Holy is he.
3 reflections on our “great and terrible” God.
The theme of the ninety-ninth psalm is plain to see. Thrice the psalmist describes the Lord as “holy” (Ps. 99:3, 5, 9). The emphasis on God’s holiness is evident throughout this stanza, with these words serving as significant markers for a right understanding of the worship that ought to fill every sanctuary. Which is to say that when we come to church, we are worshipping a “holy, holy, holy” God. Those words are commonly associated with Reginald Heber’s remarkable hymn, which drives its singers to praise the God of all holiness. But such doxological truths aren’t merely a construct derived from a beloved hymn. Indeed, one of the things we do know that goes on in glory is that a choir of voices sings this same anthem to the tri-holy God (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). That being so, the holiness of God is a point we’d do well to consider more.
In the aggregate, our concepts of God’s holiness are woefully deficient, falling infinitely short of the holiness our Father has intrinsically. “Let us disabuse our minds,” the orator G. Campbell Morgan declares, “of any preconceived notion of what holiness may be: not that our interpretations have been at fault, but that sometimes they have been altogether too partial.”1 That is, indeed, true. The paradigm that defines our realm is that you and I are not holy, but God is holiness. It’s not something he “has” so much as it is who he is. His nature and being are holiness epitomized. The Lord himself says as much in his law: “For I am the Lord your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. For I am the Lord that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44–45). Let’s look, then, at three reflections on the holiness of God and how this serves to inspire and inform our worship.
Holiness is where he is.
The psalm begins by affirming the reign of the Lord Jehovah, which causes “trembling” and “shaking” among all the people of the earth (Ps. 99:1). It’s worth noting that the opening declaration attests to God’s kingship. “The Lord reigneth,” the psalmist says. The holy rule of the Lord is not something for which we are waiting — it’s already in effect. Sure, the church awaits the physical governance of the Lord Jesus on earth, according to his words of promise, but even in confessing that, he reigns even now. He always has and he always will. The Lord sits on his holy throne, purposing all things from his place of holiness. “The Lord is in his holy temple,” the psalmist says elsewhere, “the Lord’s throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men” (Ps. 11:4). “The Lord is in his holy temple,” echoes the prophet Habakkuk, “let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab. 2:20).
“Holy,” in our context, means just that: “separate” or “set apart.” Such is what the psalmist avers in verse 2: “The Lord is great in Zion; and he is high above all the people.” God’s holiness and separateness is because of the purity and goodness and righteousness that is inherent to him. He is the essence of perfection. He is divorced from all faults, flaws, and deficiencies. He is “glorious in holiness” (Exod. 15:11). “Holiness,” comments Charles Spurgeon, “is the harmony of all the virtues. The Lord has not one glorious attribute alone, or in excess, but all glories are in him as a whole; this is the crown of his honour and the honour of his crown.”2 Stephen Charnock similarly attests that holiness “is the glory of all the rest. As it is the glory of the Godhead, so it is the glory of every perfection in the Godhead. As his power is the strength of them, so his holiness is the beauty of them.”3 All the things we call “good” and “virtuous” are but a shadow of God’s perfect virtue. And it is because of this that we can praise him: “Let them praise thy great and terrible name; for it is holy” (Ps. 99:3).
It is a striking declaration to designate our God as “great and terrible.” This refrain peppers Old Testament Scripture (Deut. 10:17, 21; 2 Sam. 7:23; Neh. 1:5; 4:14; 9:32; Joel 2:31). I wonder how often we’ve stopped to ponder the terrible greatness and great terribleness of this Lord of all things. But such is the beauty of our tri-holy God. He is perfect in holiness, which means he has nothing to do with unholiness — which also means that we are right to quake in our boots at the sight of him, seeing as we are so unholy. We cannot not be unholy, apart from the holiness of God working in and through us by his Spirit. Therefore, in praising the “great and terrible” and holy name of God, we are, likewise, exalting the fact that he is “holy and just and good.” I think C. S. Lewis captures what I mean in his beloved book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
This most-beloved of his Narnia series is concerned with the Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They’ve just stumbled into the enthralling and magical world of Narnia when the happen upon Mr. Beaver, who promptly invites them to his home for tea. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver proceed to not only show the Pevensie’s true Narnian hospitality, but also reveal that they didn’t happen upon this world by happenstance. This was the fulfillment of a long-foretold prophecy. As Mr. Beaver recounts this prophecy regarding the two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve, the conversation turns to the figure Aslan (Lewis’s Christ figure). Note that familiar scene:
“Who is Aslan?” asks Susan.
“Aslan? Why, you don’t know? He’s the King, he’s the Lord of the whole wood,” replies Mr. Beaver, “the son of the greater Emperor-beyond-the-Sea . . . Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts?” Mr. Beaver continues, “Aslan is a lion — the Lion, the great Lion . . . anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” Lucy asks, logically.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”4
Such is our God: he is “great and terrible,” “good but not safe.” He is holy.
Holiness is what he does.
But the holiness that’s intrinsic to him and his nature is also indicative of his purposes for us. In next few verses, the psalmist says that the God who is holiness loves justice: “The king’s strength also loveth judgment; thou dost establish equity, thou executest judgment and righteousness in Jacob. Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship at his footstool; for he is holy” (Ps. 99:4–5). All of his doings are holy and just and right, without amendment or abatement. And such is what he has purposed to establish. That is, a kingdom of justice full of people who have been made just. Such is what we invoke when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9–10). Praying in that manner inherently means we are entreating the Lord to put away all those things that are counter to his holiness. The psalmist declares elsewhere:
In the Lord put I my trust: how say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain? For, lo, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string, that they may privily shoot at the upright in heart. If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do? The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men. The Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth. Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup. For the righteous Lord loveth righteousness; his countenance doth behold the upright. (Ps. 11:1–7)
This is God’s kingdom, which is the culmination of his doings with this world of ours, wherein absolute truth and holiness are executed according to his holy Word. “The Lord our God,” Spurgeon says, “demolishes every system of injustice, and right alone is made to stand.”5 Such is what he’s accomplishing, indeed, has accomplished through his only begotten Son. Christ’s death and resurrection testify to the Godhead’s holy purposes. He is producing that which he requires and loves in the hearts and lives of those he loves (Ps. 99:4). Our Lord is a Lord of holiness who loves holiness, and who is, likewise, bringing about his holiness in his people, in his way. Such is what forms one of the most insightful remarks from Scottish churchman Horatius Bonar, who writes, “To learn what holiness is, and how holy God is, we need not merely to see his feelings towards the holy but towards the unholy.”6 Which brings me to the last point.
Holiness is how he acts.
If holiness is who God is, and where he is, and what he purposes to establish, how does he accomplish that? The psalmist draws our attention to that, too. The last stanza of this psalm is remarkable in that it brings the holiness of God to right where we are. The psalmist alludes to Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, each of whom are storied patriarchs of the faith who stood as mediators between the Lord and the people of Israel at various points in their careers. “Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among them that call upon his name; they called upon the Lord, and he answered them. He spake unto them in the cloudy pillar: they kept his testimonies, and the ordinance that he gave them” (Ps. 99:6–7). And yet, notwithstanding the honor due these figures, each of them have pasts that are riddled with unholiness. Which just goes to show that even the “best” that Israel had to offer couldn’t live up to God’s holy standard.
That being so, what did God do? “Thou answeredst them,” declares the psalmist, “O Lord our God: thou wast a God that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions” (Ps. 99:8). God in his perfect holiness answers the cries of his people for mercy and grace, while also punishing their wrongdoing, thereby upholding his holiness and pardoning those he loves. “Forgiveness,” writes Horatius Bonar, “is the mainspring of holiness.”7 It is in that way, then, that this psalm offers us a vivid picture of the holy mercy and righteous grace which fills our souls with anthems of praise. “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at his holy hill; for the Lord our God is holy” (Ps. 99:9). We can sing to our tri-holy God because he is the One who finds us in unholiness and raises us up to glory with himself. “Christ, indeed,” writes Rev. Abraham Booth, “finds his people entirely destitute of holiness, and of every desire after it; but he does not leave them in that state.”8 He snatches us out of sin’s wasteland and brings us into his kingdom of light.
And so it is that the Lord’s forgiveness of unholiness is not leniency. It’s not a cheat code. It’s not God’s scheme of skirting around the law. Indeed, rather, the forgiveness he offers in the blood of his Son is in perfect keeping with his holy law. “The certainty of his covenant mercy,” Stephen Charnock continues, “depends upon an unchangeableness of his holiness.”9 Everything that God designs and carries out in the gospel is in perfect accord with his holy name. The beauty and brilliance of the gospel is that they flawlessly uphold God the Father as “just and the justifier” of all who believe (Rom. 3:26). Our unholiness demands a payment and a punishment. The surprise announcement of the gospel is that God’s own Son has made that payment and taken that punish for us already, on our behalf. This means that the penalty for our wrongdoing has already been weathered perfectly, completely, and comprehensively. As the Puritan theologian John Flavel asserts, “Christ is so in love with holiness, that at the price of his blood he will buy it for us.”10 In every way, therefore, we can praise our “holy, holy, holy” God.
G. Campbell Morgan, The Westminster Pulpit: The Preaching of G. Campbell Morgan, Vols. 1–10 (Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth Book Co., 1954), 9:191–92.
Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vols. 1–3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), 2:2.224.
Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God, Vols. 1–2 (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1874), 2:113.
C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 146.
Spurgeon, Treasury, 2:2.223.
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857), 48.
Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness: or, How Shall Man Be Just With God? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1993), 181.
Abraham Booth, The Reign of Grace, from Its Rise to Its Consummation (Philadelphia: Joseph Whetnam, 1838), 214.
Charnock, Attributes of God, 2:197.
John Flavel, The Fountain of Life: A Display of Christ in His Essential and Meditorial Glory (New York: American Tract Society, 1855), 73–74.