his judgement?
Because we are morally imperfect — even the best of us is bankrupt before a holy God — his presence is a hostile environment for us.
Have you watched a fly zapper at work? That ultraviolet lamp designed to attract flies: every now and again an unsuspecting fly would wander along and then bzzt!, a few thousand volts would fry it instantly. Isn’t that what it would be like for us to wander unprotected into the moral perfection, the blinding purity of the presence of God? It would be like flying a spacecraft into the sun, or leaping into a blast furnace. One quick sizzle, and then we’re gone.
When Isaiah saw a vision of the holiness of the Lord he cried out in desperation Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips. He correctly understood that no impurity can survive in the moral furnace of God’s holy presence.
Once again, God’s holiness makes him inaccessible to us. In v5 of the Psalm we see a consequence of this: the closest we can approach to God is his footstool – Exalt the LORD our God, And worship at His footstool— He is holy There is no question of any kind of intimacy with him at all.
I cannot tell why He, whom angels worship, Should set His love upon the sons of men! why would a holy God ever want to befriend wretched, despicable, morally filthy people like ourselves anyway?
Yet He does! This is precisely the story of the Bible from beginning to end: how can the holy God express his love towards sinful, rebellious people? How can a holy God and an unholy people relate to one another? Our salvation is a wonder that will last for eternity!
We find the beginnings of an answer in the last part of this Psalm: v6- 9.
In v6 – 9 we see that a holy God uses mediating priests. In Ex.20:18-21 following on from the scene at Mount Sinai that I described earlier, we read this: Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. 19 Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” 21 So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.
Moses acted as a mediator between the people and God: he spoke to God for the people, and God spoke through him to the people. That way, the people didn’t have to risk approaching God themselves, they dealt with God at arm’s length. There were others who fulfilled this role – v6 says Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel was among those who called on his name. They were among his priests, part of a group of men who stood in the gap between the people and God. They represented the people to God, and represented God to the people.
How was it that these people were able to approach the holy God when none of the others could or would? look at v8.
How was it these men could approach God when others couldn’t? v8 You answered them, O LORD our God; You were to them God-Who-Forgives, Though You took vengeance on their deeds. Does it seem to you that this verse contradicts itself? You were to them a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds.
Did he forgive them or did he punish them? It doesn’t make sense to do both, does it?
If my daughter, were to commit some terrible act of bad behaviour — hypothetically speaking, obviously — and I were to say to her, “Cara, I forgive you; now go and sit on the naughty step” , she’d be right to be a bit confused wouldn’t she? Or, raising the stakes a bit, if I were to commit adultery, and Anne were to say “Darling, I forgive you; here are the divorce papers” , I’d have to wonder what she meant by “forgiveness”. What does forgiveness mean if it does not mean not being punished for our misdeeds?
Here the Psalmist is describing a dilemma in the very heart of God. On the one hand God’s love compels him to forgive us; on the other hand, God’s holy justice demands that he punish us. Which is he going to do? God cannot forgive us without compromising his justice, and ruining His holiness. But God cannot express his justice by punishing us without annihilating us, every one of us. What’s he going to do?
He sends His only begotten Son to live as a man, a perfect life; a truly holy life. And when he died on the cross he was bearing for us all the just punishment that God’s holiness demanded. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. (1 Peter 2:24)
Jesus is the ultimate mediator. He stands between us and the holy justice of God, bearing the punishment that we deserve for our misdeeds, resolving the dilemma of God’s love and God’s justice. He is like a lightning rod that attracts God’s holy justice and deflects it from us. God’s moral perfection is satisfied: our sin has been punished because Jesus took it on himself; we are no longer excluded from the presence of God.
When we read of Moses or Aaron or Samuel or the other priests who were able to be mediators between God and the people, we are not to think of them as having achieved a holiness of their own. They had not somehow attained moral perfection by their own shear hard work. V8 is clear: they were sinners jut as you and I are.
No, the only ground on which they could approach God was that their sin too had been punished on the cross, borne by Jesus, and God’s holy justice satisfied. They could approach God on behalf of the people only because, centuries later, the accounts would be settled at the cross of Christ.
The holy God dealt with his people through mediating priests, but that these priests themselves relied on the death of Jesus, God’s Son, the ultimate mediator between God and man.
Dealing with a holy God
How can we relate to the holy God pictured in this Psalm? What are the implications for us of dealing with God’s majestic presence and God’s moral perfection?
We need mediating priests. – we are all priests, 1 Peter 2:9 . But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.
We are to fulfil the work of priests: mediating between God and the world. We are to represent God to those who are unable to enter God’s holy presence themselves; that is, those who do not yet know Jesus: we are to show God’s love to them, we are to explain God’s words to them, and tell them how to come to him.