The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble!
The LORD sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
Psalm 99 makes peace with the loss of the Davidic monarchy that occurred during the Exile. No more will Israel look to a human king for leadership; rather it is Yahweh God, the LORD God who alone is king of all the earth. Israel will forever more acknowledge only THIS Sovereign who sits enthroned above the cherubim.
The cherubim, in this reference, are the angels, the heavenly beings who sit above the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat. But of course, with the destruction of the Temple, the Ark was lost. The Ark, the Temple, the monarchy, the city Jerusalem and the promised land were no more and Israel would never fully recover from their Babylonian captivity.
But this people did return to their homeland and when they came back to the land, they came as a thoroughly monotheistic people. Even if the Ark of the Covenant was destroyed, the King of all the earth still sits enthroned above the cherubim. From the time of Abraham who glimpsed a new vision of One God, through the time of Moses and then the judges and then the kings, Israel carried the vision of Yahweh as the One True God.
There was an ancient prayer of Israel that proclaimed this code of belief. The Shema is recorded for us first in the book of Deuteronomy.
Hear O Israel: the Lord is One, the Lord our God.
But for too many of God’s people, for too many centuries, the God of Israel may have been the highest God but not necessarily the only God.
It was finally during the Exile that this people became thoroughly, radically and stubbornly monotheistic. Ever since, the Shema proclaims a true faith in the One and Only God, still encapsulating this monotheistic commitment in our own day.
Mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice
Extol the LORD our God;
worship at his footstool.
Holy is he!
The biblical concept of holiness recognizes an otherness, a separateness that marks a clear and deep difference between God and humans. This is not a “holier than thou” arrogance; rather holiness is core to the nature of the Divine One.
The old stories of the God in fire and cloud causing the holy mountain at Sinai to tremble speak of this otherness. God is not like us. God is God and we are not. The God who is holy and binds all creation together is transcendent.
And yet, at the same time, the psalmist sings, this God is near, attentive, immanent. Because Yahweh King loves justice for God’s people. Because the King of the earth is always at work establishing justice and executing equity. The Lord is near.
Notice again the parallel where “justice” functions as a synonym for “equity.” Sometimes we think of justice as pay back, retribution, a karmic kind of “poetic justice” where bad people get what they give.
But for the ancient poets and prophets of Israel, God’s justice is about creating and maintaining equity, fairness, rightness for all God’s people.
Not “equality.” Nothing in Scripture proposes that everyone is the same and everyone should be treated the same. No, we are each and everyone of us fantastically unique. But justice assumes that each and everyone of us should be treated fairly and rightly. With equity.
Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called on his name.
They cried to the LORD, and he answered them.
God spoke to them in the pillar of cloud…
Just as the psalmist refers back to the cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant, he sings in remembrance of the Tabernacle. A time after Israel was freed from the tyranny of Egypt’s pharaoh. A time before their own monarchy. A time when Yahweh alone was Ruler, Shepherd, Lord and Mysterious Presence in fire and cloud.
Extol the LORD our God,
worship at his holy mountain;
for the LORD our God is holy.
Holiness is a theme within the prophets as well as the psalmists. Isaiah crumpled in a heap as he was encountered by a vision of the heavenly King who is holy, holy, holy. John of The Revelation likewise was overwhelmed by a vision of the One who is seated on the throne of the heavens; One who is praised through all eternity as holy, holy, holy.
Old Testament theologians glimpsed the mystery of the transcendent God who is immanent. Holiness that makes justice available and equitable for humanity. But it was the New Testament theologians who understood Jesus as one who embodied God’s justice and holiness in a unique and unrepeatable way.
Incarnation, we call it.
Justice. Equity. Holiness became flesh and dwelt among us.
In our English grammar, we designate something as big, bigger, biggest. Good, better, best. Holy, holier, holiest. Biblical grammar does something similar but with poetic repetition. God is holy, as our psalmist proclaims. God is limitlessly, ultimately, perfectly holy: holy holy holy.
We Christians continue this song of the psalmists and the prophets even today. But for Christians, our radical monotheism has become trinitarian.
We worship One God : Father-Son-Spirit.
One God : Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer.
So extol and exalt the LORD, for the LORD our God is holy!
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!
Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man, Thy glory may not see:
Only Thou art holy, there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power in love, and purity.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise Thy name in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! merciful and mighty,
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!
See the Wikipedia article on the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy.