Psalm 97: God’s Great and Terrible Mercy

On the top of a mountain in Brazil overlooking the town of Rio de Janeiro stands a well-known statue of Jesus titled Christ the Redeemer. Construction began in 1922 and took nine years to finish, costing nearly 3.5 million dollars in today’s currency. In 2010 it underwent a massive restoration and now requires continual work to maintain its physical integrity. It has become a cultural icon for the town and has been hailed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World while still retaining its religious significance. By most measures, it is quite impressive and while not on my bucket list, it would be nice to see in person some day.

But I know what I would see: a silent mass of rock and concrete standing on the top of a mountain glistening in the sunlight by day and illuminated during the night. I imagine if I wanted to take a nap I could rest in the shade at the foot of the statue while listening to the sound of the wind whistle past. Most likely, however, my nap would be interrupted by tourists taking selfies in front of the silent, yet welcoming Jesus. Eventually, if I stayed long enough, I might even hear a crack or two from the aging of the statue which would require another round of restoration at some point in the future. I might praise it for its beauty and revere it for its symbolism, but there is one response I would never have standing in the presence of the statue, and that is one of fear and trembling.

But when I contrast that statue with what I read in scripture regarding God’s presence I find there is simply no comparison between a constructed statue and the actual presence of God. A quick read of Psalm 97:2-5 should be sufficient to explain:

Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
Fire goes before him and he burns up his adversaries all around.
His lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.

And the psalmist is not alone in his description of God’s presence. If you read Exodus 19, Ezekiel 1:4-13, and Revelation 4:2-5, 8:5, 11:19, and 16:18 and you will find God’s awesome presence bringing thunder and lightning shaking the very earth. His presence is not to be taken lightly and certainly not the sort under which one would nap during the cool of the day. You might find yourself lying face down in fear and trembling, but counting sheep would not be the first thing on your mind.

It has taken me a while to figure out why Book IV of the Psalms is full of worship whereas the first three books are primarily filled with laments, but I think I understand now. In those times when we find ourselves in the pit of darkest despair, we will reach out for anything to hold onto. Sometimes we grab shallow things that placate the pain and suffering, but we eventually realize such a salvation is temporary. Sometimes we settle for the best of the worst, thinking there are really no other options, but eventually, we realize we have purposefully deluded ourselves. I think somewhere deep down we have always known the best option, but we also know it will humble us and fill us with fear and trembling while at the same time demanding from us righteous and holy behavior. But we tell ourselves this is not what we really want. We tell ourselves want a safe salvation. We want a beautiful yet silent god who stands always welcoming us on a pristine and clear mountain under which we can find some rest. But the God of the Bible is no such God.

The God of the Bible descends to the earth amidst fire and clouds, lightning and earthquakes, causing all before him to melt away in fear as he brings righteous judgment. Or at least that’s how he would descend if it were not for his grace and mercy.

I find it interesting that Psalm 97:8 says Zion and Judah will rejoice in God’s judgments because for much of Israel’s history they were the primary recipients of God’s judgment and wrath. They rejected God, deserted his laws, and embraced idol worship, yet they sang for the coming of God’s judgment because they knew even though they were the object of God’s wrath they also knew God’s grace and mercy were coming, they just didn’t know how or when. Ironically, it was hundreds of years after the writing of this psalm that God’s grace arrived in the form of a tiny baby instead of descending from heaven and melting the earth. His grace grew for thirty years in a backwater town in Judea upsetting the religious elite who finally put it to death. But the grave could not hold God’s grace and it resurrected in a fantastic yet understated manner bringing mercy to the world. And now we know, thanks to God’s revelation to John, that in the midst of the lightning and fire surrounding the throne of God’s holy judgment and wrath there stands a meek lamb looking as though he had been slain.

He does not stand large and silent on a mountaintop. He stands between us and the thunder and lightning of God’s terrible judgment and wrath providing grace and mercy to all who will come. It is because of him that we can stand trembling in joy before the throne. And while we might cower in fear before his awesome presence we are fully welcomed at his side to stand in the presence of his great and terrible mercy. This is why we can say, with the psalmist,

Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name!

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