Psalm 99

Dear Reader,

This week we studied Psalm 99. I didn’t know what to pick so I asked my six-year-old what Psalm she liked and she sang, “Moses was with Aaron numbered in His priesthood; so too Samuel invoked him.” My 11-year-old was able to tell me off the top of his head that this was psalm 99 and so our weekly study was picked. (And don’t you just love that kids can not only recite, or sing, God’s Word but know where it’s from? Their young brains are much better at this than mine is.)

So here is my translation of Psalm 99:

1 The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble;

2 He sits [among] the cherubim; let the earth shake.

3 The LORD in Zion [is] great;

4 He is exalted over all the peoples.

5 Let them praise your name, great  and awesome;

6 Holy is he.

7 And [with] strength the king loves justice;

8 You established uprightness,

9 Justice and righteousness in Jacob You did.

10 Exalt the LORD, our God,

11 And worship at his footstool;

12 Holy is he.

13 Moses and Aaron [were] among his priests,

14 And Samuel among those who called on his name.

15 They called on the LORD,

16 And he answered them.

17 In a pillar of cloud he spoke to them;

18 They kept his testimonies

19 And the decree he gave them.

20 LORD, our God, you answered them.

21 A forgiving God you were to them

22 but an avenger of their misdeeds.

23 Exalt the LORD, our God,

24 And worship at his holy mountain

25 For holy [is] the LORD our God.

Because I did not pick this psalm for its poetic structure, it is not as clearly laid out as some we have studied recently.  I didn’t do this with my own kids  (I wish I had), but I think the first question to ask is: can you divide this psalm into big sections? In English we are used to songs with verses and refrains. Hebrew doesn’t do that so often, but this psalm does have  a kind of refrain that divides it up. Can you see it? (Seriously, look at it before you read my answer.)

If you said the “holy is . . .” statements in lines 6, 12 and 25, you are right. Lines 6 and 12 are identical; line 25 is slightly varied but forms a nice conclusion to the psalm. As always, what the psalmist repeats tells us what he is focused on. So even before we read more of the psalm we can ask “what characteristic if God is he going to focus on in this psalm?” I hope you said His holiness.

Now we can go back and look at the psalm in sections. The first is lines 1-5. Hebrew poetry makes extensive use of parallelism. Do you see any parallel line pairs here? My kids got that lines 1 and 2 and lines 3 and 4 form pairs. Line 5 stands by itself. We had to discuss two words in this section: cherubim and Zion. Zion is, of course, God’s holy mountain. It is where God’s people worship Him. Cherubim are heavenly creatures (-im is the masculine plural ending in Hebrew; the singular would be cherub; please never say “cherubims”). They are not shiny, white people with wings. They are weird creatures who surround the throne of God. They are also depicted on the ark of the covenant which was where? In the holy of holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple. So already we should be able to answer one question: where is the setting (geographical setting) of this poem? If you said the temple in Jerusalem, you are right.

LIne 5, I said, stands by itself. My ten-year-old wanted to make it two lines: “Let them praise your name” and  “great  and awesome.” This is possible. The line divisions are my own. Originally in Hebrew they would have all run together without even verse divisions.

The second section is lines 7 through 11. My kids divided this up into two parts: lines 7,8, and 9 and lines 10, and 11. Lines 10 and 11 are nicely parallel. “Exalt” parallels “worship.” The first line tells who and the second line tells where. What, by the way, is God’s footstool? It is the ark of the covenant. Once more we are reminded of God’s holiness and tied in to the temple. Lines 7 through 9  all speak of justice. Lines 8 and 9 are nicely parallel. Line 7 does not have a partner but does fit in with 8 and  because of the focus on justice.

The last section, lines 13-24, is the longest. Each of these stanzas, if you will, has had a slightly different focus. In lines 1-5, the focus was on the peoples’ (meaning not the Israelites but the other nations) reaction to God (trembling). The middle stanza was on God’s justice. What is the focus of this last section? This is the section my daughter remembered. It names names and turns its attention to God’s relationship with His people. Lines 13 and 14 are nicely parallel. So too are lines 21 and 22. I had to explain these two lines to my kids. To me it seemed obvious that they form a parallel of opposites, but I guess the meaning wasn’t inherently obvious to them. The idea is that in line 21, God forgives, but in line 22 He holds us accountable for misdeeds. How is this possible? Well, it’s a seeming contradiction that can’t be resolved until we get to Christ.

In between we have lines 15 through 20. I actually had these divided up differently when we studied them, but decided to go for more shorter lines here. Line 15 looks back to line 14 with the verb “call.” Line 16 parallels 15 in that is gives the response: “they called; you answered.” Line 17 stands somewhat alone. It has no direct parallel but tells how God spoke to His people (at that time): from a pillar of cloud. Lines 18 and 19 parallel each other and tell how God’s people treated Him (they obeyed). Line 20 gives His response again: He answered.

What I wonder at this point is why are we talking about Moses, Aaron, and Samuel? I thought the setting of this psalm was the temple and they come way before it. Think about how you would answer this question before you read on.

Are you back? Did you come up with any answers? I haven’t looked up when scholars date this psalm too, but here is what I see: I think this psalm is from around the time of the temple’s dedication. It is looking back and saying, “Look, God spoke to our fathers back then, when they obeyed Him. Now He is holy and He is here in the midst of us in the temple. He will answer us to if we, like them, call on Him and obey Him.” It is celebrating God’s holy presence among them at the same time it looks back and establishes a continual relationship with Him. And hopefully inspires its contemporaries to continue in faithfulness to the Lord.  I have to say we didn’t get all this when we looked at the psalm together in homeschool so I think we may have to revisit it come Monday morning.

Finally, let’s look at lines 23 and 24. We see God’s holy mountain again. That brings us back to the temple. These two lines certainly parallel each other. Do they ring any other bells in your head? Line 23 is identical to line 10. LIne 24 is almost identical to line 11; it just uses “holy mountain” in place of “footstool”, but as we have seen both terms refer us to the temple. This should raise another question: the second and third sections of this poem end with not one but three almost identical lines, two calling us to exalt and worship and then one extolling God’s holiness. What about the first section? Does it have something similar? Remember line 5? It had no parallel, but now we see that though it is briefer and uses different words, it too calls us to praise God.

Don’;t you just love to see how a psalm is constructed? can you see how studying the structure can help us better understand the meaning? My answers are my answers. They are what I have seen. That doesn’t mean they are always right or the only right answers. If you have other observations, I’d love to hear them.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by maureenh on May 13, 2012 at 2:07 am

    I had been wondering what you meant when you mentioned this earlier! Good thoughts – thanks for elaborating.


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