1 The LORD reigneth; let the people tremble: he sitteth between the cherubims; let the earth be moved.
2 The LORD is great in Zion; and he is high above all the people.
3 Let them praise thy great and terrible name; for it is holy.
4 The king’s strength also loveth judgment; thou dost establish equity, thou executest judgment and righteousness in Jacob.
5 Exalt ye the LORD our God, and worship at his footstool; for he is holy.
6 Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among them that call upon his name; they called upon the LORD, and he answered them.
7 He spake unto them in the cloudy pillar: they kept his testimonies, and the ordinance that he gave them.
8 Thou answeredst them, O LORD our God: thou wast a God that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions.
9 Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy hill; for the LORD our God is holy.
We exalt the Lord our God because He is the “thrice-holy God,” and this is evidenced in His violent hatred towards idolatry and sin.
We feel the hot breath of God’s vengeance blazing against idolatry. The fire from God burns away our fleshly idolatry and grinds it to powder, and the hair on the back of our hands may get singed a little. The cross is where we sense most vividly the violent justice of God against sin by way of the death of His only begotten Son.
We tremble before the Lord, but not because God is coming to throw us into the pit of hell forever. We know that He casts others, body and soul, into hell, but we shudder now because His transcendence, majesty, and holiness put Him in a whole different league. If we might be a little nervous while meeting the president of the United States, we will shake visibly and our voices will quiver even more when we come face to face with this thrice-holy God.
Verses 1–3. The psalm is divided into three sections, each of which ends with a declaration of the holiness of God. In Isaiah’s vision of the throne room of God, the seraphim cover their faces and feet as they cry out “Holy, holy, holy!” The Bible never repeats a phrase more than three times in a row so as to avoid vain repetition and exaggerated, feigned emphasis—which, interestingly enough, is commonly used in modern musical forms. Here the triple emphasis provided by the angels is enough to make the point in the strongest possible form. God is holy; He is above everything in all of reality in heaven and in earth. This is the over-arching theme of this psalm.
This first section of the psalm focuses on the nature of God as He sits in sovereignty, reigning over all reality. While the Lord is with His people and “dwells between the cherubim” in the tabernacle, He is also “high above all the people” (verse 2). God is with us, but He is also far above us. At the very least, His people should be overwhelmed with the greatness of God, even if the rest of the world ignore Him and take His name in vain.
Even God’s name is considered “great and terrible,” according to the King James Version rendering of the verse. These words denote something majestic, potentially dangerous, and very powerful. A reference to God’s name points to His reputation. When we listen to a Bach cantata or gaze upon a spectacular skyscraper, we learn something of the reputation of great artists and architects. But what do we think when we look at the galaxies about us? Or, as we look at the millions of complex elements in the inner universe of the human cell, do we pick up anything about the reputation of the designer? Actually, every square inch of reality and every single event in providential history speak of the reputation of the Great Designer and Sovereign Controller of all things. We learn about God’s name and reputation every second of every day. When we catch a glimpse of the expanse of the universe and the great galaxies, and when we watch great mountains explode (as Mount Saint Helen did, sending 100 million tons of ash around the world), we know that God must be great. When atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and when a third of Europe died from the Bubonic Plague, we learned that God is potentially dangerous. When we see a sunset span the horizon, creating a 300 mile-wide mural, we know that He is supremely creative and majestic!
The only proper response to these profound considerations must be trembling. The earth shakes and the people tremble at the vision of God’s transcendence and holiness. What we find in John’s revelation is a great deal of “falling down” before God in worshipful fear and reverence (Rev. 1:17, 4:10, 7:11, 14:7, 15:4, 19:4). John’s response was no different from Isaiah’s in the Old Testament because they most certainly worshiped the same God.
Verses 4–5. At this point in this psalm, we’ve already affirmed the power and transcendence of God. But what import does this power have if it never really accomplishes anything? What good is a muscular man who never does anything with his great strength? However, God’s power is more than potential energy. This King of the world loves to employ His power to establish justice in the earth. Elsewhere, the psalmist goes so far as to say that ALL of God’s works are acts of judgment (Ps. 111:7). If you were to bring all of God’s works together, you would find that they mete out absolutely perfect justice. No wicked act will escape His righteous judgment. No one can accuse God of excessive severity—or lenience—in any of his works.
This is equally true of His treatment of His own people, the children of Jacob. But why should He execute judgment and righteousness among His own people? As Peter warns of the judgment to come upon the ungodly, he includes the sober reminder that judgment begins in the household of God (1 Pet. 4:17). God purges His Own people by tribulations, persecutions, and tests. When this happens, it is a difficult time of great suffering for the church (1 Pet. 4:19), yet it is a means by which He strengthens true believers “who commit the keeping of their souls to Him in well doing.” Persecution and tribulations also serve to purge the church (or the “household of God”) of the thorny-ground and stony-ground hearers (Matt. 13:21–22). In this sense, these harsh and fearful events are orchestrated by God in His sovereignty, and they may be referred to as acts of judgment. They make the church more righteous, while preparing the tares for the final Day of Judgment.
If we suffer in the winnowing work of that judgment which begins in the household of God, then our response must be to stand in awe of His perfect, just, and sovereign will in all things. We exalt the Lord our God and fall at His feet in worship! For it is His holiness that demands a holy people for Himself, and He will have a holy people, whatever it takes!
Verses 6–9. Incredibly, this powerful God who maintains the highest standard of justice is also interested in establishing a relationship with a sinful people. After the fall, this godly relationship with the line of Seth is described in these terms: “Then began men to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26). It is the most primitive description of our relationship with God, but it is used in the New Testament as well as in the Old Testament. Calling upon God is relying upon God. Hence, true believers will call upon God on a daily basis, consistently admitting their utter dependence upon Him.
Primary among the Old Testament saints who called on the name of the Lord are Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. According to verse 7, God’s people relied upon the revelation given to Moses in the cloudy pillar. They kept his testimonies, but not perfectly. This is obvious from the eighth verse. If there is a verse from the Psalms that summarizes our relationship with God, it is verse 8. Without question, God deals with sinful men. What may be referred to here is the disobedience of Aaron and the children of Israel directly after God passed down His testimonies on Sinai. As soon as God told them not to make for themselves a graven image, they promptly produced a golden calf. Of course, there was no way that God could ignore this blatant sin. So He addressed the sin by forgiving His people and by taking vengeance on their “inventions.” This may sound a little like loving the sinners but hating the sin, except that it goes even farther than that. God forgave His people and destroyed their sin! But how did God take His dreadful, white-hot vengeance upon their sin if he had forgiven them? As already mentioned, His fury against sin may be seen at the cross of Christ. Every time a man is crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20) and the body of sin is destroyed (Rom. 6:6), we will witness firsthand something of the violent vengeance of God against sin. These two elements of God’s salvation must never be separated. He forgives our sin while destroying the power of sin in our lives!
All of these things serve the interest of God’s holiness, which is the theme of the psalm. Appropriately, the psalm closes with a call to worship at his holy hill, “for the LORD our God is holy.”
We must not interpret what goes on around us without due consideration of the holiness and the judgment of God. Even as we mortify our sinful flesh, we need to see ourselves in the light of the holiness of God. Because God is absolutely holy, He cannot permit His children to continue in their sin! It would be intolerable for one of such holy character as our Father in heaven.
1. Worship requires trembling. We may not visibly shake every time we contemplate God in worship; nevertheless, this text clearly commands that response. Naturally, faith in God is requisite to fear (even as fear is a prerequisite to saving faith). If you do not clearly recognize God’s powerful hand in creation, providence, and redemption, you will never come face-to-face with the reality of God’s holiness and judgment such that you would respond in trembling. May God give us that vision of Himself.
2. We worship at His footstool, and we worship at His holy hill (verses 5 and 9). This speaks of our position in worship. Requiring both humility and reverence of us, the text forbids both intellectual pride in worship and excessive informality. Modern worship tends to err in either direction. On the one hand, very smart seminary graduates sometimes take the opportunity to preen their brain feathers in their sermonizing. But the other trap is to create a worship environment geared to appeal to men by its informality. Man’s entertainment, man’s comfort, and man’s affirmation are of highest importance to these folks, and they feel that God’s love transcends His majesty and His holiness. Even in the New Testament we are reminded that acceptable worship is initiated by proper reverence and godly fear (Heb. 12:28).
1. How many times does the Bible repeat a word or a phrase (not as a chorus, but successively iterated)? What constitutes vain repetition, at least from the record of biblical writers?
2. What is the overarching theme of this psalm?
3. What is God’s “Name”? In what sense might the Psalmist refer to it as “great and terrible”?
4. How does God execute judgment and righteousness among His Own people?
5. What is the most primitive description of a true believer? (Hint: look as far back as the line of Seth.)
1. Have we personally witnessed the vengeance of God against sin? Provide examples.
2. Are we cultivating reverence in our worship? How are we doing this? Is our church worship becoming more reverent or less reverent?