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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 99

Psalms 99

The Psalm begins in Psalms 99:1 with the joyful cry, “the Lord reigneth,” depicts in Psalms 99:2-5 how the appearing in his kingdom delivers his people from the state of oppression in which they had hitherto been, and exhorts them to praise devoutly the Lord from whom such glorious things, are to be expected. He points in Psalms 99:6-9 to the means which secure a participation in the blessings of the future, the dangers which threaten this participation: heartfelt trust in the Lord, and obedience to his commandments, are as the history of antiquity, the example of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, show the way to salvation, from which sin excludes, while it brings into the domain of an avenging God;—and concludes with a renewed exhortation devoutly to praise the Lord, who appears great and awful no less in effecting the salvation itself, than in appointing the conditions connected with its enjoyment.

If we separate Psalms 99:1 as containing the theme, the Psalm consists of two strophes, each of four verses, which are manifestly distinguished from each other by “exalt the Lord our God,” &c., in Psalms 99:5 and Psalms 99:9. That these strophes again fall into half strophes, each containing a pair of verses, is evident from the circumstance that the “he is holy,” which occurs three times after the example of the original passage in Isaiah 6, besides being at the end of the two strophes, stands also in the middle of the first, and divides its two halves from each other. The full insight into the formal arrangement of the Psalm is got when the following Psalm, which forms with it one pair, is added to it. We then obtain, whether the two ruling verses are added or not, 14 verses or 12; three strophes of four verses, or seven half-strophes of two.

The Psalm is the inverse of “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” Isaiah 3-5, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand, therefore repent,” an old testament, “with zeal ye sons of men.” Among the series of Psalms, Psalms 91-100, it is most closely connected with Psalms 95. In common with that Psalm, it sets especially before the eye of the church high demands proceeding from the approaching appearance of the Lord in his kingdom, and also after the model of Psalms 78 teaches by history, and finally ends with a solemn warning to those who do not prepare their hearts and take heed to their ways.

According to Psalms 99:1 and Psalms 99:5 our Psalm was composed at a time when the ark of the covenant was still in existence, and therefore before the Chaldean invasion. This undoubted fact is of importance in determining the age of the whole series, and of course also of the second part of Isaiah.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. The Lord reigneth, the nations tremble, he who sitteth upon the cherubim, the earth, shakes.

On “the Lord reigneth,” comp. Psalms 93:1, Psalms 96:10, Psalms 97:1. The futures are not optatives, but are to be taken prophetically as at Psalms 93:1, Psalms 96:10. Otherwise, instead of תנוט , we would have had the abbreviated future. The character of the whole Psalm is prophetic. The trembling of the people and the moving of the earth are expressions of fear and reverence [Note: Amyr.: “That fear which proceeds from simple reverence as well as that which arises from apprehension of evil, produces bodily shaking. Thus this exhortation (?) may concern believing as well as unbelieving nations.”] before the Lord appearing in his kingdom; comp. “tremble before him all ye lands” in Psalms 96:9. By alluding to the future trembling of the people the Psalmist designs to furnish a means of strength to the church trembling at the present and the immediately future periods; the nations who now proudly rise up against the Lord and his kingdom, and before whom the heart of the people is moved like the moving of the trees before the wind. [Note: Calvin: For, inasmuch as the Jews were beset by enemies on all sides, it was of great consequence that the power of God should be extolled among them, that they might know that they would be always safe under his protection against the hatred and fury of them all . . . . that God will make known such power in the deliverance of his elect people as will throw into confusion all nations, and that they will feel it, however much they may rage to their own ruin.”] The church of the Lord may have trouble and sorrow for a time, but the promise of Deuteronomy 2:25, will always in the end be fulfilled; “I will this day begin to give thy terror and thy fear over the nations which are under the whole heaven who hear of thy report and tremble and quake before thee.” When her king appears it is the world’s turn to tremble. Perhaps allusion is made to the other sense of רגז “to be angry,” Ps, 4:4. The עמים stands poetically without an article. That the nations generally are meant is evident from the parallel, “the earth,” and the last verse of Psalms 98, and also, Psalms 96:7-10. Before the second clause, we must supply “the Lord reigneth;” and “who sitteth upon the cherubims” equivalent to the God of the whole earth,” Psalms 97:5, (comp. at Psalms 80:1) belongs in reality to both clauses. The two clauses, therefore, are equivalent to “the Lord who sits upon the cherubim reigneth, therefore the nations tremble, the earth moves.” The translation, “he sits upon the cherubim,” essentially disfigures the sense, and could have been favoured only by those who took a false view of “the Lord reigneth,” and referred it to his constant dominion instead of to his appearing in his kingdom. It is not the omnipotence of God in general, but the fact that this omnipotent God reigneth, that is the cause of the trembling of the people. The expression “sitting upon the cherubim” is a phrase of constant occurrence as an epithet applied to Jehovah, comp. 1 Samuel 4:4, 2 Samuel 6:2, 2 Kings 19:15, and other passages. This use of the expression “sitting upon the cherubim” indicates that the symbol of the presence of the Lord among his people was still in existence. It occurs nowhere else except in reference to the ark of the covenant.

Verses 2-5

Ver. 2. The Lord is in Sion great, and he is exalted above all nations. Ver. 3. They shall praise thy name great and terrible: holy is he. Ver. 4. And the strength of the king who loveth right: thou hast founded rectitude, right, and righteousness in Jacob hast thou executed. Ver. 5. Exalt the Lord our God, and pray at his footstool: holy is he.

On Psalms 99:2 comp. Psalms 48:1. The discourse is not of the greatness of the Lord in general, but of that greatness which he acquires by the glorious revelation of the future. [Note: Ven.: “He shows that he is the exalted and most powerful King and avenger of his people in Jerusalem, and superior to and sat over all the nations of the earth.”] The subject in “they shall praise” in Psalms 99:3 is the nations—(not “ may they praise”—this is opposed by the prophetic character of the Psalm, which stands in contrast to the lyric nature of Psalms 100) The nations had been last spoken of, and if the subject had been changed there would have been some intimation of it given. In the lyric part, the exhortation “to praise the Lord, &c.,” which depends upon the previous announcement made in the passage before us, is directed to the whole earth; and even in other passages the deeds of the Lord on behalf of Israel very frequently appear as the object of praise for all nations, as in Psalms 98:3-4; comp. also Psalms 86:9, “all nations shall come and worship before thee, O Lord, and give glory to thy name.” The expression, “shall praise thy name,” is equivalent to “shall praise thee glorious by thy deeds.” The “great and terrible” is from Deuteronomy 10:17, “for the Lord thy God is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the great God and terrible,” comp. 28:58, “that thou fear this name the glorious and the terrible.” The “holy is he” forms the basis of the pre-announcement contained in the preceding clause. The holiness of the Lord, comp. Psalms 22:3, guarantees the praise of all nations, for the glorious deeds by which this shall be called forth. That the “He” does not refer to the name but to the Lord himself is clear from Psalms 99:5 and Psalms 99:9, and from the reference to the “holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts” of the fundamental passage. It is for the sake of conformity to Psalms 99:5 and Psalms 99:9, and the reference to the fundamental passage, that the address here is given up. But for this, the expression would have been: for thou art holy.

In Psalms 99:4, “they shall praise thy holy name,” is more exactly developed. The name appears as the product of the deeds of omnipotent righteousness or of the righteous omnipotence of God on behalf of his people. This verse as regards construction is designedly made entirely dependent upon the preceding one: “and (they shall praise) the strength of the King who loves right,” in order that it may not be supposed that the occurrence of the “holy is He” gives rise to a new strophe. Ewald, nevertheless, has leapt over this hedge. The עז means nothing else than strength, not splendour or fame, &c. (comp. at Psalms 29:1), and occurs even in this sense in other passages of this series of Psalms, Psalms 93:1, Psalms 91:6-7. On “who loveth right,” comp. Psalms 33:5, Psalms 37:28, “for the Lord loveth right and forsaketh not his saints, they shall be preserved for ever, and the seed of the wicked shall be rooted out.” The remaining part of the verse is, in reality, connected with what precedes by a “for,” or by a colon: he represents the facts by which the Lord has shown himself as the omnipotent righteousness, or in reality shall show himself; the import being, for thou hast delivered thy congregation by a righteous judgment from the unrighteous oppression of the world, and hast risen up with mighty arm for the glorious deliverance of the children of God. To found or to establish righteousness (comp. Psalms 68:10), is to bring his righteous way to a firm standing: this happens when God judges righteously, comp. at Psalms 75:2, Psalms 58:1, Psalms 96:10. The last words allude to 2 Samuel 15 : “and David was king over all Israel, and executed right and righteousness to his whole people.” What was there said of Israel’s visible king shall be performed in future times in all its truth by his invisible true King,—comp. “and the strength of the King.”

On “exalt,” in Psalms 99:5, comp. Psalms 30:1, Psalms 34:3. The exhortation to worship occurs also in Psalms 95:6, Psalms 96:9, Psalms 97:7. The footstool of the Lord is everywhere the ark of the covenant, which he who sitteth upon the cherubim touched as it were with his feet, comp. 1 Chronicles 28:2, “to build an house where the ark of the Lord rested, and the footstool of our God,” Psalms 132:7, Lamentations 2:1, “the place of my foot,” Isaiah 60:13. Even Isaiah 66:1 forms an exception only in appearance, because it is only in opposition to the usual way of speaking, and in marked reference to it, that the earth is there called the footstool of the Lord: heaven, not, as you suppose, the place above the cherubim, is my throne, the earth, not the ark of the covenant, according to common language, is my footstool. In the passage before us we cannot leave the common sense, on account of the “sitting upon the Cherubim,” in Psalms 99:1,—comp. also his holy mountain in Psalms 99:9. The השתחוה , is an expression of constant occurrence, with the ל of the object to whom worship is due; and it occurs in this way in Psalms 96:9, Psalms 97:7; we must translate here also “his footstool” (acc), “his holy mountain,” in Psalms 99:9, and must reject the translation “at it” as arbitrary. Worship is due to the ark of the covenant in so far as the Lord sits enthroned upon it, and makes himself known there. Isaiah 45:14 is similar where Sion is worshipped, and supplication is made to her, on account of the God who is present in her.

Verses 6-9

Ver. 6. Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among those who call upon his name: they call upon the Lord, and he hears them. Ver. 7. In the cloudy-pillar he speaks to them, they kept his testimonies, and he gave them the law.

Ver. 8. O Lord our God, thou didst hear them, thou wast a forgiving God to them, and an avenging God because of their iniquity. Ver. 9. Exalt the Lord our God, and worship his holy mountain: for holy is the Lord our God.

In Psalms 99:8 it is shown by the great representatives of the people in the past, that the first condition of participating in the glorious salvation of the future is calling upon God from living faith in him, and heartfelt trust in his compassion. That the particip. and the future here and in the first half of Psalms 99:7 are to be explained by a lively realization of the past (contrary to Hitzig), and that the sense is only poetically transferred from the past to the present, which ought to be instructed by it, is evident from the second half of Psalms 99:7-8. The observations made at Psalms 54:4 are applicable to the ב . Not only Moses, but also Samuel, is numbered among the priests, next after Aaron. That we have here merely a merismos, that is Moses, Aaron and Samuel, were among the priests, and those who called upon his name, is evident from the קראים repeated from the preceding word, they called, which refers to Moses and Aaron as well as to Samuel, although the calling is ascribed literally only to Samuel. Aaron only was a priest in the usual sense. At the foundation, however, of this there is another figurative idiom, that, namely, according to which all are called priests who possess what constitutes the essence of the ordinary priestly office (although not the externals), inward connection with God, free access to the throne of grace, and the gift and power of intercessory prayer. This figurative idiom occurs even in the law itself, comp. Exodus 19:6, where it is said to all Israel: “Ye shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy people.” The law hence acknowledges an ideal priesthood along with the ordinary one. That in certain circumstances those who possessed this ideal priesthood were warranted in exercising all the functions of the ordinary priesthood, is evident from the example of Samuel, and in a certain measure also from the example of Moses, who acted as a priest during the seven days of the consecration of the common priests, Leviticus 8:1 ss. Here, however, it is only the calling upon God that is considered as the essential part of the priestly office. This is evident from the circumstance that in the last clause the “they call,” comprehends both “the being a priest” and the calling hence the expression “among those who call upon his name,” can be nothing more than an explanation of among his priests. Exodus 17, for example, shows that Moses exercised this priestly function, when by his intercession for the people he decided the contest against Amalek, Exodus 32:31-32, Psalms 106:23. Samuel fulfilled this calling especially when the Israelites were oppressed by the Philistines, comp. 1 Samuel 9, “and Samuel cried unto the Lord, and the Lord heard him.” The idea that the last words allude directly to this passage is all the more probable, as we have already found an allusion in Psalms 99:4, which it is impossible to mistake, to the books of Samuel. The lesson, therefore, here imparted to Israel is: if you wish to participate in the salvation of the future, call upon the Lord, after the example of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, for hearing invariably follows calling; in “Lord come “ there always lies a slumbering, “Here, Son.”

From the pillar of cloud God spoke not only to Moses, Exodus 33:9, “and when Moses came into the tent, the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tent, and the Lord talked with Moses,” and again, shortly before his death, Deuteronomy 31:15, but also to Aaron, Numbers 12:5. On the occasion there related it was indeed in anger but in anger beyond which grace was concealed. Samuel received divine revelations in another form; but as the matter was common to him with Moses and Aaron, the form which was peculiar to these is transferred to him; or the speaking of God in the pillar of cloud may be considered as a figurative expression of divine revelation generally, taken from one of its original forms. “He gave the law to them,” is a repetition of “he spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud,” just as “they call upon him,” in Psalms 99:7, is a repetition of “among his priests and them that call upon his name,” serving the purpose of placing faithfulness towards revelations already obtained in intimate connection with the obtaining of new revelations, and of representing the former as the indispensable condition of the latter; as if it had been “he revealed himself to them because they had acted faithfully towards what they already received.” From the expression, “he gave the law to them,” it follows that the clause, “he spoke to them in the pillar of cloud,” is intended to refer to the communication of laws, precepts, injunctions, comp. Exodus 25:22, “and I come to meet with thee there, and to speak with thee . . . . all that I shall give thee in commandment to the children of Israel.” In reference to his testimonies, comp. at Psalms 93:5. “He gave the law to them,” is from Exodus 15:25, where Moses, as a reward for his faithfulness to the Lord, and especially for having maintained his faith in temptation, receives from him the injunction to make the bitter water sweet. This fundamental passage shows that the usual translation, “and the law which he gave them,” is false. This translation, besides, destroys the train of thought in the verse, as it has above been developed, and robs the words of their import. The passage already quoted, for example, shows how Moses obtained the law as a reward for his faithful following of the commandments of the Lord, and Numbers 12:5, how Aaron did so: had not his observance of the testimonies of the Lord distinguished him from the company of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, he as well as they would have been destroyed. Samuel obtained, for example, divine instructions as to how he ought to conduct himself in connection with the impetuous desire of the people for a king, 1 Samuel 8:6 ss., and also towards Saul, 1 Samuel 15. The whole verse proceeds upon the view that the communication of new precepts and rules of life shall be bound up with the future glorious revelation of the Lord. The people are here told how they may obtain participation in this. Participation in the new covenant is the reward of faithfulness to the old. If we observe the commandments of God we shall receive the commandments of God, and with them salvation.

The two first clauses of Psalms 99:8 merely resume what had been said, for the purpose of connecting with it the last clause, which contains the peculiar point: thou didst hear them assuredly, thou hast been to them a forgiving God, but at the same time—woe to us if we bring thy wrath upon us—an avenger of their iniquity. That the thought of our verse lay very near the Psalmist’s heart is clear not only from the circumstance that the Psalm ends with it, but also from this, that the address is impassionately directed to Jehovah. The second part of Isaiah contains all the particulars into which the thought of our verse is drawn out; the maxim, “there is no peace, saith the Lord, to the wicked,” which separates the three books of the second part from each other, is fully developed. The “our God” is emphatic, and intimates that the history is at the same time a prophecy. The suffix in טניתם , which is a repetition of יענם in Psalms 99:6, refers to those previously named. On the other hand, the suffixes in להם and in עלילותם refer to the people. For the personal history of the three individuals named affords no remarkable examples of the forgiving mercy of God, and the Psalmist, in the passage before us, can only refer to clear and well-marked cases; [Note: Ven.: “God may be here said to have forgiven these men their sins, but what emphasis this have? and for what end would it be said? For the expression takes for granted, that these men provoked God in some singular way, so that God, in the act of forgiving them, ought to be celebrated,—this, however, is foreign from their case.”] the forgiveness appears here as the consequence of the hearing, this again as the result of the calling mentioned in the preceding clauses; but this calling refers not to the personal circumstances of the individuals named, but it is their intercession on behalf of the people, which had for its object to remove the divine wrath lying upon them; the wrath leads to serious offences, not to sins of infirmity; only the former can be understood by עלילות ,—the word, which is used of the actions of men only in a bad sense, denotes always only sins properly so called, never mere inadvertencies (comp. at Psalms 14:1); in Psalms 53 it is explained by עול , and here this sense is demanded, by the manifest opposition to the “forgiving:” a forgiving God vast thou to them (for their infirmities), and an avenging one for their iniquities. It is evident, therefore, that the עלילותם does not suit the three individuals who are named. The sins of Moses and Aaron were altogether sins of infirmity, the result of the sins of the people, and their punishment was intended to strike at them, comp. Deuteronomy 1:37, Deuteronomy 3:26, Deuteronomy 4:21, Beitr.: the history makes no mention, even of sins of infirmity; in the case of Samuel. The transition to the people is all the more easy, as the persons named had a representative character, for they did not pray for themselves but for the people, obtained hearing and forgiveness on their behalf, and as they are here set up as an example for the people. The whole verse is a paraphrase of Exodus 34:7, from which the נשא in particular is taken. “Visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children,” corresponds to the last clause. אל is to be supplied to the נקם . In this case even the על is better explained, with which the word נקם is not anywhere else joined. Allusion is made especially to the punishment of the whole congregation, Numbers 14:20-23, as the greatest example of the wrath of God against evil-doers, comp. Psalms 95:11. The exhortation, “exalt the Lord our God,” &c., has its basis not less in the reference to the inexorable judgment of God, than in that to his forgiving grace. In both of these, Israel’s God appears as the awful and the holy God, infinitely exalted both above the love and above the wrath of human passion.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 99". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-99.html.