Reflections on Psalm 99 —
Our worship needs a healthy dose of fear and trembling at the Holiness of God, the avenger of evil.
The unknown author of Psalm 99 uses common refrains found in the praise psalms–refrains such as, “the Lord reigns”, “praise His great name”, and “exalt the Lord” . But interposed within these lines he placed some ominous reminders that God is not one to be trifled with. Three times the author refers to God’s holiness (“Holy is He”). He speaks of God’s lofty throne being elevated about the cherubim, the most exalted archangels in the heavenly host, and calls for humble homage “at His footstool.” Then there is his disturbing description of God’s interaction with Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. After establishing that these men were generally faithful and obedient, the author brings us to his point: “You were a forgiving God to them, and yet an avenger of their evil deeds.”
God is holy. As such, He is tough on sin. Even with His closest friends.
We like to think of God as loving, gracious, kind, and merciful…a jolly, old Grandpa doting on his grandchildren. We don’t often think of Him as an avenger. That’s a description of Tony Stark, the Iron Man. The author’s use of “avenger” in Psalm 99, along with the frequent references to God’s holiness, are reminders that God takes sin much more seriously than we, and will fiercely guard His reputation. He will not allow His name to be tarnished by the bad behavior of people claiming to be His followers. Our worship must bear this in mind.
It is curious to me that Moses, Aaron, and Samuel are cited in this psalm. What were the “evil” deeds of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel that drew God’s ire?
We don’t see much about Samuel’s faults, other than the way they manifested in his parenting. His kids grew up to be miserable priests, so full of corruption that the people would have nothing of them (I Samuel 8:3-5). Moses was a great guy, “more humble than any man on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Yet even Moses did evil and thus suffered some avenging from God. Such was the case when Moses displayed impatience and presumption at Meribah. The people whined, Moses lost his temper, and struck a rock with his rod. To the delight of the people, water flowed, but God was not pleased. He had told Moses to “speak to the rock”, not thwack it. As a result of his unfaithful action, Moses was denied access to the Promised Land (Numbers 20:9-13). We may think it unfair to deny Moses, but such is the nature of our sin–it is evil at its core and the holiness of God does not take sin lightly.
More than the others, Aaron’s story sheds light on the holiness of God, and His avenging of evil. I have to believe Aaron’s folly with the golden calf is the story the author had in mind when he penned Psalm 99. Anyone who has seen The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston knows it. Let’s take a look in more detail and understand the author’s mind.
Aaron Loses Control
Aaron was a chosen man of God, the brother of Moses, and the first of the priestly lineage. He received that appointment from God Himself when Moses shunned the role for his self-proclaimed lack of eloquence. Unlike his brother, Aaron was articulate. However, he was a terrible leader. He lacked conviction and was easily swayed by popular opinion.
The definitive story of Aaron is found in Exodus 32. Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai to speak with God. Aaron was left in charge of the Israelites, fresh off their miraculous escape from Egypt. When Moses tarried, the people grew impatient.
One of man’s premier flaws is his inability to wait for something, especially when it comes to God. We demand immediate results, easy answers, clearly marked paths…and when those don’t materialize in the time we require, we grow impatient. We get so impatient we stop waiting and make our own plans. We can become extremely “creative” with faith, assembling something that is easily understood, achievable, and more obvious than God’s way.
Such was the case with the impatient Israelites. Their strange and illogical actions in Exodus 32 are a harsh reminder that the human mind can be made to believe anything. The deluded Israelites somehow decided they needed an image, something they could see and touch, something they could worship. Unbelievably, Aaron agreed to this ludicrous plan and suggested a golden calf. When he finished carving, the people beheld Aaron’s gold cow, and proclaimed it to be the god who rescued them from Egypt. Continuing in his lunacy, Aaron noticed his cow’s popularity. He proclaimed a day of burnt offerings to the cow. To make it sound legitimate, he called it a celebration to the Lord (Exodus 32:5). To make such an association is quite a stretch of the imagination.
The Israelites were clearly in the wrong here. They were so dysfunctional, the Bible says that when Moses returned, they were “out of control” and had become a “derision among their enemies” (Exodus 32:25). This unsavory phrase suggests the celebration deteriorated into an orgy of wine, dancing, and sensuality that made the tabloids of the pagan hosts surrounding them. The Israelites were dragging God’s name through the mud, making Him a laughingstock.
This is the context behind God avenging Aaron’s evil, idolatrous deeds. God was so angry with His people, He nearly destroyed them all. Only the passionate intercession of Moses and prevailing mercy of God spared the community from certain doom. Nevertheless, God avenged His name by purging 3,000 from their midst, a chilling reminder that God’s holiness demands vengeance when His reputation is at stake.
It’s crucial we learn from the example of Aaron, and acknowledge the evil we allow in our soul. Doing so will give us a healthy appreciation of God’s holiness–a fear of God, which in turn will purify our worship.
A Healthy Fear
For Christians, I Corinthians 10 is one of the most important chapters in the New Testament. It opens our eyes to countless lessons about the holiness of God and the corrupt nature of man, lessons which are relevant to Christian life today. Paul says in I Corinthians 10 that the stupid things Israel did are cautionary tales for us. The lesson of Aaron is one example. Paul makes a peculiar statement in I Corinthians 10:7, defining idolatry as “the people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play”, a direct reference to Exodus 32:6. By this definition, idolatry is more than worshiping a carved image. There is something sinister in their lighthearted frivolity.
Paul’s commentary suggests that worshiping God involves something deeper than positive thinking and happy praise songs. Worship involves living with a healthy fear…fear of God’s perfect holiness, fear because we are evil creatures before a Holy God, fear because God is an avenger of our evil. It is a fear that should cause us to tremble. If God could destroy 3,000 of His chosen ones for defaming His name, surely He could do so today. Were it not for God’s mercy, we would be lost.
A healthy dose of fear helps us worship God holistically and consistently. This is Paul’s conclusion in I Corinthians 10: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31). We fear God because our actions matter. If our actions defame God’s name, He will not sit idle. If we taint His holiness with corrupt living, He will avenge. Fear of God guides our choices, strengthens our resolve, helps us stay the course.
Don’t Be Like Them
The Israelites would have none of this. They were impatient, unwilling to trust God’s instructions or wait for Him. They wanted something quicker, easier, more palatable. Rather than be mournful, they sought lightheartedness and celebration, deriving their own style of worship, with singing, eating, dancing, playing, and offering sacrifices as part of a “feast to the Lord.” What the Israelites called “worship”, God called “evil.”
The church should heed the warning of I Corinthians 10 and not follow the bad examples of the Israelites. We are more like them than we realize.
We don’t like waiting for God. Sometimes, the best lessons in life are learned by waiting. When we are impatient, we take short-cuts. In so doing, we miss out on good things God has in store for the ones who wait. One tragic example growing rate of ruined marriages. When things get rocky, dissolution quickly becomes option of choice under the common pretense that “God just wants me to be happy” or “this is what God would want for me.” I can say from experience that marriage is one of valuable tools God uses to refine the way we love someone else. Only by sticking to it and enduring the hardships can we experience a higher, more mature form of love.
We also must take care that we don’t artificially put a positive spin on God’s Word to make it more attractive. A problem with contemporary churches is that we like to attract crowds, often at the expense of the hard lessons about sin and wrath we need to hear from time to time. I once had a guy in my small group tell me, “we talk about sin too much.” I disagree. We need to talk about our sin problem much more than we do, otherwise we might start believing we don’t have one. When Jesus said, “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2:17), He was jabbing at the haughty teachers who refused to believe they needed help. When we dismiss sin, we deny our desperate need for a “doctor” (Jesus), even when that sin creates havoc.
We also must take care that we don’t let our worship deteriorate into a playtime. It seems to me mainstream churches are growing intolerant of meaty Bible teaching. An alarmingly increasing number of Christians neglect the hard work necessary to understand the meaning of the text. We like bite-sized “verse of the day” and “Big Idea” sermon takeaways instead. We have little patience for what the Bible says, much less what it means. But we love application. We like doing stuff, practical and tangible stuff that lets us check off boxes and feel good about ourselves. The problems is, without spending time focusing on what the Bible says, and what it means, we have nothing solid to apply. We very likely could be applying something very different from the thing God intended. Like the Israelites, we could be creating our own form of misguided worship.
We’re Wrong About Wrath
Christians have developed an unhealthy appetite for positive teaching, an addiction to sugary Bible snacks. We disdain negative teaching like vegetables. We love talking about God’s grace and forgiveness, but seldom speak of His avenging of evil (Psalm 99:8).
In fact, we’re quite certain God’s wrath has nothing to do with Christians. We have made up a notion that God never gets angry with us, always loves us. We are convinced God’s wrath was satisfied at the cross, that Christians never have to experience wrath ever again. Although it is true, Christ’s death saves us from future judgment, we cannot deny that anyone who suppresses truth in this life incurs wrath. The evidence is overwhelming.
Going back to Paul’s point in I Corinthians 10, the examples of Israel apply to the church. If God could avenge the evil of Aaron, He could certainly do the same to Christians today. God’s wrath is a key lesson in the book of Jeremiah, a book Christians seldom take time to study. When the hypocritical Israelites of Jeremiah’s day contradicted their temple attendance with lifestyles of secret sins, God’s tolerance eroded to the point where He could stand by no longer. Twice in the fifth chapter of Jeremiah, God repeated this fateful pledge…
“‘Shall I not punish these people?’ declares the Lord, ‘On a nation such as this shall I not avenge Myself?’” — Jeremiah 5:9, 29
We also find frequent mention of God’s wrath on His people in the psalms. There, godly men like David frequently cried out for mercy from God’s wrath on behalf of the people or for themselves (Psalm 6:1, 38:1, 78:59, 78:62, 88:7, 89:38, 89:46, 90:7, 102:10, 106:23, 106:32). These men lived well before Christ, to be sure, but the certainty of their calling is the same as ours.
Discussion of wrath is not exclusive to the Old Testament. Paul’s letter to the Romans is filled with cautions about wrath. As he says, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). Forgive me, but all men suppress the truth once in a while, Christians included. We all are at risk. We all suppress God’s truth from time to time, and incur God’s wrath.
God’s wrath is not always immediate. We should not be lulled to sleep thinking He takes no notice of our sin. That is the folly of evil men (Psalm 94:1-7).
God’s wrath comes in many forms. It resulted in death in Exodus 32, but it can also appear in the form of difficult circumstances, a present-day judgment day like the swarm of locusts that devoured Israel’s vegetation (Joel 1:15). God uses whatever means He can to catch our attention, to agitate the idol to which we cling.
God’s wrath is also felt in the suffering of the soul. The groaning of the psalmists teach us God’s wrath can feel like anxiety, despair, loneliness, and guilt. Listen to the cry of David as he suffered the anguish of God’s heavy-handed wrath upon his soul:
“O Lord, rebuke me not in Your wrath, and chasten me not in Your burning anger.
For Your arrows have sunk deep into me, and Your hand has pressed down on me.
There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation. There is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities are gone over my head. As a heavy burden they weigh too much for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my folly. I am bent over and greatly bowed down. I go mourning all day long, for my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am benumbed and badly crushed; I groan because of the agitation of my heart.” — Psalm 38:1-8
We are familiar with these effects of wrath, but don’t often make the connection. The hard things we experience aren’t random. More likely they are the effects of God’s wrath working on our soul, trying to wake us up and shake us out of our idolatry. Our best response is to come back to fear, to see our great need, and to appeal to God’s mercy. In this state we understand God’s holiness. We see ourselves as sinners, separated from God’s holiness. We acknowledge Him in our actions. We appreciate His forgiveness.
Aaron and the Israelites grew impatient. They stopped waiting for God, grew weary of God’s restrictive policies, and made their own form of worship. They subtly defined new rules, ones that didn’t require waiting or restraint. They prescribed lightheartedness and folly and disdained the hard work of obedience. As a result, they defiled God’s name, incurring His wrath upon themselves. Their lesson is ours to heed.
God is a holy God. He is jealous for our loyalty (Exodus 34:14). He will not share His glory with another (Isaiah 42:8). He will not stand idly by while His name is defamed (Jeremiah 5:9, 29). He will not wink at evil, but will avenge it, especially when it comes under the pretense of worshiping God (Jeremiah 7:8-15). This is the God at whose footstool we worship. This is the God enthroned above the cherubim. This is the God exalted above all peoples. This is the God before whom the people tremble and the earth shakes.
God wants worship from men and women who mourn their sin (Psalm 51:16-17), not trivialize it. He wants worship from guys like the 99-year old Abraham who are willing to wait and believe even when his situation defied hope (Romans 4:19-22). May our worship acknowledge His holiness, fear His wrath, and hold fast to truth.