Psalm 99 – Holy Is the Lord
TEXT (Hebrew text at the end)
1. It is the LORD Who is king—let the peoples tremble; He is enthroned on cherubim—let the earth quake.
2. The LORD is great in
, and exalted is He above all peoples. Zion
3. Let them praise Your name: “Great and awesome, holy is He.1”2
4. Indeed, “A king’s might is loving justice.”3 It was You who established equity; it was You Who made for justice and righteousness in Jacob.
5. Exalt the LORD our God and prostrate yourselves toward His footstool. Holy is He.1
6. Moses and Aaron among His priests and Samuel among those who called4 out His name: they called4 upon the LORD, and it was He Who would answer them.
7. In a pillar of cloud He would speak to them; they obeyed His statutes and the law He gave them.
8. O LORD our God, it was You Who answered them; for them You were a forgiving God , though exacting retribution for their misdeeds.
9. Exalt the LORD our God, and prostrate yourselves toward His holy mountain, for holy is the LORD our God.
1. “He” could be “it,” referring to “name” (v. 3) or “footstool” (v. 5).
2. The quotation could alternatively (or additionally) be the speaker’s words (…praise Your great and awesome name. Holy is He.)
3. See "Additional Note" on the translation of verse 4.
4. "Called" here is the participle in Hebrew, one who calls, a petitioner.
Psalm 99 is a striking assertion of certitudes masking complexities, a poem of solid structure that includes both disparate elements and sudden changes. Possibly this reflects the excitement of the opening announcement, for in light of God's kingship the psalmist undertakes no less daunting a task than to poetically describe God vis-à-vis humanity.
I first review the structure of the psalm, move on to aspects of growth and change, and then review basic contentions and consistent elements.
Two Overlying Structures
The structures of Psalm 99 become obvious only as the poem proceeds. In fact, the constant enallage of address to the nations, to
, and to God, combined with what seem to be radically different emphases and contents, confuse the first-time reader. Israel
Order is finally imposed through the three appearances of “holy,” identified by some commentators as a refrain (at the ends of vv. 3, 5, and 9). This apparently delineates three foci: the worldwide scene, justice in
, and history. Israel
Just as obviously, however, verses 5 and 9 are almost identical, creating a two-part psalm (thus combining the first two sections of the three-part division). These two sections would deal, respectively, with the present interaction between
and the other nations and then the historical interaction of Israel and God. Indeed, as Schaefer has pointed out, this division would make some sense of the enallage, with each half repeating a pattern that consists of a declaration about the people of God, an address to God, and an invitation to the people. Israel
Whatever the structure, “holiness,” not mentioned at the beginning, retrospectively becomes the leitmotif of the psalm. Both structures allow the reader to review the poem more slowly and to note marked elements of development, to which I now proceed.
A Psalm in Ascent
Psalm 99 grows through its three sections. The application of “king” to God in the first section is clarified by the opening of the second section, and the “justice” of the second section is historically detailed through the third section.
One is also struck by the development of the very term “holiness.” In its first two appearances (see note 1) the term might refer to God or to one of His attributes. It is the end of the psalm that clarifies that holiness is the quality that derives from “the LORD our God.
A second pattern of change is an ascent into intimacy. The poem begins on a worldwide stage, and in the first section only the place “
” (apart from God's proper name, "LORD") is particularistic. The second section goes on to the establishment of justice within Zion ("Jacob"), and includes the possessive “our God.” The third section is clearly all about Jewish history and its greatest highlights. (It is of some interest that verse 7 is the only verse in Psalms referring to the content, as opposed to just the phenomenon, of the revelation on Israel Mount Sinai.)
A parallel development is discerned in the objects of God’s concern, progressing from the peoples of the world, to the people
, and then to individuals. Israel
The Nature of God: Dualities and Paradox
One should note that these developments are incremental, and later points do not eliminate earlier ones. Psalm 99 thus paints a broad picture, typified by dual, almost paradoxical, descriptions of God.
In Psalm 99 (as in several other psalms), the Lord is King over all the earth and yet is focused upon and in
. This is partially reflected in two levels of meaning of two terms: “cherubim” (v. 1) elsewhere can refer to celestial creatures or to the decorations above the Zion ; “footstool” (v.5) can refer either to the earth (as Is. 46:1) or to Ark , the Zion , or the Temple (respectively, Lam.2:1, Ps. 132:7, and I Chron. 28:2). Ark
God is conceived as relating to other nations, to
, and to Israel 's leaders. Indeed, there is an interesting ambiguity in the latter part of verse 8 (“their misdeeds”). Logically, the reference is to the people, though grammatically, the referents are the leaders themselves. Israel
Of greater fascination is another duality: the expression of God’s connection both through forgiveness and through punishment (v. 8), a thought-provoking assertion. This accords well with the previously mentioned emphasis on holiness, which throughout the Bible exhibits its own duality: it is a divine quality to be imitated and yet so dangerous as to be handled with incredible caution and care.
There may indeed also be a two-edged sword in the mention of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. These were the three outstanding examples of the different forms of Israelite leadership. (See my comments in the Additional Notes below.) The psalm, in citing God’s response to these three, is both encouraging (as to divine response to human request), but at the same time discouraging (in that no reader would see himself on that level and indeed no generation would see itself as having leaders of that stature), and thus the reassurance is bittersweet.
In general, Psalm 99 guarantees God’s presence and cites the proper reactions to it, even as it recalls the dangers thereof. As Brueggemann puts it, “God’s enthronement makes holy presence accessible and makes righteous will more urgent.”
The Only Actor
Psalm 99 pictures God as the sole actor in this drama. Even the mention of the three individuals is within the context of His responding to them and instructing them. Indeed, the reader will note that on a few occasions the translation reads either “it was You” or “it was He.” This reflects the following. Pronouns are usually indicated in Hebrew by suffixes or prefixes to verbs, but in this psalm on seven occasions (a full biblical number – three times, “You,” and four times, “He”) a pronoun is used for God. This emphasis on God the actor may also be reflected in the opening phrase, “it is the LORD Who is King.” Weiss contends that the unusual order of the terms in the Hebrew (noun-verb, as opposed to the expected opposite) indicates a specific emphasis on God as the sole actor. Further, direct address to God is included in all three sections of the three-part division. “Holiness” also serves to focus on this point. Holiness is a quality of God and things related to Him (or to imitating Him) in the Bible.
The poet, then, describes God's interaction with humankind, possibly suggesting that the best way to do that is by resort to duality and paradox.
* * * * * * *
Additional Notes – Two Phrases
The beginning of verse 4 has puzzled translators. I take it as an independent sentence. In Hebrew, the four words read so succinctly that I assume it is a well-known aphorism. The force of the verse is that God is king, which one knows because worthy kings love justice, which in fact God created.
Much has been written about the connection of the three individuals mentioned in verse 6, as various commentators seek to place them within a single category of prophecy, priesthood, or prayer. Although a justification can be found in one way or another for any categorization (even though there is some degree of telescoping, for clearly God did not speak to Samuel out of a pillar of cloud), it seems to me that the text seeks to cite three different types of leaders, each unparalleled in his own way. Moses’ uniqueness is self-evident, for which reason it need not be defined. The reputation of Aaron, the founder of the priestly dynasty, grew within Jewish tradition, and later Talmudic literature cites him as the exemplar of a peacemaker among men (and presumably that tradition was growing within biblical times). Samuel is one of the most unheralded leaders in biblical history. He personally oversaw the transition of Israelite society from confederacy to kingship, as well as being central to the establishment of independent, apostolic prophecy. (Note Jeremiah 15:1, which cites Moses and Samuel as the two exemplars of people who would have most influence on God!) Psalm 99 chooses the three exemplars well.
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at email@example.com. Jerusalem
(א) יְהֹוָה מָלָךְ יִרְגְּזוּ עַמִּים יֹשֵׁב כְּרוּבִים תָּנוּט הָאָרֶץ:
(ב) יְהֹוָה בְּצִיּוֹן גָּדוֹל וְרָם הוּא עַל כָּל הָעַמִּים:
(ג) יוֹדוּ שִׁמְךָ גָּדוֹל וְנוֹרָא קָדוֹשׁ הוּא:
(ד) וְעֹז מֶלֶךְ מִשְׁפָּט אָהֵב אַתָּה כּוֹנַנְתָּ מֵישָׁרִים מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בְּיַעֲקֹב אַתָּה עָשִׂיתָ:
(ה) רוֹמְמוּ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לַהֲדֹם רַגְלָיו קָדוֹשׁ הוּא:
(ו) מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן בְּכֹהֲנָיו וּשְׁמוּאֵל בְּקֹרְאֵי שְׁמוֹ קֹרִאים אֶל יְהֹוָה וְהוּא יַעֲנֵם:
(ז) בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן יְדַבֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם שָׁמְרוּ עֵדֹתָיו וְחֹק נָתַן לָמוֹ:
(ח) יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אַתָּה עֲנִיתָם אֵל נֹשֵׂא הָיִיתָ לָהֶם וְנֹקֵם עַל עֲלִילוֹתָם:
(ט) רוֹמְמוּ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְהַר קָדְשׁוֹ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ: