Holy God

Psalm 99

4 February 2007

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


A few weeks ago when David Barter was preaching on Creator God we had a look at Revelation chapters four and five where we found two of the great songs that fill the heavens: the Song of Creation, and the Song of Salvation. However, in Revelation chapter four there is also a third song which precedes both of these, and is foundational to them both. It is the song of God's holiness,

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!ref

We're told that the heavenly creatures never cease singing it day and night. This is the fundamental song of heaven, because holiness is a fundamental quality — a defining quality — of God.

We find the heavenly beings singing similar words in another place David has taken us to in this series: Isaiah chapter 6 Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!ref

We just can't get away from holiness when we are considering the fundamental qualities of God!

In Hebrew, repetition is used to intensify, or emphasise a word. The classic example is in Genesis chapter 14 where the valley of Siddim is described as full of tar pitsref. 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. God is not simply holy. He is not even holy, holy; but he is holiness cubed, 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? Rather than simply define holiness for you, it's more helpful if we actually go and see what holiness looks like. There are any number of places we could go to in the Bible to see God's holiness expressed, but I'm going to take us to Psalm 99.

[Read Psalm 99]ref

In this Psalm, once again we find the three-fold repetition of God's holiness: at the end of verse 3, he is holy, at the end of verse 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.

Majestic Presence

So. first, in verses one to three we see that God's holiness is expressed in his majestic presence.

Verse 1 proclaims that the Lord reigns and he is enthroned. God is king; majestic. God's majesty is part of his holiness.

Verse 2 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.

It's just not that easy to drop in on royalty. In 1982 a fellow called Michael Fagan managed to pop in to see the queen: he chatted to her for ten minutes while she was still in bed in the morning. This, of course, got him arrested, and since then I gather that it has become somewhat harder to drop by for a quick chat with Her Majesty.

But the presence of the Holy King is even more inaccessible than any earthly king or queen. This king 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.

So we see that a holy God is doubly inaccessible. Not only is God King, but he is a heavenly King, on a different level of being to us.

I work for a very large Japanese company, and I reckon that if I ever wanted to do so, the chances of me ever being able to get an appointment with our company president are so small as to be negligible. It's not just that I am a lowly minion with at least twenty layers of management between me and him, it's also that I am completely helpless when it comes to Japanese corporate culture, and how to navigate it.

So, if I can't manage to access the company president, who is only as far away as Japan, how much less can we access the Holy King enthroned above the cherubim?

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 chapter 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 violentlyref.

Which of us 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.ref

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.

Moral Perfection

In verses 4 and 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.ref

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.

Some years ago I worked in a restaurant for a while. Most of the time it was pretty hectic, but occasionally there would be a quiet spell during which I would find myself fascinated by the fly-zapper. On the kitchen wall was a big 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 lipsref 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 verse 5 of the Psalm we see a consequence of this: the closest we can approach to God is his footstool. There is no question of any kind of intimacy with him at all.

So, we've seen that God's holiness is displayed in his majestic presence and his moral perfection, and that both of these attributes of God distance us from him.

And really, it is perfectly understandable that God would want to keep his distance: why would a holy God ever want to befriend wretched, despicable, morally filthy people like ourselves anyway?

But the really, truly extraordinary thing is, he does want to befriend us! That is precisely the story of the Bible from start 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?

We find the beginnings of an answer in the last part of this Psalm: verses 6 to 9.

Mediating Priests

In verse 6 to 9 we see that a holy God uses mediating priests.

Let's say you've got the prospect of a particularly sticky meeting at work — there's a customer who's going to give you a roasting, or a manager who's going to ask awkward questions about a failed project — what do you do? Well, by far the best strategy, I find, is to try and get someone else to go instead. And that's exactly what we find the Israelites doing at the prospect of meeting the holy God.

In Exodus 20, following on from the scene at Mount Sinai that I described earlier, we read this:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die... The people remained at a distance while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.ref

Moses was a brave man! He 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.

Moses wasn't the only one to do this: verse 6 of our Psalm says Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel was among those who called on his name.ref They were among his priests, part of a larger, but never terribly large, 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.

And, to an extent, this system worked! Look how excited the Psalmist is about it: verse 6 they called on the Lord and he answered themref, verse 7 He spoke to themref, verse 8 O Lord our God, you answered themref. These priests were able to act as mediators between the people and God.

How was it that these people were able to approach the holy God when none of the others could or would?

Well, have a look at verse 8. First, I need to say that the NIV translation quite oddly inserts the word "Israel" into this verse when, as the footnote says, the original Hebrew only has the word "them". So, in the context of the Psalm, verse 8 applies to the mediating priests: Moses, Aaron, Samuel and the others.

The second thing to notice is that this verse leaves us with a paradox. It looks like a flat contradiction: You were to them — the mediators — a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds.ref [repeat]

Well, which did he do? Did he forgive them or did he punish them? It doesn't make sense to do both, does it?

If Hannah, our daughter, were to commit some terrible act of bad behaviour — hypothetically speaking, obviously — and I were to say to her, "Hannah, 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 a husband were to commit adultery, and the wife were to say "Darling, I forgive you; here are the divorce papers" , he'd have to wonder what she meant by "forgiveness". What does forgiveness mean if it does not mean not being punished for our misdeeds?

In this verse 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, which violates his very essence, his holiness — and remember he is holy through and through, holy, holy, holy. But God cannot express his justice by punishing us without annihilating us, every one of us. What's he going to do?

Well, if we are Christians, we know the resolution of this paradox. We know that God himself, in the form of Jesus Christ lived as a man and lived a perfect life; a truly holy life. And we know that 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.ref

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. Verse 8 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. God lent them a debt of holiness that Jesus later repaid.

So we see that 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

I want to finish by considering the question, 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?

Well, first, obviously we need mediating priests. How many priests do we have here this morning? Could you please raise your hand if you are a priest. As Martyn Luther put it "we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians," which he gets from 1 Peter chapter 2. To Christians Peter writes You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.ref

So that one of our responses to the holy God: being priests. If we are Christians we no longer need priests, we are priests! Every one of us who knows that Jesus has borne the punishment for our misdeeds. We have free and continual access into the the majestic presence of God.

So, 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.

And we are to represent the world to God: pleading for this sinful world in prayer; bringing its needs and brokenness before God's majestic presence.

So, when we are in our workplaces, or out shopping or where ever we meet the world, let us remember that we are God's priests, as many of us who are Christians. We don't wear robes or dog collars — we don't need any of that — but we are to do the work of priests: bringing God to the world, and bringing the world to God.

If being priests is one way to respond to the holy God, then another is becoming perfect. We see it in verse 7 of this Psalm, God's priests kept his statutes and the decrees he gave themref. And again, the apostle Peter writes, just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: Be holy, because I am holy.ref If we are Christians, then we belong to a holy God, whom we strive to imitate. We cannot imitate his majestic presence, but we are to try to imitate his moral perfection.

To strive to be holy is to strive for perfection: moral purity; financial purity; ethical purity; sexual purity; psychological purity. This affects every aspect of our lives, from our thought lives to our home lives to our work lives. There is no point at which the Christian can say, I've done enough, I'm good enough, I can relax now. There's always an area of sin in our lives upon which we must bring God's holiness to bear. Not one of us will achieve perfection in this life — God knows, and my family knows all too well, that I am a million miles from it — but the vital thing is that we all make progress, never giving up the fight against sin in our lives.

Of course, we don't struggle alone in this. If we are Christians, then God has sent his Holy Spirit to live within us. Since he is the Holy Spirit, he now works within us to help us increase our holiness. What is that sin that you are fearful of bringing in to the presence of God? Perhaps it's time to get rid of it.

So, if we are Christians, then being priests and becoming perfect are ways for us to respond to the holiness of God.

But, for absolute clarity, I just want to emphasise that if there is only one thing that we take away from this Psalm, it should be that we cannot enter in to the presence of the holy God by ourselves. Faced with the majestic presence of God, and the moral purity of God, the one thing that it's pointless to do is just to try harder to be good. We might as well try to walk to the moon.

If God's holiness means anything, it means that he is completely inaccessible to us, no matter how hard we try. In our human nature, the presence of God is a hostile environment for us.

There is only one way for us to approach a holy God — we need a mediator. And there is only one mediator capable of getting us there: Jesus Christ, who died on the cross precisely so we could come to God.

If today you want to come to the holy God, but you don't know how he can be approached, then come and talk to one of the elders, or to me, or to the prayer team here at the front. Don't leave yourself shut out from his presence any longer.