Psalm 99 is one of my favorite psalms. Here is a paper I wrote on it some time ago that I think my readers will find helpful, especially those who want to preach the text.
Israel and the nations must worship the Lord God of Israel because of his holiness and faithfulness which will result in the forgiveness of Israel’s sins and bring justice to Israel.
1 The LORD reigns,
let the nations tremble;
He is the Cherubim-enthroned One,
let the earth shake.
2 The LORD is great in Zion,
And he is exalted above all the nations.
3 Let them praise your great and fearsome name –
He is holy!
4 Mighty is the King! He loves justice!
You have established uprightness!
You have done in Jacob what is just and righteous!
5 Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his footstool –
He is holy!
6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests
And Samuel among those who called upon his name.
They called upon the LORD and he answered them.
7 He spoke to them from the pillar of cloud,
They kept his testimonies and the ordinance he gave them.
8 O LORD our God, you answered them,
You became to them a forgiving God,
Though you punished their deeds.
9 Exalt the LORD our God
And worship at his holy mountain,
For holy is the LORD our God!
The Structure of Psalm 99
2 יְהוָה בְּצִיּוֹן גָּדוֹל
וְרָם הוּא עַל־כָּל־הָעַמִּים
3 יוֹדוּ שִׁמְךָ גָּדוֹל וְנוֹרָא
4 וְעֹז מֶלֶךְ מִשְׁפָּט אָהֵב
אַתָּה כּוֹנַנְתָּ מֵישָׁרִים
מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בְּיַעֲקֹב אַתָּה עָשִׂיתָ
5 רוֹמְמוּ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לַהֲדֹם רַגְלָיו
6 מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן בְּכֹהֲנָיו
וּשְׁמוּאֵל בְּקֹרְאֵי שְׁמוֹ
קֹרִאים אֶל־יְהוָה וְהוּא יַעֲנֵם
7 בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן יְדַבֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם
שָׁמְרוּ עֵדֹתָיו וְחֹק נָתַן־לָמוֹ
8 יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אַתָּה עֲנִיתָם אֵל
נֹשֵׂא הָיִיתָ לָהֶם
9 רוֹמְמוּ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ
וְהִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְהַר קָדְשׁוֹ
כִּי־קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ
Outline of Psalm 99
Worship the LORD for His Holiness and Goodness
Exegetical Idea: Israel and the nations must worship the Lord God of Israel because of his holiness and faithfulness which will result in the forgiveness of Israel’s sins and bring justice to Israel.
- Worship the Enthroned Holy LORD of Israel because of his holiness and justice (vv. 1-5).
- The nations must fear the LORD because he reigns in holiness (1-3)
- The LORD’s holy might brings justice to Israel (4-5)
- Remember the Faithfulness of the Holy LORD of Israel who forgives his people and answers their prayers (vv. 6-9).
- The LORD demonstrated his faithfulness in answering them (6-7a).
- The LORD demonstrated his faithfulness by forgiving them (7b-8)
- Final Call to Israel to Exalt their Holy LORD God through worship because of their special relationship with him (9).
- Exalt the LORD by acknowledging his special relationship with Israel (9a).
- Exalt the LORD by worshipping in the place and manner he desires (9b).
- Exalt the LORD by praising his holiness (9c).
Exegetical Idea: The psalmist calls upon the nations to tremble before the holiness and justice of the God of Israel while calling Israel to worship the LORD so that they can properly acknowledge his holiness, justice, and faithfulness to his people as their great leaders did in past ages.
Though many would divide this psalm by the threefold “holy” refrain, this structure makes the stanzas of dramatically different lengths while also ignoring the content of the psalm. It seems best to divide the psalm into two portions with the division being determined by the content.
This psalm is the last in a series of psalms, beginning with Psalm 93, that praise the Lord for his reign over Israel and the nations (e.g., 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1). These psalms occur toward the beginning of book four of the psalms and share several themes, most notably an emphasis on the Lord’s reign over all nations (not just Israel, though Israel is included) and its ramifications (93:1; 94:2, 10; 95:3; 96:4-6, 7-9, 10; 97:1, 98:2, 7-8), the Lord’s holiness (93:5; 96:9; 97:10, 12; 99:3, 5, 9), creative power (93:1; 94:9; 95:4-5, 6b; 96:5b) and his superiority to other gods (95:3; 96:4-5; 97:7, 9), the Lord’s judgment on the wicked and vindication of the righteous (94:1-3, 13, 15, 21-23; 96:10, 12; 97:10-11; 98:8; 99:4), and calls to worship (or descriptions of worship) made not only to Israel and the nations (95:1-2, 6; 96:1-3, 7-10; 98:4-6; 99:3, 5, 9), but also to all of creation (93:3; 96:1, 11-12a; 97:1, 6; 98:7-8).
This psalm highlights the reign of God (vv. 1, 4) in holiness (vv. 3, 5, 9) which brings justice and equity to the nations on behalf of Israel (v. 4) while striking terror into the nations (vv. 1, 3) who have oppressed him and encourages Israel to remember the faithfulness of the Lord to past leaders of Israel (vv. 6-7a) who obeyed him (v. 7b) though he punished Israel’s disobedience (v. 8). The concluding verse (v. 9) calls upon Israel, specifically, to worship the Lord because of his holiness.
I. Worship the Enthroned Holy LORD of Israel because of his holiness and justice (vv. 1-5).
IA. The nations must fear the LORD because he reigns in holiness (1-3)
These opening lines are a proclamation of the Lord’s kingly reign which sparks fear (“trembling”) in the nations. The nations must fear because, though they do not recognize the LORD’s right to rule, his rule is a reality which will be manifest in time. The fear of the nations may have to do with the establishment of justice among Jacob (v. 4). If the Lord will judge his people for their injustice, what will he do to the nations that do not fear him? The coming of the Lord to consummate his reign is an occasion of joy for his people because he will vindicate them (v. 4) but it is an occasion for trembling among the nations for the same reason.
The opening statement is often translated as declarative: “The Lord sits upon the cherubim” (Kraus 1989, 267) though MT and LXX both use a participle: “The one who sits (i.e. enthroned) upon the cherubim” (Tate 1990, 526, 528-529, Dahood 1968). KJV, NKJV, NIV say “between the cherubim” while NASB, and NET Bible have “above the cherubim. ESV has “upon the cherubim.” There is no preposition in the MT, which leaves one to decide based on other criteria. The Lord’s enthronement refers either to heavenly reality (e.g., Isa. 6; Ezek. 1) or to the ark of the covenant. The latter interpretation is preferred since elsewhere in the in the OT this expression (יֹשֵׁב כְּרוּבִים) is connected to the ark of the covenant (1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chron. 13:6; Ps. 80:1; Isa. 37:16). So one may take this reference to the LORD as the “Cherubim-enthroned-One” (v. 1) as a reference to the “atonement cover” of the ark of the covenant (Lev. 16:13) since The Lord’s reign is related to his holy presence in the midst of his people. The ark was the sign of the Lord’s presence and served as his throne (v. 5, cf. Ps. 132:7-8; 1 Chron. 28:2).
This opening stanza contains a paradox: The Lord is the one enthroned on the cherubim (v. 1) yet is high above all nations (v. 2). The might of the Lord God of Israel will be revealed in his justice; he is high above the nations because he holds them to account. The mercy and covenant faithfulness of the Lord God of Israel is revealed in his continuing presence in the midst of his people despite their sin.
The holiness of the Lord is the attribute praised above all others in this psalm. That the Lord is holy emphasizes the distance qualitative difference between God and man. This means that one’s relationship with the Lord is not to be taken casually. The nations must not take the Lord lightly because his holiness requires him to judge their wickedness and the oppression of his people. His own people, however, are not exempt because the Lord will judge their deeds, as well (v. 8).
IB. The LORD’s holy might brings justice to Israel (4-5)
The expression at the beginning of v. 4 is difficult to read and translate. The noun וְעֹז seems unlikely as the subject of the verb אָהֵב as in KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV. NIV translates it as two verbless clauses: “The King is mighty; he loves justice” in agreement with Waltke & O’Conner who see it as a verbless main clause followed by a dependant clause (Waltke 1990, 644).
The Lord’s holiness drives his justice and strength and these characteristics will result in justice for his people. The Lord’s holiness is what has established his law (since the law is an extension of his holy character) and in his righteous strength the Lord brings about what was previously not there (כון) for Israel: “uprightness.” This word (מֵישָׁרִים) comes from a word whose most basic meaning is “straight” or “level” and is used in an ethical sense in wisdom literature and the prophets (Ps. 119:28; Prov. 11:5; Eccl. 7:29; Hab. 2:4) carrying a sense of blamelessness and righteous living.
The word כון (here in the polel), often translated “established,” emphasizes not only the “bringing forth of something new” but also highlights the divine work in bringing about justice and righteousness (Tate 1990, 527). It also carries a notion of permanence as in Ps. 90:17 (used there also in the polel).
That the Lord’s strength and justice (v. 4a) are mentioned in this connection shows that his might is devoted to establishing and maintaining right among his people and, by extension, his realm which is ultimately the entire world.
Because of this, the Lord’s people are called to worship him for his holiness. The first portion of this psalm contains this refrain twice (vv. 3, 5). The reason stated for this praise, worship, and exaltation is the holiness of the Lord. Because the Lord is holy, his people should remember how great and fearsome is his name, they should praise and exalt him and worship him in the place he has prescribed: his “holy footstool.” This could be a reference to Mount Zion (so Dahood, 369 following Isa. 60:13; Ezek. 43:7) or the whole earth (following Isa. 66:1; Matt. 5:35). Based on the use of this expression in Psalm 132:7, this writer takes it as another reference to the ark of the covenant. The לְ is probably locative (see the discussions in Tate, 527 and Dahood, 369).
II. Remember the Faithfulness of the Holy LORD of Israel who forgives his people and answers their prayers (vv. 6-9).
IIA. The LORD demonstrated his faithfulness in answering them (6-7a).
The psalmist wants the people to remember the Lord’s faithfulness so he mentions three persons notable in the history of Israel: Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. Moses and Aaron are mentioned probably because of their connection with the giving of the law and the establishment of sacrificial worship and the beginnings of tabernacle/temple worship which had the ark as its center. Though Moses was not properly a priest, it was he who anointed the priesthood and offered the sacrifices on their behalf so they could begin serving. Samuel, too, was a priest and all three, Moses, Aaron, and Samuel were known as men of prayer. The reference to the pillar of cloud (v. 7) points historically to the wilderness wanderings of Israel when Moses led the people and Aaron ministered as High Priest where the Lord spoke to them from the cloud (Num. 12:6) though later tradition connected it to the ark (1 Kings 8:10-11) before which Samuel ministered and where God spoke to him (1 Sam. 3:3).
Though these three persons not only are well-known but also highly regarded and revered, the psalmist probably intends for his readers to see their experience as typical of all who remain faithful to the covenant relationship. They “called” and the Lord “answered” (v. 6; Note the two-fold repetition of these two words, “called” in v. 6 and “answered” in vv. 6, 8), the implication being that this was an ongoing pattern.
IIB. The LORD demonstrated his faithfulness by forgiving them (7b-8)
They kept the Lord’s statutes and ordinances (v. 7) yet still they needed forgiveness and the Lord forgave them (v. 8). This same was true of all the people. This forgiveness is juxtaposed with the avenging or punishing of sin. The Lord is a forgiving God but since he is also holy, one cannot presume upon his grace and mercy or assume that punishment will not come.
The punishment is not harsher than demanded but is in accordance with the deeds committed. The word נקם (here in participial form) is sometimes translated “avenges” or “takes vengeance” and is used almost 70 times in the OT, often with God as the subject. Perhaps the most exemplary verses are Deut. 32:35, 41, “Vengeance is mine…I will recompense them who hate me.” Though does not sit well with many Christians ethically as in our culture the word “vengeance” implies exact retribution though in our culture and also leaves open the possibility for slanderous accusation against God. But the word is used in two ways: (1) For God’s vindication of his people (Ps. 94:1f.) and (2) for the Lord’s punishment of those who violate his covenant (Lev. 26:24-25). (Harris 1980, 598-599) Though some take this in the sense of number one: the Lord’s punishing the nations to vindicate Israel (Kraus 1989, 271), it is probably this latter sense that is in view here simply because the suffix attached to the preposition לְ (לָהֶם) would seem to refer to the same antecedent as the suffix on the verb עֲנִיתָם. A warning against sin is not out of place here considering the reference to Moses and Aaron (both of whom committed notable sin against the Lord) and the wilderness wanderings.
The Lord punishes but the Lord who punishes also forgives. The MT uses the participial form נֹשֵׂא “the one who carries away,” a verb which is often used of the lifting away of sins (Ps. 32:1, 5). Those in covenant with the Lord must rest in the certainty of forgiveness but without being presumptuous or dismissive regarding sin because the Lord is holy.
These verses highlight the special relationship the Lord has with Israel by reminding the reader of the historical connections that exemplify this relationship.
III. Final Call to Israel to Exalt their Holy LORD God through worship because of their special relationship with them (9).
The final verse mimics v. 5 and serves as a summary call to worship for the psalm though it is less certain that it serves as a conclusion to the whole section (though Psalm 93 does mention the two themes of the reign of the Lord and his holiness). It is best not to make too much of these connections.
IIIA. Exalt the LORD by acknowledging his special relationship with Israel (9a).
This verse and v. 5 refer to the Lord as “the Lord our God” highlighting the unique relationship the Lord has with Israel. Because of this unique relationship the people should be more zealous to worship and exalt the Lord.
The majesty of the Lord is tempered by his intimacy and condescension. Though the Lord is high above all nations even Israel (v. 2), he does not turn from being recognized as Israel’s God. While God should be worshipped simply because he is God and for being the kind of God he is, holy, just, merciful, and forgiving, Israel should worship him because he is the special protector of Israel who has entered into covenant with them and revealed his name and thus his character and special love to them.
IIIB. Exalt the LORD worshipping in the place and manner he desires (9b).
The psalmist calls for this worship to take place at the Lord’s holy mountain. This is the last of three implied references to the temple in this psalm. In v. 1 the Lord is described as dwelling between the cherubim, an obvious allusion to the ark of the covenant housed in the Jerusalem temple. In v. 5 the people were called to worship at his holy footstool, another reference to the ark of the covenant. Here in v. 9 the people are told to worship at his holy mountain, a reference to the temple mount. These references serve as reminder and warning. They warn the people against worshipping false gods or bringing the worship practices of other nations into the worship of the Lord. They also serve to remind them that the power and might of the Lord is tied to his special covenant relationship revealed in the temple worship and sacrifices and validated by his presence in the temple to receive their praise and worship.
IIIC. Exalt the LORD by praising his holiness (9c).
The final line echoes the previous calls to worship the Lord because he is holy. They must worship God not because of his power, might, and covenant faithfulness (though any one of these would be ample reason to praise him), but because of his holiness. The Lord who is holy in forgiveness is also holy in judgment. This reminder of divine holiness must serve to exhort holiness in the Lord’s people as a reflection of the Lord’s own holy and righteous character.
The psalmist begins my reminding the nations of the Lord’s reign over them so that Israel will remember the graciousness and mercy which the Lord has shown to them. The Lord is the King and rightly so: not only is he mighty, making the earth shake, and just because he brings righteousness and equity, but also because he cares for his subjects, hearing their prayers and forgiving their sins. He does these things because he is holy. Holiness is the aspect of the Lord’s character that directs these actions and so should be the basis for Israel’s service, loyalty, and worship.
Movement to Homiletics / Pedagogy
The principles and theology of this psalm can be applied almost directly to the believer today using the historical connection to Israel as illustrative of the main points. This historical context and references to persons (Moses, Aaron, and Samuel) may be supplemented with modern illustrations. I propose the following theme and points for an exposition:
Theme: Worship the Lord for his Holiness.
1. The Lord rules in justice because he is holy (1-5).
In this section the expositor can highlight the continuing reign of the Lord and his care for his people from heaven. This will flow nicely into a discussion of the Lord’s return which will result in judgment on the nations and vindication of the righteous. This section will emphasize the Lord’s transcendent majesty and power.
2. The Lord is faithful to his people because he is holy (6-9).
The expositor may use this section to emphasize the Lord’s condescension and personal care for his people. Illustrations using the historical persons that appear in v. 6 may be very effective in pointing out the frailty of the believer but God’s faithfulness to work righteousness in them through his statues and through the righteousness given to them in Christ while holding out hope of forgiveness and peace through God’s mercy.
This psalm paints a comprehensive portrait of the holiness of God. The same holiness that motivates him to avenge and vindicate his people and judge the wicked, also motivates him to punish evil in his own people. The cross of Christ exemplifies this: Though God loves his people, their sin must be punished.
Dahood, Mitchell. The Anchor Bible: Psalms II 51-100. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1968.
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody, 1980.
Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 60-150: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989.
Kidner, Derek. Psalms 73-150 in Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D. J. Wiseman. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973.
Tate, Marvin E. Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100. Dallas: Word Books, 1990.
VanGemeren, Willem A. “Psalms” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 5, ed, Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids” Zondervan, 1984.
Waltke, Bruce K.and M. O’Connor. Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990.
Wilcock, Michael. The Message of Psalms 73-150. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
 These verbs are usually translated as jussive but they could be indicative: “the people tremble” and “the earth shakes.”
 What is usually translated as “he sits between (or upon) the cherubim” ought to be understood as “the cherubim-enthroned One” since “sit” is a participle.
 The word translated “nations” is literally “peoples.” Some say that “peoples” should be “strong ones” referring to pagan deities (Dahood, taking it as coming from the root (‘mm) but most take it as coming from ammim since it seems to refer to “peoples” in v. 1 and they are called to praise him. Some adopt the reading “elohim” and BHS cites three other verses from this section where the same structure is used. I rejected that reading because it was found only in one MS of the LXX (B which is Vaticanus) and the apparatus indicates (by the *) that the reading is a conjecture.
 The words “great” and “to be feared” may be understood as attributive adjectives but they could also correspond to the participle in v. 1 in which case (so Tate and Dahood) they could be titles: “Your name: Great and Terrible.”
 This verse is difficult and even the commentators resign themselves simply to choosing a translation and skimming the interpretive options (see Tate, 526). M translation, though uninformed, is as good as anybody else’s guess.
 The words לַהֲדֹם (v. 5) and לְהַר (v. 9) are a matter of discussion. Tate takes the ל in v. 5 and v. 9 as a locative ל (“at his footstool” and “at his holy mountain”) which he admits is rare but valid and used elsewhere (Ps. 132:7 and 1 Sam. 1:28). Other commentators say it should be “to” the verb חוה (“bow down”) when sued with the prepositional usually carries this meaning. The verb is used with לִפְנֵי to mean “before” and אֶל or a directive ה when it means “to” or “toward.”
The question may be settled on theological grounds. While no one is accusing others of worshipping the ark or the mountain, the point is that they worship Yahweh at the place where Yahweh’s presence is: his ark and his mountain.
 By implication.
 For Moses as intercessor, see Exod. 32-34; for Aaron, Num. 16:44-48; and for Samuel, 1 Sam. 7 and 12. See also 1 Sam. 12:6 where Samuel links himself to Moses and Aaron in this capacity and Jeremiah 15:1which also connects Moses and Samuel as intercessors.
 See Tate, 527 and Dahood, 369 for the use of בְּ as “from.” Dahood (369): “The inaccessible God spoke to Moses and Aaron out of the pillar of cloud, which hid him from the presumptuous g;ances of men but was nevertheless also the sign of his presence. Cf. Exod xxxlii 9; Num xii 5.”
 See Tate, 527-528 for a survey of the two main views. The first view cited above requires an unwarranted change in vowel pointing and a rare definition of עַל in order to work. The second view above, and the one taken in this paper, agrees with the text as it stands.