He Answered, Forgave, and Avenged

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Psalm 99 as we continue to make our way through the Fourth Book of the Psalms. The Fourth Book of the Psalms runs from Psalm 90-106. This section of Psalms that we've been studying for the last few Sundays (Psalms 95-100) all focus on worship. And if you've turned to Psalm 99, you can take a peek back to Psalm 98. As we were looking at this Psalm last week, we commented that it teaches us four lessons about public worship.

First of all, we commented on the direction of the Psalm. Primarily, Psalm 98 is singing about God, and we made a few comments about that. First of all, we reminded ourselves that even in a hymn or a song when we're singing about God, we're singing to God about God. But we also said that in the Psalms when we are exhorting one another to sing about God, we are performing an essential task, because we don't always bring our hearts to the Lord's house ready to worship Him. And so it serves as a mutual exhortation for us to sing to God about God when we sing to one another in songs and hymns.

We also said it's an exercise of singing to ourselves, to exhort ourselves to sing about God to God. And so the very direction of Psalm 98 reminds us that when we sing about the Lord in a Psalm we are singing to the Lord and to one another, and to ourselves, exhorting ourselves to sing to the Lord. And when we are singing about the Lord, we're singing to the Lord about the Lord.

Another thing that we learned in this Psalm was that the object of worship will determine our passion in worship. That is, if we do not see a beauty and desirability in God, we will lack passion in our worship of Him. We also noticed that this Psalm, Psalm 98, was filled with examples of passion-filled worship; that is, the psalmist clearly perceives the greatness of God's beneficence to him in His mercy and His grace; therefore, he is thankful to the bottom of his heart; therefore, he is passionate in his worship. And we said that our passion in worship will be directly connected to our perception of grace…having received grace from God.

And then, finally, in Psalm 98 we said that this Psalm ended on a note of hope, and we observed that the joy we express and experience in worship is directly connected to the strength of the hope which is set before us, and in this Psalm the hope is squarely on God's reign. The hope of Psalm 98 is that the Lord wins. That is the fundamental hope of every Old Testament and New Testament believer: that the Lord is coming to reign, that He wins, that He will put everything right. And if that hope is in your heart, it is impossible to approach Him without joy.

So, we looked at Psalm 98 from the standpoint of what it teaches us about worship.

Psalm 99 also teaches us about worship. Essentially this Psalm is about the holiness, the righteousness, the justice of God, and it exhorts us to worship God because He is holy, righteous, and just.

Now before we read God's word, let's ask Him to help us to understand and to receive that word in faith. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word meant for our souls. Ready us to receive it. Surprise us with truth unexpected. Correct us in areas where we stray. Encourage us by Your word in places where we are burdened. Mature us by Your word in places where we need to grow up. Cause our hearts not only to understand Your truth, but to embrace it. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is the word of God, Psalm 99:

“The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble!

He sits enthroned upon the cherubim;

Let the earth quake!

The Lord is great in Zion;

He is exalted over all the peoples.

Let them praise Your great and awesome name!

Holy is He!

The King in His might loves justice.

You have established equity;

You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.

Exalt the Lord our God:

Worship at His footstool!

Holy is He!

“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.

In the pillar of the cloud

He spoke to them;

They kept His testimonies

And the statute that He gave them.

“O Lord our God, You answered them;

You were a forgiving God to them,

But an avenger of their wrongdoings.

Exalt the Lord our God,

And worship at His holy mountain;

For the Lord our God is holy!”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The psalmist is teaching us something very simple but very important in this Psalm. God ought to be worshiped because He is holy. He is pure and higher and greater than us. He is underived and perfect in His purity and power and greatness, and therefore we ought to worship Him because of His holiness. The angelic beings in Isaiah 6 understood this. Even though they were without sin, they understood that He was more perfect than they were because their perfection was derived from Him. He is the source of their perfection. His perfection, however, was neither created or temporal or derived. He was the originator of all perfection, and therefore He ought to be worshiped for it. Isaiah understood this. Though he was the prophet appointed by the Lord to call Israel to account for Israel's sin, Isaiah himself was full of sin. He was not perfect. He needed to be forgiven, and though he was the chosen instrument of the Lord, he was not perfect. And therefore, he understood that God should be worshiped because of His holiness and perfection.

The writer of Psalm 98 understood this, and we need to understand it if we're going to worship God aright. There are four things that we learn from the psalmist, at least, in this great Psalm.

I. God's people delight in and praise God for His justice and righteousness and holiness, and not just His mercy and grace

The first one is simply this: God's people delight in and praise God for His justice and righteousness and holiness, and not just His mercy and grace…God's people delight in and praise God for His justice and righteousness and holiness, and not just for His mercy and grace. Notice how this is emphasized especially in verses 3-5. Listen to how often in those few little words that the psalmist will stress either the holiness of God, the justice of God, or the righteousness of God. Pick up in verse 3:

“Let them praise Your great and awesome name!

Holy is He!

The King in His might loves justice.

You have established equity;

You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.

Exalt the Lord our God:

Worship at His footstool!

Holy is He!”

Repeatedly in those three small verses the psalmist puts before our eyes the holiness of God, the righteousness of God, and the justice of God, and he puts it before us as matters of praise. Now perhaps you didn't think about it, but you were praising God for His holiness in the very first hymn that you sang today, “Holy, Holy, Holy…Lord God Almighty.” You were echoing the very praise that had been given by the seraphim in Isaiah 6, and God's people ought always to delight in and praise God for His justice and righteousness and holiness.

I think there are at least three kinds of people who are most apt to praise God for His holiness, righteousness, and justice:

The first are people who have experienced injustice in this world. They've experienced in their own lives the consequences of the unrighteousness of other people, or even the oppression of those who have been given civil authority meant to be used for the general welfare but in fact have used so that people are taken advantage of and done wrongly by. And people who have experienced that kind of injustice and unrighteousness and oppression are apt to praise God for His justice and righteousness and holiness.

Think of the early Christians. It was one of the great sources of joy and comfort to the early Christians that they could say, “Jesus is Lord.” Why? Because the temporal lord who ruled over so many of them, Caesar…in the book of Romans, the Caesar, you’ll remember, was Nero. The temporal lord that reigned over them did not use his power for their welfare. He used his power against their welfare. He persecuted them. He took their homes and property. He exiled their relatives, and he put many of them to death. And so it was a very precious comfort to early Christians to be able to affirm that God is Lord, that God reigns, that Jesus is Lord. Caesar is not the ultimate and final lord, but God reigns over everything and He will put everything right. So people who have experienced injustice are apt to praise God for His justice.

This is happening even now. Perhaps you are following the story of the Christians who are being persecuted in the Arissa province in India. Hindus have been attacking Christians. As you may know, there has been a mass turning to Christ in the last half century in India among the underclasses…among the lowest classes. Hindus are deeply concerned about this, and the Hindus have formed an alliance which is seeking to force mass reconversions of Christians back to Hinduism, and in the Arissa province violence has broken out by Hindus against Christians. Churches have been burned down. Homes have been burned down. Christians have been burned alive, and even this very morning the BBC World service has reported that hundreds of thousands of Christians are in refugee camps in Arissa. They are experiencing injustice and persecution and oppression, and the fact that God is just and righteous and holy must be one of the great comforts that they have to their hearts in this time. So the people who have experienced injustice and unrighteousness and oppression will be apt to praise God for His justice and righteousness and holiness.

There's another kind of a person who is apt to praise God for His holiness. People who have perceived the misery of this world and have perceived that the misery of this world is the work of sin, and who long to see justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream will readily praise God for His justice and righteousness and holiness. When you look out into the world and you see all of the trial and the tribulation, and when you see all of the disasters and the tragedies, and when you see the travails of this fading world and when you realize that it's a consequence of sin, you’ll long for God to reign in His justice and put everything right, and you’ll be apt to praise Him for His righteousness and justice and holiness.

But of course ultimately the people who are best equipped to praise God for His holiness are those who understand the gospel, because at the very heart of the gospel is God's holiness and righteousness and justice. Now we as evangelicals might be apt to say that at the heart of the gospel is God's grace, and of course that's true. But listen to how Paul puts it in Romans 1: “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation…” [For in the gospel what is revealed?] “…The righteousness of God is revealed.” Now isn't that an interesting way to put it? How is it that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel? Well, the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel in a number of ways.

*First of all, the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel because in sending His Son the Messiah into this world, God was showing Himself to be righteous in keeping His promise. He had made that promise back in Genesis 3:15. He had reiterated that promise in Genesis 12:1-3. And when His Son came into this world, God was shown to be righteous by keeping His promise.

*God is also shown to be righteous in the gospel in that He does not sweep our sins under the carpet, but our sins are paid for by Jesus himself receiving the due penalty in His own body on the tree for our forgiveness, so that God's mercy shown to us is not unjust, but God's mercy shown to us is just and righteous and good and pure. He requires a penalty for sin. His Son pays that penalty for sin, and He shows us grace and forgiveness freely–not by pretending that we didn't sin, but by dealing with our sin in Jesus.

*And of course God's holiness is manifest in the gospel in that Jesus himself is perfectly holy. He is everything that man was intended to be in holiness in His person, which no human being has ever experienced since the fall of Adam, but which all of us in Him will one day attain. We will one day be morally perfected when we stand before His throne in exceeding great joy, having been totally transformed through the holiness and grace of Christ. And God's people thus will celebrate God's righteousness and holiness and justice. That's one thing that we learn from this Psalm.

II. Worship is sometimes called Prayer, and Prayer summarized as Worship.

But there's a second thing as well, and I want you to see it especially in verse 6. This Psalm draws our attention to the fact that prayer is so much of the essence of worship that worship is sometimes called prayer in the Bible, and sometimes worship is summarized as prayer.

Look at this in verse 6. Notice that we're told that Moses and Aaron and Samuel were among those who — what? — who called upon His name. And then look at the end of verse 6: “They called to the Lord, and He answered them.”

Now, take as an exercise this little challenge. Go home and pick up the book of Genesis and look how often the phrase “and they called upon the Lord” or “They called upon the name of the Lord” is used in the book of Genesis. You will find that that phrase “to call upon the name of the Lord” is shorthand for worship. It's the way that they express worship. But listen closely to the language. To call upon the name of the Lord is to do what? To pray! And here in verse 6 we're told they called on the Lord and He did what? He answered them.

Now my friends, the reason that prayer is sometimes used as a summary word for all of worship is because of this: worship is all about — what? — it's all about communion with God. And what is prayer in its essence but communion of your soul with God–you lifting up the desires of your heart to Him in accordance with His will, and He answering you in accordance to His will? So it is soul communion with the living God. So prayer is the perfect expression of the communion that our worship is supposed to entail, and this is one reason that prayer is so central to our worship services.

One of the interesting things to observe in the evangelical churches today is on the one hand the disappearance of prayer in worship services…in many worship services which you’ll go to in which if there is any prayer at all there will be very, very short prayers. And then on the other hand, the appearance of only read prayers in worship services. Those two things, everywhere you go you’ll see either the disappearance of prayer or the appearance of only read prayers.

Why are studied extemporaneous prayers so much a part of our worship? Because prayer is of the essence of worship. Jesus said, “My Father's house is a house of prayer.” Why? Because the gathering of God's people in worship is about our communion together with Him, and prayer perfectly embodies that. And I would suggest to you that the discomfort of the modern evangelical church with corporate prayer in corporate worship is an example of how distant we actually are from communion with the living God.

III. God forgives and punishes sin.

Third (and this is really the heart of what I want to zero in on in this Psalm), in this Psalm we are taught about God's forgiveness and His punishment of sin. We are taught about God's forgiveness and His punishment of sin. Zero in on verses 6-8:

“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.

In the pillar of the cloud

He spoke to them;

They kept His testimonies

And the statute that He gave them.”

[And listen to this closely!]

“O Lord our God, You answered them;

You were a forgiving God to them,

But an avenger of their wrongdoings.”

Now isn't that an interesting verse? “You were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.”

This verse raises dozens of really good questions in our minds, but here's the one that I want you to zero in on. This verse makes it clear that God can forgive and still punish. Very often in our minds we think that if God forgives, He cannot punish. But in this verse we see a picture of what actually played out in the lives of Moses and Aaron and Samuel, and even Isaiah, as we read this morning from Isaiah 6. That is, in the wilderness God forgave Moses and Aaron and the people of God for whom Moses and Aaron prayed. He forgave them for their sins in this sense: He did not give them what they deserved. They deserved to be put to death in the wilderness. We remember that Moses and Aaron interceded for the people of God. But even Moses and Aaron sinned against God and they deserved to die for their sin, and God did not give them what they deserved. But as you know, there were consequences for their sins and Moses and Aaron both had to face the consequences of their sins.

It's very interesting. The King Uzziah (who's also called Azariah) that Derek described in the passage that was read from Isaiah 6 this morning, is in both Kings and Chronicles said to be what kind of a king? He was “good” king, and yet because of his sin, what happened? God caused him to contract leprosy and he died. He was forgiven in the sense that he was not cast off by God. We’ll see Uzziah in heaven. But there was punishment for his sin of not erasing the idolatry of the high places in Israel, and because he went into the temple and sacrificed…which was against the law for a king to do. And so though he was forgiven in the sense of being saved, yet there was punishment for his sin: “You were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger to their wrongdoings.” God's punishment for sin does not prevent His forgiveness of sin, and God's forgiveness of sin does not prevent His punishment.

Let me just say one thing about this, because we could really explore this for an hour. God's punishing of the sins of believers is always an act of grace, because God is attempting to separate the believer from that which would destroy his or her soul. God's punishment is never retributive; it's never an act of vengeance against the believer. It's always an act of grace. And what's it designed to do? It's designed to drive a wedge between the believer and the enemy of his or her soul, which is sin. Because sin will destroy you. And so when God manifests His punishment on those who are forgiven in Christ, it is always an act of fatherly chastening to bring them back to Him and to drive a wedge between them and that which would destroy them. “You were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.”

IV. True religion is personal and personally embraces God.

And then one final thing. If you look at verse 9, in this verse we learn that Christianity, true religion, is personal and it personally embraces God. Did you catch the language of verse 8? “O Lord our God, You answered them; You were a forgiving God.” Well, it continues on in verse 9:

“Exalt the Lord our God,

And worship at His holy mountain;

For the Lord our God is holy!”

Did you notice that language? “Exalt the Lord our God…the Lord our God is holy.” Notice that the psalmist personally embraces God as his God.

See, it's not enough to say that God is holy. You have to say, “My God is holy.” It's not enough to say that God forgives sins. The true believer says, “O Lord, You have forgiven my sins.” It's not enough to say that Christ died for sinners. You must say, “Lord, I am a sinner, and Christ died for me.”

Notice the personal embrace of this truth about God, which is an essential response to the gospel. We do not simply generically affirm aspects about God's person and work, we personally embrace those things…who God is and does…as for us, because He is our God. This is the essence of a believing response to God's overtures in the gospel.

When He says, “Christ calls sinners,” our response is not simply, “Oh, Lord, it's so nice that You call sinners.” It's, “Lord, I'm a sinner! And You've come for me, and You've called me, and You've died for me, and I embrace You as my Savior.” This is the essence of true religion. It is personal, and personally embraced. And so the psalmist sets before us these things today that deeply affect our worship.

Do we worship God for His holiness? Do we understand that the essence of worship is in communion with Him, and that communion is expressed in prayer? Do we realize that God's forgiveness does not mean that He will not, for the love of His people, chasten us for our sins? And do we personally embrace the living God as our God, and His promises to us? All these things are essential for true worship.

Let us pray.

Our heavenly Father, by the grace of Your Holy Spirit, we ask that You would show us Your holiness and make it a matter of praise and prayer for us; and that by the grace of that same Spirit we would personally embrace You, as You have offered yourself in Your Son in the gospel, as our God. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Would you take your hymnals out and turn to No. 47, and we’ll sing Psalm 99 back to God.

[Congregational hymn.]

Grace, mercy and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.



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