Our God loves justice; injustice causes him to don his armor and “go to war.” The psalmist prays, “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (Psalm 99:4). Many in the United States have focused on issues related to sexual harassment and assault or physical abuse in recent days, especially in regard to the experience of women. Although men may experience each of those indignities, they are a more pervasive fear for women. As women post “me too,” they and some men have told their stories of pain and humiliation. Often, the person who violated their dignity was a person with authority or an admired mentor, friend, or relative.
Although I suffered during some parts of my life, in retrospect I see most of those times as when God was disciplining me as a loving Father corrects his child (see Hebrews 12 for additional biblical thoughts on this subject). God holds us accountable. There is a frightening passage in the New Testament where the text says that “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts…” (Romans 1:24). He allowed them to experience the consequences of their desires and their actions. God executes justice also among his followers. He rewards but he also disciplines. The psalmist prays, “O Lord our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings”(Psalm 99:8). God does not write us a blank check; he expects accountability for our actions. As the final verse of Psalm 99 implies, God’s holiness forms a critical part of why we worship him and how we seek to be like him in character: “Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy” (Psalm 99:9).
The central verses of the psalm introduce that conclusion and tell us who God forgave while he avenged their sin. While David may not have written Psalm 99, its words mirror his spirit and his relationship with God. Even when God forgave David for his sins of murder and adultery (committed with the wife of a loyal follower), David continued to bear the spiritual scars of those sins and suffer their consequences for the rest of his life. David, however, did not give up. He continued to serve God courageously until the end of his life. God’s forgiveness and his discipline intertwine in our lives. Psalm 99 also teaches some powerful truths about holiness and the sovereignty of God in connection with prayer by heroes of faith who also failed at critical moments. The psalm has universal perspective: People from every nation (and even the earth itself!) should tremble at the realization that God rules. While, especially in Western society, people cherish autonomy, Psalm 99 reminds us that even rulers, priests, and prophets are accountable to God. The psalm mentions Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. Each of these three had a connection with priesthood; Moses and Samuel also functioned as rulers and prophets in Israel. The role of prayer in the ministry of all three is noted when the psalm’s writer observes about Samuel, “…Samuel also was among those who called on his name,” in a literary structure that equates the service of Aaron and Moses with that of Samuel. While all three were spiritual leaders of the people of God, Moses and Aaron especially were held accountable for sins committed in the course of leading Israels . Even Samuel had to answer for the unethical behavior of his sons after he delegated some of his responsibilities and authority to them. Still, this trio of disciplined faith heroes “kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them.”
Psalm 99 emphasizes the holiness of God in its call to worship him: “Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!”(verse 5) and “Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain, for the LORD our God is holy” (verse 9). We know the LORD is holy because he is a “lover of justice” and has “executed justice and righteousness”(verse 4). In regard to the prayers of Aaron, Moses, and Samuel, verse 8 observes, “O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.”
God’s holiness is to be reflected in the lives of his worshipers; passages like James 3 underline that teachers and leaders of worship especially should live holy lives. The lives of the three leaders named above reveal that even flawed leaders can lead God’s people well, but that there is a personal cost for their sins. Psalm 99 applies this truth to leaders, but also to all in our world who call on God’s name in prayer. Prayer is not a glib conversation with a friend, but a dialogue with the holy Creator of life and our world. As Hebrews 12:28 states, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” When we “call for fire” in prayer, we must pray with awareness of the power of the One to whom we cry. Victims of abuse and harassment may hesitate to pray, their faith crippled by violation of trust. Leaders who regret past sins may look into a literal mirror with remorse while they ask God and themselves, “How can I be forgiven?” Psalm 99 declares forgiveness for the offender but also justice for the victim. It calls each one of us to a higher ethical standard, to be holy, and calls us to worship the one who loves justice and who has established equity. It calls to be a people who have matured and who can worship in community with others who have faltered in faithfulness, but who seek to regain dignity and wholeness. It calls to pray to the God who avenges the victim as he disciplines and rehabilitates the unfaithful leader.
God of justice, we tremble as we contemplate our failings in our relationships with other people and with you. When we speak in anger or act in lust, we infringe upon the dignity of someone made in your image. David, Moses, Aaron, and Samuel remind us that we may manage to serve well despite flaws in characters or failures as leaders. They looked to you. We pray that we will direct our gaze and our thoughts to you when sin threatens our space. Clear our minds of deceit and desire to manipulate. Turn our hearts to you and away from our idols of lust and power. Help us to overcome fear. Raise up leaders we can trust and admire. Restore hope to our society and rekindle the dreams of victims. In Jesus’s name, amen.