Psalm 99: You Are Never Alone

The Lord reigns,
    let the nations tremble;
he sits enthroned between the cherubim,
    let the earth shake.
Great is the Lord in Zion;
    he is exalted over all the nations.
Let them praise your great and awesome name –
    he is holy.

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Psalm 99

Book IV of the Psalter (Psalms 90–106) celebrates the reign of God and declares YHWH to be King. Some scholars believe that these Psalms, particularly 96–99, are the theological centre of the whole book, and a response to the pain filled questions posed in Psalm 89:38–51.

The Psalmist, maybe in the face of evidence to the contrary, declares that YHWH rules. There have been many times in the history of God’s people when that has not appeared to be so – the long cruel centuries of slavery in Egypt, the heartbreaking years of exile in Babylon, the dark days of Good Friday and Easter Saturday and in our own circumstances we might also think of times when God’s reign has been less than obvious.

Yet the conviction of faith is that in spite of this YHWH reigns. That’s isn’t to be dismissed as wishful thinking but based on God’s promise to his people. For the Christian that conviction is grounded in the events of Easter in the historical fact of Jesus’ crucifixion, the reality of the empty tomb, and the experience of the disciples in meeting the Risen Christ – who showed himself as no ghost, but as the Lord of life who invited them to touch his side, who ate broiled fish, and cooked them breakfast on the beach.  

There’s a wonderful moment in the 2008 film version of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian.  The forces of Narnia are overwhelmed by the Telmarine army and look doomed. Lucy and Susan are sent deep into the Shuddering Wood to call for Aslan’s help. Susan dismounts to string her bow and fight off their attackers leaving Lucy, the youngest of the children, all on her own. The viewer sees a Telmarine horseman chasing after Lucy. She’s all alone, but as she rides deeper into the woods, she glimpses, running parallel to her, indistinct at first but ever clearer, the shape of a lion. Before leaving her Susan told her sister, ‘I’m sorry, Lucy. But it looks as if you’ll be going alone after all.’ C.S. Lewis was making the point that we are never alone. Even when we fear, even when we are in danger, God is with us. YHWH reigns. He reigns over the angels, over the earth, over Zion and over the nations (vv. 1–2) and he is worthy of all praise (v. 3).

As always, the Psalmist relates God’s might to his justice. God is not some man-made idol of sheer naked power, but his character is just and he does what is right (v. 4). Royalty is often defined by entitlement and the privileges of birth but God’s kingship is about ensuring justice in his realm (see Jesus’ words in Matthew 20:28).

The love of justice means that God is not some philosophical abstraction, not Aristotle’s ‘Unmoved Mover’ nor Einstein’s deity who ‘reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists (but does not)…concern himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.’ YHWH is supremely personal and relational. That is why people can call on his name. The Psalmist makes mention of some of these – Moses, Aaron and Samuel. They were his priests and his prophets who experienced his blessing and mediated his blessing to others. In their own lives they reflected God’s justice by keeping his statutes and decrees.

A careful look at the lives of those heroes of faith shows that none of them was perfect. But we are told that when they called on God he answered them (v. 6). That is surely an encouragement to all of us. The Psalm makes several references to God’s holiness (vv. 3, 5, 9) – not only does that mean YHWH is morally good or majestically supreme but it means that he is consistent. YHWH’s holiness is matched by his mercy. There may be times when he disciplines us for our own good but he hears our prayers and forgives us (vv. 7, 8). No wonder the Psalmist ends with a call to make YHWH the centre of our life.