Psalm 97: Scared of God?

Read Psalm 97.

“Clouds and thick darkness surround him…. Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side…. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the LORD of all the earth” (Psalm 97:2–3, 5). Psalm 97 is not for the faint of heart. God is great and terrible, the stuff of nightmares.

We don’t often picture God this way. We prefer to think of Him as a gentle Shepherd or a loving Father. He is both of those things, of course, but we can’t deny the image of God given to us in this psalm.

Among God’s people, there was a memory of the Lord in all His thunderous glory passed down from generation to generation. The Israelites who camped at the base of Mount Sinai had witnessed the terror of God and quaked in their sandals: “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die’” (Exodus 20:18–19).

It was this fear-inducing vision of God that inspired the need for a mediator. Despite what you may have heard about God’s holiness not permitting Him to come near sin or sinners, it’s simply not true. Sin is not Kryptonite for God. Our dirty deeds have no power to keep Him at bay. God is God, and He is free to go anywhere He chooses and be with anyone He likes, rotten sinners or otherwise. He visited Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18; He spoke to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3; and—for crying out loud—He put on flesh and became one of us in John 1!

The reason sin is a problem in a relationship with God is because God’s presence is holy. No unholy thing can enter into it. This was true of the garden of Eden, the tabernacle in the wilderness, and the temple in Jerusalem—and you see this idea sprinkled throughout, wherever God’s presence is revealed.

The danger of sin lies not in some weakness in God, but lives wholly within us. That’s why we must be made new, born again even, if we are to draw near to God and spend our lives and eternity thereafter with Him. But He has no problem coming close to us. If He did, we would all be without hope.

In the meantime, God has seen fit to give us a mediator. Moses spoke to God and faithfully relayed His messages to the Israelites. Prophets did the same. Jesus, too, came to speak to us on behalf of the Father (Luke 12:49). And now He lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25).

When Scripture reveals God clothed in fire and lightning, we are right to be afraid. It’s a reminder that we would be devoured like so much meat on an altar if we were to get too close. It would be like trying to take a stroll on the sun; we must be remade into a different sort of creature—one designed for that environment. You and I, in our sin, are no longer equipped for the terrain of God.

Here and now, Jesus’ blood purifies us from all unrighteousness so that we can enter God’s throne room (1 John 1:7). And we are being made holy as we walk and grow with our Savior—preparation for the life to come when the glory of God will fill this earth (1 Thessalonians 5:23). And one day we will be transformed; our flesh will become a new sort of flesh, a variety that’s not prone to corruption (1 Corinthians 15:50–51).

Our culture spends an awful lot of time trying to discount and discredit a God who shows up in clouds of judgment, but that is not an option for followers of Jesus. This image of God—the one given to us in Psalm 97 and elsewhere—is authentic and true. It is a reminder that we need not just a mediator, but a Savior, someone who can change us from the inside out.

Let’s stop all this nonsense about our sin being a barrier impenetrable to God. The power of God’s compassion and love is greater than the vileness of our sin. If that were not true, we would be stuck in a world like C. S. Lewis’ Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: always winter and never Christmas.

But Christmas did come. God the Son became human to be tempted and tried in every way we are, yet He was without sin. However, He wasn’t afraid of sin. He spent time with sinners, healed sinners, loved sinners. Never did He recoil when faced with a liar, thief, or adulterer. Instead, He held out His open arms, welcoming them into the love of God, knowing that He would die to make them new.

“Light shines on the righteous and joy on the upright in heart. Rejoice in the LORD, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name” (Psalm 97:11–12).


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