God Is Holy


The Point:  God’s holiness calls me to be holy.

Holy Name:  Psalm 99:1-3.

[1]  The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! [2]  The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. [3]  Let them praise your great and awesome name! Holy is he!  [ESV]

[1-3]  “Psalm 99 is about the holiness of God. It is about His kingly reign too, since it begins with the words The Lord reigns, and it is the next to last in the series of eight royal psalms, beginning with Psalm 93 and ending with Psalm 100. But chiefly Psalm 99 is about God’s holiness, which is important for us to understand if we are to appreciate the character of this supreme and reigning Monarch. It is almost impossible to miss this emphasis because the point is made three times in the psalm: in verse 3 (Holy is he!), in verse 5 (Holy is he!), and in verse 9 (the Lord our God is holy!). It is also hard to miss the importance of holiness as an attribute of God in the Bible generally. To begin with, the Bible calls God holy more than anything else: more than sovereign, more than just, more that merciful or loving. In fact, holy is the only epithet of God that is repeated three times for emphasis, like this: Holy, holy, holy [Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8]. Since the ancients did not have our ways of emphasizing something in print, either by capitalizing or printing in boldface or color, they achieved their emphasis by repetition. Jesus did it when He prefaced many of His sayings by truly, truly. It was a device for calling special attention to what followed. But if saying something twice gives it emphasis, how about if the idea is repeated three times, as holy is? Obviously this makes it of superlative importance. As we read the Bible we discover that God alone is holy [Rev. 15:4]. God is said to be majestic in His holiness, which is the precise theme of Psalm 99. Exodus 15:11 says, Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? This attribute of God is celebrated before His throne day and night by the seraphim. Isaiah heard them sing: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory [Isa. 6:3]. So did John in Revelation: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come! [Rev. 4:8]. God’s people are called on to join these praises. For example, Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name [Ps. 30:4]. The first stanza of Psalm 99 is intended to impress on the worshiper God’s awesome holiness. It begins by picturing the Lord sitting on His throne in heaven, much like an earthly monarch might receive visitors to his court while sitting on an earthly throne. But this is no ordinary throne room and no ordinary throne. This is heavenly Zion, and God is enthroned not between some brass ornaments but between the awe-inspiring figures of the cherubim. Before this holy, holy, holy God the nations might well tremble and the earth quake. Visions similar to this are found elsewhere in Scripture, in Psalm 18 and Ezekiel 1 and 10, for instance. The best known of these is in Isaiah 6. Isaiah says that he received this vision in the year that King Uzziah died [1]. Uzziah was a good king who had reigned for fifty-two years. So his passing must have been a great blow to the people and have ushered in a time of anxiety about the future. What would happen to them now that this good king was gone? It was at this fateful time that God gave Isaiah a peek into heaven, which was a way of assuring Isaiah and others that although the earthly king was gone, the heavenly King was nevertheless still reigning on His throne. Isaiah says that he saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. Around Him were the seraphim who called to another and said: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke [Isa. 6:1-4]. This is close to what the psalmist describes in his vision of the Lord in verses 1-3. The important idea in each of these visions is holiness, of course. But holiness is not an easy concept to understand or define. In fact, it is impossible to define it adequately. The most common mistake we make is to think of it primarily in terms of human righteousness. That is, we think of it as moral perfection, purity, or right conduct. Holiness involves this element, but it is far more than this. At its root, holy is not an ethical concept at all. Rather it is the very nature of God and what distinguishes Him from all else. It is what sets God apart from His creation. It concerns transcendence. We see this root meaning of holy in the meaning of the words saint and sanctify, which are nearly identical to it. Both holy and saint have to do with separation. In the biblical sense, a saint is not a person who has achieved a certain level of goodness, but rather one who has been set apart by God. This is why all Christians are saints. They are the ‘called-out ones’ who form God’s church. Similarly, ‘to sanctify’ something is to set it apart for God’s service. Holiness, then, is the characteristic of God that sets Him apart from His creation. It has at least four contributing elements. (1) Majesty. Majesty means ‘dignity’, ‘authority of sovereign power’, ‘stateliness’, or ‘grandeur’. It is the characteristic of strong rulers and of God, who is ruler over all. Majesty links holiness to sovereignty, which is why in Psalm 99 the stanza that begins with a statement about God’s rule ends with a reference to His holiness. (2) Will. A second element in holiness is will, that of a sovereign personality. This makes holiness personal and active, rather than abstract and passive. The will of God is primarily set on showing Himself to be the one whose glory must not be tarnished by the wickedness of men. This element of holiness comes close to what the Bible speaks of when it refers to God’s jealousy. It means that God is not indifferent to how we regard Him. (3) Wrath. Wrath is part of holiness, because it is the natural and proper stance of the holy God against all that opposes Him. It means that God takes the business of being God so seriously that He will permit no one else to usurp His place. When Satan tried to do it he was judged. When men and women refuse to take the place God has given them, they will suffer the outpouring of God’s righteous wrath also. (4) Righteousness. Righteousness is involved in holiness not because it is the term by which holiness may best be understood but because it is what the holy God wills in moral areas. What is right? What is moral? We can answer that not by appealing to some abstract, independent moral standard, but by appealing to the character and will of God Himself. The right is what God is and reveals to us. But here is our problem. We are not holy, even in the strictly moral sense. Therefore, and precisely because holiness is not an abstract or passive concept but is instead the active, dynamic will of God at work to punish rebellion and establish righteousness, the experience of confronting the holy God is profoundly threatening to us. Holiness intrigues us, as the unknown always does. We are drawn to it. But at the same time we are in danger of being undone, and fear being undone, by the confrontation. When Isaiah had his encounter with the holy God, he reacted in terror, saying, Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! [Isa. 6:5]. Similarly, when God revealed Himself to Habakkuk, the prophet described the experience by saying, I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me [Hab. 3:16]. Peter caught only a brief glimpse of Jesus’ holiness, but he cried out, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord [Luke 5:8]. These encounters show that the experience of confronting the holy is awe inspiring, even life threatening, which is exactly what the psalmist is indicating in verses 1-3.”  [Boice, pp. 802-806]

Holy Place:  Psalm 99:4-5.

[4]  The King in his might loves justice. You have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. [5]  Exalt the LORD our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!

[4-5]  “The fourth element of holiness, the moral uprightness or righteousness of God, is developed in the second stanza of Psalm 99, especially in terms of God’s righteous rule among His people and over the nations. He is said to love justice, to have established equity, and to have done always what is just and right [4]. Therefore, says the writer, we must Exalt the Lord our God; worship at his footstool! [5]. If the psalmist’s description were only of an earthly king and earthly throne, his footstool would indicate the platform on which the king’s throne rests. But this is a divine king and a divine throne. God’s footstool in this case could be several things. It could be the earth, as in Isaiah 66:1 (Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool), or more particularly, Mount Zion. What is most likely here is the ark of the covenant. The ark was a box about a yard long and a foot and a half wide and deep. It was covered with gold, and it had a lid called the mercy seat, on either end of which were figures of cherubim, between whose wings God was understood to dwell. The box contained the law of God, the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. All these features fit the psalm, especially since the ark was an earthly picture of the heavenly scene where God was understood to be enthroned between the cherubim. The enthronement between the cherubim fits stanza one, and the reminder of the law, which the ark contained, fits the emphasis on God’s just and equitable rule in stanza two. In 1 Chronicles 28:2 David refers to the ark of the covenant explicitly as the footstool of our God. This footstool was a terrible, awe-inspiring element in the religious experience of Israel. It was kept in the Most Holy Place of the temple and could be approached by the high priest only once a year on the Day of Atonement, and only then after first having made a sacrifice for himself and the people in the adjoining courtyard. To approach the ark at any other time or in any other way would result in immediate death for the one who had thus violated God’s holiness. This is how some who did this were judged: Nadab and Abihu, for example [Lev. 10:1-3]. But the ark of the covenant was a picture of God’s mercy too, for it was there, on the mercy seat, that the high priest was able to make atonement for the people’s sins. He did it by sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice on the covering, which meant that the blood, which testified to the death of an innocent sacrificial victim, now came between the presence of the holy God, who was understood to dwell between the wings of the cherubim, and the law contained in the ark, which all of us have broken. This is the only way we can approach God to worship Him. We worship at his footstool because it is only on the basis of the shed blood, pointing to the poured-out blood of Jesus Christ, that we can approach the holy God. Have you come to God in this way? If you have not come through faith in Jesus and His atoning death for your sins, you have not really come to God at all and you will be sent away from Him into outer darkness at the final day.”  [Boice, pp. 806-807]

Holy God:  Psalm 99:6-9.

[6]  Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called upon his name. They called to the LORD, and he answered them. [7]  In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them; they kept his testimonies and the statute that he gave them. [8]  O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings. [9]  Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy!  [ESV]

[6-9]  “The final section of this three-part psalm breaks away from heaven to speak of three past leaders of Israel – Moses, Aaron, and Samuel – and of the wilderness experience of the people, when God spoke to them … in the pillar of the cloud. A change like this usually seems abrupt to us and even causes some commentators to begin speculating about two separate psalms that have somehow been wrongly joined together. But such changes are common in the psalms, and in this case the purpose seems to be to remind us that worship of the high and holy God is not for angels alone, though angels do worship Him, but for human beings like us. It is we who are being called to exalt the Lord our God and worship at his footstool [5] or worship at his holy mountain [9]. If we come to God on the basis of the shed blood of Jesus Christ, as God requires, we will discover two things. First, God answers prayer. Moses, Aaron, and Samuel called to the Lord, and he answered them [6]. Second, God forgives our sins. You were a forgiving God to them [8].”  [Boice, pp. 807-808]

“Our study of the holiness of God, as it is developed in Psalm 99, leads to three important consequences: (1)  If God is holy, we must be holy. Peter wrote, But 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’ [1 Peter 1:15]. Holiness is no option for a Christian. (2) If we are not holy (and we are not), we must flee to Christ for forgiveness and cleansing. Notice that at the end of the psalm he is holy is changed to our God is holy, which is surely significant. God needs to be our God. But how does the holy God become our God since we are not holy? The answer is by atonement and forgiveness [8]. It is only the forgiven who can worship at God’s holy mountain. (3) If we know God, we must worship Him. At the beginning of Psalm 99 the nations are exhorted to praise God, which they may or may not do. But regardless of how the nations respond, God is great in Zion, and this means that He is praised by His people. Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote, ‘The ignorant forget him, the wicked despise him, the atheistical oppose him, but among his own chosen he is great beyond comparison. He is great in the esteem of the gracious, great in his acts of mercy, and really great in himself: great in his mercy, power, wisdom, justice and glory.’ Indeed He is! And worship him is what each of us must do.”  [Boice, p. 808]

Questions for Discussion:

1.         This is a worship psalm as seen by the commands in verses 3, 5 and 9. What does this psalm teach us concerning why we are to worship the Lord and how we are to worship Him?  

2.         The psalmist emphasizes the Lord’s holiness by the threefold repetition of holy [3,5,9]. What does it mean when we say that the Lord our God is holy? What four elements does Boice mention as belonging to the concept of holiness? How are you to respond to a Holy God?

3.         The psalmist describes God as King: The Lord reigns … He sits enthroned … The King in his might. What do we learn about God as King in this psalm? About His character; His actions; and how people respond to Him?


Psalms, vol. 2, James Boice, Baker.

Psalms, Willem VanGemeren, EBC, Zondervan.

Psalms, vol. 3, John Goldingay, Baker.

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