Over the last few weeks, our church has been thinking about justice from the Psalms. In Psalm 97, we saw that God himself is the source and standard of justice. In Psalm 98, we discovered how God “does” justice in justifying the ungodly by providing a legal substitute. And in Psalm 99, we saw how priestly mediators served to bring justice from God’s temple to God’s people, and from Zion to the ends of the earth.
In what follows, I will conclude the message of Psalm 99 in three points of application about justice.
1. The justice of God proceeds in a logical order from kingdom, to temple, to priesthood.
As we observed in Psalm 99, the psalm progresses in a downward fashion from the throne (vv. 1–3), to the temple (vv. 4–5), to the holy mountain where the priests served in the courtyard and the people gathered to worship (vv. 6–9). In this arrangement, we find holiness progressing from the ark of the covenant, where God was enthroned above the cherubim (v. 2), to the footstool at which the people gathered (v. 5), to the holy assembly who found forgiveness from the Lord (v. 8). As each section of Psalm 99 ended with a declaration of God’s holiness (vv. 3, 5, 9), we find in cascading fashion God’s holiness flowing down from the holy of holies to holy ones who serve in God’s temple.
In other parts of the Bible, this flow of holiness looks like waters flowing out of the temple. For instance, Ezekiel 47:1 paints the picture this way. “Then he brought me back to the door of the temple, and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east). The water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar.” The next seven verses (vv. 2–8) describe the flow of living water that got deeper as went down hill, until verses 9–12 conclude,
And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. 10 Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Eneglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. 11 But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. 12 And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
Though the imagery here is one of healing and life, such a picture is not disconnected from God’s holiness. For in the temple, the place of greatest holiness was also the place of greatest life. In the holy of holies stood the jar of manna and Aaron’s staff that budded (Heb. 9:4). Both of these testify to moments when God gave life to dead things—the people of Israel in the barren wilderness (Exod. 16:33–34) and later priest’s staff when it was disconnected from the vine (Num. 17:1–10). In the law, death was associated with impurity and by extension unholiness. Thus, when the living waters brought life to the earth, they were purifying the creation with the very holiness of God.
So too, God’s justice flows downhill from his throne. And in Psalm 99, we see the logical order. First, God’s throne is the place where perfect justice is found. God loves justice (v. 4) and because he is perfectly holy, all that he does is righteous and just (v. 5). Therefore, when we go seeking justice, we must begin here, at God’s throne. We must forsake all other sources of justice and depend solely on the Lord and his righteous judgments.
Then, because God’s justice is more than a self-contained attribute, we discover that God has “has established equity” and “executed justice and righteousness” (v. 4). Importantly, he has done this “in Jacob”, which is to say, he has brought justice to his covenant people. If anyone has a sense of justice, it is the people who have his law, who have witnessed his works, and who have received the promise of his messiah—the son of God who will establish God’s kingdom in righteousness and justice. Truly, justice comes from heaven to earth through the messiah to whom all history points—a history that simultaneosly centers on God’s temple and the Word has come to tabernacle with his people (John 1:14). More on that later.
Last, because God’s justice is meant to reach all humanity, we see that in Psalm 99, there is a special class of saints who are called to keep God’s covenant and pray for his people. These saints are known as priests. In Psalm 99, Moses and Samuel are identified as priests, suggesting that something larger than the Levitical priesthood (i.e. the Aaronic priesthood) is in view.
God is seeking a holy people who will mediate his justice to the earth. This happens as they first receive his forgiveness (v. 8), but also as they proclaim his justification and pray for his justice. This is where Psalm 99 concludes and it sets up the praise we find in Psalm 100. Yet, before turning to that Psalm, we need to consider a few two applications from Psalm 99.
2. The justice of God is sufficient for God’s people.
Today, it seems many who interested in justice seek justice from places outside of Scripture. Such justice may come from legal field, or the politics, or history, or some other charismatic messenger of justice. Wherever justice-seekers go, however, the common result is a desire government—federal, state, or local—to provide programs, even reparations, that will seek to level the playing field. Even Christians who are proudly “gospel-centered,” find common cause with extra-biblical or even unbiblical causes for social justice. But why?
My suggestion is that they do not see how the Word of God is sufficient for all matters of justice. Yes, doctrinally many will rattle off 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” But practically speaking, they have not spent the time considering how the gospel that justifies also informs the way we should pursue justice. Yes, many will say that racial reconciliation is a gospel issue, but then they turn around and declare that certain books like Divided by Faith or Critical Race Theory: An Introduction are necessary reading for pursuing racial justice today. Such appeals to extra-biblical sources, however, denies the sufficiency of Scripture.
The burden of this whole series on justice has been to show that God’s Word is sufficient to answer all questions about justice and to give Christians practical ways to pursue justice righteously—that is, according to God’s own standards. In Psalm 99, we find a crucial step in this process, in the creation of a holy priesthood who are commissioned to bring God’s message of justification and justice to the world. Yet, before we get to these instruments of justice, we must settle in our minds this fact—that from the throne of God, there is justice sufficient for every person, place, and situation.
If the justice from heaven flows down to cover all the earth, then it will take time for the refreshing waters of God’s justice to arrive. Along the way, it will compete with every other innovation of justice found on the earth. In God’s common grace, the moral law implanted in man has created all manner of laws—both good and bad (see. Rom. 2:14). Nonetheless, God’s justice, when it comes, provides a better, more complete justice than anything natural man can create or improve. And critically, when those who are justified by God’s grace are looking for justice, they must seek in God’s law and gospel the true justice that is found the death and resurrection of Christ. To know that justice and to seek other sources of justice is to minimize the sufficiency of justice provided in Christ—both for justification and for instruction.
Sadly, many who believe the gospel for matters of eternity are leaving the gospel behind in matters of earthly and immediate justice. Yet, the gospel does more than just provide a ticket to heaven. It creates people who share the same love for justice that God does. And more, the Holy Spirit, works from the inside out to convict them of injustice, such that when they pursue matters of justice, they are taught by the Word and impelled by the Spirit to remove the plank from their own eye before accusing others (Matt. 7:1–5).
Truly, no other system of justice in the world can rearrange the furniture of man’s heart, like the work God does in salvation. By contrast, how many seekers of justice have wandered into vice when given a position of power? The only source of abiding justice comes in communion with God, and though we cannot expect unbelievers to seek justice in this way, it is blasphemous for believers to turn their back on God’s throne to learn wisdom from modern theories of justice.
For this reason, Christians should not be ashamed of the gospel or the fruit that the Spirit will bear when Christians apply themselves to the full counsel of God’s Word. Instead, like the priests of old, Christians should study the Law of God to show themselves approved. They must learn from God himself—and not the sages of secular wisdom—what justice is and how justice works. For when they do that, they will see just how full revelation of God will give them the wisdom to seek justice on earth.
3. The justice of God is carried out by his royal priests.
While the world enjoys the common grace of God and the wisdom entailed therein, there is nothing that replaces God’s revelation and the wisdom that comes from dwelling in his presence . In Psalm 99, we find the Lord seated on his throne in Zion. In that space, the people praise God for his justice and righteousness. Yet, among those people, the priests play a unique role.
According to the Law, the priests are the ones who abide in his presence, study his Law, make intercession for the nation, and teach the people. As Leviticus 10:10–11 put it, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.”
This passage not only calls for priests to teach God’s law, but to know how to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, the holy and common, clean and unclean. This calling to make distinctions has even been called the very essence of what it means to be a priest. Situated between God and the people, they inhabit a mediating position, where their faithfulness determines the well-being of God’s people. If they succeed in their priestly calling, the people are blessed and righteousness prevails. But if they fail, the people are cursed, and injustice abounds. Just read the Prophets, and you will see how priestly failure resulted in countless injustices.
In Psalm 99 itself, we a find light shown on the transgression of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. Verse 8 highlights God’s forgiveness towards them (“you were a forgiving God to them”), indicating their trust in his mercy. Yet, it also says that Yahweh was “an avenger of their wrongdoings.” In each case, these three men sinned against God. In other word, they failed to complete their priestly calling.
That being the case, God did not abandon the office of priesthood. In the fulness of time, he sent his own Son to be the true high priest whose sinless obedience did not require a sacrifice for himself. Instead, Jesus bought forgiveness for others by offering his own life as a ransom for others (Mark 10:44–45). In this way, he not only redeemed people from the judgment of the law, but he also created a new priesthood. And these priests are the ones who today are called to stand between God and the world and bring a message of justification and justice (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
Just like their forebears, royal priests today are to give themselves to studying God’s Word, praying for others, making just decisions about matters of right and wrong, and initiating good works to serve the needs of those around them. This is what it means to be a priest today and this is how God brings justice to the world. Because new covenant priests are called to preach the gospel, first and foremost (see Rom. 15:16; 1 Pet. 2:9–10), they cannot do justice apart from the Word of God. Instead, they must study the Scriptures in order to discern how to the Word of God applies and impels them and others to act.
Indeed, by abiding in the Lord’s presence, studying God’s Law, and praying for the Lord’s will, the priests in God’s kingdom are equipped to initiate good works wherever they go. Rather, than tweeting platitudes of cosmic justice that have no real world application, God’s priests bring the light of God into the local situations where God has appointed them—not unlike Adam the priest in Genesis 2:15.
For new covenant priests, the place of justice is not online, in the abstract, or the theoretical. Rather, with knowledge of a specific situations—whether in the church, community, school system, police department, court system, or rehabilitation center—God’s saints are able to make decisions and apply God’s Word to the places that they oversee.
Indeed, this is how God brings justice into the world. It is remarkably slow and unlikely to receive the praise of the world. Moreover, it is fundamentally rooted in the local assembly and not universal church. Yet, when local outposts of God’s kingdom teach their people what it means to be holy priests, and those royal priests enter the world around them on mission to preach Christ and to do good works in the power of the Spirit, there is no limit to the justification and justice that God can produce through them.
For this reason, we do not need to go outside of God’s calling, God’s Word, or God’s will to seek justice. Rather, we need to sit at his feet, study his Word, and learn more carefully from him what justice is and how to seek it. This is Scripture’s call approach to justice and it is one we must continue to grow in, proclaim, and pursue.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds