Theme: When God Manifests Himself
From this psalm, we are reminded that because God is sovereign and righteous, we are to hate sin and rejoice in him.
Scripture: Psalm 97:1-12
Here is a story of someone who was comforted by being reminded of God’s sovereignty. His name was Bulstrode Whitelock, and he was an envoy of Oliver Cromwell to Sweden in 1653. He was resting at the village of Harwich the night before he was to sail to Sweden, and he was so distracted by the perilous state of England that he could not sleep. He had a servant who was accompanying him, and this man, discovering that Whitelock could not sleep, said, “Sir, may I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” said Whitelock.
“Pray, sir, do you think God governed the world very well before you came into it?” he asked.
“And do you think he will govern it quite as well when you are gone out of it?” he continued.
“Then pray, sir, excuse me, but do you not think that you may trust him to govern it quite as well while you are living?”
Whitelock had no answer to this question. But he rolled over quietly in his bed and was soon asleep.”1
The great reformer and friend of Martin Luther, Frederick Myconius, once wrote to Calvin about the church’s enemies: “I am glad that Christ is Lord of all, for otherwise I should utterly have been out of hope.” Indeed! In this world we see much injustice and look hopefully for the personal return of our Sovereign. But in the meantime, the fact that God is sovereign is an immense source of comfort to God’s people.
The second stanza of this psalm (vv. 2-6) is its most unique feature in comparison with the others of this group. But the language itself is not unique. It is taken from accounts of various theophanies or manifestations of God from past Jewish history.
We think first of God’s appearance to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. It was terrifying to them. The text says,
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder (Exod. 19:16-19).
The same phenomena occurred when God appeared to Moses sometime later (Exod. 34:5), and still later to Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-4) and other prophets such as Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:4-28), Daniel (Dan. 7:9-14) and Micah (Mic. 1:3, 4). Psalms 18:7-15 and 50:3, and Habakkuk 3:3-15 also contain this language.
The point of these passages is that a manifestation of the true God is awe-inspiring to the point of bone-shattering fear and trembling on the part of the worshiper. When God appeared at Sinai all the people trembled (Exod. 19:16). Even Moses said, “I am trembling with fear” (Heb. 12:21). Isaiah cried, “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isa. 6:5). Ezekiel “fell facedown” (Ezek. 1:28). Daniel “turned pale” (Dan. 7:28). As for Habakkuk, that minor prophet wrote, “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled” (Hab.3:16).
“Our God is a consuming fire,” said the author of Hebrews (Heb. 12:29). And again, “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks” (v. 25). This means that we must never take God lightly, as if he were nothing more than some great heavenly buddy or pal. In fact, the common lightness of many in approaching God is not a sign of their close acquaintance with him, as they probably suppose, but of the fact that they hardly know God at all. Those who know God approach him joyfully but reverently and with the greatest awe. Two psalms before this we read, “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD Our Maker” (Ps. 95:6).
1The story is from G. S. Bowes, “Illustrative Gatherings” (1862) and may be found in Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 2b, Psalms 88-110 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), p. 201.
In what way was the troubled man comforted by God’s sovereignty?
What is different about the second stanza to this psalm? How would you characterize the language?
Describe the worshiper who encounters God.
Reflection: Do you tend to worry about things? What does the Bible say about worry, and how does this psalm help? Knowing that God governs all things well, with what attitude do you approach God in prayer?
Prayer: Ask God to give you a deep trust in him to understand his sovereignty. Approach him with the reverence that is his due.